Amsterdam: The United Nations has become caught up in a new climate row over a recent UN report which claims to show an increase in climate disasters – but which seems to be contradicted by its own data.
The row was triggered by the new report on “Human Cost of Disasters”. The report announced a “staggering rise in climate-related disasters over the last twenty years”. However, the same report contains a graph showing that the number of climate-related disasters has actually decreased by 15 percent since 2000.
It is not the only contentious element of the report by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) in Geneva. Some of the data used is also said to be unreliable while the alarmist language of Mami Mizutori, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and Head of UNDRR, seems to have been inspired by activist groups like Extinction Rebellion.
Due to the fuss, there is now an international call for at least rectification. “This is a huge, embarrassing blunder,” said Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Forum, a British think tank. “The United Nations must immediately withdraw this report and apologise for misleading the public.”
Roger Pielke Jr, a renowned American scientist in the field of natural disasters – and anything but climate denier – also regrets the sharp position by the UNDRR. In an e-mail to De Telegraaf he says that the authors have drawn “flawed conclusions”.
It is not the first time that the UN is accused of climate exaggeration. UNICEF stated last year that hurricane disasters in the Caribbean is driving more and more children to flee. “Pure scare tactics,” said a hurricane expert at the time. And a report by the IPCC once predicted that the Himalayas would be glacier-free by 2035. That also turned out to be a scientific mistake.
However, the UNDRR report substantiates its statement about increasing climate disasters with data from the renowned Belgian Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). Between 1980 and 1999, the Leuven database counted 4,212 disasters and 7,348 from the turn of the century to 2020. Ergo: the climate has gone wild.
“This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1˚C above the preindustrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires.”, according to the report, which also included CRED researcher Joris van Loenhout.
But here too, the report goes wrong, warns Pielke Jr. The data on disasters from the last century are, as the CRED has repeatedly acknowledged, flawed – and therefore unreliable. During the time before the internet existed, not every disaster was reported the way it is now. British blogger Paul Homewood also discovered a “leap” in the number of disasters the Belgian institute listed which suddenly rose in 1998 — exactly the year the CRED began to receive US funding to start publishing statistics.
The datasets about the two different periods are therefore too different in quality, says Pielke Jr. “You should not draw any conclusions about a changing frequency in climatic extremes on the basis of this data set,” says the researcher at the University of Colorado.
Van Loenhout disputes this criticism. In an e-mail the researcher trained in Utrecht acknowledges that CRED has previously been critical of its own database, but claims that much of the data has been improved recently. Of the dataset dating back to 1900, only the first 60 years may not be reliable, he says. “Disasters will be missing.”
But that is not a problem for the current report, he claims. “From about 1960-1970 onward, the completeness of the data is much greater, and the share of missing disasters much smaller. We are constantly working to improve completeness, and this is also happening for previous years and decades. For this reason, statements made in 2004 and 2006 are now somewhat outdated, as the completeness of the database has since improved,” says Van Loenhout.
Pielke Jr is surprised that, to his knowledge, this is the first time that the Belgian institute is suddenly so convinced of its older data. The American also disagrees with Van Loenhout’s criticism that he should not deduce a downward trend in climate-related disasters over the past 20 years. “Nonsense. Of course you can – it’s the definition of a trend.”
The fierce clash can be explained by the significant deviation of the UNDRR findings with the research studies that Pielke Jr has published. Time and again he has shown that despite an increase in financial damage from natural disasters, there has not been a change in the intensity of most weather extremes. Increasing damage is due to the growth of population, real estate and properties in vulnerable areas.
The UN’s Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has confirmed these findings: the near future may bring an increase in floods or hurricanes. But until now this is barely detectable. “Everything I find is consistent with the IPCC,” says Pielke Jr.
One of the most telling trends the American scientist has highlighted is this: the number of fatalities from natural disasters in the past 100 years has fallen by 95 percent — despite a rapidly growing world population. This makes the UNDRR report much more dogmatic about climate trends than its sibling the IPCC, both under the same UN umbrella.
This does not stop UN envoy Mizutori from adopting an alarmist tone. She commends UN staff and volunteers who have saved countless lives in past natural disasters. “But it is being made more and more difficult for them, especially by industrialised countries that are terribly lacking in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to the level agreed in the Paris Agreement.”
GWPF director Benny Peiser is appalled by this political blame game. As if residents of industrial countries are guilty of future deaths from natural disasters in other countries. “This is no longer science, but a purely political report.”