DotEarth: “Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.”

My critique of malaria paper, media coverage STILL holds up

The main subjects of my recent analysis — The non-hype about climate change (and malaria) — have chosen either to support my key conclusions or not refute them.

NYT opinion blogger Andy Revkin, whose challenge to cover the original Nature paper led to my first post, opens his follow up:

The climate blogger Joe Romm and I agree (breaking news): Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.

Thank you!  Case closed.

A key reason I filed my post under “media” along with “health impacts” is that my main critique was with the media coverage, which created the distinct impression that this new Nature paper was somehow undermining allegedly rampant exaggeration or hype in scientific research and assessments.  But it is hard to undermine a myth that simply doesn’t exist.

Now what I didn’t realize until I read this study very closely and checked the footnotes was that the study itself help create this misimpression, with these lines:

First, widespread claims that rising mean temperatures have already led to increases in worldwide malaria morbidity and mortality are largely at odds with observed decreasing global trends in both its endemicity and geographic extent….

In marked contrast, however, are model predictions, reported widely in global climate policy debates3, 6, 7, that climate change is adding to the present-day burden of malaria and will increase both the future range and intensity of the disease….

The quantification of a global recession in the range and intensity of malaria over the twentieth century has allowed us to review the rationale underpinning high-profile predictions of a current and future worsening of the disease in a warming climate.

Any reader of this study would be led to believe that these footnotes advance model predictions “that climate change is adding to the present-day burden of malaria and will increase both the future range and intensity of the disease.” But, in fact, they don’t.

Further, Footnote 6, the IPCC report, Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability? and footnote 7, the Technical Support Document for the EPA endangerment finding, are easily the two highest profile references in the paper, and thus again the reader is somehow left with the notion that those two reports make claims that in fact they don’t.

This misleading footnoting may thus have contributed to some of the bad media coverage.

The second author on the study, David Smith, commented on the second DotEarth piece:

Good science reporting (or blogging) requires some degree of critical assessment of the controversy. Joe Romm never contacted any of the authors of our study, but he does make some angry accusations. For the record, I’ve read the IPCC report, including the relevant sections. I’m part of the consensus that believes the world is warming and that human activities are the main cause.

Since he does not refute my primary critique, I am left to assume at this point that he cannot, particularly since he does attempt to refute critiques made by others.  Oddly, he chooses to refute a secondary, inferential critique of mine, “I doubt that the authors of the Nature article even bothered to go back to read the IPCC report they cited or spend a few minutes searching it for the word ‘malaria,’ since that would have made clear it is inappropriate to cite it as they did.”

That “refutation” is baffling.  I defy anybody to read the relevant sections, which I excerpt at length here, or search WGII for every single use of the word “malaria,” and see how it could possibly be used to support the sentence in the Nature piece where it appears.  It cannot.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  And it certainly is not a high profile prediction of a current and future worsening of the disease in a warmer climate.  Quite the reverse.

For the record, the only part of WGII most people read — the “high profile” part — is the Summary for Policymakers, which gets signed off on word for word by every member government.  In the 16-page summary for WGII, here is everything they say on malaria under the Health Section:

Climate change is expected to have some mixed effects, such as a decrease or increase in the range and transmission potential of malaria in Africa. ** D [8.4]

Kind of hard to make the case there is any effort to hype this to people in the policy debate.

Smith’s comment — along with Revkin’s email to me — seems to suggest that I thought he was not “part of the consensus that believes the world is warming and that human activities are the main cause.”  Aside from the fact that I don’t like the word consensus, I never thought that.  Just about anybody who is a serious enough scientist to get published in Nature shares the basic understanding of climate science in the literature.  I did infer, “I suspect the authors just swallowed the media/disinformer myth that the IPCC has overhyped the malaria-climate link and threat.”  But I don’t see how that can be interpreted as suggesting the authors don’t share the basic understanding of climate science.  I was just trying to come up with a theory to explain the baffling mistake of citing WGII the way they did.

Now while sloppy footnoting is not normally a big deal, it must be said that the IPCC has had its credibility thrashed over and over again in the media over little more than poor citations like this.  So the anti-science crowd should be all over this study.  Seriously, though, I think the authors need to admit they made a mistake in using these two citations this way — or explain how the language in those citations support that sentence.

UPDATE:  For all the huffing and puffing on other websites, nobody, not even the authors, have been able to dispute that this footnote is defensible, though at least one disinformer is trying to pretend the authors cited a different document!  What is hilarious is to watch the disinformers, who spent months trashing the IPCC over poor citations like this, now rush to the rescue of two very poor citations.

UPDATE 2:  Smith commented on this post again on DotEarth.  He says, “Romm attacked us for one citation in one sentence.”  In fact I criticized them for two citations, and for appearing to make a couple of misleading assertions in their paper based on those citations.  He says, of my posts, “he’s trying to paint us as being sloppy and anti-alarmist alarmist (or something equally twisted).”  Given how the IPCC has been vilified for a few flawed citations, “sloppy,” is an incredibly mild word.  He tries to make it look like my critique was unclear, but in fact anyone can see it wasn’t. What’s fascinating about about Smith’s reply is that again he never refutes my key assertion that he doesn’t provide citations for the supposedly hyped predictions, writing:

The citations were placed inside the clause to avoid linking the reports with the model predictions discussed in the reports.

At the end of that sentence we could have cited the papers that have made the predictions. We did not cite them, in part, because there are so many of them.

Yes, there were so many papers to cite in our defense that we didn’t cite any!

I can only imagine what the chest-beaters would make of that sentence if the IPCC had written it.  I don’t need to further debunk Smith’s comment, since Revkin’s readers do it so well here (“This is a gross distortion of Freudenburg’s work”) and here, and here. And, of course, Revkin himself says, “Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.”

Finally, Revkin distorts my critique, but that is par for the course. He also tries hard to find one high-profile report that somewhere, somehow oversells the malaria-climate link:

Using malaria risk as an argument for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, given the subtleties in that area of science, appears bound to backfire. That hasn’t stopped some pretty high-profile institutions from trying to do so.

Yes, the UNDP’s Human Development Report 2007/8 qualifies as “pretty high profile,” and the summary Revkin links to does contain this single phrase (italics added):

Among the threats to human development identified by “Fighting climate change”:

*  The breakdown of agricultural systems as a result of increased exposure to drought, rising temperatures, and more erratic rainfall, leaving up to 600 million more people facing malnutrition. Semi-arid areas of sub-Saharan Africa with some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the world face the danger of potential productivity losses of 25% by 2060.

*  An additional 1.8 billion people facing water stress by 2080, with large areas of South Asia and northern China facing a grave ecological crisis as a result of glacial retreat and changed rainfall patterns.

*  Displacement through flooding and tropical storm activity of up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas. Over 70 million Bangladeshis, 22 million Vietnamese, and six million Egyptians could be affected by global warming-related flooding.

Emerging health risks, with an additional population of up to 400 million people facing the risk of malaria.

But is the UNDP using the malaria risk as a primary argument for cutting greenhouse gas emissions?  Not exactly.  In a Box on page 29 of the full report, we find this:

Second, the environment is not only a matter of passive preservation, but also one of active pursuit.  We must not think of the environment exclusively in terms of pre-existing natural conditions, since the environment can also include the results of human creation. For example, purification of water is a part of improving the environment in which we live. The elimination of epidemics, such as smallpox (which has already occurred) and malaria (which ought to occur very soon if we can get our acts together), is a good illustration of an environmental improvement that we can bring about.

So the UNDP believes that we could eliminate malaria if we wanted to “very soon.”  Hard to make the case that the UNDP is arguing in this report that malaria risk is a major argument for cutting GHGs as opposed to a major argument for just getting off our butts and doing a bunch of non-GHG-related stuff.  And that is pretty much the point of the Nature paper!  Doh!

And so we are left with this broad agreement:

Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.

From a climate perspective — contrary to much of the media misreporting — this entire episode was dog bites man or, I suppose, mosquito bites man.

UPDATE:  SF Examiner’s Tom Fuller unintentionally helps make my case for me with a couple of comments below where he, among other things, writes “”¦the idiotic notion that global warming would extend the reach of malaria.”

22 Responses to DotEarth: “Scientific research and assessments examining the link between human-driven climate change and malaria exposure have, for the most part, accurately gauged and conveyed the nature of the risk that warming could swell the ranks of people afflicted with this awful mosquito-borne disease.”

  1. mike roddy says:

    Excellent and quite detailed summary, Joe. For all the vast quantity of material that you write here, even minor glitches and fact check [errors] are extremely rare on this blog.

    Previous posters detected the clammy influence of Roger Pielke Jr. in Andy’s piece. The “Honest Broker” is having to search a lot of footnotes these days to find his vaunted “balance”, since the evidence of substantial and dangerous human caused global warming is becoming so obvious.

    Bringing up malaria to bolster a case on broader issues is a loser for either “side”. It’s about as relevant as McIntyre’s lampooning of Pachauri for his soft porn novel about an aging Romeo.

  2. MAGB says:

    Goodness gracious – Paul Reiter killed this malaria issue stone cold dead several years ago. See
    I’m afraid your “broad agreement” wouldn’t last ten seconds at a medical infectious diseases meeting.

    [JR: Uhh, you aren’t really one for reading, are you. The “broad agreement” stands.]

  3. Rat Savage says:

    This is the thing that frustrates me about our society. You challenge specific assertions (or more precisely, challenged the relevance of cited materials to the assertions made), and instead of having a rational discussion (which would respond to your essay), we get “La la la lalala.”

    Science may have been a noble idea, but I fear we are entering a dark time where it is no longer allowed to serve its purpose. When facts and reason are no longer useful, the growing majority seems eager to fabricate whatever suits their immediate need. The end goal is no longer truth; it is self-gratification.

  4. MarkB says:


    I didn’t realize a single individual could kill an entire issue. Then again, Flat Earthers have their individual heroes. Objective observers examine the balance of views and evidence.

  5. MarkB says:

    Here are some of the variety of studies referenced by the IPCC:

  6. Here’s my article on the 2009 Princeton study linking current spread of malaria and links to CC as released at AAAS

  7. Raul says:

    Perhaps the IT guys from the control rooms could explain how the method
    alarms were going off and the executives who overrode the computer bells,
    whistles, and alarms knew more about it than the myearid of experts who
    designed a fail safe system of procedures for the safe and timely operations of the BP DEEPWATERHORIZON. Possibly, airline persons would
    take exception to the suggestion that they should have the same override capabilities when it comes to passenger flights, Or NASA that they could override their bells, whistles, and alarms from their computers about
    operational methods. I think that they have more than just spell check on their computers.

  8. Tom Fuller says:

    [JR: Uhh, this is the best you can do? I’ve written over 2 million words and nearly 5000 posts and here is what you’ve got.]

    Gee, Joe, maybe there’s a little sloppy footnoting on your weblog. One of the people who helped hype the idiotic notion that global warming would extend the reach of malaria was Joe Romm.

    [JR: Uhh, the scientific literature states that global warming may well extend the reach of malaria compared to the non-global warming case, at least in the near- and medium-term. How is that idiotic?]

    From March 2008:

    “That’s going to be a problem, too, Mr(s) President. The Secretary of Energy is in Atlanta trying to figure out how to get power restored in the southeast, now that there’s too little water to cool the region’s nuclear reactors. The Secretary of Health and Human Services is in Florida, working with the Governor on the malaria outbreak. It’s the latest epidemic since the disease vectors began moving in.”

    [JR: Uhh, I didn’t write that. Bill Becker did. And it is a semi-humorous, fictionalized 3 a.m. TV ad. I suppose I could edit out fiction from posts that are submitted to me from Bill, but if you edited out fiction, you’d have to delete almost every word on your blog.]

    And do you remember way back in 2007 when you were so angry with the IPCC for “watering down” AR4? You wrote, “”Similar to the first IPCC’s fourth assessment release being watered down by neglecting the great ice sheets, the second report’s release has also been watered down, in an alternative sense. (…) Malaria, diarrhea diseases, dengue fever, tick-borne diseases, heat-related deaths will all rise with global warming.”

    [JR: Uhh, that was a direct quote excerpted from an AP story. Looks like AP didn’t word that sentence as well as they could. Since you continue to push the disinformation that the IPCC overstated the case, you really are living in a glass house on this one.]

    I guess you’ve moved on.

    [JR: I guess you’ve moved on from reality. You’ve proven my point. This just isn’t a subject of any significant focus by people who write about this. In two books and 2 million words, this is all you’ve got — a fictionalized 3 AM ad written by somebody else and a quote from an AP story that isn’t written quite as well as it should be. Seriously, you’ve proven there was nothing for me to “move on” from. Thanks for that!]

  9. Tom Fuller says:

    The global range of the malaria carrying mosquito extended to Archangel, where it killed more than 10,000 people in one epidemic in the early 20th Century, when it was colder than it is today.

    It has warmed one degree since then, but the global reach of the mosquito has shrunk drastically.

    Global warming occurred–one degree C.
    The range of the mosquito shrank drastically.

    Ergo, global warming will increase problems with malaria.

    Sure, I get it.

  10. dhogaza says:

    Ergo, global warming will increase problems with malaria.

    Overall, the global battle against malaria has gone well, and there’s no reason to expect that this battle won’t overwhelm any range increase due to global warming.

    But I get the impression that Tom Fuller believes that this battle is cost free. It’s not. Malaria eradication efforts are expensive, while individual solutions such as bed nets and indoor spraying are cheap on a per capita basis, there’s a lot of “per capita” that need these tools.

    “increasing problems” is not equivalent to “increasing death”. “increasing cost of malaria control” fits my definition of the word “problem”.

  11. Tom Fuller says:

    [JR: I’m letting some of Fuller’s misrepresentations through so that people can see how he operates (without having to actually read his blog) and since he unintentionally supports a key point of mine. His goal is to spin up the misrepresentation that I and others, including the IPCC, have overhyped the malaria-climate link so he can then attack us for overhyping.]

    Your characterization of this as a non-story threatens to become a story in itself.

    [JR: Who said this was a non-story? The story is the misreporting, which you continue to contribute to.]

    For a subject that isn’t significant enough to write about, there’s a lot of writing going on. Two posts from you, Revkin, Pielke. A Nature report by researchers from Oxford, one of whom explicitly states that the science needs balance to counteract ‘warmist’ claims.

    [JR: I suppose it is useful for everyone to see that your modus operandi is to utterly misrepresent what someone says and then attack that misrepresentation. The point I made — which you have essentially corroborated — is that in over 2 million words written on this subject and two books, there are two sentences written by other people, one of them fictional, the other an AP story, that I reposted. This proves to anyone even partially objective that I did not consider the malaria/climate link a significant impact and was not hyping it. In fact, it is hard to find examples of hyping in the scientific literature and assessments, as Revkin himself notes.

    A challenge was laid down to write on this subject, so I did.]

    Nothing to see, here. And I suppose you can wash your hands because you’re publishing quotes–you did quite a bit of it on this subject, as a simple search of your site will show.


    [JR: Your easily disproven assertions here boggle the mind. Your personal attacks on me in your column, however, are simply beyond the pale, but they have also become your modus operandi since the facts are not on your side.]


    You have to insist there is no discussion taking place. If it’s settled, why is Penn State doing further research on it? Why did Oxford do their study? If there is no discussion, why is it in the NY Times, twice on your blog and on Pielke’s blog? Not to mention lesser sites such as mine. Why does Google return 1.78 million results for ‘malaria and climate change’? Why is it in the Atlantic? Why did Kaiser Family Foundation write about it?

    And the answer is because you cannot admit that your earlier fears and statements were incredibly overblown and you cannot back away from any position gracefully.

    [JR: The answer is that you misrepresent what people said and can’t admit it. Who said there is no discussion taking place? Seriously, did you even read my first piece which noted the fact that a recent article you ignored reviews 70 articles in the literature. Indeed, my extended excerpt from the IPCC makes clear that there is a great discussion taking place about what the impact of climate change will be on malaria. The question is just whether the scientific literature and assessments have mischaracterized and/or hyped things. Revkin and I agree they haven’t. You continue to assert they have. Your misrepresentations belong on your blog, where they fit right on with the vast majority of your posts.]

  12. MarkB says:

    Tom Fuller writes:

    “…the idiotic notion that global warming would extend the reach of malaria”

    Considering the myriad of studies done on this that indicate the possibility of global warming increasing and extending the reach of Malaria (see my link in #5 for starters), Fuller’s words are that of a crazed zealot, not an objective journalist.

  13. Leif says:

    Just noticed in the NY Times, Science section that Dengue Fever finds a toehold in Key West.

  14. Victor Balco says:

    Looks like this is making the rounds to the more popular blogs.

  15. toby says:

    I lived on a subtropical island for two years in the 1970s. It was malaria-free, but the disease had been notoriously endemic in the 19th century, forcing any family who could to move inland and uphill in the wet and hot summers.

    But a insecticide-resisitant strain has found a foothold again so chloroquin is advised for visitors. I married a woman from there, so I have been back several times.

    So I never have much time for the likes of Fuller and Limborg who throw malaria around as if its eradication is a matter of a few years work and a paltry investment.

  16. Eli Rabett says:

    There is an NRC report from a few years back that says essentially that as the climate warms, if we do nothing, diseases such as malaria will spread more quickly. On the other hand, with proper monitoring and controls this threat can be minimized.

  17. Leif says:

    New Malaria report from Australia, Joe. What you said all over again.

    [JR: Indeed.]

  18. Eli,
    Certainly if we do *nothing* as climate warms, malaria spreads. But of course you mean ‘nothing better than what we’re doing now’. The Nature letter data suggests that our efforts to date to roll back malaria have been *at least* effective enough, on a global scale, to mitigate the effect of warming. The point of contention is how much of a buffer our standard malaria control efforts give us, against the potential future boost from warming. The Nature authors suggest it’s a fairly large margin, based on malaria extent change versus recent climate change. Others say the Oxford group hasn’t modeled all the other pertinent factors (like increasing resistance to antimalarial drugs) expected to be significant game-changers. News reports like the one from Australia are noting this. It’s definitely worth monitoring the scientific debate here, and definitely wrong to dismiss either side of it as ‘idiotic’ or ‘sloppy’.

  19. sod says:

    . One of the people who helped hype the idiotic notion that global warming would extend the reach of malaria was Joe Romm.

    Tom Fuller simply doesn t understand the most simple things.

    look Tom, what you call “idiotic” is a FACT.

    but i am not surprised, that you can t spot a fact, if it hits you with a hammer. you are spending too much time on your absolutely fact-free blog!

  20. Leif says:

    Even if society has a 95% success, (not a chance), in mitigating Malaria there are still real world expenses and 5% still fall thru the cracks. In addition there are other diseases that tag along in a warming world, Dengue Fever, a virus with no cure comes to mind. The rich will be able to move, the poor take it on the nose.

  21. Sarah says:

    There are major health concerns without even trying to predict the behavior of complex organisms like Plasmodium falciparum and its relatives. Heat itself is enough to kill us.

    Sherwood and Huber make some estimates of the danger of heat stress in the most recent PNAS (doi 10.1073/pnas.0913352107, 2010).

    They find that humans cannot survive extended periods of “wet-bulb temperature” over 35 deg C. (Wet-bulb temperature is measured with a wet cloth over a thermometer bulb. It tells how effectively heat can be dissipated by conduction and evaporation.)  Any place that regularly reaches Tw>35 will become uninhabitable to humans (and most other mammals) because they cannot dissipate the 100 Watts of heat they make just sitting still.
    Currently the highest Tw anywhere is 31, above 30 is very rare.. Global-mean warming of 4-5 deg would put much of the population at risk for heat stress events up to Tw>35; an increase of 10 deg would render a large fraction of the planet uninhabitable to humans.  

    Poor Plasmodium could go extinct if we do.

  22. Nick Downie says:

    In 1972, when in command of a Bedouin unit in a war, I spent a hellish summer camped on the edge of the Empty Quarter. The normal shade temperature was 55℃ (130℉) but some days it went up to 60℃ (140℉) – I think. I had two thermometers that went up to 130℉ but they both burst. To add to our woes we endured sandstorms that raged for three days at a time, so dense that one couldn’t see the far end of the tent, and the only available water was saturated with hydrogen sulphide and tainted with gasoline from the drums we stored it in.

    I have always regarded that time as the limit of human endurance – we could do nothing but lie in the shade, panting, from 10am to 4pm. Each day I drank a pint of water containing a tablespoonful of salt. I couldn’t taste it – a crude, soldier’s way of indicating how much salt was required.

    I would be fascinated to know what Tw temperature 60℃ equates to – if anyone can tell me. The humidity was effectively zero – I once timed how long it took to dry a bush jacket after washing. It was 30 seconds.

    If such conditions are in store for future generations I feel extremely sorry for them. Growing food is a bit of a problem too. (No flies though – they couldn’t take it :] )