Carbon Emissions Will Kill People. Be Careful Whom You Blame.

An analysis finds that a person will die for for every 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide produced.


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Last week, the journal Nature Communications published a study by R. Daniel Bressler called "The Mortality Cost of Carbon." It offered a somewhat jaw-dropping assertion: The average lifetime carbon footprint of 3.5 U.S. citizens would cause one excess death between 2020 and 2100. 

To put it another way, according to this study (or how it was widely interpreted), if you’re a family or peer group of four—each with an average U.S. carbon footprint—then collectively your emissions would kill just over one person during the course of the next 80 years. 

As someone who has written a book about my own guilt, shame, responsibility, and hypocrisy around the climate crisis, I had decidedly mixed feelings about the framing. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that people are dying due to carbon emissions—and the more that each of us does to prevent or drawdown those emissions, the more lives will be saved. From excess heat deaths to famine, we also know that these deaths will disproportionately impact the people who had least to do with creating the crisis in the first place. In other words, this is a question of justice. And countries and communities with a high carbon footprint absolutely do have a moral imperative to act urgently to address the situation.

On the other hand, the act of explicitly tying each death to a certain number of individual citizens was inevitably going to lead to the interpretation that you—as an individual—are directly responsible for the death of another, specific individual. And that muddies the water on how we’re going to get out of this mess. 

As I and others have written many times before, the climate crisis is a collective action problem. And the solutions are going to be largely systemic in their nature. While the research suggests we can allocate 0.28 excess deaths to the average U.S. carbon footprint, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one person simply eliminating their carbon footprint will result in 0.28 fewer deaths. In order for it to be effective, that person’s actions would have to bring others’ carbon footprints down with them. 

Despite the headline for the paper, R. Daniel Bressler actually focuses in the abstract on the mortality cost of carbon as a tool for driving policy changes and societal-level cost-benefit calculations: 

“Incorporating mortality costs increases the 2020 SCC from $37 to $258 [−$69 to $545] per metric ton in the baseline emissions scenario. Optimal climate policy changes from gradual emissions reductions starting in 2050 to full decarbonization by 2050 when mortality is considered.”

Similarly, his communications around the paper on Twitter also focused largely on a large scale, societal interventions that would bring each individual citizen’s emissions down: 

From gentrification to poverty to world hunger, there are plenty of things that we—meaning those of us who are relatively privileged global citizens—can and maybe even should feel guilty about. Yet we can’t simply solve those problems by selling our house for cheaper, giving away our money, or emptying our fridge and sending the food to those who need it. 

Instead, we should use the guilt we feel to spur us to act where we—specifically—have the greatest power to create wide-scale change. Cutting our own emissions can be an important part of that effort, but only if we leverage what we do to bring others along for the ride. 

The mortality cost of carbon is a powerful data point for seeking climate justice—but interpreting it as a lesson about individual culpability runs the risk of exacerbating feelings of helplessness or overwhelm. I’ll leave the last word to R. Daniel Bressler himself, who told Oliver Milman of The Guardian that people need to keep their eye on the prize: “My view is that people shouldn’t take their per-person mortality emissions too personally. Our emissions are very much a function of the technology and culture of the place that we live.”

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  1. Bressler, R. Daniel. "The Mortality Cost of Carbon." Nature Communications, vol. 12, no. 1, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41467-021-24487-w