Climate Change Is Killing People In Stockholm, Sweden: Rising Temperatures Blamed For Up To 300 Premature Deaths

By Ben Wolford on October 23, 2013 1:55 PM EDT

A photographer in Kenya found this cracked earth where his map showed a river.A photographer in Kenya found this cracked earth where his map showed a river. 

Climate change isn't just whipping up stronger storms and frustrating farmers with dryer droughts, it's actually killing people. And not just near the equator, but in Scandinavia, a new study has found.

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Research on heat wave deaths in Stockholm revealed that 300 more people died in a 30-year span than would have died under normal conditions, according to the study, announced this week by Umeå University in northern Sweden. Spread across the whole country, it means the effects of climate change likely killed about 1,500 people.

"Mortality associated with extreme heat during the relevant period was doubled, compared to if we had not had some climate change," says doctoral student Daniel Oudin Åström, in releasing his study. "Furthermore, we saw that even though the winters have become milder, extremely cold periods occurred more often, which also contributed to a small increase in mortality during the winter."

Heat waves often claim the lives of elderly and sick people, but the difference now is intensity and duration. Åström acknowledges that 300 may not seem like much over the course of three decades, but when you amplify the number across Europe or the globe, the finding is alarming.

This wasn't the first attempt to quantify the effects of climate change on mortality. The Spanish advocacy group DARA has published two reports called the Climate Vulnerability Monitor. The most recent one estimates that 400,000 people die each year as a result of climate change and predicts that the number will grow to 700,000 by 2030. Most of those deaths, they say, come from hunger, but disease and illnesses related to temperature also contribute.

In 2009, the Globe Humanitarian Forum, led by Kofi Annan, published a high-profile report called "The Anatomy of A Silent Crisis." It detailed the fatal chains of events that stem from global warming — like rising sea levels and morphing rainfall patterns — and lead to sickness and malnutrition. That report said climate-change effects kill 300,000 people annually.

This new Swedish study identifies a more direct but little-regarded killer: long, hot days.

Åström arrived at the number 300 by comparing heat wave deaths between 1980 and 2009 to corresponding temperature and mortality data from 1900 to 1929. Extremely high temperatures in the latter period killed twice as many people than before climate change, he found. Conversely, there were more cold extremes, but Swedes appeared to weather those temperatures more capably, and the number of extra deaths was small.

"The study findings do not suggest any adaptation of the Swedes when it comes to confronting the increasingly warmer climate, such as increased use of air conditioning in elderly housing," Åström says. "It is probably because there is relatively little knowledge in regards to increased temperatures and heat waves on health."

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