Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Since May of 2019, Christopher Flavelle, has been covering “climate adaptation for The New York Times, focusing on how people, governments and businesses respond to the effects of global warming.” According to his Times by-line page, he returns to the Times after a ten year hiatus where, in 2009, he previously wrote pieces extolling the virtues of new boxing gloves, how governments measure citizen happiness (video), and a terrific piece on the world’s most prolific drummer, Bernard Purdie (video) [recommended for fans of popular music and rock’n’roll]. In the interim, he had been churning out climate alarm for Bloomberg.
His latest piece at the NY Times is a bit of disinformation about “natural catastrophes” written for the almost-always-silly feature called the Climate Fwd: newsletter. [Sign-up if you want to keep abreast of the latest narratives on climate change and read some truly amusing drivel in the bits called “One Thing You Can Do” to save the planet from climate change — this week: Reduce Junk Mail.]
You can find Flavelle’s piece here — you’ll have to scroll down, it’s the second item in the newsletter, under the title: “2019 Has Seen Fewer Natural Disasters. It’s Probably a Blip.” One has to love the mental gymnastics that our struggling journalist has to go through to make the facts — fewer natural disaster in 2019 — match the dictated editorial climate narrative of the Times — which calls for a storyline that reports (regardless of facts) that climate change is real and is making all bad things more frequent and worse.
You may think I’m joking or stretching the truth but, first consider his title above, and then here is his lede:
The pace of natural disasters slowed in the first half of this year, but the ones that hit highlighted persistent weaknesses in the world’s defenses against catastrophes — weaknesses that will only become more dangerous as climate change gets worse.
What is Flavelle talking about? — a press release from MunichRE. “Munich Re Group or Munich Reinsurance Company is a reinsurance company based in Munich, Germany. It is one of the world’s leading reinsurers.” ( Wiki ) .
Reinsurance can be described as “insurance for insurance companies” — purchased so as to offset the risk one insurance company — say the one that holds your homeowners policy (and that of your neighbors) — might face when a disaster strikes. MunichRE insures insurance companies against disasters.
In the MunichRE press release:
“Thunderstorms, cyclones and heatwaves: the natural disaster figures for the first half of 2019
1. Cyclones in Mozambique and India with high casualty numbers and losses in the billions of dollars once again illustrate the urgent need for improved resilience against the consequences of natural disasters.
2. Tornadoes in the USA, severe thunderstorms in Europe and floods in Australia were the costliest natural disasters in industrialised countries.
3. Due to random factors, overall global losses in the first six months were lower than the long-term average.” [ my bold — kh ]
MunichRE has counted the “natural disasters” from around the world and come up with these numbers according to Flavelle:
“…there were 370 natural catastrophes worldwide in the first six months of 2019. That tally, which includes cyclones, flash floods, heat waves and other disasters, was down from 460 during the same period last year, and slightly less than the average of 400 over the past decade.”
One has to wonder about the validity of the counting — let’s not worry about definitions of which weather events were ‘disaster’s — of “cyclones, flash floods, heat waves and other disasters” as if they were a single item. It strikes me like epidemiologists counting the “number of fruits eaten this week” in which individual blueberries, oranges, cantaloupes and whole watermelons are counted each equally as “one fruit”.
However, MunichRE is a reinsurance company and reinsurance companies are concerned not with number of disasters but with the cost of fulfilling (paying out) the insurance (reinsurance) liability from those disasters. So, in that vein, the MunichRE press release states:
“Overview of natural disaster figures for the first half of 2019:
A total of 370 loss events produced overall losses of US$ 42bn, which, after adjustment for inflation, is lower than the 30-year average of US$ 69bn. However, the losses from the severe floods in southeast China, which began in June and reportedly caused billions of dollars in damage, are not included in this figure.
Insured losses came to US$ 15bn, which is below the long-term average of US$ 18bn. For many events, the insured portion of the overall economic loss was extremely small due to low insurance penetration in many of the affected countries.
Around 4,200 people lost their lives in natural disasters. This figure is similar to that of the previous year (approximately 4,300). But at least the trend towards fewer casualties has continued, thanks to more effective protection measures: the 30-year average for the same half-year period is more than 27,000 fatalities.
[ bold mine — kh ]
The deadliest disaster worldwide up to the end of June was Cyclone Idai, which swept across Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa from 9 to 14 March. More than 1,000 people were killed.
In May, thunderstorms with tornadoes in the Midwestern US produced the heaviest losses, at US$ 3.3bn. The insured portion came to around US$ 2.5bn.
How does Flavelle at the NY Times report this? He uses a solicited quote from Raghuveer Vinukollu, who heads the natural catastrophe solutions team at Munich Reinsurance America: “A year is always a data point, which can be slightly lower or higher …but the overall trend is definitely saying higher.” And Flavelle goes on to write: “The world’s costliest disasters were once again in the United States. That’s a reminder, according to Mr. Vinukollu, of the vulnerabilities of the country’s infrastructure and building codes. He said the United States needed to be more aggressive on both public infrastructure and building codes. “There is definitely a shortage of investment,” Mr. Vinukollu said.”
The Times’ Flavelle is using the age-old trick of conflating two separate issues to support his editor’s narrative: Disaster Losses/Costs and Weather/Climate Extreme Events.
One of these is generally trending UP. Guess which? That’s right! Disaster Losses!
The other one, Weather Disasters and Weather/Climate Extreme Events (I lump these because they are, in the press and the mind of the general public, the same thing), are not trending up, but rather, worldwide, are down or neutral (flat).
The NY Times could have given us The Real Data™. It is available from reputable sources and in the peer-reviewed literature — we needn’t seek out skeptical voices on this issue.
That’s Global Reported Natural Disasters. [ I suspect the “reported” word is important, as there seems to be a rising amount of reporting going on from the early 1970s to about 1998. I have emailed EM-DAT to confirm this. ]
We can see clearly a couple of things:
- Starting around the turn of the century, all of the different sorts of Natural Disasters have been down-trending — not up-trending.
- There are several types of natural disasters that are not Weather/Climate related in the totals: “Mass Movement (dry)” refers to Rock fall and Landslide (not involving rain–thus ”dry”); Volcanic Activity; Earthquake; and, some unagreed-upon portion of Wildfire. Regardless of whether these are included in the totals, the trends are down not up.
And the most expensive of all losses — human life?
On a century time scale, deaths have been vastly reduced.
Why are Disaster Losses UP when disasters are down? That’s an economic question and most easily answered by referral to Roger Pielke Jr. (2019):
“Since 1990 the world has seen a decrease in overall and weather-related disaster losses as a proportion of global GDP. This trend has occurred even as disaster losses have increased in absolute terms. The primary factor driving the overall increase in disaster losses is societal, mainly growth in populations and settlements at risk to the consequences of extreme events (IPCC, 2012). While some weather and climate extremes are expected to increase in frequency and/or intensity in the future, to date there is not strong evidence of such increases in tropical cyclones, floods, drought or tornadoes on climate time scales (IPCC, 2018; Pielke, 2018). Of course, any calculation of trends in catastrophe losses is sensitive to choice of start and end date, so caution is urged in their interpretation.
With such caution noted, the world has over almost thirty years experienced a decrease in disaster losses as a proportion of GDP. However, there is no guarantee that this trend continues into the future. It could reverse for multiple reasons, including a greater frequency or intensity of extreme events, the occurrence of rare major events of the sort which has been seen in the past (such as the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906), or unwise decisions related to development and characteristics of human settlements.”
[ my bolds — kh ]
So, in terms of Global GDP (gross domestic product), disaster losses have been DOWN and not up. In dollar amount, they have been up, because of “growth in populations and settlements at risk to the consequences of extreme events”.
One way to think about this, on a personal economic level, would be if, for macro-economic reasons, your rent has increased by $100 a month but your salary has gone up by $200 a month — resulting in your budget item – Rent – being now 45% of your salary whereas it had been 50%.
Christopher Flavelle, our NY Times journalist knows this, especially about flooding risks. How do I know? He wrote about it in a piece titled “Homes Are Being Built the Fastest in Many Flood-Prone Areas, Study Finds” just three days ago. He might ought have mentioned it in his current natural disasters piece — but seems to have forgotten.
1. The economic losses (dollar amount of damage) from natural disasters is up for economic and societal reasons. We build in harm’s way and things are increasingly expensive. We even rebuild in harm’s way.
2. Disaster losses as a percentage of Global GDP have been downtrending.
3. Globally, the raw numbers of all natural disasters have been downtrending, despite increased reporting ability, since the turn of the century.
4. Deaths from natural disasters have been reduced — on a century-long comparative global scale — to almost nothing.
5. The world is getting SAFER not more dangerous — by all scientific measures currently available.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
Love to read your comments and respond when appropriate (or when I feel like it, I guess….). Addressing your comment to “Kip…” helps me see that you are talking to me.
The NY Times’ Climate Fwd: newsletter is often silly in its suggestions of ways to save the world from climate change — but, hey, silly is apparently in — just look at the number of governments of all kinds pledging to go “fossil fuel free” or “carbon neutral”. Some of the things Climate Fwd: suggests are Good Ideas even if they are silly when based on climate issues. Reducing the amount of junk mail arriving at your mailbox is a Good Idea — any way you can. Sign up of DIGITAL everything — bank statements, utility bills, stock proxy vote notices, whatever you get in the mail box. My health insurance company alone uses whole forests of trees keeping me informed of things I don’t want to know.
Fear is the tool of dictators and sociopaths of all stripes — actively promoted to control others.
Teach Your Children — the world is a safer, kinder, better place to grow up in today than at any time in the past. The future is bright and hopeful.
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