The Heat Is Online

Lancet: Climate Change Is Bio-Terrorism


Volume 358, Number 9294

Climate change—the new bioterrorism

EDITORIAL THE LANCET • Vol 358 • November 17, 2001 1657

The seventh session of the Conference of the Partiesto the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP7) ended last week in Marrakech with nothing concrete for its efforts. The US administration effectively blocked the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to limit the emission of greenhouse gases worldwide by an average of 5% of 1990 levels by 2012. In abruptly reneging on campaign pledges about limiting greenhouse gases, and throwing the commitment of the previous two administrations into a U-turn, the US Government claims that the terms of the Kyoto Protocol will cost the USA too much, that developing countries are not required to act, and that the protocol is too short-term in outlook.

COP7 claims to have finalised the rulebook for the Kyoto Protocol, especially about how to measure emissions and reductions, how much so-called carbon sinks (forests, crops, and soils) can contribute, and the rules for compliance. But the Protocol has yet to be ratified by enough of the Parties to the Convention—the only industrialised country to have signed up is Romania. The European Union countries are likely to sign. Russia and Japan are needed as key signatories. If just one other industrialised country besides the USA refuses to ratify, the Protocol is effectively ended.

Even after ratification, adherence to the protocol is a major stumbling block. Any non-compliant country has only to promise to do better later. The Protocol lacks bite. Experts at Resources for the Future, a think-tank in Washington, DC, have suggested fining non-compliant countries to purchase additional reductions in emissions in developing countries, which would be one way to transfer monies to where they are desperately needed and achieve actual reductions somewhere.

In the 20th century, carbon dioxide emissions increased 12-fold, from 534 million to 6·59 billion metric tonnes. The UN’s Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change says that the earth will warm by 1·4–5·8C over the next century. Climate change will lead to increasingly severe global catastrophes of storms, flooding and soil erosion, loss of species, shifts in agricultural areas, and major threats to public health from air pollution, water scarcity, and tropical disease.

In 1997 in this journal, the Working Group on Public Health and Fossil-Fuel Combustion predicted 700 000 avoidable deaths annually by 2020 because of additional exposure to atmospheric particulate matter. For 2000 to 2020, the Working Group estimated a cumulative 8 million deaths. In our July 7 issue this year, Lindgren and Gustafson reported a significant correlation between the incidence of tick-borne encephalitis and warmer weather in Sweden. El Niño is an unusual warming of the Pacific Ocean every 2–7 years, and has been linked with outbreaks of dengue fever, malaria, and cholera, especially in South America. For the 1997–98 El Niño episode, Checkley and colleagues (Lancet 2000; 355: 442–50) reported a 200% increase in daily hospital admissions for diarrhoea in Peru compared with previously, as the temperature in Lima rose 5C above normal. Künzli and colleagues (Lancet 2000; 356: 795–801) showed that air pollution caused 40 000 attributable deaths a year (6% of total mortality, and about half due to traffic emissions) in Austria, France, and Switzerland. Traffic-based air-pollution killed more than did road-traffic accidents.

A Sept 26 report from the UN Population Fund says that the world population will increase by 50%, from 6·1 billion to 9·3 billion by 2050, all in the developing world. A child born now in an industrialised country will consume and pollute in its lifetime more than will 30–50 children born in developing countries, says the report. Each US citizen emitted 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 1998, compared with 2 tonnes for each person in all the developing countries. Industry, especially coal and oil, is mainly responsible and the time is ripe for such industries to accept and remedy their role in pollution.

Climate change, as with terrorism, cannot be remedied by nations acting alone. Climate change is biopolitical terrorism. Just as they are uniting against geopolitical terrorism, the major industrialised countries must devise workable international efforts to reduce the build-up of greenhouse gases, in cohort with the industries that cause the problem.

The Lancet