By H. Sterling Burnett
Another day, another search of Google for articles on “Climate Change”. It’s just more media misleading bait-and-switch claims that climate change is causing more severe, more frequent natural disasters.
This time the offender is CNET which published a story, “Deadlier fires, hurricanes, floods: Climate change could make natural disasters even worse,” which opens making a series of claims that are, at worst, patently false or, at best, misleading.
“First, the facts: Natural disasters are — statistically speaking — getting both worse and more frequent,” states the first paragraph of the CNET story, continuing, “Wildfire season is longer and more destructive than at any time in recorded history. In the US, flood zones encompass more homes than ever before. And hurricanes are striking with more destructive power than in years past. That much is indisputable.”
In truth, every statement made in that paragraph is disputable, with two the claims being flat out wrong, and one, true but misleading.
The Wildfire season is neither longer nor more destructive than at any time in recorded history, indeed, the number and severity of wildfires has declined sharply over the past century-and-a-half even as the earth has modestly warmed.
As reported in Climate at a Glance: Wildfires, records from the U.S. National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) wildfires have declined in number and severity in recent decades. The NIFC tracks data on U.S. wildfires back as far as 1926, and its shows the numbers of acres burned is far less now than it was throughout the early 20th century. As the Figure below shows, current acres burned run about 1/4th to 1/5th of the record values which occurred in the 1930s.
Globally, the data on wildfires is just as clear. On page 67 of Bjorn Lomborg’s book False Alarm he points to research demonstrating:
“There is plenty of evidence for a reduction in the level of devastation caused by fire, with satellites showing a 25 percent reduction globally in burned area just over the past 18 years … In total, the global amount of area burned as declined by more than 540,000 square miles, from 1.9 million square miles in the early part of last century to 1.4 million square miles today.”
It is true that even as the amount of acreage burned in wildfires has fallen the economic costs of wildfires has increased, but that is due to ever greater numbers of people moving into, and communities expanding into, areas historically prone to wildfires, and erecting ever more expensive homes, commercial developments, and related infrastructure there. Climate change is not responsible for rising wildfire costs, urban development in formerly rural, wildfire prone areas is.
Concerning Hurricanes, the data is equally clear and unalarming: Hurricanes are neither increasing in number or severity. Indeed, the actual data show the number of hurricanes and the number of major hurricanes (Class Three and above) have both declined over the past 30 years.
Globally, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) observes globally there is, “only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences.” And, as Climate at a Glance: Hurricanes details, in the United States hurricane impacts are at an all-time low. “The United States recently went more than a decade (2005 through 2017) without a major hurricane measuring Category 3 or higher, which is the longest such period in recorded history. The United States also recently experienced the fewest number of hurricane strikes in any eight-year period (2009 through 2017) in recorded history, notes meteorologist Anthony Watts citing data from the National Hurricane Center.
Those are the facts about wildfires and hurricanes that are indisputable.
Anyone who reads beyond the opening paragraph in the CNET article will find, even that author acknowledges that the increase in damage from flood events is difficult to attribute to climate change. Indeed, as Climate at a Glance: Floods points out the IPCC can find no evidence climate change has written it has “low confidence” in any climate change impact regarding the frequency or severity of floods, essentially conceding climate change is as likely to be making making floods less frequent and less severe as making them worse. However, as CNET’s article notes, more people have been moving into flood plains, which means when flood strike more people, homes, business, and infrastructure are affected.
The latter point is true of rising damages and costs from wildfires and hurricanes. As more and more people move to, and communities and cities expand into, areas that are historically disaster prone, building ever more expensive homes, retail developments, and infrastructure, when natural disasters strike, due to what Lomborg calls the “expanding bullseye effect, naturally more people and structures are putting themselves in harm’s way. Thus the higher costs are is not due to climate change but simply because more, more valuable, assets are at risk from demographic shifts in where people live and the lifestyles they pursue.
Contrary to the narrative spun out by CNET, however, these costs aren’t due, “simply more people than ever before that need housing,” but rather because of where they choose to build that housing and live. There are millions of acres far from coasts (hurricanes), rivers (floods), and forests (wildfires), lands not prone to relatively regular incidences of natural disaster, where people could build housing. Indeed, real estate markets show, on the whole this land is much cheaper to purchase and build upon. People choose to build in disaster zones, they aren’t forced to do so by the need for housing.
Separating truth from fiction about supposed influence of climate change on the incidence and severity of natural disasters is easy if one looks; if one relies on readily available data rather than assertions from alarmist climate lobbyists, like the Natural Resources Defense Council, as CNET does, one might even stumble upon the truth.