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Are Climate Deaths Really ‘Down 99%’ from a Century Ago?

Fact-checking BC MLA John Rustad, who crossed the floor to the Conservative party yesterday.

Amanda Follett Hosgood 17 Feb 2023TheTyee.ca

Amanda Follett Hosgood is The Tyee’s northern B.C. reporter. She lives in Wet’suwet’en territory. Find her on Twitter @amandajfollett.

As far as emails go, Nan Kendy didn’t give this one a lot of thought.

She plugged her information into an online petition asking the province to end fracking for methane gas in northeastern B.C. over concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.

It included a form letter to her provincial representative, MLA John Rustad, which was automatically sent off.

The response wasn’t what she expected.

“I’ve written Rustad before. I’ve written lots of MPs, lots of MLAs, nothing ever comes back,” the northern B.C. resident told The Tyee. “Not only was I shocked that he wrote me back, but then the contents were so absurd.”

In his response, Rustad, who is the member for Nechako Lakes, thanked Kendy for her email and then let her know he disagreed with its contents.

“Over the past 100 years, the number of people who have died because of climate disasters is actually DOWN 99 per cent. That’s right. Please look into the data yourself if you don’t believe this,” Rustad wrote.

Furthermore, he added, close to a billion people on the planet do not have access to electricity. Wind and solar are “simply not the solution for these global citizens,” Rustad wrote, because they are not affordable or reliable. With more than 1,000 coal-fired power plants currently proposed or under construction, shipping B.C.’s fracked gas overseas is necessary, he said. (The Tyee found the number is more like 500, based on data provided by Rustad himself.)

“B.C.’s fracking industry has an excellent record. There has never been an incident of water contamination or any other significant environmental issue from fracking in B.C.,” he said. “Do you support keeping 1 billion people on this planet in abject poverty without electricity and on the verge of starvation?”

Last summer, Rustad was removed from the BC Liberal caucus for a tweet suggesting the effects of climate change are overstated. He sat as an independent until joining the Conservative Party of BC yesterday.

After he was let go by the Liberals last year, Rustad took to Twitter to confirm that he believes in the effects of climate change. But he decried the policies of “climate elitists” that he said “punish everyday British Columbians.” The northern MLA has continued to share posts that cast doubt on the severity of climate change.

The Tyee looked into Rustad’s comments and found some of them true — sort of. While the number of climate-related deaths is down over the past century, experts say that will change dramatically if we continue on our current climate trajectory.

When asked about the safety of fracking, Rustad directed The Tyee to the B.C. government’s website, noting a lack of “water contamination of any significant environmental issue in B.C.” In fact, there is very little data about the human impacts of fracking at all — in part because the province has never studied it.

That’s despite a rapid increase of provincial approvals for fracking activity in the northeast.

With countries like China, which has more than half the world’s coal-fired electricity plants, depending on coal for power generation, fracked gas has been marketed as a cleaner “bridge fuel” during the transition to renewable energy. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, or the process of using pressurized water mixed with chemicals to break apart bedrock and release trapped gas, has increased in northeast B.C. as the demand for gas increases.

Pipelines like Coastal GasLink, currently under construction between the northeast and Kitimat, would carry the gas to export facilities on the coast, where it would undergo an energy-intensive liquification process before being exported overseas.

An increase in fracking has raised concerns about both local health effects and the methane emissions that contribute to climate change.

Extreme weather events due to climate change have been blamed for wildfires, like the one that destroyed the town of Lytton, and the Vancouver heat dome that killed more than 600 people, both in 2021. The same year, large swaths of the Lower Mainland were flooded during an atmospheric river.

Rustad did not respond to The Tyee's request for an interview, instead providing a link to an article, published by an American libertarian think tank, called “The Collapse of Climate Related Deaths.” It cites a 99.25 per cent decrease in per capita climate-related deaths since 1920.

The argument is based on the work of Danish author Bjørn Lomborg, former director of the Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen whose recent books cast doubt on the climate movement. In a New York Times book review, economist and Columbia University professor Joseph Stiglitz said, “Lomborg’s work would be downright dangerous were it to succeed in persuading anyone that there was merit in its arguments.”

Elisabeth Gilmore, a senior advisor in the science and technology branch at Environment and Climate Change Canada, agrees that the way Lomborg presents his research is “highly misleading.”

Gilmore was a lead author on a report published last year by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Working Group II, that examined global and regional impacts, adaptation and vulnerability due to climate change.

“Taken as a whole, which is what we’re charged with doing, the evidence is quite clear. Climate change poses a severe risk to human well-being and to ecosystems,” she said. “The overarching conclusion is that human-induced climate change, through the various ways that we will be experiencing this and especially through more intense extreme events, will lead to an increase in adverse human health impacts across a wide range of effects.

“These reports underscore the urgency of action.”

Like many misleading statements, Lomborg’s argument contains a grain of truth. Through risk reduction efforts that include early warning systems and adaptation, fewer people die, per capita, due to extreme weather events, Gilmore confirmed.

But those gains have been hard-fought, she added, and could easily be undone without a concerted effort to curb climate change.

“We need to take every action available to us to avoid end-of-century temperatures that would exceed 1.5 C,” she said. “Whether what we’ve done is going to be able to maintain this in a changing climate is something that will depend upon our future actions.”

The working group identified a “strong finding” that the most vulnerable and marginalized — also those who have contributed the least to climate change — disproportionately experience its adverse impacts. It also noted the economic impacts of climate change.

“So, our well-being is still under a very large amount of risk,” she said.

When it comes to the local effects of fracking in B.C., there has been very little research, said Élyse Caron-Beaudoin, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

Caron-Beaudoin’s team is the only one currently studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing in B.C. A pilot study published five years ago found elevated levels of benzene, a contaminant associated with fracking, in pregnant women from the Peace River region than in Canadian women generally.

Given the small sample size, it concluded that more research was needed. Caron-Beaudoin’s current project, which began in 2019, has found “consistent associations with negative health effects.”

A study in Alberta showed similar results and one published last year in the U.S. found “robust evidence that drilling shale gas wells negatively impacts both drinking water quality and infant health.”

But, ultimately, Caron-Beaudoin said, little research in B.C. suggests the need for a precautionary approach.

“The main concern I have is the absolute lack of data on this topic for an industry that has really revolutionized the energy sector and is taking more and more space in the energy landscape,” Caron-Beaudoin told The Tyee. “I feel like we don’t even have enough information to have an opinion that would be valid.

“We need to be humble in front of the things that we don't know and then try to do everything we can to understand those things better.”

In 2019, B.C.’s Mines Ministry published the findings of a review panel tasked with examining fracking safety.

Its terms of reference explicitly excluded human-health impacts, considering them “implicit in environmental protection.”

It determined that “not enough is known” about how chemicals used in the fracking process impact human health and added that “insufficient evidence was presented to the panel to assess the potential risks to human health that may be associated with hydraulic fracturing.”

“The very rapid development of shale gas in [northeast B.C.] has made it difficult to assure that risks are being adequately managed at every step,” it said. “Furthermore, the panel could not quantify risk because there are too few data to assess risk.”

Peter McCartney, a climate campaigner with Vancouver-based Wilderness Committee, which organized the anti-fracking petition, called Rustad’s response “grasping at straws.” He noted that China’s coal consumption is expected to peak in 2026 and the country is rapidly replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.

Based on Global Energy Monitor, a U.S.-based environmental organization cataloguing fossil fuel and renewable energy projects that Rustad provided as a source, about 2,500 coal power plants operate worldwide and 515 — not more than 1,000 — are in construction or pre-construction stages. In addition, 139 plants are slated for decommission this year and 830 are expected to be retired by 2040.

“Developing nations all over the world are choosing wind and solar because they're cheaper than fossil fuels and don't create climate pollution that imperils their citizens,” McCartney said.

“Frankly, that [response] should be disqualifying for anybody seeking to hold public office.”  [Tyee]

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