A hurricane blacks out New Orleans and drowns New York City a couple of days later. Massive drought-worsened wildfires dot the American West, threaten Athens and scorch Siberia. A calamitous flood in Germany and Belgium kills almost 200 people.
That’s the summer of 2021.
If it seems that the news today is one weather-related disaster after another, you’re not far wrong. Last week the United Nations weather agency — the World Meteorological Organization — released a report that concluded that such disasters strike the planet four to five times more often than in the 1970s.
Property damage is seven times higher than in the ‘70s, according to the report, but the death rate is far lower.
Beyond putting specific numbers on this, and confirming that what we sense isn’t just “recency bias” at work, these findings aren’t all that surprising.
The warming planet always figured to mean more extreme weather events — not necessarily more hurricanes but an increase in their power. Witness Ida, which leapt from infancy to Category 4 status in a matter of days. Droughts figure to be longer and deeper. Witness the megadrought that has emptied irrigation ditches in the American West and today has the fabled Lake Tahoe basin of the Sierra Nevada at risk of conflagration.
But we are also better at forecasting the storms, which gives us a chance to get people out of the way of the worst of it, lessening the death toll.
On the flip side, we increasingly build in the danger zone. In the words of the University of South Carolina’s Susan Cutter: “We’re still making stupid decisions about where we’re putting our infrastructure. ... We’re not losing lives, we’re just losing stuff.”
Americans in particular have been flocking to vulnerable places: the seacoasts of Florida, the Carolinas and the Gulf, the wooded mountains of California, the desert of Arizona. We do so heedless of the damaged climate and the increased risk that creates for those locations.
There is, and must be, an economic cost to these “stupid decisions.” We made hospitable the swamp that most of the Florida peninsula wants to be, but the rising sea and powerful storms have their say. We made a major metropolis in the scorching Arizona desert, but now the Colorado River is increasingly depleted.
We continue to put stuff in the way of danger. And then we pay for it, over and over again.