In half a century, the average number of annual fatalities declined more than 80%.
In his posthumously published book “Factfulness,” the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling describes a paradox: “The image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” A case in point: natural disasters. The earth will always be volatile, but despite recent fires, volcanoes and hurricanes, humanity currently is experiencing a stretch of good fortune when it comes to disasters.
It’s difficult to be “factful” about disasters—the vivid trauma of each event distracts observers from the long-term decrease in destructiveness. But climate activists make the problem worse by blaming every extreme weather event on human-caused climate change, hoping to scare people into elevated concern.
Disasters certainly continue to cause catastrophic damage across the globe. The annual cost of disasters has doubled since reliable accounting of all events world-wide began in 1990, rising from about $100 billion to $200 billion a year in 2017 dollars.
But it’s deceptive to track disasters primarily in terms of aggregate cost. Since 1990, the global population has increased by more than 2.2 billion, and the global economy has more than doubled in size. This means more lives and wealth are at risk with each successive disaster.
The material cost of disasters also has decreased when considered as a proportion of the global economy. Since 1990, economic losses from disasters have decreased by about 20% as a proportion of world-wide gross domestic product. The trend still holds when the measurement is narrowed to weather-related disasters, which decreased similarly as a share of global GDP even as the dollar cost of disasters increased.
The decrease in disaster damage isn’t a surprise, because as the world population and economy have grown, the incidence of the most damaging extreme events has hardly changed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2014 that there has been no increase in hurricanes, floods, droughts or tornadoes within the past 30 years. And 2018 is on track to have the lowest losses from disasters as a share of global GDP since 1990.
It is then no surprise that the climate-disaster scare campaign has been ineffective at swaying public opinion. Gallup reported earlier this year that 63% of Americans worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about climate change—the same level as in 1989, when the question was first posed. But though popular worry hasn’t boiled over, the public debate around climate change has become more politicized, more partisan and less “factful.”
In place of today’s unproductive scare campaign, activists and the media should facilitate debate on the merits of actual climate-policy proposals, such as a carbon tax or improved flood defenses. Carbon dioxide emissions have indeed contributed to a global temperature increase and may yet influence extreme weather, so the public and policy makers must decide the best ways to reduce emissions and increase society’s resilience to extreme weather.