Don't Believe the Hype
Global Disasters in 2022, a Preliminary Assessment
In September, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres made the following claims upon the release of a report — titled ironically enough — United in Science:
Floods, droughts, heatwaves, extreme storms and wildfires are going from bad to worse, breaking records with ever alarming frequency. Heatwaves in Europe. Colossal floods in Pakistan. Prolonged and severe droughts in China, the Horn of Africa and the United States.
There is nothing natural about the new scale of these disasters. They are the price of humanity’s fossil fuel addiction. The number of weather, climate and water-related disasters has increased by a factor of five over the past 50 years.
As I and others have documented, Guterres claim of an 500% increase in disasters is pure misinformation. You will never find a more obviously and egregious wrong claim in public discussions from a more important institution. Making matters worse, the false notion of a massive increase in disasters is legitimized by none other than the World Meteorological Organization, one of the founding bodies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
I’ve spend almost 30 years working to understand trends in disasters, and the roles played by (a) societal vulnerability and exposure and (b) climate variability and change. Along the way I’ve observed a concerted and successful effort by climate advocates to create and spread disinformation about disasters, knowing full well that virtually all journalists and scientists will stay silent and allow the false information to spread unchecked — and sometimes they will even help to amplify it.
Readers here will well know that the actual science of weather and climate extremes and disasters that may be associated with them is far more nuanced and less apocalyptic than typically found in much of the public discourse. The scientific reality does not diminish the importance of climate mitigation policy, but it does say something about standards of scientific integrity.
In today’s post, I share some preliminary information related to global disasters of 2022. The information available today is incomplete — the year isn’t quite over and not all data analyses have been done and those that have are just a first cut. However, the information that is available today allows us to get a pretty good initial look at disasters of 2022 in historical perspective.
To be sure, 2022 saw some notable weather and climate-related disasters, including among them:
flooding in Pakistan, South Africa, Nigeria, India, United States, and Brazil
drought in Europe, Eastern Africa and China
Hurricane Ian in Florida
Preliminary estimates are that as many as 11,000 people died around the world in weather and climate-related disasters in 2022, which is just about the average of the previous decade, according to data of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. The overall 2022 death rate for weather and climate disasters was about 1.4 people per million, representing one of the 5 lowest annual death rates since data is available (dating to more than a century ago) — and I’d venture in all of recorded human history. The years with lower death rates are all recent: 2021, 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2014. It was just 30 years ago in 1992 that the global death rate from weather and climate disasters was more than 20x greater, at 29.0 per million. The diminishing human impact of disasters is a science and policy success story that is widely underappreciated.
Let’s take a look at some high-level initial data on disasters of 2022 to help get a sense of how the year fits into recent history. Here I focus on the total number of weather and climate disasters and their aggregate economic impacts. In a future post, I’ll discuss some specifics in more detail, including well-below average global tropical cyclone activity of 2022 and record-low emissions from forest and other fires. Detailed information on global floods and drought of 2022 will need to await further data and analyses. You can see my recent post with a detailed look at the U.S. specifically here.
Total Count of Global Disasters
The graph above shows that according to CRED EM-DAT — which is the same database that WMO and Guterres based their false claims on, but I digress — 2022 will see about 330 total disasters, under the EM-DAT criteria for inclusion. The 2022 count will be just about the average of the past decade and about 10% less than annual disaster counts of the first decade of this century. The broader impacts of these disasters (deaths, economic losses) are consistent with these trends as well.
Based on these data, which are viewed by CRED to be reliable since 2000, there is no indication that the number of global weather and climate disasters are increasing. That means that — undeniably — there is no evidence to support another false claim by the U.N that, “The number of disaster events is projected to reach 560 a year – or 1.5 each day, statistically speaking – by 2030.” (Have a look here.)
I am curious: When are journalists going to start reporting the facts about disasters and call out misinformation?
Global Losses from Disasters
The global reinsurance giant, Swiss Re, has projected that 2022 will see a total of $260 billion in total catastrophe losses. Based on this estimate, and an estimate of the IMF for 2022 global GDP growth, we can project that 2022 global weather and climate disaster losses will be about 0.2% of global GDP. That is just about the same as the median of 1990 to 2021. However, over that time period, losses have decreased (as a proportion of GDP) as you can see in the figure above, which updates a peer-reviewed analysis that I first published in 2019.
The past 6 years have seen a higher level of loss/GDP as compared to the previous decade, which can be attributed in large part to the “drought” of major hurricanes striking the United States over that period, 2005-2017. Of note, U.S. hurricane losses historically comprise more than 60% “global” disaster losses. There is also no indication of a dramatic acceleration in disaster losses as a percentage of global GDP that was forecast in the Stern Review more than 15 years ago. So whenever you read about “billion dollar disasters” and their purported association with climate change, I want you to think of just one word - disinformation.
Bottom Line at the Global Level
Disasters are awful — people die and are displaced, property and infrastructure is damaged and destroyed, and economies can be compromised. Planet Earth is a place of extremes. Hurricanes, floods, drought, heat waves and other types of extreme events are normal and always have been.
But to be sure, the prospect of human-caused climate change holds the potential for making extreme events more common or worse. For instance, there is already good evidence that heat waves have become more intense in many places and that increase is attributable to increasing greenhouse gases. However, for most types of weather and climate extremes neither detection of trends nor attribution of trends to human climate forcings has been achieved.
Don’t take it from me, take it from the IPCC.
At the same time, the ability of societies to prepare for and recover from extreme events is a remarkable story of policy success — deaths related to disasters have plummeted from millions per year a century ago to thousands per year over the past decade. That is still too many, but we should recognize that it also represents an enormous accomplishment. We can and should do more.
Unfortunately nowadays, every weather and climate disasters becomes enlisted as a sort of “poster child” for climate advocacy. Every extreme event and associated human impact is quickly turned into a symbol of something else— such as failed energy policies, rapacious fossil fuel companies, evil politicians, or callous jet-setting billionaires. It is a simple and powerful narrative, and one that is also incredibly misleading.
Such confident claims of attribution not only have a weak scientific basis, but they detract from where our focus related to disasters should actually be — on the disasters themselves and the societal conditions that underlie them. An extreme event is not a disaster. A disaster only occurs when an extreme event encounters a community that is unprepared, vulnerable and exposed. Continued progress on mitigating the impacts of disaster on human society will thus depend upon improving preparation, reducing vulnerability and managing exposure.
Reducing greenhouse gases is crucially important, of course. But so too is continuing progress in reducing disaster impacts. These are different things and mistaking the former for the latter not only represents a loss of policy focus, but a triumph of disinformation over well-established science. We can address the need to decarbonize the global economy and continue progress on mitigating disasters — Both at the same time, without confusing one for the other. But doing so will require a degree of honesty in our discussions of these issues that has been lost. Let’s see if we can find it again.
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