Update: I continued this post after finding a bit more information.
Average temperatures are 1C higher than in 1880 and sea levels are about 9 inches higher. Is that killing people today? Are other impacts of global warming proving fatal to people around the world?
There have been several recent reports out that give very different answers. Bad weather, drought, floods, heatwaves and cold snaps have killed people for as long as there have been people. There are more people today than previously and many of them live in areas heavily affected by weather-related disasters. Our ability to get information about these disasters is vastly improved, pushing up the number of disasters we can evaluate. And technology and infrastructure in the developed world has improved dramatically, lowering the number of deaths due to weather. It’s not an easy issue to resolve.
This story at HGN leads off with, “The data revealed 6,457 recorded floods, storms, heatwaves, droughts and other weather-related events caused major damage to different regions of the world over the past two decades, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reductions reported. The United States was hit the hardest with 472 natural disasters, followed by China, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The researchers estimated natural disasters cost the U.S. between $250 billion and $300 billion annually. Since the first Climate Change Conference in 1995, 606,000 lives have been lost and 4.1 billion people have been injured.”
That’s 30,300 fatalities a year on average. The story claims that half of those deaths have occurred in Asia, despite the U.S. experiencing the largest number of disasters. The death toll in Asia included 138,000 deaths caused by Cyclone Nargis which struck Myanmar in 2008, according to the report linked to in HGN’s story. 164,000 fatalities are attributed to ‘extreme weather,’ and 148,000 of those are attributed to heatwaves.
The linked report says that the number of ‘events’ has doubled since a previous reporting period of 1985, writing “In total, an average of 335 weather-related disasters were recorded per year between 2005 and 2014, an increase of 14% from 1995-2004, and almost twice the level recorded during 1985-1995.”
“Average death rates, on the other hand, increased during the same 20-year period, climbing to more than 34,000 deaths per year between 2005 and 2014, up from an average of 26,000 deaths in 1995-2004. This average was pushed higher by the massive toll from Cyclone Nargis, which claimed 138,000 lives in Myanmar in 2008. Excluding this one megadisaster, average death rates fell to 20,000 a year during 2005-2014. Preliminary data for 2015 show this decline continued, with around 7,200 deaths from weather-related disasters.”
We know from flood records that the number of some events is increasing because of better reporting, not necessarily because of more events–but we don’t know how much is due to better news coverage. Certainly some of it may be due to more events or stronger events. But we’ll have to look elsewhere for answers.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser say “On a global scale, as scientists keep confirming, there has been no increase in frequency or intensity of storms, floods or droughts, while deaths attributed to such natural disasters have never been fewer, thanks to modern technology and infrastructure.” But if better technology and infrastructure are reducing fatalities where it exists, that doesn’t mean that global warming isn’t killing people where the technology and infrastructure is not in place. A huge overall decline in weather-related fatalities has taken place–but that doesn’t mean that current global warming is not exacting a toll. This is perhaps easiest to note in drought records.
Globally, drought has not increased over the past century. However, the use of the term ‘global warming’ obscures the fact that parts of the globe are warming faster than others and that the impact of drought may be severe in some places even if it doesn’t drive up the world average. Unlike floods, which are short-lived events subject to confused reporting and inaccurate statistics, droughts by definition last a long time and are confined to a region.
Climate change theory predicts that areas susceptible to drought will in fact experience longer and more severe droughts. And while we can take some comfort in the fact that recent droughts in Texas and California have not involved loss of life, especially in Africa the story is different. The UN report says, “Drought affects Africa more than any other continent, with EM-DAT recoding 136 events there between 1995 and 2015, including 77 droughts in East Africa alone.”
One key point: “While EM-DAT data also show that just 4% of weather-related disaster deaths were due to drought (Figure 6), this figure is rather misleading as it excludes indirect deaths from malnutrition, disease and displacement.” However, the indirect deaths, real as they are, would be difficult to attribute to climate change. So the 4%–24,240 human lives lost over a 20-year period–would be the ones we would examine as potentially affected by climate change.
Formal attribution to climate change is difficult and outside the scope of a quick blog post. But it seems clear that there is the potential to conduct such an attribution study. Someone like Indur Goklany or Richard Tol might undertake it.
Looking at what’s available now, I am left with the conclusion that current climate change might be contributing to fatalities from floods and drought, but how much is very open to question. Floods are the worst natural disaster in terms of loss of life, but they’re also probably the worst in terms of assigning some responsibility to climate change.
An example is the flooding of Pakistan in 2010. About 10,000 people lost their lives during the flood. However, a larger flood struck Pakistan in 1930 and one of equal strength in 1950 and another in 1961. The effects of the 2010 flood were severe–but that’s primarily because the population of Pakistan has grown rapidly, from 32.5 million at the time it gained independence in 1947 to 187 million today.
Therefore, if I were looking to understand the effects of current climate change on mortality due to weather-related disasters, I would focus on drought. Wish I had time to contribute more to our understanding of this.
Update: Google Image Search is a very useful tool. It led me to Indur Goklany’s previous writing on the subject via some charts on the web.
Here are global deaths per year from extreme weather events, both gross totals and per million:
Figure 2: Average Number of Extreme Weather Events per Year by Decade, 1900–2008. Source: Goklany (2009), based on EM-DAT (2009). – See more at: http://www.thegwpf.com/indur-m-goklany-global-death-toll-from-extreme-weather-events-declining/#sthash.D5jZDLdw.dpuf
Here are drought-related mortality statistics:
Figure 3: Droughts: Global Deaths & Death Rates, 1900–2008. Source: Goklany (2009), based on EM-DAT (2009), McEvedy and Jones (1978), and WRI (2009). – See more at: http://www.thegwpf.com/indur-m-goklany-global-death-toll-from-extreme-weather-events-declining/#sthash.D5jZDLdw.dpuf
As Goklany writes (quoted from a post at Bishop Hill), “But on the other hand, and that stunned me, I found that the mortality from extreme weather events has decreased tremendously. In a disaster year like 1931 more than 3.5 million people died because of something that could be attributed to the weather or climate. However, the cumulative total death from all extreme weather events since 2000 is less than half a million. In 2013 it was only 30 thousand. And that while the population has increased from two to seven billion people, in the 30’s 241 people per million people worldwide died because climatic, meteorological and hydrological disasters; in the first decade of this century this declined to five people per million. The chances now that you die because of drought, storms, heat or floods have declined to only one-fiftieth compared to eighty years ago.”
This would seem to show that whatever climate change has done, it pales compared to the improvements societies have made in alleviating the worst effects of drought, whether exacerbated by climate change or not.