Guest post by Indur M. Goklany
One of the major reasons why extreme weather events are of abiding interest to both the public and policy makers is the potential loss of life that they can cause. Imagine, therefore, writing a “Special Report” on managing the risks of extreme weather and climatic events but being virtually silent on whether deaths from such events had increased or decreased over the recent past. Who knows, but that information might even be useful in helping identify factors that could help manage those risks in the future. Yet, the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) of the IPCC’s Special Report on extreme weather and climate events (SREX) does precisely that.
Its main text mentions fatalities and deaths precisely twice:
“Fatality rates and economic losses expressed as a proportion of GDP are higher in developing countries (high confidence). During the period from 1970 to 2008, over 95% of deaths from natural disasters occurred in developing countries.” (SREX SPM, pp. 5–6).
[A digression: “Fatalities” are also mentioned in footnote 4 explaining that the above figures are based on data for “all disasters associated with weather, climate, and geophysical events.” (Emphasis added.) Why are geophysical events—earthquakes and landslides—included in the death tally in this climate change report? But back to the main story.]
More importantly, the SPM SREX fails to inform the public and policy makers that, as many readers of this blog probably know, empirical data show that deaths and death rates from extreme weather and climatic extremes have declined over the past few decades (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Global deaths and death rates from extreme weather and climatic events, 1900–2010 Source: Goklany, Wealth and Safety: The Amazing Decline in Deaths from Extreme Weather in an Era of Global Warming, 1900–2010.
This is very much like writing a treatise on the impacts of climate change on agricultural yields but failing to mention that agricultural yields have, as shown in Figure 2, increased more or less steadily for the past half century—oh, wait, the IPCC has done this in each of its reports.
Figure 2. Cereal yield and production, 1961–2008, for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and globally. Source: Food and Agricultural Organization (2010).
By contrast, the SREX SPM deals at substantially greater length with economic losses than with losses of human lives. But which is more important—lives or economic losses?
It is conceivable that the full report (which is unavailable to the public) gives more space to empirical data on deaths and death rates but I suspect most people—and, certainly, policy makers—will not read beyond the SPM. But policy makers are owed basic empirical information on what is the problem and whether the problem has been getting better or worse before being presented with speculative model results (which are addressed at great length).
Such information would provide context, and raise at least a few important—and inconvenient—questions.
First, since deaths from extreme weather events have declined despite any global warming that may have occurred, how much resources should we expend on this issue given other priorities?
Second, are empirical trends for the losses of life consistent with model projections? If not, why not? And can these models reproduce past trends?
Third, if deaths have declined despite any global warming, what is it that we are doing right, and how can we ensure we keep doing it?
George Santayana is quoted as having said “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Sometimes history is worth repeating. Certainly, we could do worse than repeat history with respect to trends in deaths/death rates from extreme weather events.