We don’t feel deaths equally


in Psychology, Rants, The environment

The January 21st issue of The Economist provides another strong example of how poorly our emotions serve us where it comes to evaluating and responding to abstract threats. They say:

NOx emissions cause the premature deaths of an estimated 72,000 Europeans a year.

This is in the context of carmakers like Volkswagen using software to cheat on NOx emissions tests for their diesel cars.

Now, if anything direct and intentional (terrorism, a criminal gang, etc) killed 72,000 people in one year in Europe it would be WWIII. The way in which we obsess about tiny direct threats from serial killers to plane hijackers while feeling little emotional impact from pollution-induced deaths and threats like climate change profoundly damages our ability to make sensible policy choices.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

alena January 26, 2017 at 3:36 pm

Maybe it is the way we are socialized.

. January 26, 2017 at 6:24 pm

The biggest study to date shows that 100 million people in developing countries will die from fossil-fuel combustion between now and 2030 – some from the effects of global warming, but more from breathing smoke. Beijing closed its schools in mid-December because the smog was too bad to go outside; in New Delhi, an estimated half of the city’s 4.4 million children now have irreversible lung damage. That’s why China and India are trying desperately to move away from fossil fuels: China’s coal consumption has begun to slide, and India has announced a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.

alena January 26, 2017 at 7:35 pm

I guess what we don’t see, we worry about less. In China and India people are dying of lung disease, cancer and other pollution related hazards. It has reached such a state that something has to be done. We are pretty blase about it in North America and with the new leader south of us, we are moving towards the absurd and tragic when it comes to the environment.

Oleh February 11, 2017 at 3:05 am

Premature deaths from poor life-style decisions do not get the headlines that are warranted. The media, which focusses on the sensational and unusual, find it much harder to cover a story that requires more effort.

. May 16, 2017 at 4:37 pm

38,000 People a Year Die Early Because of Diesel Emissions Testing Failures

Diesel cars, trucks, and other vehicles in more than 10 countries around the world produce 50 percent more nitrogen oxide emissions than lab tests show, according to a new study. The extra pollution is thought to have contributed to about 38,000 premature deaths in 2015 globally. In the study, published today in Nature, researchers compared emissions from diesel tailpipes on the road with the results of lab tests for nitrogen oxides (NOx). The countries where diesel vehicles were tested are Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S., where more than 80 percent of new diesel vehicle sales occurred in 2015. The researchers found that 5 million more tons of NOx were emitted than the lab-based 9.4 million tons, according to the Associated Press. Nitrogen oxides are released into the air from motor vehicle exhaust or the burning of coal and fossil fuels, producing tiny soot particles and smog. Breathing in all this is linked to heart and lung diseases, including lung cancer, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, which took part in the research. Governments routinely test new diesel vehicles to check whether they meet pollution limits. The problem is that these tests fail to mimic real-life driving situations, and so they underestimate actual pollution levels. The researchers estimate that the extra pollution is linked to about 38,000 premature deaths worldwide in 2015 — mostly in the European Union, China, and India. (The U.S. saw an estimated 1,100 deaths from excess NOx.)

. June 18, 2017 at 5:14 pm

In fact, the risk is infinitesimal. The same number of people died in attacks last year as in 1950, when the population was a third of its current size. Better emergency services mean that the vast majority of today’s victims survive. Sharks may cause politicians to thrash about, but Australians run about the same risk of being killed by a bee or wasp.

. June 18, 2017 at 5:19 pm

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 660m people rely on what it calls “unimproved” water sources. A quarter of this is untreated surface water. Moreover, even water that has undergone at least some treatment may not be potable. Across the planet, 1.8bn human beings drink water contaminated with faeces. All this polluted water spreads diseases such as cholera, dysentery and typhoid. Every year, more than half a million people die from waterborne diarrhoea alone.

. July 11, 2017 at 1:41 pm

It’s hard to imagine what might alarm our current leaders into action. Wallace-Wells concludes with the argument that we will wake up to this encroaching disaster because it will be too costly not to—in terms of human life, in terms of economic progress, in terms of international relations. The argument is simple, and borrows somewhat heavily from the simplest analogy out there when it comes to climate change—that of a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water. Humans are the frog, the pot is the planet, and the burner is climate change. A frog might contently sit in the water while it boils without realizing it, but humans are not frogs. At some point, the heat will turn up so high that we will realize that we have to turn it down. Yes, it may come too late, and there may be some irreversible damage, but still, we’ll realize it at some point.

The problem with this assurance is that it takes as a given that to the powerful and privileged— the ones who currently have a say about what we do about climate change—all lives matter equally. That the annihilation of a certain number of people will force these people to change their minds, to take pity and to take action. But this is not the world we live in. It’s not the number of deaths that matter. It’s the type of people who die.

. August 7, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Dismay over premature deaths caused by pollution is one reason. The European Environment Agency says smog causes nearly half a million early deaths in Europe annually. Diesel engines are a big contributor to local pollution levels because of the nitrogen oxide they emit. Restrictions loom in cities across Europe: diesel cars are likely to be banned in Paris, London, Oslo and even perhaps in some German cities such as Stuttgart, home of Daimler.

Politicians, who once applauded diesel engines for emitting less carbon dioxide than petrol ones, are also getting tough. Taxes on diesel cars and fuel are rising, eliminating the cost advantage to motorists. Doubt over the fuel’s future is starting to hit resale values. Some countries are putting the internal combustion engine itself on notice. France’s government said this month that sales of new petrol or diesel cars will end by 2040. This week Britain launched a “clean air strategy” with the same goal. Norway is aiming for 2025.

. August 25, 2017 at 8:25 pm

Even without a shift to safe, self-driving vehicles, electric propulsion will offer enormous environmental and health benefits. Charging car batteries from central power stations is more efficient than burning fuel in separate engines. Existing electric cars reduce carbon emissions by 54% compared with petrol-powered ones, according to America’s National Resources Defence Council. That figure will rise as electric cars become more efficient and grid-generation becomes greener. Local air pollution will fall, too. The World Health Organisation says that it is the single largest environmental health risk, with outdoor air pollution contributing to 3.7m deaths a year. One study found that car emissions kill 53,000 Americans each year, against 34,000 who die in traffic accidents.

. September 4, 2017 at 2:47 pm

A quick quiz. No Googling, no conferring, but off the top of your head: what is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster? If you nominated storm Harvey and the flooding of Houston, Texas, then don’t be too hard on yourself. Media coverage of that disaster has been intense, and the pictures dramatic. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this supposedly once-in-a-thousand-years calamity – now happening with alarming frequency, thanks to climate change – was the most devastating event on the planet.

As it happens, Harvey has killed an estimated 44 Texans and forced some 32,000 into shelters since it struck, a week ago. That is a catastrophe for every one of those individuals, of course. Still, those figures look small alongside the havoc wreaked by flooding across southern Asia during the very same period. In the past few days, more than 1,200 people have been killed, and the lives of some 40 million others turned upside down, by torrential rain in northern India, southern Nepal, northern Bangladesh and southern Pakistan.

. September 18, 2017 at 4:55 pm

Impact of excess NOx emissions from diesel cars on air quality, public health and eutrophication in Europe

Diesel cars have been emitting four to seven times more NOx in on-road driving than in type approval tests. These ‘excess emissions’ are a consequence of deliberate design of the vehicle’s after-treatment system, as investigations during the ‘Dieselgate’ scandal have revealed. Here we calculate health and environmental impacts of these excess NOx emissions in all European countries for the year 2013. We use national emissions reported officially under the UNECE Convention for Long-range Transport of Atmospheric Pollutants and employ the EMEP MSC-W Chemistry Transport Model and the GAINS Integrated Assessment Model to determine atmospheric concentrations and resulting impacts. We compare with impacts from hypothetical emissions where light duty diesel vehicles are assumed to emit only as much as their respective type approval limit value or as little as petrol cars of the same age. Excess NO2 concentrations can also have direct health impacts, but these overlap with the impacts from particulate matter (PM) and are not included here. We estimate that almost 10 000 premature deaths from PM2.5 and ozone in the adult population (age >30 years) can be attributed to the NOx emissions from diesel cars and light commercial vehicles in EU28 plus Norway and Switzerland in 2013. About 50% of these could have been avoided if diesel limits had been achieved also in on-road driving; and had diesel cars emitted as little NOx as petrol cars, 80% of these premature deaths could have been avoided. Ecosystem eutrophication impacts (critical load exceedances) from the same diesel vehicles would also have been reduced at similar rates as for the health effects.

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