ANALYSIS: Growth, Not Global Warming, To Blame For Disaster Damage

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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These days it seems like any time a storm rears its ugly head pundits declare that global warming is to blame. But is global warming really doing all this?

Research actually suggests that weather is not becoming more extreme and there is another reason there is more damage from natural disasters.

A new paper out of the United Kingdom ties increases in flooding incidences to population and economic growth and not global warming. Research on extreme weather in the U.S. has also found that growing economies and populations are to blame for increases in damages from natural disasters.

Rhetoric about global warming being linked to extreme weather increased after major natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy, wildfires and the huge drought in the Midwest. Insurers put cost of Hurricane Sandy and the Midwest drought alone were put at $100 billion.

Globally, natural disasters caused $200 billion in economic losses, above the 10-year average of $187 billion, according to a 2013 report by the reinsurance firm Aon Benfield. There were 295 separate weather events — above the average of 257 weather events.

Scientists and environmentalists often argue that global warming, caused by man-made carbon dioxide emissions, will cause natural disasters to become more frequent and intense. Famed “97 percent consensus” study author John Cook writes there “is growing empirical evidence that warming temperatures cause more intense hurricanes, heavier rainfalls and flooding, increased conditions for wildfires and dangerous heat waves.”

But is global warming really making the weather more extreme?

More Brits Live In Flood Zones

Floods are nothing new in the UK, but last winter saw torrential downpours and flooding on a massive scale. Scientists said the persistent flooding and storms were part of a trend of worsening weather conditions because of global warming.

“There is an increasing body of evidence that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense, and that the rate of increase is consistent with what is expected from fundamental physics,” according to a report from the UK’s Met Office from February. “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly heavy rain events.”

But a new study by British researchers says that the increase in reported flooding events in the UK is likely “a function of the gradual increase in exposure due to urban expansion and population growth” and a “greater capacity to report flood events.”

In short, economic and population growth means that more people are now living in more places, including areas prone to flooding and storm surges. Moreover, it was unclear that flooding was even getting when adjusted for increases population and housing.

The study published in the Hydrological Sciences Journal even found that “the number of reported ‘Class 3’ flooding events has remained static or decreased slightly over the 20th Century… despite the UK population almost doubling and the number of dwelling houses tripling over the same time period.”

“There is no clear underlying trend in flood reports present in the UK flood data when it is normalised for exposure,” the report reads.

Not all scientists, however, welcomed the new flooding report. UK Met Office scientists disagreed with the report’s findings and its chief scientist Dame Julia Slingo told the UK Times that “all the evidence suggests there is a link” with rising global temperatures.

But evidence that population and economic growth is driving an increase in reported disaster losses has been backed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — an international body that is hailed as the “gold standard” of climate science by scientists and environmentalists.

The IPCC reported in 2012 that “[i]ncreasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters (high confidence).”

“Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded (high agreement, medium evidence),” the IPCC added.

You probably wouldn’t know it by listening to the news, but the U.S. has been in a “hurricane drought” for more than eight and a half years. No Category 3 or stronger hurricane has made landfall in the U.S. since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, according to research by climate scientist Dr. Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado.

Pielke has long pointed out that hurricanes and other natural disasters have not increased globally or in the U.S. for decades.

Pielke wrote in USA Today that from “1900 through 2013, the United States experienced a decrease in hurricane landfalls of more than 20%, and the strength of each year’s landfalling storms has also decreased by more than 20%.”

Pielke’s research has shown that disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts have not increased globally or in the U.S. despite some global temperature rises and rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The absolute costs of natural disasters have increased, Pielke notes, but this is because there are more economic goods and higher populations in places exposed to extreme weather events. To correct for this, Pielke looks at disaster losses as a percentage of the economy.

“Globally, weather-related losses… have not increased since 1990 as a proportion of GDP (they have actually decreased by about 25%) and insured catastrophe losses have not increased as a proportion of GDP since 1960,” Pielke told senators in a hearing on global warming last year.

“The absolute costs of disasters will increase significantly in coming years due to greater wealth and populations in locations exposed to extremes,” Pielke added. “Consequent, disasters will continue to be an important focus of policy, irrespective of the exact future course of climate change.”

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