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WIREs Clim Change
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Is climate change the number one threat to humanity?

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This paper challenges claims that global warming outranks other threats facing humanity through the foreseeable future (assumed to be 2085–2100). World Health Organization and British government‐sponsored global impact studies indicate that, relative to other factors, global warming's impact on key determinants of human and environmental well‐being should be small through 2085 even under the warmest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenario. Specifically, over 20 other health risks currently contribute more to death and disease worldwide than global warming. Through 2085, only 13% of mortality from hunger, malaria, and extreme weather events (including coastal flooding from sea level rise) should be from warming. Moreover, warming should reduce future global population at risk of water stress, and pressures on ecosystems and biodiversity (by increasing net biome productivity and decreasing habitat conversion). That warming is not fundamental to human well‐being is reinforced by lower bound estimates of net gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. This measure adjusts GDP downward to account for damages from warming due to market, health, and environmental impacts, and risk of catastrophe. For both developing and industrialized countries, net GDP per capita—albeit an imperfect surrogate for human well‐being—should be (1) double the current US level by 2100 under the warmest scenario, and (2) lowest under the poorest IPCC scenario but highest under the warmest scenario through 2200. The warmest world, being wealthier, should also have greater capacity to address any problem, including warming. Therefore, other problems and, specifically, lowered economic development are greater threats to humanity than global warming. WIREs Clim Change 2012, 3:489–508. doi: 10.1002/wcc.194

Figure 1.

Net gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, 1990–2200, after accounting for the upper bound estimates of losses due to global warming for four major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emission and climate scenarios. For 2100 and 2200, the scenarios are arranged from the warmest (A1FI) on the left to the coolest (B1) on the right. The average global temperature increase from 1990 to 2085 for the scenarios is as follows: 4°C for AIFI, 3.3°C for A2, 2.4°C for B2, and 2.1°C for B1. For context, in 2006, GDP per capita for industrialized countries was $19,300; the United States, $30,100; and developing countries, $1500. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 41. Copyright 2009 Regulation magazine, Cato Institute)

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Figure 2.

Ranking global public health priorities based on mortality (right‐hand panel) and disability‐adjusted life years (DALYs) lost prematurely (left‐hand panel) in 2004 for 24 health risk factors. The total length of each bar indicates the magnitude of deaths or lost DALYs globally to the specific health risk factor. For developing countries, the ranking of global warming is unchanged, whereas for industrialized countries, it would rank second last on the basis of deaths and fourth last on the basis of lost DALYs. Source: Ref 76. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 76. Copyright 2011 Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons)

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Figure 3.

Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, and life expectancy, 1760–2009. Sources: Refs 88–91.

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Figure 4.

Number of deaths in 2085 due to hunger, malaria, and extreme events, with and without global warming. Only upper bound estimates are shown for mortality due to global warming. Average global temperature increase from 1990 to 2085 for each scenario is shown below the relevant bar. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 74. Copyright 2009 Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons)

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Figure 5.

Population at risk (PAR) from water stress in 2085, with and without global warming.10,21 The vertical bars indicate the PARs based on the mid‐point estimates of several model runs, whereas the vertical lines indicate the range of estimates. Source: Ref 10.

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