“Extreme heat kills more people in the United States than any other weather hazard” is the first claim in this Washington Post piece warning about the deadly summer heat — and it is almost certainly false. Similar warnings about the deadly weather appear in virtually every mainstream media outlet.
First off, the only reason “extreme” temperature kills more people than other weather hazards is that deaths from weather have plummeted over the century — even as doomsday climate warnings about heat, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts have spiked. All extreme weather accounts for only about 0.1 death for every 100,000 people in the United States each year. That is a massive drop from the time of your grandparents. The Post and others should be celebrating the fact that humans have never been less threatened by the climate in history.
The Post also warns that 62 million people in the U.S. may be “exposed” to dangerous heat “today.” That’s a lot of people, even considering nearly all of them live in the southernmost spots in the country, and it’s summer. The Post counts anyone exposed to heat over 90 F as being in some level of danger. Fortunately, most Americans enjoy the luxury and health benefits of air conditioning, one of the great innovations of the past century.
Nowhere in the piece, however, do the authors tell us exactly how many Americans have perished from the oppressive heat. Anyway, it’s around 700 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — if you liberally count heat as both the “underlying” and/or “contributing” causes. It is about 400 people when heat is the underlying cause. And that’s terrible. But, also, it’s around 3,600 fewer people than those who drown every year.
Though there has been an uptick in recent years — as Bjorn Lomborg has pointed out, this is almost surely due to an increasingly aging population that is more susceptible to heat — both numbers are still near-historic lows.
And most of those deaths, despite the Post’s claim, are from the cold, which is far more lethal to humans today, as it has always been. I come to this information via another Washington Post piece that ran this very winter, which helpfully notes that for “every death linked to heat, nine are tied to cold.” That piece relies on a recent peer-reviewed Lancet study to make that claim. Another recent peer-reviewed study in The BMJ found that “cold weather is associated with nearly 20 times more deaths than hot weather.” Other studies have come to the same conclusion.
So where did the Post get the idea that heat was the leading cause of weather deaths? After following a few hyperlinks, I land on a National Weather Service chart from 2019 that lists heat as the leading cause of extreme weather deaths. Where it gets these numbers is a mystery to me. And though I’m sure they aren’t concocted by some bureaucrat, they certainly seem to be an outlier.
Not to worry. Even here, we find promising news. Though the National Weather Service says the leading cause of weather deaths is heat, it also found that the average was only 103 deaths per year over the preceding decade. That’s hundreds of fewer deaths per year than the CDC reports — and hundreds fewer that die from, say over-the-counter headache medicine overdoses.
Enjoy the summer.