Economics, Medical News, Pollution, World health

UN study confirms relationship between pollution-related deaths and areas at highest risk for climate change impacts

In a study of risk estimates of climate change impact and toxic emissions, Notre Dame researchers identified a statistically significant link between the spatial distribution of global climate risk and toxic pollution-related deaths.

According to more than 97% of actively publishing climatologists, climate-warming trends over the last century are highly likely due to human activity. The majority of the world’s main scientific organizations have released public statements backing this stance. 

To name a few, the American Chemical Society (ACS) states in their position statement, “The Earth’s climate is changing in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and particulate matter in the atmosphere, largely as the result of human activities.”

Along the same lines, the American Geophysical Society echoes the same sentiment by stating, “Based on extensive scientific evidence, it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century. There is no alternative explanation supported by convincing evidence.”

Scientists on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been studying human-caused climate change for more than 30 years. Their previous assessment report resulted in the Paris Agreement in 2015, as well as a special report on the dangers of global warming exceeding 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels shortly thereafter.

Drew Marcantonio, a postdoctoral research associate at Notre Dame, doctoral student Sean Field, Associate Professor of Political Science Debra Javeline, and Princeton’s Agustin Fuentes discovered a statistically significant relationship between the spatial distribution of global climate risk and toxic pollution in a study of risk assessments of toxic emissions and people’s vulnerability to them.

The research team stated, “Deaths resulting from toxic pollution are highest where the distribution of toxic pollution is greatest and, critically, also where the impacts of climate change pose the greatest risk.”

To make their findings more useful to policymakers, the authors developed “Target,” a metric that combines a country’s climate impact risk, toxic pollution risk, and potential readiness to mitigate these risks. The top 10 countries they recommended concentrating on were: Singapore, Rwanda, China, India, Solomon Islands, Bhutan, Botswana, Georgia, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand. 

The authors point out that by reducing toxic pollution in large, populous countries like China and India, neighboring countries will benefit as well. China’s 2013 Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan, which focuses specifically on toxic emissions, is yielding impressive results. Researchers discovered a 40% reduction in toxic emissions since the plan was implemented.

Target’s goal is to highlight areas where action can be taken to reduce human health risk, but how that action is targeted — incentives vs. sanctions — necessitates moral deliberation to determine what actions should be taken and who should do them. This is particularly true considering the inverse relationship between who is most responsible for creating these hazards and who is most at risk.

“It’s not surprising that these risks are significantly associated,” Javeline said, “but our paper gives the data and analysis to influence policy, which were previously unavailable.”


The study was published in PLOS One, on July 21st, 2021.

Global distribution and coincidence of pollution, climate impacts, and health risk in the Anthropocene, Marcantonio R, Javeline D, Field S, Fuentes A (2021) Global distribution and coincidence of pollution, climate impacts, and health risk in the Anthropocene. PLOS ONE 16(7): e0254060. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0254060

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