Does the world feel a little apocalyptic at the moment?
In the last few months, hurricanes have dumped record amounts of rain on Texas and left Puerto Rico without electricity and running water, an earthquake has devastated Mexico City, and intense wildfires have ripped through California.
Scientists have been warning us for years that climate change would make the weather worse. Perhaps this is what it’s like? When you combine the bad news about natural disasters with the endless bad news about politics, it creates an overall sense of impending doom. We live in extraordinary times, and the weather right now seems to match our civic mood.
So does that mean the world is coming to an end? It certainly feels like it.
It isn’t. Our brains are seeing doomsday signals everywhere, because our brains are really good at doing that. In reality, what’s happening isn’t that unusual. As climate scientist Judith Curry observes:
“While Harvey and Irma were big storms, they don’t really rank up there with the worst that we’ve seen in the last decade or the last century. They’re top 20 kind of storms, but they’re not record breaking in any way, apart from the overall rainfall from Harvey, which was really more of a fluke from the weather situation that allowed the storm to sit in one place for a very long time. There’s nothing unusual about this hurricane season or about Harvey and Irma. The US had an incredibly lucky run of 12 years without a major landfall during this active phase of the hurricane cycle. Our luck is now broken. But it’s totally expected.”
Natural disasters have actually been a lot worse in other places this year. Flooding in Africa in 2017 has killed five times more people than all of the hurricanes and wildfires in the United States. In South Asia, monsoon flooding killing more than 1,200 people this summer, and in Colombia, mudslides killed more than 200 people in April.
I am not suggesting that suffering should be compared, or ranked. If you’re a migrant worker in Santa Rosa who’s been left homeless by fires, or a baker in San Juan whose shop was flattened by the storm surge, the news that there are other people who have also experienced extreme hardship this year will come as little consolation. It’s almost impossible for any of us to imagine what life has been like for any of them.
We should try to retain a sense of perspective though. Thanks to a cognitive bias called the availability heuristic, we misjudge the frequency and magnitude of events that have happened recently. We also remember things more easily when they come packaged in a vivid narrative. Combined with our clickbait appetite for bad news, and the weaponisation of our social media feeds, the recent spate of stories about hurricanes, floods and fires makes us all feel like we’re living in the end times.
We’re not. It used to be a lot worse.
In 2016, natural disasters around the world claimed the lives of almost 10,000 people. That’s awful, but it’s a lot less than it used to be. Half a century ago, natural disasters killed twice as many people as they do today, and a century ago the average death toll was twenty times greater.
We have short memories. We’ve forgotten events such as the volcanic eruption in Colombia in 1985 that killed 25,000 people, the Great Tangshan earthquake in China in 1976 that killed 240,000 people, and the Bhola Cyclone in Bangladesh in 1970 that claimed the lives of almost half a million. Or if you’re really searching for a sense of the apocalyptic, how about the worse natural disaster of the 20th century, the flooding of the Yangtze River in 1931 that killed nearly 3.7 million people?
What’s even more impressive is that we’ve been able to reduce the overall number of people being killed by natural disasters despite adding about five billion people to the planet in the last century. More people than ever before are affected by natural disasters, and yet the death tolls are decreasing.
That’s because the human race is a lot better off than we used to be. We have better early warning systems, GPS, mobile phones, television, radio, the internet. People in the path of a hurricane are able to evacuate in time; it means wildfires aren’t the mortal threat to entire communities that they used to be. One of the unnoticed truths buried under the news of the tragedies caused by Harvey, Irma and Maria was that the United States appears to be improving the way it responds to hurricanes, getting people out of the way in time, and able to restore services like water and sanitation, shelter and food more quickly. This is true of poorer countries too. While the death tolls from natural disasters in Africa and Asia are still higher than in the West, they’re far lower than they used to be.
Of course, the damage these days tend to be a lot more extensive. Not only is the world far more populous, it’s a lot richer, across the board. There are more people, buildings, roads, cars and bicycles in the path of the storm, or near the epicentre of the earthquake. That means that when disaster strikes, the cost is measured in billions of dollars rather than millions.
Human stuff however, is replaceable. Human lives are not.
We’re losing fewer people to natural disasters than ever before. It’s important for us to celebrate that. Humanity does get it right sometimes.
That doesn’t meant we should be complacent. We’re heading for a world in which the kinds of weather events we’ve seen over the past few months will become more severe. That should given us plenty of cause for concern. However, instead of suggesting that nature has rebelled against us, recent disasters should serve as a potent lesson about the living planet’s incredible power and unpredictability.
They should remind us that science, technology, good governance and natural human collaboration allow us to respond to that unpredictability better than we ever have done. And they should encourage us to do everything in our power to transition to a low carbon economy as soon as can, in order limit the chances of more intense disasters happening in the future.