During the last 30 years the mortality risk from climate-related disasters plunged more than six-fold and the economic loss rates went down five-fold.
A paper published in the scientific literature in July 2019 had the refreshingly plain-language title “Empirical evidence of declining global vulnerability to climate-related hazards”. Care to guess what it’s about? In slightly less plain-language, the authors say:
We quantified the dynamics of socio-economic vulnerability to climate-related hazards. A decreasing trend in both human and economic vulnerability is evident. Global average mortality and loss rates have dropped by 6.5 and nearly 5 times, respectively, from 1980 to 1989 to 2007–2016. Results also show a clear negative relation between vulnerability and wealth.”
In even plainer language, the world is getting way less vulnerable to climate-related hazards over time, thanks largely to economic growth. So let’s not embrace climate policies that destroy economic growth in a mistaken belief that it will somehow make us less vulnerable to climate disasters.
The authors gathered data from 1980 to 2016 on the global incidence of general floods, flash floods, coastal floods, cold-related hazards, heatwaves, droughts, and wind-related hazards. The number of people affected and the value of the damage has, of course, gone up, because there are more people and more things in the path of the events. But re-expressing the same data in terms of percentages (of population and size of the economy) the trends are very different. Comparing the 1980s to the decade from 2007-2016, the mortality risk from all these disasters plunged more than six-fold and the economic loss rates went down five-fold.
Those are huge reductions by any standard. Poor countries are still more vulnerable to climate hazards than wealthy ones. But as the income gap shrinks, so does the vulnerability gap. So any policy that slows down economic growth in poor countries in the name of climate change, such as the decision by the African Development Bank to stop funding fossil-powered electricity generating plants even though Africa is seriously under-powered, will make that continent’s citizens more vulnerable to climate hazards over the long term, not less.
Death tolls and economic losses from natural hazards continue to rise in many parts of the world. With the aim to reduce future impacts from natural disasters it is crucial to understand the variability in space and time of the vulnerability of people and economic assets. In this paper we quantified the temporal dynamics of socio-economic vulnerability, expressed as fatalities over exposed population and losses over exposed GDP, to climate-related hazards between 1980 and 2016. Using a global, spatially explicit framework that integrates population and economic dynamics with one of the most complete natural disaster loss databases we quantified mortality and loss rates across income levels and analyzed their relationship with wealth. Results show a clear decreasing trend in both human and economic vulnerability, with global average mortality and economic loss rates that have dropped by 6.5 and nearly 5 times, respectively, from 1980–1989 to 2007–2016. We further show a clear negative relation between vulnerability and wealth, which is strongest at the lowest income levels. This has led to a convergence in vulnerability between higher and lower income countries. Yet, there is still a considerable climate hazard vulnerability gap between poorer and richer countries.