Nate Silver, former baseball stat analyst turned political blogger at the New York Times (whose rise to fame was cemented by very accurately forecasting the results of the last two presidential elections), has developed a new data-heavy site “FiveThirtyEight.com”
Among the articles posted after their recent roll out was by Roger Pielke, Jr. on “Disasters Cost More Than Ever – But Not Because of Climate Change.”
As you might imagine this has stirred a bit of an uproar regarding the connection between climate change and natural disasters. I’m not looking to get into that fight with this post. Instead, I find myself dumbstruck at something Mr. Pielke points out that seems both obvious and new to me:
There’s a human toll, too, and the data show an inverse relationship between lives lost and property damage: Modern disasters bring the greatest loss of life in places with the lowest property damage, and the most property damage where there’s the lowest loss of life. Consider that since 1940 in the United States 3,322 people have died in 118 hurricanes that made landfall. Last year in a poor region of the Philippines, a single storm, Typhoon Hayain, killed twice as many people.
It seems obvious. But I have to admit I’ve never made this connection before, nor have seen the hard numbers:
We can start to estimate how countries may weather crises differently thanks to a 2005 analysis of historical data on global disasters. That study estimated that a nation with a $2,000 per capita average GDP — about that of Honduras – should expect more than five times the number of disaster deaths as a country like Russia, with a $14,000 per capita average GDP.2(For comparison, the U.S. has a per capita GDP of about $52,000.)
One possible good news conclusion to draw:
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.