The Climate Fix Book Club, Chapter 7
Disasters, Death, and Destruction
Last week, the U.S. National Climate Assessment came out. In its public review comments the authors claimed falsely that our research does not exist — saying that we had not published on hurricanes since 2005. Here are our relevant 2018-2020 publications here and here and here and here, and there are about a dozen other papers directly relevant but ignored. The climate community is now entering its third decade of misrepresentations of the science of disasters and climate change. This chapter is a doozy, and documents how this all got started. I recently related some of this story on a THB podcast, with the recovered audio of the 2011 Royal Institution debate in London, have a listen here.
This chapter will also discuss an uncomfortable aspect of the climate debate: the systematic misrepresentation of the science of disasters and climate change not just in public debates, but—arguably more problematically—in the leading scientific assessments produced to inform policy.
Adaptation policies make sense regardless of uncertainties about climate science or the potential physical and economic impacts of emissions of greenhouse gases. Quite simply, this is because the root causes of the disasters, death, and destruction that so often characterize the relationship of humans and their global environment don’t need climate change (anthropogenic or otherwise) to exist. For a disaster to occur, only two conditions must coexist: an extreme event and a vulnerable society. The chapter will explain trends in disasters over the past century, with a focus on recommending policy approaches that will yield robust results whatever the future of the climate has in store for us. In particular it will focus on hurricanes and floods, which are responsible for the vast majority of property damage related to weather events around the world.
In 2006 I organized a major international workshop on disasters and climate change with Peter Höppe, who runs the Geo-Risk division for Munich Reinsurance, a large global company headquartered in Germany that provides insurance to insurance companies. The purpose of our workshop, held in Hohenkammer, Germany, just outside of Munich, was to examine trends in disaster losses and to see if we could explain why losses had been increasing dramatically in recent decades and, in particular, to see if we could detect a signal of the effects of accumulating atmospheric greenhouse gases in the rising toll of disasters. The workshop originated in a debate that Peter and I had been having off and on for a while: he thought (and still does) that the data, which indicate a dramatic increase in disaster losses, contained a signal of climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, whereas I thought that the evidence did not yet support such a conclusion. Our workshop rigorously examined what the state of the science would allow us to say and not say on this topic, which often is at the center of advocacy and debate over climate change.
In light of the issues involved with conflicting definitions of climate change, as discussed in the previous chapter, we were extremely careful to distinguish climate change as used by the IPCC, meaning a change regardless of cause, from the narrow definition of climate change as resulting from greenhouse gas emissions. Before the meeting Peter and I had planned on arriving as what we called a “consensus dissensus,” that is, we would agree collectively at the meeting on where we were unable to reach a group consensus. But much to our surprise and delight, all thirty-two people at the workshop—experts from academia, the private sector, and advocacy groups—reached a consensus on twenty statements on disasters and climate change. (These statements can be found in Text Box 7.1.)
At the end of the workshop, we arrived at several conclusions about the influence of climate change resulting from an increase in greenhouse gases on disasters. They include:
Analyses of long-term records of disaster losses indicate that societal change and economic development are the principal factors responsible for the documented increasing losses to date.
Because of issues related to data quality, the stochastic nature of extreme-event impacts, length of time series, and various societal factors present in the disaster-loss record, it is still not possible to determine the portion of the increase in damages that might be attributed to climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions.
In the near future the quantitative link (attribution) of trends in storm and flood losses to climate changes related to greenhouse gas emissions is unlikely to be answered unequivocally.
Since that workshop in 2006, the evidence in support of these conclusions has, if anything, gotten much stronger. This chapter will discuss extreme events and their impacts, with a focus on understanding why it is so difficult to see a signal of greenhouse gas–driven climate change in the disaster record. The difficulty in detecting a signal provides an important clue that explains why adaptation policies make sense regardless of the exact course of climate change in coming years and decades.
This chapter will also discuss an uncomfortable aspect of the climate debate: the systematic misrepresentation of the science of disasters and climate change not just in public debates, but—arguably more problematically—in the leading scientific assessments produced to inform policy. The misrepresentation is related to the political dynamics encouraged by the narrow definition of climate change discussed in the previous chapter. The lessons from the case of disasters can help to inform adaptation policies in response to other human and ecological impacts associated with climate, such as disease, sea-level rise, and impacts on natural systems.
The policy implications of the arguments presented in this chapter are as clear as they are uncomfortable. Reducing the losses associated with disasters that will happen in coming decades is almost entirely a matter of effective adaptation policies. Using disasters to advocate for mitigation policies is misguided at best and misleading at worst. As I have argued in earlier chapters, there are indeed very good reasons to advocate for a decarbonization of the global economy. Nevertheless, as I’ll show, decarbonization policies are not particularly appropriate means of modulating the impacts of future disasters. Unfortunately, the temptation to justify energy policies based on imagery of disasters is too great for some to resist, despite the tenuous scientific basis for making a connection between the two. Succumbing to this temptation has led to some of the most egregious errors in leading scientific assessments of climate change. But before we get to that issue, we must first understand the relationship of climate and societal change. . .
A full PDF of Chapter 7 follows.
Thanks for reading. For the 50% of THB subscribers in the United States, Happy Thanksgiving! Have a great week — hopefully with family friends, turkey and football. I’ll see you here after the holiday. As usual, comments welcomed and encouraged.