The media gives outsized attention to plane crashes. But lots of stories of plane crashes do not provide a good insight into transport safety. You need statistics to realise that planes are much safer than cars.
Climate alarmist reporting is now causing the same problem with ever-proliferating stories about extreme heatwaves, floods and fires. This gale of ghastly tragedies argues that out-of-control climate change is now causing ever deadlier calamities. Yet, this narrative is contradicted by the data.
One of the best-documented impacts of global warming is more heat extremes, which made headlines across the world this summer. While rarely reported, the new UN Climate Panel report also tells us that “the frequency and intensity of cold extremes have decreased”. That matters because globally, more than 4.5 million people die from cold compared to fewer than 600,000 from heat.
A brand-new study in the medical journal The Lancet shows that temperature rises over the past two decades in the US and Canada mean 7,200 additional heat deaths each year — many more than the widely reported 624 deaths from this summer’s heat dome. But the study also shows that warming means we each year avoid 21,000 cold deaths. We are badly informed if we don’t hear both parts of this story.
The tragic flooding in Germany and Belgium are similarly blamed on climate change. But the data doesn’t support that river floods have increased. Globally, a large study of more than 9,000 rivers shows that while some rivers see increasing flood trends, many more rivers see decreasing flood trends. This is also true in Europe, where the new UN Climate Panel report tallies all rivers and finds most flood less.
Stories of the rivers that still flood will inevitably dominate, but this doesn’t help us understand the global picture. Most German flood deaths occurred on the river Ahr. While it did see a very high flow on July 14, 2021, it was still much lower than flows in 1804 and 1910. What matters most for riverine flooding is that ever more people build on flood plains, leaving the water nowhere to go. This highlights the necessity of a well-functioning warning system.
Here, Germany failed spectacularly. Since the last deadly floods in 2002, Germany has built an extensive warning system, but last September, during a “national warning” day, most warning measures didn’t work. Models warned of flooding up to nine days ahead, but most people were left unaware. The hydrologist who set up the European Flood Awareness System called it “a monumental failure of the system.” But of course, blaming the deadly floods on climate change is convenient for politicians who were responsible for the missing early warnings.
Similarly, the US fires frequently get blamed on climate, but the real reason is mostly bad forest management. And overall, the US government’s own statistics belie the hype: 2021 burned area to date is the seventh-lowest of the last 20 years. In 2020, just 11 per cent of the annual area burned compared to the early 1900s. Contrary to climate cliches, globally burned area has declined dramatically since 1900 and continues to fall through the satellite era.
The world is vast, and with cameras everywhere, there is a torrent of new fires, heatwaves and floods vying for attention daily. Newspapers earn clicks, politicians brandish their virtue, and climate campaigners fundraise from these calamities. But just like plane crashes, a steady stream of bad news doesn’t inform well.
We have statistics on global deaths from all climate-related weather disasters such as floods, droughts, storms, and fire from the International Disaster Database. In the 1920s, these disasters on average killed almost half a million people each year.
The current climate-alarmed narrative would suggest that climate-fuelled disasters are deadlier, but that is untrue. Over the past century, climate-related deaths have dropped an astounding 96 per cent to about 18,000 dead in an average year. Because the global population has quadrupled, global death risk from climate in the 2010s has dropped by more than 99 per cent.
This doesn’t negate that climate change is a real problem that we should fix smartly. But contrary to the current narrative, our adaptive capacity is vastly larger than changing climate risks.
Look at 2021, which seems to be branded the year of climate catastrophes. Add the 624 deaths from the North American heat dome, the 358 dead from floods in Germany and Belgium, the 559 dead from Indian climate-related catastrophes that you may not even have heard about and 1,378 more fatalities from more than 200 other catastrophes. Adjusted to a full year, and climate-related weather disasters will likely cause about 6,000 deaths in 2021.
Each death is a tragedy, yet many more tragedies are being avoided. Globally, the Lancet study shows that climate change now annually causes 116,000 additional heat deaths but avoids almost 283,000 cold deaths. Each year, warming saves 166,000 lives. Today, we no longer see half a million or even 18,000 lives lost to climate-related weather disasters, but 6,000. The year 2021 could achieve a century-long climate-related death risk decline of 99.7 per cent.
For a smart climate conversation, we need to insist on seeing all the data.
Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”
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