Weather extremes are rising, but fewer people are dying: UN report

In this aerial photo taken with a drone, flood waters surround storm damaged homes, Tuesday, in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana, as residents try to recover from the effects of Hurricane Ida, 31 August 2021. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Extreme weather is putting a dent in the economy that is seven times larger than it was in the 1970s, according to new findings. The upshot – we’ve gotten better at saving lives.

Natural disasters have caused over two million deaths and $3.64 trillion in economic losses over the past 50 years, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) reported on Wednesday.

That is 45 per cent of all reported deaths and 74 per cent of all reported economic losses since 1970. In the 1970s, average economic damage per day was $49m. By 2019, it was $383m.

“We are going to see more climatic extremes because of climate change, and these negative trends in climate will continue for the coming decades. If we are successful with climate mitigation we could stop these negative trends around 2060. And if we are most lucky, we could limit the warming to 1.5 degrees,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas.

The extreme weather toll is mounting. Hurricane Ida has been battering Louisiana since Sunday. The electrical grid is down, leaving one million people without power, while water services and infrastructure have also been hit.

Four people have died, and the lives of many more are at risk, authorities have warned, as floods and the power outage hamper rescue efforts.

But advanced warning and preparation have saved many lives. New Orleans revamped its prevention and response efforts after Hurricane Katrina, which claimed over 1,800 lives and caused over $160bn in damages.

Economic losses are highest in developed countries, whereas deaths are highest in developing countries at 91 per cent of the total, according to the new Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather Climate and Water Extremes (1970–2019).

Worldwide, deaths have decreased almost threefold over the past 50 years, from 50,000 deaths in the 1970s to less than 20,000 in the 2010s. This is thanks to the improvement of multi-hazard warning systems, said Taalas.

Displacement has risen, however. Thirty-one million people fled natural disasters last year, said Mami Mizutori, assistant secretary-general and special representative of the UN secretary-general for disaster risk reduction. That is 19.8 million more than those fleeing violent conflict.

More lives than ever are being saved, but the exposure is greater than ever, Mizutori said.

As much as half of WMO members still need to put multi-hazard warning systems in place, and the need to do so is ever more pressing, she added.

Climate change is churning out worse weather events. “That means more heatwaves, drought and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America. We have more water vapour in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding. The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms,” Taalas explained.

Humans are significantly contributing to a rise in heatwaves and extreme rainfall events, reports the Atlas.

The world will need to take greater account of the way climate change will alter the trajectories and velocities of extreme weather events when reviewing policies, hazard exposure, and vulnerability, the Atlas concludes. There also needs to be an improvement in disaster risk financing mechanisms.

“The failure to reduce disaster losses as set out in the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by UN Member States in 2015 is putting at risk the ability of developing countries to eradicate poverty and to achieve other important Sustainable Development Goals,” Mizutori said.