On 17th January 2022 on Open Mic, Jit drew our attention to the recent report issued by the Office for National Statistics (“ONS”), which suggested that a little mild warming in the UK is leading to fewer temperature-related deaths here. Perhaps the discussion that then took place at Open Mic was sufficient, but on the back of “Good News is No News”i, this seemed like another story of good news being largely (but not totally) ignored by the media, because it doesn’t fit the climate catastrophe narrative. And therefore it is worth looking at the ONS report in a little detail to see why it has been treated by the media as it has.
The report was headed “Climate-related mortality and hospital admissions, England and Wales: 2001 to 2020 – Counts and rates of deaths and hospital admissions associated with temperature for England and Wales from 2001 to 2020”.ii
Leaving aside the question of whether 20 years of statistics relating to mortality can truly be attributed to climate rather than weather, what the ONS had to say is still of note and worthy of celebration:
We found relatively little increase in deaths caused by warmer weather and a reduction in deaths caused by cold winters, leading to a net decrease in deaths…
Over a 20-year period the estimated change in deaths associated with warm or cold temperature was a net decrease of 555,103, an average of 27,755 deaths per year (Table 1). A decrease in deaths from outcomes associated with cold temperature greatly outnumbers deaths associated with warm temperature.
Warmer weather in the UK rarely reaches temperatures that cause direct heat-related harms.
Our findings are consistent with previous research and confirm that the warming trajectory predicted by climate scientists is already affecting health in England and Wales; however, in the UK’s cool-to-temperate climate, the mortality impact is limited and appropriate policy and behaviour changes could mitigate much of the health risk from increasing temperatures.
That truly represents remarkably good news. In fairness there are many caveats that need to be noted, and which the ONS drew to the reader’s attention. For example, “…improvements in socioeconomic circumstances, health infrastructure and behavioural adaption have reduced vulnerability to cold, however, the attribution of causality remains complex.” In other words, there may be rather more than just milder winters behind the reducing number of winter deaths. Also, at this stage the statistics used in compiling the report are experimental only, “and are not yet fully developed nor submitted for assessment to the UK Statistics Authority.”
And there was a negative aspect to warmer temperatures (the figures below for some reason cover only 2010 to 2018):
There were 108,722 extra hospitalisations (episodes) associated with warm days compared with the baseline (12,086 per year). After considering a decrease in episodes associated with cold days (Table 3), the net increase was 72,121 (8,013 per year).
Finally, the ONS report also makes due obeisance before the “climate change bad” narrative, expressing the view that the report is retrospective only, and “does not indicate future impacts of climate on health in the UK; as average temperatures increase, more heatwaves and extreme weather events are expected, which is likely to cause greater harm to health.”
Nevertheless, even noting the caveats, the report is far more positive than negative. It is a good news story rather than a bad news story. Most of the mainstream media seems to have ignored it, but as the national broadcaster, the BBC did pick it up, and headlined the story thus: “Climate-related deaths fall in England and Wales – ONS”.iii
So far so good – the headline certainly reports accurately the main point made by the ONS report. And yet, and yet….The BBC article commences with two short paragraphs reflecting the good news:
Climate-related deaths in England and Wales fell between 2001 and 2020, according to a new analysis of data by the Office of National Statistics.
Hot days saw more injuries, violence and suicide but the relatively small rise in deaths was offset by warmer winter temperatures resulting in fewer.
And then the rest of the article was dedicated to downplaying it:
Climate change is a substantial threat to human health globally.
Scientists do not yet have enough information about the health impact to make a prediction about the future.
…Previous research links heatwaves with deaths from heart or breathing conditions….
…And the 10 warmest years recorded have been since 2002…
Of course, the significance of that last point is profound – during the very period when the 10 warmest years have been recorded, deaths from extreme temperatures have fallen in the UK – and is apparently completely lost on the BBC. Justin Rowlatt certainly couldn’t let the good news rest at that:
Statistics can be slippery, as these new climate-death figures show.
The headline climate-related deaths in England and Wales have fallen is encouraging, suggesting warmer winters are offsetting the negative effects of hotter summer days.
But dig a bit deeper and lots of other factors are at play.
Faced with that, I can do no better than end with John Ridgway’s words about this on Open Mic:
It’s just marvellous, isn’t it? They bludgeon forward with climate change as the only relevant causation when bad things happen, like floods and forest fires. But as soon as a positive trend can be attributed to climate change, statistics become ‘slippery’ and causal analysis becomes complicated.