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Has Climate Change caused an Increase in Natural Disaster Costs?

April 4, 2014; 10:13 AM ET

Earlier this month, Roger Pielke Jr., who is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight.com titled 'Disasters Cost More Than Ever -- But Not Because of Climate Change'.

In the article, Pielke Jr. makes a number of points.....

--Globally, natural disasters are indeed costing more and more money.

--It is not true that more storms are happening. That idea is more a form of perception.

--In reality, the numbers reflect more damage from catastrophes because the world is getting wealthier.

--Pielke Jr. notes that the most recent IPCC report concluded that there's little evidence of a spike in the frequency or intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes. There have been more heat waves and intense precipitation, but these phenomena are not significant drivers of disaster costs, according to Pielke Jr.

Pielke Jr.'s closing paragraph from the article...

When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers and instead focus on what we can control. There is some good news to be found in the ever-mounting toll of disaster losses. As countries become richer, they are better able to deal with disasters - meaning more people are protected and fewer lose their lives. Increased property losses, it turns out, are a price worth paying.

-----

Kerry Emanuel, who is a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was asked by FiveThirtyEight.com to provide a response to Pielke Jr's article.

Dr. Emanuel has written three books and co-edited two others along with dozens of research papers on climate, oceans and the atmosphere.

In his article Dr. Emanuel makes a number of points in response to Pielke Jr.......

--...it's not necessarily appropriate to normalize damages by gross domestic product (GDP) if the intent is to detect an underlying climate trend. GDP increase does not translate in any obvious way to damage increase.

--Emanuel questions the statistical significance of the two graphs provided by Pielke Jr. and states that 23 years is not long enough to detect trends in natural hazard damages whether such trends are caused by demographics or by climate change.

--The 19-year global damage trends normalized by GDP shows no significant trend. This likely indicates that 20 years may be too short a period to detect a significant trend. Compare this to the longer (36 year) U.S. record, which shows a statistically significant upward trend in normalized insured losses from all non-geophysical disasters.

Key excerpts from Emanuel's response on FiveThirtyEight.com....

There is an even more significant problem with Pielke's analysis. In a nutshell, he addresses trend detection when what we need is event risk assessment. The two would be equivalent if the actuarial data was the only data available pertaining to event risk. But that is far from the case; we often have much more information about risk.

I collaborated with Yale economist Robert Mendelsohn and his colleagues in estimating global hurricane damage changes through the year 2100, based on hurricanes "downscaled" from four climate models. We estimate that global hurricane damage will about double owing to demographic trends, and double again because of climate change. These projections are not inconsistent with what we've been seeing in hurricane data and in economic damage from hurricanes. Besides this study, there are robust theory and modeling results that show increased risk of hydrological extremes (floods and droughts) and heat-related problems.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of AccuWeather, Inc. or AccuWeather.com

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