Primer on Extreme Weather Mortality

by Marlo Lewis on August 16, 2010

in Blog

The indomitable Indur Goklany — “Goks” to his friends — has just posted a primer on extreme weather-related mortality entitled, Global Death Toll From Extreme Weather Events Declining

If you are one of the hapless millions who watched Al Gore’s scare-you-mentary, An Inconvenient Truth, with its ad nauseum footage of hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, and floods, you might think that carbon dioxide emissions are making the world a more dangerous place.

Goks’ primer demolishes this falsehood. It also reaches the heretical conclusion that restrictions on carbon-based energy would actually impede progress in reducing deaths and death rates related to extreme weather.

Herewith a few excerpts:

Mortality Risk Declining

Based on 2000–08 data, extreme weather events are responsible for about 0.05% of all global deaths (31,700 deaths vs. 58.8 million, annually). That is, despite the media attention to such events, extreme weather events have a minor impact on global public health.

Long term (1900–2008) data show that average annual deaths and death rates from all such events declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since cresting in the 1920s. These declines occurred despite a vast increase in the populations at risk and more complete coverage of extreme weather events.

Deaths and death rates from droughts were responsible for the majority (58%) of all deaths due to extreme weather events from 1900–2008. They also peaked in the 1920s. Since then, they have been reduced by 99.97% and 99.99%, respectively.

For floods, responsible for another 34% of aggregate deaths, deaths and death rates have declined by 98.7%–99.6% since the 1930s.

For storms (including hurricanes, cyclones, tornadoes, typhoons), responsible for 7% of extreme weather event deaths from 1900–2008, deaths and death rates declined by 47.0%–70.4% since the 1970s. 

“Blame” Fossil Fuels for Improving Safety

First, the decline in the death toll from droughts, in particular, is that global food production has never been higher than it is today (Goklany 1998, 2007). This is largely due to improved seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and farm machinery. This entire suite of technologies also enabled the Green Revolution.  But fertilizers and pesticides are manufactured from fossil fuels, and energy is necessary to run irrigation pumps and machinery. Without them, the benefits of improved seeds would be for naught. And in today’s world, like it or not, energy for the most part is synonymous with fossil fuels.

Additional CO2 in the atmosphere has also contributed to higher yields and food production (IPCC 2001: 254–257, 285) because it provides carbon, the basic building block of life, and also increases the efficiency with which plants use water helping offset declines in water availability, if any.

Another factor critical to reining food prices and reducing hunger worldwide is trade within and between countries which enables food surpluses to be moved to food deficit areas (Goklany 1995, 1998).  But it takes fossil fuels to move food around in the quantities and the speed necessary for such trade to be an integral part of the global food system, as it indeed is.  Moreover, fossil fuel dependant technologies such as refrigeration, rapid transport, and plastic packaging, ensure that more of the crop that is produced is actually eaten by the consumer. That is, they increase the overall efficiency of the food production system, which helps lower food prices and contain hunger worldwide.

The second important factor is better disaster preparedness, and more rapid response and delivery of humanitarian aid when disaster strikes.  Timely preparations and response are major factors that have contributed to the reduction in death and disease that traditionally were caused by or accompanied disasters from extreme weather events (Goklany 2007b).  Their success hinges on the availability of fossil fuels to move people, food, medicine and critical humanitarian supplies before and after events strike. 

Economic development also allowed the US (and other developed countries) to offer humanitarian aid to developing countries in times of famine, drought, floods, cyclones, and other natural disasters, weather related or not. Such aid, too, would have been virtually impossible to deliver in large quantities or in a timely fashion absent fossil fuel fired transportation.

Carbon Rationing Is Counter-Productive

Currently many advocate spending trillions of dollars to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gases, in part to forestall hypothetical future increases in mortality from global warming induced increases in extreme weather events.  Spending even a fraction of such sums on the numerous higher priority health and safety problems plaguing humanity would provide greater returns for human well-being (Goklany 2009a, 2009b).

No less important, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would slow, if not retard, economic development and/or make fossil fuels scarcer and more expensive thereby militating against the very factors that have reduced deaths and death rates from extreme weather events.

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