July 19, 2023 - 3:30pm

A spell of extremely hot weather has hit Europe this month, bringing with it a raft of apocalyptic headlines. Named Charon, after the boatman in Greek mythology who navigated the river Styx into Hades, the heatwave has immediately been linked to climate change and, by extension, humanity’s faltering attempts to combat it.

Bjørn Lomborg is the former director of the Danish government’s Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen, as well as an author widely known for his bestselling book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which challenged the pessimism of climate change orthodoxy. 

He spoke to UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers this week to argue that, in the short to medium term at least, rising temperatures actually provide humanity with positive opportunities, and can save rather than eradicate lives.

Based on two studies from medical journal The Lancetone which compares annual heat deaths to annual cold deaths, and another which measures the impact of temperature changes on mortality over time — Lomborg suggested that rising temperatures are saving on average well over 150,000 lives a year (Figure 1).

Figure 1

“While you see heat deaths going up, as you would expect, you also see cold deaths going down,” the writer said. “Over the last two decades, temperature has saved more lives than it’s cost. It has caused about 116,000 more heat deaths, but it’s avoided about 283,000 cold deaths each year.” As a result, “we’re now saving about 166,000 lives because of higher temperatures.” 

Scientific studies frequently point out that cold temperatures are more deadly than high ones — by a factor of ten, according to the Lancet (Figure 2) — but Lomborg argues that this fact is still too often overlooked.

“Every country in the world has more deaths in the winter than in summer,” he claimed. “It’s mostly because as temperatures get colder, people’s […] blood vessels constrict to keep [their] core body temperature warm enough — that increases your blood pressure. So we know that, everywhere, blood pressure increases as you get colder. And that means you have more risk of strokes and blood clots and so on.”

Figure 2

Because the coverage of heat waves has become so alarmist, according to Lomborg, simple measures to mitigate these problems are avoided. If Charon’s implications for the future are as catastrophic as we are led to believe, the remedy must be highly sophisticated — nothing short of a technological miracle. The Danish writer makes the case for simple urban planning measures, but concedes that they may fail to placate the doom-mongers. 

“There are very smart, simple ways to keep very large areas — urban areas — cooler, and we should definitely be embracing those. That’s about having more water features, more greenery, more light surfaces,” Lomborg said. “So paint the tarmac or the rooftops white or in a light colour that can dramatically reduce a heatwave temperature up to about 10°C: much more than any climate policy could do. And of course, much cheaper, much faster and also prettier.”

This isn’t to say that rising temperatures are totally without consequence. If this trend continues, heat deaths might overcompensate for the falling cold deaths, yet this won’t be the case until well into the second half of the century. By then, Lomborg believes, the world population will be richer and more knowledgeable, and therefore better equipped to deal with higher temperatures.

“The likely outcome is that we’ll get the benefits while we’re relatively poor,” he suggested, “and even if we do nothing else to fix climate change, which I’m not arguing, we will be in a much better position to handle it.”

The media’s reaction to the European heat wave betrays a lack of perspective and pragmatism, Lomborg argued, which is analogous to “a religious experience”. He went on:

When you talk about climate change, it’s not just that we want to do something smart about a real problem called ‘climate change’. It’s also become, ‘I want to be this morally superior person’. There’s a right answer, and it’s often renewables like solar and wind. It’s curiously not nuclear power, which in many ways provides more base load power […] But there’s an ideological ‘solar and wind great; nuclear not great’ [approach]. That’s not how we make smart decisions, but it is how we drum up support for our tribe. I think we need to get back and say, ‘Isn’t our real goal to make the world as good as it can be?’
- Bjørn Lomborg