Weather disaster-related deaths are down — but warming could undo that trend

What a laugh! Greenies are always pretending that warming is bad for you. Now they admit that the warming so far has not been. But it still COULD be, they say. Aerial pigs could happen too

Vastly better response times to natural disasters have reduced deaths, but ever-worse weather events might undermine that progress.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) published a report in August containing some rare good news about extreme weather: Despite a sharp increase in the number of weather- and climate-related disasters reported worldwide over the past 50 years, the number of deaths tied to those disasters has dropped nearly threefold.

To disaster researchers, that’s no surprise. While natural hazards like extreme rainfall and heat waves are becoming more frequent and severe as the planet heats up, our scientific understanding of those hazards, and the early warning systems that safeguard communities, have improved significantly over recent decades. As a result, disasters related to weather and climate have become less deadly over time.

There’s no guarantee, however, that this positive trend will continue forever. While we are better equipped than ever before to save lives during disasters, it will be a challenge to deploy existing solutions at the pace and scale needed to protect growing populations in a warming climate.

“If we are not continually investing in warning systems, if we are not building differently at the same time that we have intensification or changes to these hazards, that could very easily lead to increased deaths,” says disaster researcher Samantha Montano, the author of the recent book Disasterology: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Climate Crisis, who was not involved in the WMO study.

Caveats notwithstanding, when researchers take a bird’s- eye view of the human toll of mass disasters, they see some positive trends.

The recent WMO report drew on EM-DAT to assess the impact of storms, droughts, floods, heat and cold waves, wildfires, and landslides from 1970 to 2019. It found that mortality from these types of disasters has fallen decade after decade, from over 50,000 deaths per year in the 1970s to fewer than 20,000 in the 2010s. At the same time, the number of reported disaster events rose sharply, a trend the WMO believes is partly due to climate change but also due to better reporting, says Cyrille Honoré, director of the WMO’s disaster risk reduction department.

Less reporting in the early part of the record—where several large droughts and storms in South Asia and Africa dominate the death toll—suggests that the actual drop in deaths over time from weather- and climate-related disasters might be even steeper.

A key reason for this trend, Honoré says, is the immense progress societies have made in developing early warning systems. Our ability to accurately forecast weather and climate hazards has “improved drastically,” he says, thanks to the proliferation of sophisticated satellite sensors and rapid advances in computer models.

Disaster researchers emphasize that this positive trend is no reason to be complacent about the grave toll disasters take today, or the risks civilization faces going forward due to climate change. According to the recent WMO report, 91 percent of deaths from weather- and climate-related disasters over the past 50 years occurred in developing nations . As climate change tips the scales toward more extreme weather, those regions of the world are likely to bear the brunt of the toll in terms of lives lost.


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