These numbers are vitally important, because they provide a direct evidence-based link between culpability – those responsible for the emissions driving climate change – and victimhood, those who are suffering the consequences, including losing their lives. And notably, the victims and the perpetrators are very different people in very different parts of the world.
Almost all the deaths counted in these two reports occur in developing countries, where the lack of healthcare and vulnerability to poor harvests leaves people uniquely vulnerable to droughts and spreading disease. The report also highlights the fact that those countries considered least vulnerable to climate change – both geographically and economically – tend to be in the rich world: those who have largely caused the problem.
Despite this overall big picture, it should not be forgotten that the single largest climate disaster struck not in the third world, but in the heart of Europe – the 2003 heatwave during which 35,000 people died, particularly in France and Germany. During one awful night in Paris, on 10 August 2003, 2,000 people – mainly elderly – were carried out of their apartments in body bags. So climate change can and will affect us all eventually.
Attaching real-world numbers to climate impacts is enormously important, because for most people the problem still seems remote and far-off, something for others to worry about at some future time. With the estimated death toll quantified, international law can be invoked, and the perpetrators – whether oil companies, coal-burning power stations or perhaps entire nations – can be punished, or at least forced to pay massive damages.
Coincidentally, 300,000 is also the population of the Maldives – one of the nations most vulnerable to climate change, which will be swamped by the rising oceans unless emissions are dramatically scaled back soon. The Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed announced in March that he would seek to make his country the first carbon-neutral nation in world – achieving the goal within 10 years.
Today at the Hay festival a competition is being held, where a British child will name a new Maldivian coral reef – a living structure which, if global warming is eventually controlled, may one day form the basis of a new island. The offer is characteristic of the generosity of these island people, who say they are less interested in pinning blame than in being part of the solution.
But the numbers are increasingly clear, and responsibilities cannot be evaded for ever. The legal implications are analogous to those faced by the tobacco industry once evidence solidified about the links between smoking and cancer. Shareholders and investors in fossil fuels need to be aware that they now face a liability that will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars – their products are killing people, and it is only a matter of time before the wheels of international justice begin to turn.