As extreme weather disasters worsen and become more numerous due to climate change, it’s becoming clear that the cost in lives and economic impact is rising alongside them. Now, a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) aims to put a more accurate dollar figure and a body count to the crisis.
Specifically, over the past 50 years, weather disasters were responsible for an estimated 2 million deaths, and cost US$3.64 trillion in economic losses (CA$4.63 trillion). That averages out to 115 deaths and US 202 million (CA$257million) per day.
Those numbers are drawn from the WMO’s Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather and Climate Extremes, which aims to document weather, climate, or water hazard disasters from 1970 to 2019. It includes around 11,000 disasters related to a weather, climate, or water hazard.
The lion’s share of deaths is attributed to droughts, at 650,000, with storms not far behind at 577,232. Storms take the top spot in terms of economic damage, at around US$521 billion (CA$ 665 billion), followed by floods at US$ 115 billion (CA$147 billion).
The report doesn’t include a death toll for Canada, but our share of the economic damage came to US$57 billion (CA$73 billion) over 50 years. The single costliest Canadian disaster was a 1977 drought the WMO says did US$12.7 billion (CA$16 billion) in economic damage.
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Around nine in ten deaths occurred in the developing world, and the number of weather and climate-related disasters increased by a factor of five over that period. While no individual disaster can be attributed to climate change, WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas highlights the fact that such disasters are expected to become more frequent, and more severe, as climate change progresses.
“That means more heatwaves, drought, and forest fires such as those we have observed recently in Europe and North America,” Taalas said in a release from the organization. “We have more water vapour in the atmosphere, which is exacerbating extreme rainfall and deadly flooding. The warming of the oceans has affected the frequency and area of existence of the most intense tropical storms.”
Aside from the total cost of disasters, reports from other organizations in the past year have found that individual incidents are becoming more damaging. In 2020, for example, the U.S. experienced 22 disasters costing at least US$1 billion in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In Canada, a report from Canadian Institute for Climate Choices found the average disaster did around $8 million of damage in the 1970s, but now does around $110 million.
But as dire as the WMO report’s numbers look, Taalas stresses that within the report is a “message of hope”: The number of deaths from extreme weather disasters has fallen threefold over that same 50-year period. In the 1970s, the average was around 170 per day, but by the 2010s, it was down to 40 per day.
“Improved multi-hazard early warning systems have led to a significant reduction in mortality. Quite simply, we are better than ever before at saving lives,” Taalas says.