Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Can Extreme Climate Mitigation Inhibit Resiliency?

In a recent Facebook post, Bjorn Lomborg, Danish environmentalist and author of a number of books on climate issues, shares the following statistical fact:

Fewer and fewer people die from climate-related natural disasters.  This is even true of 2022 — despite breathless climate reporting, about 98% fewer people died in 2022 than a hundred years ago from climate-related natural disasters like floods, droughts, storms, wildfires, and extreme temperatures.  Why is this consistently not reported?

Over the past hundred years, annual climate-related deaths have declined by more than 96%. In the 1920s, the death count from climate-related disasters was 485,000 on average every year. In the last full decade, 2010-2019, the average was 18,362 dead per year, or 96.2% lower.

In the first year of the new decade, 2020, the number of dead was even lower at 14,885 — 96.9% lower than the 1920s average.  For 2021, the death count was even lower at 7,705 or 98.4% lower. For 2022, which is now complete, we see a continuation of this very low number of deaths: 11,873 or 97.6% lower than the 1920s average.

You heard a lot about some deadly climate catastrophes in 2022, but actually the top two deadliest, you probably haven't even heard about.  2,465 died in Uganda in a July famine, and 2,035 died in from heavy rains in India over the summer. Pakistan's monsoon floods are third at 1,739 dead. The total list of deadly disasters has 219 more entries, all catastrophes, all terrible. And yet, in summation much, much lower than what it used to be.

All of these catastrophes are measured by the most respected global database, the International Disaster Database . There is some uncertainty about complete reporting from the early decades, which is why this graph starts in 1920, and if anything this uncertainty means the graph *underestimates* the reduction in deaths.

Also note, the database has big problems with heat and cold deaths, where there is much more reporting on heat deaths (which it erratically includes), but globally, cold deaths outweigh heat deaths 9:1  

That climate deaths are becoming much rarer is clearly the opposite of what you hear, but that is because we're often just being told of one disaster after another – telling us how *many* events are happening. The number of reported events is increasing, but that is mainly due to better reporting, lower thresholds, and better accessibility (the CNN effect). For instance: For Denmark, the database only shows events starting from 1976.

Instead, look at the number of dead per year, which is much harder to fudge. Given that these numbers fluctuate enormously from year to year (especially in the past, with huge droughts and floods in China, India, and elsewhere), they are here presented as averages of each decade (1920-29, 1930-39 etc.).

If we look at the absolute number of people dying from climate-related disasters, it is simply incontrovertible that these have declined dramatically. This is because richer and more resilient societies are much better able to protect their citizens 

Notice, this does *not* mean that there is no global warming or that possibly a climate signal could eventually lead to further deaths. Global warming is a real problem that we should fix smartly.  But panic from bad media reporting, scaring kids and adults alike, does not help us be smart.

This graph shows us that our increased wealth and increased adaptive capacity has vastly overshadowed any potential negative impact from climate when it comes to human climate vulnerability.

This is an update of my graph in my 2020 peer-reviewed article which you can read for free here.  

In the landmark article cited in the first line above, the author notes the continued challenge of adapting to, and building resiliency against non-climate events like earthquakes.  Better building codes and location decisions can help, and the same economic improvements that are reducing climate-related deaths will contribute similar benefits.  The article concludes with the following:

Global warming is real and long-term has a significant, negative impact on society. Thus, we should weigh policies to make sure we tackle the negative impacts without ending up incurring more costs by engaging in excessively expensive climate policies. We cannot and must not do nothing. But the evidence also manifestly alerts us to the danger that we end up with too ambitious and overly costly climate policies, and a general outlook that puts the world on a growth path that will deliver dramatically less welfare, especially for the world's poorest.

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