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The perils of being a mouthpiece

One of the problems with being a PR guy for an environmentally minded billionaire is that you sometimes find yourself having to utter complete drivel in public fora. There has been a lovely example of this in recent weeks, when, in a letter to the FT, Lord Stern claimed that 7 million deaths each year were caused by pollution derived from fossil fuels. This was disputed by Matt Ridley, who pointed out in another letter that most of these deaths were actually caused by burning wood and dung.

According to the World Health Organisation, the majority of these estimated deaths (4.3m) are from indoor air pollution, and the vast majority of them are caused by cooking and heating with wood and dung.

However, having stuck his neck out, Stern felt he couldn't back down, and therefore decided to adopt a policy of "make some more stuff up and hope nobody notices". So he wrote to the FT again, exhibiting his customary lack of integrity, this time insinuating that Matt had claimed that no deaths were caused by fossil-fuel-related pollution, claiming that he...

...fails to acknowledge that the World Health Organisation noted that coal, as well as wood and biomass, burnt for cooking and heating, is a major source of the indoor air pollution linked to the deaths of 4.3m people each year.

I'm sure that readers can see from the previous quote just how egregious Stern's misrepresentation was.

Then, as if to underline just how badly wrong he had gone, Stern retreated to a claim of "it's hard":

Precision is not possible here but it does seem reasonable to conclude, as I did in my letter of November 12, that “7m people worldwide die each year due to indoor and outdoor pollution, mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels”.

The mess into which Stern has got himself has now been firmly laid bare by Bjorn Lomborg, whose letter to the FT today sets out the figures in gory detail:

Nicholas Stern (Letters, November 12 and 19) is simply wrong to persist in claiming that the majority of 7m deaths from indoor and outdoor air pollution is caused by fossil fuels. His feeble defence that “precision is not possible here but it does seem reasonable” underlines his lack of evidence.

The facts of the matter, as established by the World Health Organisation, are that the majority of air pollution deaths comes from indoor pollution, and about 85 per cent of these deaths are caused by biomass burning. This translates to 3.2m of the 7m deaths caused by indoor biomass burning. Moreover, a large part of the outdoor air pollution stems from non-fossil fuels. The most recent Global Burden of Disease estimates that 12 per cent of all outdoor air pollution comes from indoor air pollution, causing an extra 373,000 premature deaths. The most recent study from Nature estimates that just the indoor air pollution from households in China and India spilling into the open air causes 760,000 outdoor air pollution deaths. The Nature study shows that 600,000 outdoor air pollution deaths are caused by natural sources (mostly airborne desert dust). Another 660,000 deaths are caused by agriculture, mostly from release of ammonia, forming ammonium sulphate and nitrate. Finally, almost 200,000 additional deaths come from large biomass burning (forest burning such as we recently saw in Indonesia).

Power generation, traffic and industry, which are mostly fossil fuel-driven and likely what Lord Stern was thinking about, in total cause 854,000 air pollution deaths. Added to the 560,000 deaths from indoor air pollution caused by coal, this constitutes only 20 per cent of total air pollution deaths, and hence is a far cry from Lord Stern’s claim of a majority.

This matters for two reasons. First, it is disingenuous to link the world’s biggest environmental problem of air pollution to fossil fuels and indirectly climate. It is a question of poverty (most indoor air pollution) and technology (scrubbing pollution from smokestacks and catalytic converters) — not about global warming and CO2. Second, costs and benefits matter. Tackling indoor air pollution turns out to be very cheap and effective, whereas tackling outdoor air pollution is more expensive and less effective. Lord Stern’s favourite policy of cutting CO2 is of course even more costly and has a tiny effect even in 100 years.

Lord Stern's behaviour is quite extraordinary. It's amazing that any newspaper is willing to publish a word that he writes.

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Reader Comments (41)

Lord Stern: dung.

Say no more.

Nov 25, 2015 at 10:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

Stern is neck-deep in the climate & carbon caper so will push it directly or indirectly at every turn.

It may also be valid to enquire how many deaths would be caused worldwide if we DIDN'T burn fossil fuels for heating and cooking? 'It would seem reasonable to conclude' that such a figure would be way in excess of 7 million. So, a net gain, then.

Nov 25, 2015 at 10:18 AM | Unregistered CommenterCheshireRed

So, in short, he's either too stupid to understand the facts, or a liar.

Not a good choice for a highly paid 'expert'.

Nov 25, 2015 at 10:33 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

I know your not supposed to say this in polite society Bish but Stern is a liar pure and simple who knows full well what the actual facts are but chooses to lie and obfuscate in order to promote his man made global warming religion.

The fact that he is prepared to largely ignore the fact that it is burning biomass killing people in the third world really does say something about the calibre of the man and his arguments.

Nov 25, 2015 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered CommenterStu

Just a quick reminder: the fuel-use pollution related deaths - even the biomass related deaths - are broadly derived from the concept of attributable risk.

[1] if you start with poorly carried out studies that are guaranteed to yield impressive but wrong answers you can get a big attributable risk fraction for death or morbidity for almost anything human beings do. If you then multiply it with the whole population, you get large numbers. Large numbers are useful to be thrown about in high-policy 'policy debates' by 'intellectuals' like Stern but they do not carry the full weight of the causative meaning the words used to describe them carry.

[2] This is easily shown. Consider the following: Has the WHO also calculated how many premature deaths have be averted by the use of fossil fuels? If one does, you can be sure the resulting number would be so large it would dwarf the 'millions of deaths' quoted. Plus, not only that, the mortality figures could be adjusted directly against each other since they are calculated by the same method with opposing conditions. The end result would be that fossil fuel use saves more lives than it shortens.

Nov 25, 2015 at 10:43 AM | Registered Commentershub

Nov 25, 2015 at 10:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterNCC 1701E

It looks to me as if Stern was lucky that Matt Ridley chose to humiliate him publicly and not in the courts via a suit for libel.

Nov 25, 2015 at 11:08 AM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

As an economist, it is amazing how he can 'find' nice big numbers to add into one column. Bigger and nastier numbers are 'Inconvenient', and he is paid not to have a column for them, so they disappear, like magic.

Nov 25, 2015 at 11:15 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

The failings of Lord stern are many.

But please note that he is arguing publically for ignoring the majority of deaths in order to push his own, lucrative, agenda.

He is literally seeking to make a killing out of his Climate Change activism.

Nov 25, 2015 at 11:19 AM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

I think we should be reminded regularly *how much* Stern is paid for his posturing, preening and lying and what the carbon footprint of moving his self regard on its own is - since it obviously entails considerable specialist heavy equipment.

Watching, listening to or reading his sage pontifications should carry a health warning

Nov 25, 2015 at 11:28 AM | Registered Commentertomo

Stern and Yeo two of the worst troughers on the planet along with the odious Deben.

Nov 25, 2015 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn B

'sometimes find yourself having to utter complete drivel in public .' sometimes ! amazing I though it was compulsory to do this . and given Stern's abilities I think in all fairness we should say that is perhaps all he can do , so it may be unfair to ask him to do anything else.

Nov 25, 2015 at 12:09 PM | Unregistered Commenterknr

If he was a civil servant such incompetence would merit a promotion.

Nov 25, 2015 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

"So, in short, he's either too stupid to understand the facts, or a liar.

Not a good choice for a highly paid 'expert'."

Well, to get oneself into the position of being a highly-paid expert does require a certain wiliness. Perhaps he's brainwashed himself.

Nov 25, 2015 at 12:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterDaveS

'7 million deaths each year were caused by pollution derived from fossil fuels.'

Perhaps then he can provide ONE death certificate.

Nov 25, 2015 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

Telling lies is how you get to play at the big boy's table with a few chips from your sugar daddy.

"Stern launches carbon credit ratings agency

Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the UK’s Stern report on climate change, will launch a new carbon credit ratings agency on Wednesday, the first to score carbon credits on a similar basis to that used to rate debt." (paywall)

Nov 25, 2015 at 1:17 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

esmiff - just clarifying, that story was 24 June 2008.

Nov 25, 2015 at 1:47 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Beetle excreta and done over through his own dung, whodda thunk it?

Stern, is a ocean going class greenie twerp, he's nearly as big a numpty as is potato ED Davey HRH "I talk to the trees" or even - Gordon 'prudence' MacMental.

Country going to the dogs? damn it, the dogs are running the show.

Or, maybe not so daft after all, could we call this a "conflict of interest"?


"Stern launches carbon credit ratings agency

Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the UK’s Stern report on climate change, will launch a new carbon credit ratings agency on Wednesday, the first to score carbon credits on a similar basis to that used to rate debt."

Wide boy "loads of money" Stern, muscles in on the new limitations deal - what a sting.............. eh Nick - turning other people's misery into $ - ho, ho, ho and a financial killing just in time for Christmas - wots not to effin like?

Scumbags of Paris, make Notre Dame and all the Saints weep

Nov 25, 2015 at 1:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterAthelstan.

not banned yet - that's right.

It was written by Fiona Harvey in London. Published: June 24 2008 20:52 | Last updated: June 24 2008 20:52

I actually left that out for brevity's sake. Although it may have disappointed fans of the esteemed Fiona.

The point is that the wages of sin are bountiful, whether today or yesterday.

Nov 25, 2015 at 2:03 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

"" “The uncomfortable truth is that, as a country, we not very good at coping with winter and some of these deaths are preventable. This isn’t just a story about cold weather; it’s a story of cold, damp and poorly insulated homes and pensioners who can’t afford to pay heating bills.

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “After last year’s modest improvement, this year's dramatic jump in excess winter deaths is a terrible rebuke to anyone who thought it was 'job done' when it comes to keeping older people safe from the cold. Indeed, these truly awful statistics represent a significant reverse and they highlight the imperative of us doing much more to tackle the underlying problem: cold, poorly insulated homes.

“Behind the figures are many individual tragedies of older people dying needlessly before their time. Not only is the human cost of cold devastating, treating the casualties piles big avoidable costs on the NHS and social care services too. """

Fossil fuels are not the problem. Not being able to afford them is the problem.

Nov 25, 2015 at 2:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterIvor Ward

One of the problems with being a PR guy for an environmentally minded billionaire is that you sometimes find yourself having to utter complete drivel in public fora.

It is also said by career advisers that you should "find something you like doing, and then get somebody to pay you for it".

Nov 25, 2015 at 2:07 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Noble cause corruption is what the evidence is pointing to.

Nov 25, 2015 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeC

I don't know what is weaker, Stern's understanding of statistics, or his grasp of the truth.

Nov 25, 2015 at 2:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterBloke down the pub


I cancelled my subscription to the FT last year after a very public spat in their commentary section with among others Clive Cookson who until around that time was member of a Royal Society "advisory committee" the deliberations of which are secret - which led to my asking whatever happened to journalism's investigative role and conflict of interest ethics.

As a result the FT "disappeared" one of my comments -a review of relevant facts in the CAGW/CACC story that the FT studiously refuses to write about, including the schematic found in the latest IPCC report itself which shows for all to see the increasing discrepancies between the models and verifiable satellite and radio sond data - comment put back after the appropriate editor realized the very public censorship that was unfolding.

Bottom line: the FT is just as "reliable" as the Guardian in its climate reporting: its editorial position is to publish without any critical analysis anything and everything that toes the IPCC party line and fits in with the green blob propaganda, with reporter Pilita Clark as the trusty shield bearer and Cookson as her editorial protector. A perfect recent example is Clark on November 13th managing to fill an entire left page in the FT with completely incoherent gibberish about what to expect from the upcoming COP 21 in Paris.

Unfortunately, the FT giving prime space to Stern's propaganda fits the pattern to a T. Just like the FT's studious unwillingness to question the devious Lord's credibility and verify his purported "facts".

Nov 25, 2015 at 2:56 PM | Unregistered Commentertetris


That was a 2008 article about Stern. Sorry not to make that clear.

Nov 25, 2015 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered Commenteresmiff

I bet he hates having to wear a lanyard - don't these people know who he is..?

Nov 25, 2015 at 3:17 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

"treating the casualties piles big avoidable costs on the NHS and social care services too." - Caroline Abrahams

Nope. It saves money. All will die, eventually. Dying earlier reduces lifetime cost. But saving money doesn't seem a likely motivator for Caroline Abrahams.

Nov 25, 2015 at 4:54 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

Perhaps then he can provide ONE death certificate. [Game @ 12:26]

A thought gone too far.
First, I suspect many deaths are not formalized with a filed certificate.
Second, there are deaths in the urban places of cold (or not so cold) North America when folks bring the charcoal grill inside, or perhaps it is a generator.

1 died in Watsonville, CA

7 died in Maryland

Yes, I know these are a tiny fraction of, and not what the kerfuffle is about, of the claimed 7 million. Still the bell tolls for such folks.

Nov 25, 2015 at 5:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Hultquist

In the US, EPA figures for pollution deaths are wildly exaggerated, just to take one example. To clarify, in different reports, the deaths attributed to ozone, mercury, pm2.5 (soot), and others add up to more than the number of deaths, even if all deaths were due to air pollution. WHO also exaggerates deaths.
Since our entire standard of living and food supply rely on fossil fuels, shutting them down would result in billions of deaths, compared to 7 million (even if were a valid number, which it is not).

Nov 25, 2015 at 5:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterCraig Loehle


It sounds like you did society a great favour ^.^

Nov 25, 2015 at 6:15 PM | Registered CommenterDung


What definition of "pollution" do you use to decide that that is a death caused by pollution? The inside of one's home is not "the environment."

Nov 25, 2015 at 6:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterGamecock

A reasonable and informative demonstration of media integrity would be to clearly that people like Lord Stern have a vested interest in promoting extreme environmental and climate scenarios because they profit directly from fear=based policies and regulations.
Something next to any letter or essay illuminating this as part of his by-line would very helpful.

Nov 25, 2015 at 6:45 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

@Stuck-Record Nov 25, 2015 at 10:33 AM
So, in short, he's either too stupid to understand the facts, or a liar.

How about both!

Nov 25, 2015 at 7:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterDouglas

And that is how a real economist totally slaps down a bogus economist!

WhooHoo! Do it again Bjorn!

He's beginning to sound more and more skeptical all of the time.

Nov 25, 2015 at 7:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterATheoK

BUt all of these numbers are just guesses and not even educated guesses

Nov 25, 2015 at 8:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterStephen Richards

I suddenly had the image of a demonic weasel in my mind. I wonder why?

Nov 26, 2015 at 1:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Silver

shub said,
" Has the WHO also calculated how many premature deaths have be averted by the use of fossil fuels? If one does, you can be sure the resulting number would be so large it would dwarf the 'millions of deaths' quoted."

Well said. That, is the main point so often missed in this debate. Donna Laframboise has been very good at pointing this out in the past. I think many of the ones pushing CAGW know this, but don't care (as Michael Crichton said). We need to point it out often to those "on the fence" on the issue.

Nov 26, 2015 at 4:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterBruce Cunningham

[Snip- O/T]

Nov 26, 2015 at 4:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterOliver K. Manuel

Deaths are the wrong unit : We all die anyway, but somethings cause us to die earlier like an ISIS bullet when you are a teenager at a pop concert compared to something that eventually gives you cancer at 85 years old.
DALYs, disability adjusted life years; are the unit, ie does diesel take off 6 months or 10 minutes off the average persons healthy lifespan. (WUWT hada good article on particulates deaths hype)

Plus here are we therefore comparing apples with oranges ?
Are fossil fuel particulates comparable to particulates from cooking over a wood/dung burning fire ?
It is entirely possible that in terms of DALY's they are not the same. It could be either way that wood particles reduce avg lifespans by 6 months and Ffuels by 1 month or the other way around.

Yes I agree the research numbers numbers are educated guesses so they maybe be miles wrong, but do accept that scientists have put a lot of work into it not just made it up.

I Just wanted to say people shouldn't be slinging millions of death numbers around..when there are much better systems .

Nov 26, 2015 at 5:07 PM | Registered Commenterstewgreen

Could WHO conduct a study on how many angel could dance on a pin head, and a second study on how many angels could dance on a pin prick. The comparison would be truly fascinating. And as useful as the study on death related to burning dunk.
Lord Stern is not the only useful idiot (to climate change industry); WHO, UN etc. have many of such useful idiots.

Nov 28, 2015 at 9:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Labaj

Arnold Schwarzenegger is repeating the miss information.
Give a couple of months and it will be an established fact

Dec 23, 2015 at 3:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

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