Fight the fear! See the good news about natural disasters.

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.

Natural Disasters - dreamstime_xs_68171190
© Feng Yu | Dreamstime.

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!

Some Good News About Natural Disasters

By Roger Pielke Jr.
Op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2018.
Posted with his generous permission.

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Available at Amazon.

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.

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Roger Pielke Jr
Roger Pielke Jr.

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.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

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 …

  1. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off!
  2. Today’s conservative doomster warning (ludicrous but fun) — America will collapse before 2017!
  3. The IPCC rebukes the climate doomsters. Will we listen?
  4. A warning about the end of the world (doomster scenario #137) — “Industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?”
  5. Will we starve after all the bees die?
  6. Why are we so fearful? Have we become cowards?
  7. Requiem for fear. Let’s learn from failed predictions to have confidence in ourselves & our future.
  8. A new survey reveals American’s top fears, showing our true selves.
  9. Terrorism fears, terrorism hysteria, terrorism facts.
  10. We love scary stories. The reason why reveals a secret about America.
  11. Our fears make us weak and easily manipulated.
Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

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.”

10 thoughts on “Fight the fear! See the good news about natural disasters.

  1. Why are facts (more broadly, science) so ineffective at dispelling fears produced by propaganda?

    Martin van Creveld points out that images and symbols enter the mind more easily than equations do. That makes sense. We evolved as tribes on the African savannah, and our intellectual needs today are different.

    So today we have scientists, but often prefer the forecasts from shamans. Their confidence (both self-confidence and as institutional spokespeople) and emotionalism have more immediate credibility than scientists’ numbers and complex reasoning.

    How much can education and training overcome this tendency? Much depends on the answer.

  2. Do our leaders ceaseless efforts “to make us feel safe” work? Or are they counter-productive, making us fearful?

    Consider the increasing number of school “lockdowns.” There seem to be a lot of them in Iowa. Iowa! See this example: North Scott Junior High School is on lockdown this morning. Here is the email message sent to parents of the North Scott School District (from the Quad City Times).

    North Scott Community,

    We want all of you to know that North Scott Junior High is on lockdown at this time. Everyone is safe and we ask you please not come to school or call as we process the situation with students and staff. We did have a student bring a gun to the junior high. The student is in custody and the gun has been secured. Our administration is working with law enforcement to ensure the situation is being handled thoroughly. Administration, law enforcement, and counselors will be visiting every junior high classroom to ensure our students feel safe. After lockdown we will continue our normal day at the junior high. Thank you for your understanding.

    North Scott Administration

    I like this: “and the gun has been secured.” As opposed to leaving it on a table in the school cafeteria. Or allowing it to jump up, wander the halls, and shoot people. But what was this horrific incident?

    “No shots were fired, and a teacher at the school disarmed the child before police arrived, according to the statement.”

    I’ll bet that means that a teacher said “give me the gun”. And the kid gave the teacher the gun. Thirty seconds. Then two hours of hysteria, terrifying an entire school (teachers and students). Next: calls for practice lockdowns, police in schools, and more protective infrastructure.

  3. “So today we have scientists, but often prefer the forecasts from shamans. Their confidence (both self-confidence and as institutional spokespeople) and emotionalism have more immediate credibility than scientists’ numbers and complex reasoning.”

    This I think explains not only how it occurs but why so many of those who are the “Coalition of the ascendant” want to wrap themselves in scientific sounding shamanism and yell about “Truth speaking to Power” where “Truth” is actually today’s approved shamanism.

    Scary half “Truths” are like half a brick, you can throw them twice as far.

    1. John,

      “Scary half “Truths” are like half a brick, you can throw them twice as far.”

      That’s an easy winner for “Best of Thread.” I’m going to use that!

  4. FM: The problem with FACTS at this moment in time is that they do not fill the needs of our would-be leadership. That leadership wants cross-burning and mindless action that can be used to blackmail followers later into darker things. We stand on the cusp of very dark times, much like the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.

    Sadly, too many people have this urge to overthrow the current order in the hope that they might grasp a better (or at least more sensible (to them)) future. Nearly everybody is going to be disappointed and I fear that a lot of them are going to be dead. More likely from disease or stupidity than guns but you never know.

    1. Pluto,

      “The problem with FACTS at this moment in time is that they do not fill the needs of our would-be leadership. ”

      I don’t know who our “would be leadership is”. But facts have seldom if ever suited the needs of a nation’s leaders. That was so in 1700, when Jonathan Swift employed his formidable talents as a writer of scurrilous political pamphlets. It’s so now. It’s just life.

      The only difference I see now is that a too-large fraction of Americans have become gullible drama queens — getting the same kind of excitement from observing fringe political writers as children get from playing video games.

      In my darker moments I wonder if it is just as well that Americans are passive and apathetic. Perhaps our elites are correct and we’re not longer fit to wield the controls of America.

  5. Living in risk disaster zones should alter our lives and our technologies that are well adapted to those conditions. Like houses that float when flooding occurs or that allows the flooding to flow through without damage and so forth. Its foolish to do other wise.

    1. info,

      To some extent that is so, when building vital infrastructure in VERY high-risk zones. I suspect (guess) that the cost of a house that floats is not economically logical.

      California has done a good job of preparing for the “big one”, matching the cost with the odds. Some cities in Iowa have done a good job of preparing for floods — flood zones (prepared buildings, , parks and natural wildlife) along the river, having new developments include rainfall storage facilities.

      We’re getting better. But too much effort has gone into the hysteria about global warming in 2100, rather than preparing for the inevitable repeat of extreme weather from the past.

    2. Indeed. But speaking of buildings. I am appalled by the bad aesthetics of modern architecture. Much of it is horrendously ugly and depressing. I really hate the predominance of grey concrete and the way that it has been shaped in infrastructure and buildings and built structures in general.

      In comparison many towns built during the late medieval and renaissance periods are stunningly beautiful. What’s with this?

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