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The Collapse of Climate-Related Deaths

Blog Post | Natural Disasters

The Collapse of Climate-Related Deaths

Climate continues to be a challenge, but climate-related deaths have fallen over 99 percent since 1920.

Summary: Climate-related deaths have fallen over 99 percent since 1920, thanks to human adaptation. Galveston reduced hurricane fatalities by 99 percent in 15 years. The world has become 13,260 percent safer from climate-related death. The “CNN effect” exaggerates the frequency and severity of climate disasters.

Hurricane Ida has devastated the Gulf Coast. CNBC reports that “Ida made landfall in Louisiana on Sunday as a Category 4 storm with winds of 150 miles per hour, one of the strongest storms to hit the region since Hurricane Katrina.” The property damage will be significant. Nineteen deaths have been confirmed, and more will likely follow. Those deaths are tragic, but thanks to enhanced preparation and flood defenses, they are a small fraction of the 1,833 deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Compare Ida to the Great Galveston Hurricane that made landfall on September 9th, 1900. The storm killed between 8,000 and 12,000 people. In 1915, another storm similar in strength struck Galveston. The 1915 storm resulted in only 53 deaths. How did Galveston reduce hurricane fatalities by 99 percent in 15 years? In a word, adaptation. In 1902, the residents of Galveston funded a 10-mile-long seawall, dredged sand from the shipping channel, and raised many buildings, some by as much as 17 feet.

Thankfully, the rest of the world is following Galveston’s example. Even the most dangerous storms kill fewer people than in the past. The Great Hurricane of 1780 killed between 22,000 and 27,000 people, making it the deadliest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. The second deadliest hurricane (Mitch) occurred in 1998 and killed just over 11,000.

Average deaths are declining as well. The Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has reported that climate-related deaths averaged 485,000 a year in the 1920s. Between 2010 and 2019, there was an average of 18,362 annual climate-related deaths. In 2020, the death rate dropped to 14,893. Based on what has been reported, there have been 5,569 climate-related deaths in 2021 so far.

So, adjusted for population, we went from 255.3 deaths per million in 1920 to 1.9 per million in 2020, a 99.25 percent decrease. In other words, for every climate-related death in 2020, we had 133.6 deaths in 1920.

The above numbers suggest that between 1920 and 2020, the world has become 13,260 percent safer from climate-related death (i.e., around 5 percent safer a year). Lomborg notes:

This is clearly the opposite of what you hear, but that is because we’re often just being told of one disaster after another – telling us how *many* events are happening. The number of reported events are increasing, but that is mainly due to better reporting, lower thresholds, and better accessibility (the CNN effect).

To avoid falling for the CNN effect, look at the number of dead per year as reported by the most respected global database, the International Disaster Database (https://public.emdat.be/). You can also read more from Lomborg’s peer-reviewed article here.

Will there continue to be dangerous weather and climate-related deaths? Yes, but we must put these catastrophes into context. Over the last 100 years, humanity has shown that we can adapt and thrive under varying climate conditions. Let facts, rather than advertising dollars, inform your thinking.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 29

Gena Gorlin: Why building is our safest way forward

Psychologist Gena Gorlin argues that internalizing the universe's tendency toward death and disorder can help us appreciate what we have and compel us to build a better future.

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

Wealth and Technology Can Overcome Nature’s Wrath

Like the Dutch war against the waves, fortifying against the climate is a technical challenge that requires engineering and adaptation.

Summary: The Dutch, who have faced the rising sea for centuries, provide a remarkable demonstration of how wealth and technology can counterbalance nature’s fury. This article explores the Dutch experience with flooding, highlighting how their economic prosperity and technological advancements have enabled them to create resilient landscapes. From carefully engineered water management systems to innovative flood prevention measures, the Dutch exemplify the power of human ingenuity in overcoming the challenges posed by natural disasters.

The rising sea could become a problem for many, but for the Dutch, it is merely an old and well-known enemy. Trapped between some of Europe’s largest rivers and the violent North Sea waves, the people living in the Netherlands prevent floods for a living – literally.

Holland is a flat, low-lying country on the edge of a stormy sea. To make matters worse, between 20 and 40 percent of its land area is at, or below, sea level. Yet, as the Dutch have shown for centuries, it is possible to live below the water level with appropriate water management and technology.

The Dutch have played an outsized role in the history of the world – in foreign trade, economic growth, and financial development. Their tolerant ethics may have kicked off the Great Enrichment, thus producing the world’s first modern economy. The Dutch also invented central banking and perfected the art of public debt and securities markets. Most impressively, they accomplished all that while under constant siege from the ocean.

The water level on Dutch shores has increased steadily for over 3,000 years (and even more rapidly for 7,000 years before that). In other words, long before the Industrial Revolution, modern capitalism, or the burning of fossil fuels, the Dutch had to adapt – a strategy reviled by purist climate change activists.

Since the twelfth century, local and regional institutions known as waterboards have operated independently of political power. Using dikes, sluices, canals, and other forms of hydraulic engineering, they “began to tame, though never to vanquish, the waterwolf,” writes William teBrake, a history professor at the University of Maine and long-time student of Dutch land history. 

Later, with advanced technology and greater wealth, the Dutch built pumps to drain flooded areas and even, in grand land reclamations, the ocean itself. In modern times, they raised protective barriers to seal off the hinterlands from storm surges.

The threat from water grew worse over time as humans tried to eke out a living from the land. Cutting and burning peat and draining swamps undermined the land’s support and made it drop further below sea level. This process, known as subsidence, sunk the land up to 2 centimeters per year in the late-Middle Ages. That’s five times the rate at which sea levels currently rise around the world and more than twice what the IPCC projects as the worst-case scenario for the rest of this century.

Still, the Dutch prevailed. Somewhere between A.D. 1600 and A.D. 1800, the protective measures made possible by Holland’s growing wealth and improving technology began to pull ahead in the race with the ocean. “The Netherlands has learned to live with the fact that sea-level rise is ongoing and accepts that associated impacts are a continuous issue,” writes Mark van Koningsveld and co-authors in a 2008 article about the Dutch and sea-level rise. “Future problems of climate change and sea-level rise are part of this evolution rather than something fundamentally new.”

The more modern and elaborate protective barriers and sluices, like those in the Delta Works or the Zuiderzee Works, sometimes draw ire because they were constructed only after massive storms destroyed many lives (1953) and property (1916). That is true but also somewhat unremarkable: throughout the thousand-year-plus history of settlement in the Low Countries, it always took extraordinary events for people to spend scarce labor, capital, and material to ensure and refine their survival. Learning how to manage water and protect low-lying lands from the ocean was a trial-and-error process.

If climate change today turns out to increase those water-related risks, the Dutch are rich and technologically savvy enough to supplement their already extensive water protection systems – not unlike what you do with your home or car insurance when your circumstances change. Besides, it’s much cheaper to reinforce a structure than to reverse centuries of carbon emissions.

Of course, it cost a lot of money to build the engineering wonders that currently keep the Netherlands safe from the ocean, but at 0.4 percent of the central government’s annual expenditure, the maintenance of the vast water protection system is likely cheaper than what it was the past.

Even though millions of people in the Netherlands live under the waterline, it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be seriously harmed by a gradual rise in sea levels. But what about larger storms – a problem that the IPCC expects to worsen? Could bigger than anticipated storms overwhelm Holland’s coastal defenses? Luckily, the IPCC report on the oceans from 2019 projects wave heights to decrease in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea – even under the worst RCP8.5 scenario.

So, can the Dutch relax? Not quite. Their long battle against the ocean to their West and North, and the continental rivers to their East and South, may never end. Water doesn’t rest, but neither do the Dutch, who regularly expand, improve, and comprehensively re-assess their Delta program. If it turns out that climate change is worse than what today’s experts predict, the Dutch can adjust.

Fortifying our societies against the climate is a constant challenge. But like the Dutch war against the waves, fortification against nature’s whims is a technical problem that requires engineering and adaptation, not fearmongering.

Blog Post | Overall Mortality

Natural Disasters Claim Fewer Lives Thanks to Human Progress

While we cannot control nature, we can tend to our vulnerabilities.

Natural disasters and their terrible impact on human societies have almost gone full circle.

In the past, slow communication and the technical inability to monitor extreme weather meant that we rarely heard about disasters in far-away lands. Then came T.V. news, overwhelming us with heartbreaking coverage about natural disasters causing unfathomable damage to the developing world.

Now, as the poor have gotten richer and the spread of affordable technology has allowed warning systems and protective measures to be put in place, we no longer hear about disasters killing hundreds of thousands of people – simply because that horrific destruction rarely happens.

Take Amphan, the Super Cyclone that hit Bangladesh and India’s Northeast in May last year. Even though it was one of the strongest cyclones ever recorded and the damages made it the most expensive storm to hit the region, you probably haven’t heard about it. Why? It killed a grand total of… 128 people. The ideal number of deaths is zero, but it’s still a remarkable achievement for humankind that the death toll was so low.

Consider what the figure could have been. Last year, we also saw the 50th anniversary of Cyclone Bhola. In November of 1970, what by all metrics was a physically weaker cyclone than Amphan, Bhola killed more than 300 thousand people in Bangladesh alone. Because of human progress, we don’t see fatalities that high anymore.

A World Health Organization bulletin lists some of the many contributing factors to the decline in extreme weather deaths, which have “been achieved by modernizing early warning systems, developing shelters and evacuation plans, constructing coastal embankments, maintaining and improving coastal forest cover and raising awareness at the community level.”

The accurate forecast of weather and flood risk in May 2020 allowed the Bangladeshi people – inside and outside of government institutions – to prepare. A full three days before impact, meteorological offices issued clear and wide-ranging warnings on every platform available to them. These warnings allowed millions of people to move away from harm’s way, move boats and equipment up the rivers to comparative safety, stock up on necessities, and prepare freight of humanitarian aid from abroad.

None of these improvements can happen without money, stable and responsive governments, and advances in technology to protect and warn against oncoming storms. Already in 2015, the Bangladeshi statistics bureau reported that about two-thirds of households got early warnings for approaching cyclones and floods, and between 75 percent and 90 percent of households were prepared for the most damaging disasters.

The amazing fall in Bangladeshi deaths from natural disasters over the last half-century shows how technology and human adaptation can deal with an unruly nature. But this Bangladeshi wonder is not unique. Disaster-related deaths are falling in other countries and even globally. In the scientific journal Global Environmental Change, Giuseppe Formetta and Luc Feyen investigated damages and deaths from natural disasters in low- and middle-income countries. They found that across different geographic regions and for all major categories of natural disasters, fatalities in poorer countries have fallen dramatically and are almost on par with rich countries.

Source: Giuseppe Formetta and Luc Feyen

The authors’ conclusion goes against what most climate headlines would lead us to believe:

“From 1980–1989 to 2007–2016, the 10-year moving average mortality rate, averaged over all hazards, radii and both income groups, has reduced more than 6-fold, while the economic loss rate dropped by nearly five times. […] vulnerability converges between lower and higher income countries due to the stronger vulnerability reduction in less developed countries.”

Economic and political freedoms and technological advances play large and often unseen roles in human progress. Take Bangladesh’s neighbor Myanmar, which is one of the least free countries on the planet. The country shares many of the same geographic vulnerabilities that Bangladesh and Northeast India do but suffers much more. For example, in 2008, Cyclone Nargis killed an estimated 150,000 people in Myanmar, while a cyclone of similar magnitude hit the much-better prepared Bangladesh the year before, causing “only” around 4,200 deaths.

Tufts University professor Gregory Gottlieb, a former humanitarian aid worker in Myanmar, writes that “not only did the country lack a weather radar network that could predict cyclones, it also had no early warning system, storm shelters or evacuation plans.” In other words, freedom, higher incomes, preparation, and technological advances matter.

There is a lesson here that’s relevant to the climate change conversations that often dominate the news cycle: no matter what effect a changing climate may have on natural disasters, humans have it in their power to prepare, protect, and adapt to the dreadful power of nature. The difference between a catastrophe with hundreds of thousands of dead and merely a costly clean-up isn’t a degree or two in global average temperature. Rather, it is poverty and venal governments that don’t care about the welfare of the populace.

While we cannot control nature, we can tend to our vulnerabilities. In fact, that is what many countries have already done, which is why the number of people who die from natural disasters keeps dropping. As the poor grow richer and freer, the trend will only get stronger. One day, perhaps, the Bay of Bengal cyclones will not kill a single person.