As Hurricane Laura bears down on the Gulf Coast, scientists, journalists, and activists are blaming climate change for what they say are worsening natural disasters.
Michael Mann, a professor at a Penn State, claims that storms are getting more destructive as “a consequence of human-caused planetary warming.”
The New York Times reported, “Climate change is making hurricanes more dangerous in many ways, including increased rainfall and more powerful storm surge.”
And student activist Greta Thunberg tweeted out videos of flooding in India and Niger as evidence of climate change’s impact on disasters. “What more do we need to see?” she asked.
A lot more than a few viral videos, it turns out.
Given the flood of alarming news about climate change, many will be surprised to learn that hurricanes aren’t increasing in frequency, and that deaths from natural disasters are at their lowest point in 120 years.
“A total of 2,900 people lost their lives in natural disasters in the first half of the year,” announced Munich Re on July 23, “much lower than the average figures for both the last 30 years and the last 10 years.”
“One of the greatest successes of turning science into policy is reducing deaths from disasters,” said Roger Pielke, a University of Colorado professor and leading expert on climate change and disasters. “It’s up there with vaccinations. It’s huge and can’t be overstated.”
But aren’t natural disasters becoming more expensive? They are, but that’s because we are so much richer, not because hurricanes and floods are so much more severe.
In a new review of 54 studies over the last 22 years, and published in the field’s leading scientific journal, Pielke finds “little evidence to support claims that any part of the overall increase in global economic losses documented on climate time scales is attributable to human-caused changes in climate.”
In other words, hurricanes, floods, and other natural disasters aren’t getting worse. They’re getting better. Much better.
There has been 92% decline in the decadal death toll from natural disasters since its peak in the 1920s, according to the International Disaster Database. In that decade, 5.4 million people died from natural disasters. In the 2010s, 400,000 did.
But can those declines in disaster deaths continue as the climate changes?
Pielke believes they can. “One of the things that’s well-understood in the natural disaster community is that how we prepare is the most important factor in the disaster we experience,” said Pielke.
“If we build well, in the right places, and have good warning systems, and good disaster response policies, such as evacuations, we can continue to do well, even with much stronger events,” he added.
Over the last four decades, poor nations like Bangladesh have reduced death tolls by over 90% thanks to simple measures like cyclone warning systems and storm shelters.
“Look at Cyclone Ampham in India and Bangladesh earlier this year,” said Pielke. “It killed about 120 people. Fifty years ago, it would have killed thousands.”
And the 90% decline in deaths over the last century occurred during a period when the global population nearly quadrupled, and the global temperature rose 1.3 degrees centigrade.
Neither the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) nor any other reputable scientific body predicts a reversal in the long-term trend of declining deaths, even if temperatures rise another three degrees or more.
“If you read IPCC reports, there’s no hint that we will be overwhelmed and incapable of responding,” says Pielke. “Even under the most extreme scenarios of climate change, future disasters will look a lot like today’s.”
So is it accurate for scientists, reporters, and activists to claim that climate change is making hurricanes more destructive? It’s not.
The US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts the maximum intensity of Atlantic hurricanes and tropical storms will rise 5% in the 21st Century, but their frequency will decline 25%
And that increase in intensity is unlikely to translate into more deaths or higher costs.
“Hurricanes in the future may be more intense than today’s hurricanes,” said Pielke, “but in the context of a 90% reduction in vulnerability, our disaster preparedness dwarfs the change in whatever your favorite hurricane metric is.”