Since 1900 the number of deaths from natural disasters, including floods, hurricanes/cyclones, earthquakes, and tornados, has fallen dramatically, even as the number of reported occurrences of such events increased due to improved telecommunications and technologies to track and report such events, broader news coverage, and the globalization of international aid. Even as global population has grown from fewer than 2 billion people in 1900 to more than 7.4 billion people today, the number of people dying from extreme weather events and other natural disasters has declined by between 93 and 98 percent since the 1920s, with natural disasters causing only 0.06 percent of global mortality by 2008.
While natural disasters still kill thousands of people around the world annually, they are not equal-opportunity killers. In a typical year, dozens to hundreds of people may die in Europe and the United States from floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Those events kill thousands of people each year in Asia, in South and Central America, and on small island nations.
Why the difference? Earthquakes and hurricanes/cyclones are no stronger in developing nations than they are in developed countries. And flooding in Europe and the United States causes billions of dollars in damage but takes relatively few lives. By contrast, thousands drown in Asian countries each year during floods. It is not a difference in climate that accounts for the harsher impact of natural disasters in developing countries than in industrialized nations, but rather the difference in wealth.
Property rights and the market economy, defended by strong, but delimited, governing institutions, existing alongside voluntary, dispersed self-help networks, have created wealth beyond imagining. That wealth fostered, and increased with, the development of modern infrastructure: strong, disaster-resistant structures, building materials, techniques, and standards; technologies including early warning systems and emergency response systems; and modern medical treatment and facilities, each contributing to making industrialized societies more resilient.
In 1900, Galveston, Texas was already a relatively large, modern city. Yet the Great Galveston Hurricane (a Category 4 storm) claimed more than 8,000 lives. By contrast, 2008’s Hurricane Ike caused just 84 deaths, and for all the talk about Hurricane Harvey (a Category 5 storm) it has resulted in a total of 70 deaths in the 23 counties most affected. Millions more people live along Texas’ coasts now than in 1900, but the present generation is much wealthier than it was then.
As deadly as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was, causing the death of more than 1,200 people, it pales in comparison to the 300,000 to 500,000 lives lost in Bangladesh to the Great Bhola Cyclone in 1970 or the 138,000 killed in Myanmar by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
Though earthquakes are difficult to compare due to magnitude and location, differences in mortality across location and time are still telling. The Great San Francisco earthquake and associated fire caused between 700 and 3,000 deaths. By comparison, the magnitude 6.9 earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay area in 1989 claimed only 67 lives. There were vastly more people living in San Francisco in 1989 than in 1904, yet modern San Franciscans were much wealthier, and their city’s infrastructure and emergency response system was accordingly better so fewer lives were lost.
As bad as the March 11, 2011 8.9 magnitude earthquake and associated tsunami was in Japan, with more than 20,000 people dead or missing, it pales in comparison to the 230,000 people killed in and around Port-au-Prince, Haiti from a January 12, 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake, or the hundreds of thousands dead and missing across Asia when a 9.2 magnitude earthquake triggered tsunamis across the region on December 26, 2004, or even the 142,800 people killed in Tokyo in September 1923 by the Great Kanto earthquake. Modern Japan is wealthier than modern Haiti, wealthier than the parts of Asia devastated by the 2004 earthquake and tsunami, and wealthier than Japan in 1923.
Despite the fact Taiwan is 600 percent more densely populated than Turkey, the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that hit Taiwan on September 21, 1999 killed approximately 2,500 people. By comparison, a 7.4 magnitude earthquake that hit on Turkey August 17, 1999, just a month earlier, killed more than 17,000 people in just two cities. In 1999, Taiwan’s per-capita income was more than double that of Turkey’s.
Wealthier societies are simply more resilient than poorer societies. Communities in wealthier countries have better infrastructure and in general are better prepared for natural disasters when they occur and better able to respond quickly and effectively in the aftermath than comparable communities that are poorer.
Fossil fuels are critical to wealth creation. Citing Bjorn Lomborg, Roy Spencer, Ph.D. has written the restriction on fossil fuels required by the Paris climate agreement will destroy $100 trillion in wealth this century “for an unmeasurable reduction in warming.” Spencer goes on to say this wealth destruction/prevention “… will lead to [millions of] (preventable) deaths, due to poverty and all problems stemming from poverty. … Poverty kills millions. As far as we know, human carbon dioxide emissions have killed no one. In fact, it has saved millions of lives and increased prosperity.”
Peoples’ use of fossil fuels did not take a safe climate and make it hazardous for human health or prosperity. On the contrary, the use of oil, coal, and natural gas has positively transformed the world, allowing billions to live freer, healthier, more prosperous, and longer lives than the vast majority of the most powerful people in human history.
Ancient kings controlled armies and untold riches. I have a car, microwave, indoor plumbing, and safe drinking water; I can eat almost any fruit or vegetable without regard to season; I can travel across the world in mere hours. All the wealth and power ancient emperors had couldn’t buy any one of these things, and they were all made possible through the use of fossil fuels.
The rise from penury didn’t happen under tyranny or feudalism, it happened under capitalism. It wasn’t driven by animal dung, animal power, or wind turbines, it was driven by fossil fuels and the technologies they power. Today’s poor deserve the chance to live as I do, not as our ancestors did for millennia, toiling in poverty, constantly threatened with disease and malnourishment. Only fossil fuels can deliver them from this fate.
This article first appeared in Heartland Institute’s Climate Change Weekly for September 15, 2017.