At times it can seem that every headline carries news of some sort of climate-related disaster.
In the last few weeks alone, the worst wildfires in fifty years have torn through the Canadian province of Newfoundland, while heavy rains described as a "1,000-year event" brought massive flooding to the normally arid Death Valley.
Indeed, the figures on disasters related to extreme weather are grim.
According to the UN’s World Meteorological Organization, a disaster related to a weather, climate or water hazard occurred every day on average over the past fifty years, with daily losses of 115 deaths and $202 million in damages.
In fact, the organization claims the number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over that fifty-year period, driven by climate change, improved reporting, and more extreme weather events. But it added that thanks to improved early warnings and disaster management, the number of deaths decreased almost three-fold.
So, are climate-related disasters on the rise, or, as one academic claims, are they actually declining? Or does it simply depend on which statistics are considered?
Roger Pielke Jr., Professor of Environmental Studies at University of Colorado Boulder, has studied data from the International Disaster Database (EM-DAT). In his view, climate-related disasters have fallen by 10% over the last two decades.
The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) in Belgium, which maintains EM-DAT, said its database includes disasters since 1900 that meet one of several criteria. These include at least ten deaths, at least 100 people affected, and the declaration of a state of emergency or a call for international assistance.
In terms of loss of human life, Prof. Pielke cited research by global insurance company Munich Re in tracking disaster impacts. They found that in 2020, 8,200 people died in natural catastrophes compared with 550,000 similar deaths in 1920.
Writing online on his Honest Broker Substack, Prof. Pielke hailed these findings as "very good news" and "completely contrary to conventional wisdom."
He said: "As global population has increased, the number of people who die in disasters has declined precipitously due to better warnings, preparation, infrastructure, and response. This is a remarkable success story that too often goes untold."
22,000 Disasters Catalogued—So Far
The EM-DAT contains information on more than 22,000 mass disasters in the world from 1900 to the present day. It is compiled from various sources, including UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, insurance companies, research institutes, and press agencies.
Some trends about mass disasters might be due to improved, accurate reporting.
For instance, EM-DAT data showed that disasters had risen for the whole of the 20th century, but then declined after 2000.
"The period since 2000 is viewed as the most reliable for data reliability, but it is safe to say that even since 2000, coverage has improved," Prof. Pielke wrote. "So the 10% decline is possibly an underestimate."
Cost of Disasters
In addition to the tragic loss of life caused by mass disasters, mass disasters can be devastating on economies too.
Yet, Prof. Pielke finds that the financial costs of disasters has been reduced in recent decades as well.
"The world has made incredible progress with respect to the human and economic toll of disasters, and that progress is set to continue."
He said: "As the size of the global economy doubled over the past thirty years, disaster losses dropped from about 0.25% of global GDP to less than 0.20%."
He added that human-caused climate change was "real and significant," but added: "Emissions reductions are an imperative—nothing I’ve written here contradicts that. But those realities should not prevent us from respecting an empirical reality. The world has made incredible progress with respect to the human and economic toll of disasters, and that progress is set to continue."
A Case of Defining Disaster?
But does the interpretation of climate-related disaster statistics show them to be on the rise or falling? Certainly better awareness, rising living standards, and improved emergency response has led to declining death rates. However, that is not the only way to define disaster.
Mass disasters "are on the rise," said Andrew Collins, Professor of Disaster and Development at Northumbria University in England.
"There is no doubt about this if we consider the UN definition of a disaster as 'a serious disruption of the functioning of a community or a society at any scale due to hazardous events interacting with conditions of exposure, vulnerability and capacity, leading to one or more of the following: human, material, economic and environmental losses and impacts.'"
Prof. Collins is the former chair of the Global Alliance of Disaster Research Institutes (GADRI), which is made up of more than 220 research institutions worldwide. He currently heads a new GADRI working group on data for disaster risk reduction.
He noted that one of the sources of confusion to any question of increase or decrease in mass disasters can be an "overemphasis on immediate mortality data," i.e., deaths in climate-related events.
"With improvements in humanitarian response, emergency management regimes, and the evolution of resilience strategies at the local level by residents in at risk locations, overall death rates do indeed decline," he said. But while "overall mortality rates were going down, the numbers of people affected by weather-related disasters continued to increase in all income brackets," said Prof. Collins.
While "overall mortality rates were going down, the numbers of people affected by weather-related disasters continued to increase in all income brackets."
He added that he supports "possibilistic views rather than deterministic ‘no hope type’ of forecasts."
"Human nature can still be as much of the solution as it has been part of the problem and reducing climate-related disasters has to be recognized as still possible with fundamental changes to the way we live," said Prof. Collins.
What Action is Needed?
In terms of what needs to happen next to tackle climate-related disasters, Prof. Collins called for more investment in next generation disaster prevention, response, and recovery.
"By this, I mean that much of the world is already having to engage in recovery actions from both climate-related and other disasters, often interrelated and requiring the rebuilding of infrastructure, livelihoods, health, safety and society as a whole," he said. "What we need to do is to realize that putting disaster prevention into these recovery processes, as a response, is a strategic opportunity to improve the well-being and survivability of future generations."
*Mark Smith is a journalist and author from the UK. He has written on subjects ranging from business and technology to world affairs, history, and popular culture for the Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, and magazines in the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia.