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Obama Is Right: Climate Change Kills More People Than Terrorism

David McNew/Getty Images

In an interview with Vox this week, President Barack Obama said the media “absolutely” overstates the risk of terrorism, when climate change and epidemics affect far more people. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest elaborated on Obama’s remarks on Tuesday, saying that “[t]here are many more people on an annual basis who have to confront the impact of climate change or the spread of a disease” than have to face terrorism.

Conservatives like Mike Huckabee ridicule Obama for linking climate change to national security. “I assure you that a beheading is much worse than a sunburn,” Huckabee told Fox News on Monday. They will be disappointed to learn that climate change is, in fact, more dangerous. 

Twenty governments commissioned an independent report in 2012 from the group DARA International to study the human and economic costs of climate change. It linked 400,000 deaths worldwide to climate change each year, projecting deaths to increase to over 600,000 per year by 2030. When scientists attribute deaths to climate change, they don't just mean succumbing to a heat wave or, as Huckabee put it, to sunburn. Heat waves kill many, to be sure, but global warming also devastates food security, nutrition, and water safety. Since mosquitoes and other pests thrive in hot, humid weather, scientists expect diseases like malaria and dengue fever to rise. Floods threaten to contaminate drinking water with bacteria and pollution. 

When the report looked at the added health consequences from burning fossil fuels—aside from climate change—the number of deaths jumps from 400,000 to almost 5 million per year. Carbon-intensive economies see deaths linked to outdoor air pollution, indoor smoke from poor ventilation, occupational hazards, and skin cancer. 

You can see which countries are most vulnerable to climate change in this map: 


And look at the associated deaths worldwide, broken down by cause: 


Now, compare that to terrorist incidents between 2000-2013, compiled in the 2014 Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace. There were 18,000 deaths from terrorist attacks in 2013, a peak year. Over the 13-year period studied, 100,000 people died. Unlike the widespread impacts of climate change, terrorist threats are targeted. Most of the attacks in 2013 affected just five countries—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Syria.

Institute for Economics & Peace
Institute for Economics and Peace

The ultimate irony of Republicans brushing off the impact of climate change: Drought and extreme weather can destabilize developing regions, making climate change one of the factors that drives terrorism.