Weathering Man-Made Climate Change

Poverty, not global warming, is the cause of death and destruction in the face of extreme weather.

A new United Nations report projects man-made global warming will boost the damage caused by heat waves, coastal floods, and droughts as they get worse by the end of the century.

In a press release about the report, Special Report for Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX), Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change Co-Chair Qin Dahe expressed high confidence that temperatures have increased due to man-made global warming. The study further expressed medium confidence that droughts had increased in some areas as a result of man-made climate change. However, the researchers could not draw firm conclusions about the effects of climate change on any trends in hurricanes, typhoons, hailstorms, or tornadoes. (The full report detailing the scientific work behind the study will not be released until February.)

It is generally agreed that the average temperatures over land have increased by about 1° Celsius[PDF] since the 1950s. Looking toward the end of the 21st century, the report relies on computer model projections which suggest that 1-in-20 year hottest day events are to become a 1-in-2 year events. The report also projects that inundations that once happened every 20 years are likely to occur every five years. 

Sounds bad, but that’s a hundred years from now. With regard to the next few decades, the researchers more sanguinely report, “Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios generally do not strongly diverge in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability over this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain.” That means that weather extremes for the next several decades will likely be within the limits of natural variation, making it almost impossible to discern any effect of man-made climate change on them. In other words, whatever weather disasters do occur will not be on a scale or frequency beyond those that humanity has experienced in recent decades.

More crucially, the U.N. report acknowledges, “In many regions, the main drivers for future increases in economic losses due to some climate extremes will be socioeconomic in nature.” The upshot is that any increase in weather disaster damage is largely due to an increase in what can potentially be destroyed and the number of people exposed to it.

Can researchers discern any effect that the recent increase in global average temperature has had on people and their property? Not really.

For example, a recent Reason Foundation report [PDF], Wealth and Safety: The Amazing Decline in Deaths from Extreme Weather in an Era of Global Warming, 1900–2010, notes, “Aggregate mortality attributed to all extreme weather events globally has declined by more than 90 percent since the 1920s, in spite of a four-fold rise in population and much more complete reporting of such events.” The death rate from droughts is 99.9 percent lower than it was in the 1920s; the death rate from floods is 98 percent lower; and the death rate from big storms like hurricanes has declined more than 55 percent since the 1970s. 

Keep in mind that the death rate due to extreme weather between 2001 and 2010 averaged about 38,000 per year compared to about 59 million annual deaths for all causes. The Reason Foundation report concludes, “While extreme weather-related events, because of their episodic nature, garner plenty of attention worldwide, their contribution to the global mortality burden—0.07 percent of global deaths—is relatively minor.”

What about economic losses? Proponents of catastrophic man-made climate change have been seeking evidence that it is boosting risks among the weather damage and loss data. A recent review article[PDF], “Have Disaster Losses Increased Due to Anthropogenic Climate Change?” by Laurens Bouwer, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), surveyed 22 studies looking at trends in natural hazard losses. Bouwer, a researcher in the Institute for Environmental Studies at Vrije University in the Netherlands, included studies that all looked at economic losses, covered at least 30 years of data, and were peer reviewed. 

Generally loss data are normalized to take into account inflation, and changes in exposure and vulnerability associated with increases in wealth and population. The BAMS review found, “The studies show no trends in the losses, corrected for change (increases) in population and capital at risk, that could be attributed to anthropogenic climate change. Therefore, it can be concluded that anthropogenic climate change so far has not had a significant impact on losses from natural disasters.” 

Another recent study, “Normalizing economic loss from natural disasters: global analysis,” by Eric Neumayer and Fabian Barthel, two researchers associated with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, also probed trends in weather disaster loss data in search of a global warming signal. Besides using conventional techniques that take into account increases in population and wealth to normalize losses, they also develop an alternative technique that looks at relative losses over time. Briefly, their new measure looks at how much actual loss occurred relative to the amount that was at risk. For example, what percentage of wealth in Miami was destroyed by hurricanes in 1920 versus 2010? If the actual-to-potential-loss ratio is increasing over time, this suggests that the weather is having a growing impact.

Analyzing weather disasters between 1980 and 2009, Neumayer and Barthel find, “Both methods lead to the same result for all disasters: no significant trend over time according to the conventional method, a marginally significant downward trend according to the alternative method.” Applying both normalization methods, they find no significant trends in weather related losses for both developed and developing countries. Looking regionally at North America, Western Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and South and East Asia also uncovers no statistically significant trend in losses caused by weather disasters. In addition, two 2009 studies found no upward trend in normalized losses dues to windstorm or floods in Western Europe since 1970. One concluded, “Results show no detectable sign of human-induced climate change in normalized flood losses in Europe.”

Neumayer and Barthel, using their alternative normalization method, do identify a “strongly negative trend” in normalized weather disaster damages in developed countries. They speculate, “This could possibly indicate a stronger capability of richer nations to fund defensive mitigating measures, which decrease vulnerability to natural disasters over time.” Richer societies are likely reducing their weather losses by establishing better early warning systems, enacting stronger building codes, and constructing firmer levees. People may be protecting themselves ever better against the consequences of storms and floods, even though the weather is getting worse.

Although no upward trend in weather damages can be found in developing countries, the U.N.’s SREX report does note that fatality rates and economic losses as a proportion of GDP from weather disasters are higher in poor countries. In fact, between 1970 and 2008, 95 percent of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries. Bad weather produces death and destruction largely when it encounters poverty.

Let’s conclude with two observations: First, recent research indicates that man-made climate change has not been nor is it likely to be a big contributor to losses stemming from weather disasters in the next few decades. Second, boosting the wealth of poor people through economic growth is their best protection against meteorological disasters in the long run, whether fueled by future man-made climate change or not.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books.

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  • ||

    It is always worse now than in the old days.

    Only the reason for it changes.

  • AlmightyJB||

    ManBearPig!

  • ||

    It is always worse now than in the old days.

    Except for TB. It used to kill 1 in 7 in the Gilded Age.

    But it was oh so romantic... Lord Byron wished to perish as a consumptive.

  • Sevo||

    "It is always worse now than in the old days.
    Except for TB. It used to kill 1 in 7 in the Gilded Age."

    And, oh, the cost of food, the cost of transport, ease of communication, clothing costs, BEER, health and comfort in general.
    But there are always those willing (for their gain) to warn us of the coming apocalypse.
    Repent NOW or, uh, I'll warn you again!

  • wareagle||

    the UN apparently believes that the sheer repetition of an opinion will morph that opinion into fact. There is ABSOLUTELY NO EVIDENCE THAT MAN HAS CAUSED GW, let alone that it exists.

    The UN, much like our fair president, shares one goal - the diminution of America. And if some other 'rich' countries can be extorted along with the US for some crackpot cause, all the better.

  • Realist||

    This is the kind of crap articles you get when you have an asshat for science correspondent.

  • ||

    Just go work for the Huffington Post already...seeing this constant cheerleading for the UN crap on a supposedly libertarian site is ridiculous

  • ||

    Maybe, you should read the article next time instead of piling on baseless accusation?
    This article contains quotes and statements, then add in additional quotes and statements from other peoples and groups. Reading them is necessary to understand the article's content.
    If you read the first paragraph or two you might not get the entire story of the article; which seems to be the case.
    I suggest opening your eyes and shutting your mouth (non-literally, ie fingers/typing) for a second to read the entire article, then stop count to 10 and think about its contents, and only after this form an opinion on its contents.
    For the large part this article is reporting the current news or state of the UN's climate fake studies. However, due diligence is done in showing that by examining the statements alone we know that at the moment man-made anything is pretty much a non-issue.

    PS. a bit of sarcasm and general old man soul is used in writing this. Only becuase, it makes for a more entertaining read.

  • Sevo||

    "Second, boosting the wealth of poor people through economic growth is their best protection against meteorological disasters in the long run, whether fueled by future man-made climate change or not."

    A simple comparison of Bengladesh and Holland sort of makes your point.

  • ||

    And let's not forget about OVERPOPULATION!!®™

  • Sevo||

    Yeah, let's do.
    But that charlatan Ehrlich still gets ink.

  • Semi-alarmist||

    You're all gonna DIE... within a century or so... from some common ailment of the elderly... unless some improbable-but-always-possible accident happens to kill you first...

  • ||

    As soon as global temperatures exceed those that humans have already experienced at some point in their existence, I may start to wonder if this is a Bad Thing. Otherwise, seriously who gives a crap if agriculture moves north or if some millionaires beach homes get washed out? WTF is the big deal?

  • ||

    Exactly. The two biggest countries on the planet are frozen barren wastelands and we're supposed to worry about the Maldives? I'd go light a brush fire now, but it's too wet with snow.

  • Tony||

    "For example, a recent Reason Foundation report..."

    Sleep well at night knowing you're a hack?

  • ||

    Kettle, this is pot... over.

  • Sevo||

    "Sleep well at night knowing you're a hack?"
    Shitheads are incapable of offering any worthwhile critique.

  • protefeed||

    “Projected changes in climate extremes under different emissions scenarios generally do not strongly diverge in the coming two to three decades, but these signals are relatively small compared to natural climate variability over this time frame. Even the sign of projected changes in some climate extremes over this time frame is uncertain.”

    Translation: "Uh, well, the weather might get colder or stay the same for decades -- probably won't actually get noticeably warmer for, like, a century, maybe, or maybe not, but that lack of climate change won't disprove climate change theory. Oh, and, uh, tipping point! We have to act now, even if things don't change noticeably."

  • NotSure||

    The people who support "greening the earth" generally also support "people over profits" ideas, which means their movement can never really gain total traction. People don't care about global warming when they have little money. Since the lack of spare cash is now afflicting all parts of the world, don't expect any green revolution to suddenly erupt.

  • ||

    Public service announcement.

    Some might remember the unauthorized release of the "Climategate" emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) in 2009.

    Yesterday the individual(s) responsible anonymously released another 5,000 or so emails which document many of the scientists candid opinions on the facts and politics surrounding climate science, and confirm the pattern of deception and exaggeration that was revealed 2 years ago.

    Another 220,000 emails were released but remain encrypted, with the individual(s) retaining the password, possibly for future release.

    For more information, simply google "Climategate 2.0".

    That is all.

  • Sven||

    For anyone who believes they can identify with any level of certainty those variables which determine future states of a system as complex as global climate, I have three words which we need to drill into your brain: Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias, Omitted Variable Bias. Or, alternatively: Go Fuck Yourself!

  • Realist||

    This^

  • ||

    I can't understand why Reason is so ignorant of the actual science, of the problems with the IPCC, and of the level of corruption in the climate field. How many e-mails showing conflicts of interest, data manipulation, methodological incompetence, suppression of dissenting views, destruction of evidence, admissions that the models are wrong, etc., are we going to have to read before the Reason editors appoint a competent author who looks at the full story and writes about the truth?

  • Realist||

    "I can't understand why Reason is so ignorant of the actual science, of the problems with the IPCC, and of the level of corruption in the climate field."
    Because they have an asshat for science correspondent

  • jayburd||

    http://www.breitbart.com/artic....._article=1 Maybe Baily should go to work for the IPCC.

  • Realist||

    I thought he did!

  • ||

    Bad weather produces death and destruction largely when it encounters poverty. [...] Second, boosting the wealth of poor people through economic growth is their best protection against meteorological disasters in the long run, whether fueled by future man-made climate change or not.

    Gee. Climate Resistance has been saying the same thing for several years now, and it takes a report for the UN to realise this?

  • ||

    The higher the population's overall standard of living, the less damaging and disruptive any catastrophes -- whether natural or man-made -- will tend to be.

    The approaches recommended by those who would convince us that anthropogenic climate change is real, almost invariably lead to lower standards of living. Is this because the exponents of the anthropogenic global warming idea believe that are more likely to stall or reverse the climate change phenomenon by effecting massive, radical changes in the behaviors of billions or people, than we are to find ways to raise the overall standard of living of billions of people around the world? Both are colossal projects, no doubt. But if forced to choose, I would have to say that the attempt to raise living standards generally strikes me as more achievable and even more noble.

    Face it: whether we lick global warming or discover it is not the menace that we are told it is, there will still be natural and man-made catastrophes to handle in our collective future. So doesn't it make more sense to fortify people in general against what life will throw at them -- by increasing their wealth! -- than to enervate them by taxation, behavior control, and the restriction of alternatives that characterize the orthodox response to the threat of global warming?

  • jayburd||

  • abercrombie fitch Milano ||

    I concur with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your future updates. The usefulness and significance is overwhelming and has been invaluable to me!

  • Newsprism||

    Conservatives since Burke have understood that society is a compact between the living, the dead, and the unborn. To glibly dismiss the potential consequences of global warming by writing, "Sounds bad, but that's 100 years from now" sums up the attitude of too many libertarians: "Not my problem." Since when do future generations get so little consideration?

  • cheap jordan 2U||

    I can't understand why Reason is so ignorant of the actual science, of the problems with the IPCC, and of the level of corruption in the climate field.

  • cheap jordan 2U||

    I can't understand why Reason is so ignorant of the actual science, of the problems with the IPCC, and of the level of corruption in the climate field.

  • Kitty||

    Conservatives since Burke have understood that society is a compact between the living, the dead, and the unborn. To glibly dismiss the potential consequences of global warming by writing, "Sounds bad, but that's 100 years from now" sums up the attitude of too many gem jewelry: "Not my problem." Since when do future generations get so little consideration?

  • cylinder piston rod||

    Classic exposition, I have also mentioned it in my blog article. But it is a pity that almost no friend discussed it with me. I am very happy to see your article.

  • Avtex||

    It is unfortunate to see how the world is going in to a poor state of health as such.

  • Bryce Mcminn, Meriden||

    A new United Nations report projects man-made global warming will boost the damage caused by heat waves, coastal floods, and droughts as they get worse by the end of the century.

    Climate Shift

    Bryce McMinn Meriden

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