Data recently published in The Lancet tells an amazing story about weather-related disasters worldwide over the past three decades.
As people around the world have become wealthier, the fraction of that wealth that is destroyed by extreme weather has gone down.
This trend holds for rich and poor nations, and remarkably across all types of weather phenomena. It also helps us to understand why the focus on extreme weather among climate advocates is badly misguided.
The new data was published earlier this month in the scientific journal The Lancet, in its annual review of climate change and health.
The data comes from the German reinsurance company Munich Re, which tabulates global disaster costs on an annual basis.
The authors of The Lancet assessment presented weather-related disasters losses from 1990 to 2016 (2017 and 2018 are included but are not adjusted to a common base year) as a proportion of overall GDP for four different country groupings, ranging from the lowest income to the highest.
The figure below shows disaster losses as a percentage of GDP for each country grouping. You can see that the decrease in losses as a fraction of the overall GDP is the greatest for the poorest countries.
This is great news, as it means that as the world has become wealthier, weather disasters are costing relatively less.
Disaster losses as a percentage of GDP for four different country regions. Source: The Lancet, R. PIELKE, JR.
The regional trends are consistent with the overall global trend that I have recently documented in decreasing overall and weather-related disaster losses as a proportion of global GDP.
The United Nations, under its indicator framework associated with its Sustainable Development Goals, has identified a reduction in disaster losses as a proportion of GDP as a key indicator of progress.
In an era where gloom and doom dominate our discussions of the environment, the remarkable progress in reducing the relative impact of disasters on society stands out as good news.
Given today’s zeitgeist, it is perhaps not at all surprising that The Lancet article buried its disaster data deep in an appendix and in the main text displayed a misleading figure with only a small subset of the data.
Many people I speak to and hear from on social media are surprised, shocked even, to learn that in recent decades, disaster losses have actually decreased as a proportion of GDP.
A big part of this surprise is surely due to hyperbolic media reporting of disasters and climate change.
But journalists share responsibility for such hype with some in the scientific community who have also been seduced by the siren song of apocalyptic visions.
There is no doubt that human-caused climate change, of course, poses risks to our collective future and aggressive adaptation and mitigation actions make good sense.
But it also makes good sense to pay close attention to data and evidence, and not just in public and political debates, but also as the basis for decision making to improve societal resilience in the face of an uncertain climate future.
There are two main reasons for the decrease in weather-related disaster losses as a proportion of GDP.
The first reason is that many types of weather extremes associated with the greatest economic losses – including floods, drought, tornadoes and tropical cyclones (which includes landfalling U.S. hurricanes) – have not increased in frequency or intensity over the long-term.
That is not simply my conclusion, but the consensus view of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and the World Meteorological Organization.
Other types of extremes, notably heatwaves and western North American fires, have increased according to these same assessments.
But there is more going on here than just trends in climate phenomena. A disaster happens when an extreme event encounters an exposed and vulnerable region of human development.
Too often, attention focuses on what is happening with the climate and ignores what is going on in society.
The second reason for the decrease in weather-related disaster losses is decreasing societal vulnerability.
In a recent paper, one of the most important climate-related analyses to have been published in the past decade, Guiseppe Formetta and Luc Feyen present “the first global-scale, spatially variable multi-hazard analysis of dynamics in human and economic vulnerability to the most impacting climate hazards.”
Specifically, they look at the loss of life and economic losses from 1980 to 2016 for floods (distinguishing river, flash and coastal), extreme cold, extreme heat, drought and wind storms. They also look at these impacts over various spatial scales and for both low and high-income regions.
What they find is incredible: Both mortality rates (fatalities as a percent of exposed population) and damages as a proportion of GDP have decreased for all phenomena, at all spatial scales and for both low and high-income regions (with a notable exception: “human vulnerability to heatwaves seems higher in high/middle high-income countries”).
These decreases are among the most significant emerging trends emerging in the first half of the 21st century.
Formetta and Feyen provide a clear and convincing basis for understanding why the world is seeing lower mortality and disaster losses as a proportion of GDP:
“Improved protection against hazards has counter-balanced the effects of increasing exposure on disaster risk, with the global average 2007–2016 multi-hazard human mortality and loss rates dropping of about 6.5 and nearly 5 times as compared to the period 1980–1989, respectively.”
These are remarkable declines over a relatively short period of time.
The benefits of improved protection accrue to a greater degree to poorer countries, who have the ability to make greater progress on vulnerability reduction than most rich countries, most of which may have already taken such steps.
This can be seen clearly in the data graphed above from The Lancet, which indicates a greater rate of decline in disaster costs as a proportion of GDP for lesser income regions.
Formetta and Feyen conclude, “This effect is strongest at lower income levels and diminishes with increasing wealth.”
There can be no doubt that vast exposures and vulnerabilities continue to exist around the world, meaning that future disasters are not a question of if, but when and where.
Even so, the evidence is encouraging that as the world has become richer, the world has also become safer and better protected.
As Formetta and Feyen conclude, “Although high-income countries may suffer higher absolute losses, in lower-income countries people and their belonging are less protected and more vulnerable to natural hazards.”
The fateful decision by many climate advocates to center their advocacy on extreme weather events looks worse and worse.
It has led some to the reject science and evidence about the climate past, some to rely on mythological apocalyptic futures and, as I can attest, a resulting tendency to smear as “deniers” anyone who points out these uncomfortable realities.
Now we can add to that list the overwhelming evidence that the world has been reducing its vulnerability to weather extremes.
When it comes to the impacts of extreme weather, things are not getting worse, in fact, they are getting much, much better.
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Roger Pielke Jr. has been a professor at the University of Colorado since 2001. Previously, he was a staff scientist in the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He has degrees in mathematics, public policy, and political science, and is the author of numerous books (Amazon).