January 21, 2011 10:04 pm

A disastrous truth

Floods and hurricanes do more damage every decade because ever more people own ever more stuff

I grew up in the Netherlands, below sea level, and about five miles from the North Sea. The country had feared the waters for centuries and in 1953 a storm had broken the dykes just an hour’s drive from our town. The ensuing floods killed more than 1,800 Dutch people. Yet by the time I lived there, the Dutch no longer feared the sea. That’s because after 1953, they had acted. A hard-up, war-damaged country spent a fortune creating the “Delta Works” – a series of dams, sluices and barriers to keep out the sea. The American Society of Civil Engineers has proclaimed the Delta Works one of the seven modern wonders of the world. The Dutch agree: as a schoolchild, I was taken on the ritual, patriotic outing in freezing weather to inspect the nation’s defences. I thought they were dull, and they were: the sort of boring insurance against disaster that only becomes interesting when disaster strikes.

It’s now becoming clear that the Delta Works are a model for the world. This month’s deadly floods in Brazil, Sri Lanka and Australia – after last year’s deadly floods in Pakistan and Colombia – show how many people need Delta Works right now. But that’s not because of climate change. Certainly, man-made climate change is happening – it has already contributed to rising global temperatures and sea levels. However, according to most climate scientists, it cannot presently be shown to have anything to do with the recent disasters. We need to do something gigantic about climate change, but, separate from that, we also need projects like the Delta Works.

Every time a disaster strikes, some environmentalists blame it on climate change. “It’s been such a part of the narrative of the public and political debate, particularly after Hurricane Katrina,” Roger Pielke Jr, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Colorado, told me. “You see the Pakistani floods or even the snowstorm over Paris, and people trot out the connection to climate change.”

The poster for Al Gore’s environmentalist film An Inconvenient Truth shows a tropical cyclone coming out of a power plant’s smokestack. The Stern report on climate change also said greenhouse gases were increasing the losses from disasters. But nothing in the scientific literature indicates that this is true. A host of recent peer-reviewed studies agree: there’s no evidence that climate change has increased the damage from natural disasters. Most likely, climate change will make disasters worse some day, but not yet.

Laurens Bouwer, of Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, has recently reviewed 22 “disaster loss studies” and concludes: “Anthropogenic climate change so far has not had a significant impact on losses from natural disasters.” Eric Neumayer and Fabian Barthel of the London School of Economics found likewise in their recent “global analysis” of natural disasters. Meanwhile, in his book The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming, Pielke writes that there’s no upward trend in the landfalls of tropical cyclones. Even floods in Brisbane aren’t getting worse – just check out the city’s 19th-century floods. Pielke says the consensus of peer-reviewed research on this point – that climate change is not yet worsening disasters – is as strong as any consensus in climate science.

It’s true that floods and hurricanes do more damage every decade. However, that’s because ever more people, owning ever more “stuff”, live in vulnerable spots. Brisbane, for instance, now has 2 million inhabitants, twice as many as during the flood of 1974. Pielke likes to illustrate this change with two photographs of Miami Beach. The first, taken in 1925, shows an almost empty oceanfront. In the second, from 2006, the whole place is built up. There’s much more to destroy now.

As more gets destroyed, more countries will probably build projects like the Delta Works. According to Pielke: “The most effective responses to disasters are often after disasters occur.” Brisbane will presumably act now; poorer countries might not. Yet the likes of Delta Works needn’t cost fortunes – the average Dutch person spends about €45 a year to stay dry – and if countries protect themselves now, they will be safer when climate change does worsen disasters. The Dutch reckon they will be fine for centuries to come, even if climate change raises the North Sea by several metres.

When it comes to preventing today’s disasters, the squabble about climate change is just a distraction. The media usually has room for only one environmental argument: is climate change happening? This pits virtually all climate scientists against a band of self-taught freelance sceptics, many of whom think the “global warming hoax” is a ruse got up by 1960s radicals as a trick to bring in socialism. (I know, I get the sceptics’ e-mails.) Sometimes in this squabble, climate scientists are tempted to overstate their case, and to say that the latest disaster proves that the climate is changing. This is bad science. It also gives the sceptics something dubious to attack. Better to ignore the sceptics, and have more useful debates about disasters and climate change – which, for now, are two separate problems.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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