Summary: More news about America’s greatest foe, against which we so far struggle in vain. Fear. Needless terror of shadows. Roger Pielke Jr. gives us good news about one such phantom that haunts the headlines.
America has become a safer place to live by almost every measure. Crime, disease, natural disasters – all still harvest their casualties, but at far lower rates than in the past. Yet Americans have become more fearful. Among the factors responsible is our special interests. They discovered how easily we are frightened, even by shadows (i.e., when the facts show we are safer). We can be politically manipulated by our fears, as the fiercest bull is controlled by a nose ring. My favorite example: how easily the Left whipped up hysteria about Alar. A sadder example is the long history of hysteria about crime as a means to oppress Blacks.
How did Americans decay to this point? Can a people so fearful and gullible govern themselves? While waiting for answers, here is an essay giving another example of our weakness. Perhaps illustrations of our weakness will impel change. My nomination for the 2020 campaign slogan: Get a grip, America!
By Roger Pielke Jr.
Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.
In his posthumously published book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling describes a paradox: “The image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” A case in point: natural disasters. The earth will always be volatile, but despite recent fires, volcanoes and hurricanes, humanity currently is experiencing a stretch of good fortune when it comes to disasters.
It’s difficult to be “factful” about disasters – the vivid trauma of each event distracts observers from the long-term decrease in destructiveness. But climate activists make the problem worse by blaming every extreme weather event on human-caused climate change, hoping to scare people into elevated concern.
Disasters certainly continue to cause catastrophic damage across the globe. The annual cost of disasters has doubled since reliable accounting of all events world-wide began in 1990, rising from about $100 billion to $200 billion a year in 2017 dollars.
But it’s deceptive to track disasters primarily in terms of aggregate cost. Since 1990, the global population has increased by more than 2.2 billion, and the global economy has more than doubled in size. This means more lives and wealth are at risk with each successive disaster.
Despite this increased exposure, disasters are claiming fewer lives. Data tracked by Our World in Data shows that from 2007-17, an average of 70,000 people each year were killed by natural disasters. In the decade 50 years earlier, the annual figure was more than 370,000. Seventy thousand is still far too many, but the reduction represents enormous progress.
The material cost of disasters also has decreased when considered as a proportion of the global economy. Since 1990, economic losses from disasters have decreased by about 20% as a proportion of world-wide gross domestic product. The trend still holds when the measurement is narrowed to weather-related disasters, which decreased similarly as a share of global GDP even as the dollar cost of disasters increased.
The decrease in disaster damage isn’t a surprise, because as the world population and economy have grown, the incidence of the most damaging extreme events has hardly changed. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in 2014 that there has been no increase in hurricanes, floods, droughts or tornadoes within the past 30 years. And 2018 is on track to have the lowest losses from disasters as a share of global GDP since 1990.
It is then no surprise that the climate-disaster scare campaign has been ineffective at swaying public opinion. Gallup reported earlier this year that 63% of Americans worried a “great deal” or “fair amount” about climate change – the same level as in 1989, when the question was first posed. But though popular worry hasn’t boiled over, the public debate around climate change has become more politicized, more partisan and less “factful.”
In place of today’s unproductive scare campaign, activists and the media should facilitate debate on the merits of actual climate-policy proposals, such as a carbon tax or improved flood defenses. Carbon dioxide emissions have indeed contributed to a global temperature increase and may yet influence extreme weather, so the public and policy makers must decide the best ways to reduce emissions and increase society’s resilience to extreme weather.
The U.S. has a long way to go in this regard. Last year Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria together caused more than $300 billion of damage. Among other issues, the storms revealed the lack of proper planning and infrastructure in Houston and the unpreparedness of the federal government in Puerto Rico.
Improving resilience to disasters will be easier if it is based on evidence. That means acknowledging both the progress made so far and the risks and vulnerabilities that lie ahead. As Rosling advises: “Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life. …You will make better decisions, stay alert to real dangers and possibilities, and avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things.” It’s good advice.
About the author
Roger Pielke, Jr. is a Professor of Environmental Studies at the U of CO-Boulder. He was Director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. He is now Director of the Sports Governance Center in the Dept of Athletics. Before joining the faculty of the U of CO, from 1993-2001 he was a Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
His research focuses on science, innovation and politics. He holds degrees in mathematics, public policy and political science from the University of Colorado. In 2006 he received the Eduard Brückner Prize in Munich for outstanding achievement in interdisciplinary climate research. In 2012 Roger was awarded an honorary doctorate from Linköping University in Sweden and the Public Service Award of the Geological Society of America.
His page at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has his bio, CV, and links to some of his publications. His website has links to his works, and essays about the many subjects on which he works.
He is also author, co-author or co-editor of seven books, including The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics (2007), The Climate Fix: What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming (2010), The Edge: The War against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports (2016), and his latest work (a revision of his 2014 book) – The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change (see below).
Some of his recent publications.
- “Catastrophes of the 21st Century” at Aon Benfield Australia.
- “Tracking Climate Progress: A Guide for Policymakers and the Informed Public” in the IEEJ Energy Journal.
- “My Unhappy Life as a Climate Heretic” in the Wall Street Journal.
- “The Truthiness about Hurricane Catastrophe Models” with J. Weinkle in Science, Technology & Human Values.
- An example of climate activists at work that shows why they lost. His presentation at the University of Florida, 17 March 2017.
For More Information
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If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, all posts about Roger Pielke Jr., about fear, about making America less gullible, and especially these …
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- Terrorism fears, terrorism hysteria, terrorism facts.
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- Our fears make us weak and easily manipulated.
A new book about the science of natural disasters
See Pielke’s new book, the revised second edition of The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change. See my review of the first edition. Here is the publisher’s summary …
“After nearly every hurricane, heatwave, drought, or other extreme weather event, commentators rush to link the disaster with climate change. But what does the science say?
“In this fully revised and updated edition of Disasters & Climate Change, renowned political scientist Roger Pielke Jr. takes a close look at the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the underlying scientific research, and the climate data to give you the latest science on how climate change is related to extreme weather. What he finds may surprise you and raise questions about the role of science in political debates.”