Editor’s note: With the global climate conference in Glasgow in November, key facts about climate change don’t always make it into dominant media coverage. We are here to help. Björn Lomborg provides important background information every Thursday so that readers can better understand the real effects of climate change and the real costs of climate policy.
Activists keep talking about the existential threats of climate change and the deaths from natural disasters – but they never manage to add those deaths together. One reason for this is that it is easier to bend the data on the frequency of disasters than the death statistics. The death toll tells a very clear story: people are safer than ever before from climate-related disasters.
As this series of articles has covered, many of the terrifying descriptions you hear of billowing hurricanes, heat waves, and forest fires are incorrect. And estimates of costly but increasingly frequent climate damage are usually misleading. One that you often see in the media is statistics from the National Center for Environmental Information that the number of natural disasters cost over $ 1 billion the damage increases. But as this series explains in terms of flood costs, only measuring total damage from natural disasters over time misses the important point – there is much more damage today than there was a few decades ago.
With the world’s wealth and population growth, the number and quality of structures on the way from floods, fires and hurricanes have increased. If you remove this variable by looking at the damage as a percentage of gross domestic product, the picture is actually optimistic. The trend in weather-related damage from 1990 to 2020 declined from 0.26% of global GDP to 0.18%. A groundbreaking study shows that this is the trend for poor and rich countries regardless of the nature of the disaster. Economic growth and innovation have protected all kinds of people from floods, droughts, wind, heat and cold.
Still, it’s easy to misuse the data to make things seem worse than they actually are. The International Disaster Database – the largest database of disaster data in the world – seeks to register every disaster around the world using reports from sources ranging from the press to insurance companies to United Nations organizations. But because the Internet and the proliferation of the media have made access to information so much easier today, the database began recording small natural disasters from 1980 that would not have been recorded in earlier decades.
This skews the database by making it appear that there are more total disasters today than in the past. (Several UN agencies twisted this data to say just that.) For example, after 1980 the database recorded an average of four times as many earthquakes each year as before. As the US Geological Survey points out, if databases show more earthquakes, it is is not because there is actually more Earthquakes, but because they have been better captured over time. In fact, almost all of the earthquake surge in the disaster database is made up of small earthquakes that probably just didn’t make the headlines at the beginning of the 20th century. The situation is similar with hurricanes: the catastrophe database recorded far more US hurricanes after 1980 than before – an average of six times as many per year. But historical records from dozens of peer-reviewed studies show that the number of US hurricanes hitting land has actually decreased slightly since 1900.
On the other hand, death numbers are much less flexible. While reports of climate catastrophes have increased over the past century, large deaths have been recorded time and again. In fact, the death toll in the disaster database is very close to official estimates. And these dates tell an incredible and encouraging story. A century ago, on average, nearly half a million people died each year from storms, floods, droughts, forest fires and extreme temperatures. Over the next 10 decades, global annual deaths from these causes decreased by 96% to 18,000. In 2020, they dropped to 14,000.
Unsurprisingly, the media this year was brimming with coverage of natural disasters, from the Northwestern Heat Dome to floods in Germany and China. Still, it conveniently left out the total death toll. So far, 5,500 people have died from climate-related disasters in 2021. If the data from previous years are extrapolated, around 6,600 climate-related deaths are expected to occur by the end of the year. That’s almost 99% less than the death toll a century ago. Since then, the world’s population has quadrupled, so that’s an even bigger drop than it looks.
As in this series of articles, economic growth and technological innovation are blamed for our improving position. People are pretty good at adapting to their environment, even as it changes. Keep this in mind whenever you see another worried headline about climate disaster.
Mr. Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is False Alarm: How Climate Change Is Costing Us Trillions, Hurting the Poor, and Failing to Repair the Planet.
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