“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.
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, tornados, floods, and droughts have spiked. Extreme weather accounts for only about 0.1 death for every 100,000 people in the United States each year. The Post should be celebrating the fact that humans have never been less threatened by the climate.
The Post warns that 30 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 the middle of the summer. The Post counts anyone exposed to heat over 90 degrees 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 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. I come to this information via a Washington Post piece that ran this very winter, which noted that for “every death linked to heat, nine are tied to cold.” That piece relied on a peer-reviewed Lancet study. Another 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, 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 103 deaths per year over the preceding decade. That’s hundreds of fewer deaths per year than the CDC reports.