Insurer: Weather disasters becoming more frequent
The number of natural disasters has more than doubled since 1980, mostly because of a worsening of weather-driven catastrophes, according to a German insurance company.
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Not all agree with Munich Re's assessment. Writing in the Ottowa Citizen, Dan Gardner attempts to dump cold water on what he calls the "worst-case entrepreneurs." The increase in natural disasters, he writes, may well be a matter of perception:Skip to next paragraph
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Over the last three decades, populations have grown massively. So has wealth. More people plus more property means more stuff to be insured -- and more stuff to be wrecked by a storm, flood or earthquake and claimed afterward. When the rising dollar value of natural-disaster related insurance claims is held up as irrefutable proof of the damage wrought by climate change, it proves only that the person making the argument is selling something.
The data on the number of natural disasters is a little better, but not much. That's because a natural disaster isn't counted in Munich Re's figures unless people died in it. Rapid population growth has produced more people. More people means more potential victims. Some growth in that number over time is to be expected for that reason alone.
In addition, monitoring of events has improved greatly over the last several decades. There are far more seismographic sensors, more weather stations, more satellites, more government programs for collecting data on events and reporting them. Again, this change alone would inflate the alleged number of recorded natural disasters over time.
It's worth noting here that, despite the increase in seismographic sensors, Munich Re's data does not show a steady increase in geophysical disasters over the past 28 years.
But Mr. Gardner's larger point still holds: you should be cautious accepting any report of a trend at face value without first looking at the way the data was collected. And you should be extra-cautious if someone stands to make money out of it.
But as an insurer, Munich Re has a strong financial incentive to assess risk as accurately as possible. And the company's analysts are not the only ones saying that the weather has been getting wacky. The World Meteorological Organization, for example, has also noted an increase in extreme weather events. And you can bet that their scientists have means of correcting for the types of bush-league sampling biases that Gardner describes.
To be sure, it's impossible to link a single storm, drought, or flood to human activity – although Newsweek's longtime science reporter Sharon Begley says that scientists are getting close to being able to do so.
But as we see the number of severe storms, droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat waves steadily increase along with atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, it seems fair to ask whether we should still be calling these disasters natural.