Facebook recently extended its “climate science information centre” to South Africa, inter alia informing us that “heatwaves, droughts, and wildfires” have become “more frequent and intense” worldwide.
In October last year the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that the warming planet was causing “our weather [to become] wilder, warmer, windier, and wetter”, threatening sources of food, fresh water, and energy, along with “our security”.
Similar fears have been expressed by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, Bill Gates, the World Economic Forum, the UN and its affiliates, and politicians, celebrities, and journalists across the globe. In 2013 Barack Obama repeatedly said we were seeing and would continue to see “more extreme droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes”.
But does the data justify claims and scares about what the Pope calls “extreme meteorological events”?
Let’s start with droughts. In Weather Extremes: Are they caused by Global Warming, a paper published last year by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Ralph Alexander, a retired physicist, cited data from the Palmer Drought Severity Index for 1910 to 2015 showing that there have been no long-term trends in drought patterns either globally or in the US.
Writing last year in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Bjorn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Business School cited data from the World Meteorological Association showing that there had been no increase in the global area under drought for the last 116 years. Dr Lomborg also quoted the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as having in 2013 repudiated its own earlier conclusion that droughts had been increasing since the 1970s.
On to floods. Dr Alexander cited data from 1 907 different locations over the period 1996 to 2005. Flood risk was increasing in smaller catchment areas. However, “globally, larger catchments dominate, so the trend in flood risk is actually decreasing rather than increasing in most parts of the globe, if there is any trend at all”. He commented that there was no evidence “that floods are becoming worse, or more common, despite average rainfall getting heavier as the planet warms”. Dr Lomborg cited a 2018 IPCC report as having found that more “streamflows” in the world’s largest rivers were decreasing than were increasing.
What about hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons (which are essentially the same thing)? Dr Alexander cited studies showing that “the frequency of landfalling hurricanes of any strength hasn’t changed significantly in the nearly 50 years since 1970 – during a time when the globe warmed by approximately 0.6% C”. Dr Lomborg – who noted that hurricanes are the “costliest catastrophes” in the world - again quoted the IPCC, which stated in 2013 that “current data sets indicate no significant global trends in global tropical cyclone activity over the past century”.
What of heatwaves? Here Dr Alexander cited data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration covering 1895 to 2018 showing the number of days in which temperatures in the US were above 37.8 degrees C. The number of very hot days showed a rising trend until the 1930s, and a falling trend thereafter. The global story was the same, he said. Six of the seven continents recorded their highest temperatures before 1982.
Dr Alexander also noted that “cold extremes” appear to be on the rise, but that the IPCC has paid no attention to them – even though, according to Indur Goklany, a former US delegate to the IPCC, deaths from abnormal cold are 17 times more common than those from abnormal heat. This figure was based on an analysis of 74 million deaths at 384 locations in 13 countries.
And so to wildfires. Writing in Impacts of Climate Change: Perception and Reality, published earlier this year by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, Dr Goklany said that “analyses of charcoal in ice cores, lake and marine sediments, and tree rings” suggest that “fire occurrence increased to a peak around 1850, before declining to [present-day] levels”. Dr Goklany also reported that a “recent review of satellite data found that the global burned area declined by between 16% and 33% between 1998 and 2015”.
Dr Alexander cited a study showing a steady decline in the global forest area burnt by wildfires from 1900 until 2010. He commented that “wildfires have diminished globally as the planet has warmed”. Dr Lomborg wrote: “Wildfire has declined dramatically, both globally and for the US, over the past century.”
All this measured data yields two conclusions. The first is that extreme climate events are not increasing. The second is that there is no correlation between such events and a (slightly) warming planet (whatever the cause of that warming might be).
The impact of natural disasters is measured in various ways. One is economic cost. Andrew Siffert, senior meteorologist at BMS, an insurance brokerage, reported earlier this year on a study by Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado which showed a long-term downward trend from 1990 in losses from global disasters as a proportion of global GDP. Last year’s $82-$83 billion in catastrophe losses were “normal”, Mr Siffert wrote. And even though Florida is a “hurricane magnet”, Miami “has not been hit by a major hurricane directly for 28 years”.
Figures showing economic losses from hurricanes and other disasters can also be misleading. Many more people today live at the coast, or near forests, and their houses and other possessions are worth very much more. The apparently rising replacement cost of destruction may attract headlines while overestimating the increase in actual physical destruction. The great Miami hurricane of 1926 caused inflation-adjusted damage of $1.3 billion. But, wrote Dr Lomborg, “the very same hurricane tearing down the same path today” would cause damage worth $254 billion.
Dr Lomborg cited studies showing that hurricanes currently cost about 0.04% of global GDP. If we assume that hurricanes remain the same as today – “no climate change” – the damage in 2100 will by 0.01% of GDP. Even if we assume that climate change makes hurricanes worse, the GDP cost will be 0.02%. A richer world will thus be better able to protect itself from natural disasters than one made poorer by pushing up energy prices and so reducing economic growth rates.
The other major means of measuring the effects of natural disasters is in lives lost. According to Dr Lomborg, global death risk from natural disasters has dropped by 96% in the past 100 years.
The implication is that even if the alarming forecasts and the models on which they are based are right – which the measured data shows is not the case – the planet is now more capable than ever to cope. Greater wealth will mean greater resilience.
* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.