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As weather disasters increase, deaths from them have actually fallen


With Spain and Portugal saying that hundreds of people have died from the heat waves sweeping through Europe this month, the longer-term view might come as a surprise. Over the past 50 years, the number of deaths attributed to weather-related disasters has actually fallen. Yes, you heard that right. The World Meteorological Organization says that the number of disasters has increased five times over the past 50 years, but the number of fatalities has fallen by two-thirds. Vox climate writer Umair Irfan has delved into this paradox and joins us now. Welcome to the program, Umair.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks for having me, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So how can this be? Like, how can the number of deaths be falling even though we hear the news, we see the disasters? You know, seas are rising, summers are hotter, hurricanes seem to be getting stronger. So how is it possible that deaths can be down?

IRFAN: Well, there are two main factors here. One is better forecasting - basically being able to get ahead of these disasters and then hopefully being able to get people out of harm's way. So that's really prominent with things like hurricanes and heat waves. We can actually see those things days in advance. The other side of the equation is how well we can cope with things like storms, fires and heat waves when they do occur. So we have better tools - things like sea walls. We have better building codes. We have firefighting teams that can get people out of fire zones. And so between those two aspects - you know, the better forecasting and the better tools - we've been able to avert a lot of deaths, even though the global population has grown about fourfold since the start of the 20th century.

RASCOE: Are the technological advances that you're talking about available even in less-developed areas?

IRFAN: It's not, unfortunately. And you're hitting on a very important point. You know, the WMO pointed out that about 90% of disaster-related fatalities that occur today are occurring in developing countries. And there's a huge gap in terms of being able to anticipate these disasters before they occur and being able to respond to them and being able to rebuild in their aftermath. And that really is a big shortfall that a lot of world leaders are starting to get concerned about.

RASCOE: What got you interested in this story?

IRFAN: Well, I write about climate change. And I'm - you know, there's - the general trend has always been, you know, fairly bad. But, like, there are some bits of good news, and I think it's worth highlighting, particularly when it comes to things like deaths, which are, you know, the most - likely the worst outcome of some of these extreme weather events. And by highlighting this progress, I'm hoping that, you know, we can continue this progress and carry it forward.

You know, the World Meteorological Organization, they launched this initiative to basically say that they want the whole world covered by disaster early warning systems over the next five years. And they think that this is something that's going to be taking a big bite out of the fatalities and the casualties caused by these disasters. So I think it's worth highlighting the progress that's made, but also the progress that we still need to make.

RASCOE: You mentioned, I believe, like, that the U.N. panel on climate change predicts that global warming, if left unchecked, will cause these unavoidable increases in natural disasters. Will the early warning systems be enough to counteract the growing dangers?

IRFAN: It's only the first step, you know? Being warned of a disaster doesn't do much for you if you can't get out of the way. You know, if you're in an island country and you see - get a tsunami warning, I mean, it doesn't really help you unless you can actually get off the island. It doesn't really help you unless you can actually, you know, do something about it and prepare for the disaster ahead of time. So warnings are important. There - they should not be underrated, but they're part of a broader solution that has to, you know, encompass preparing for the disaster but then also recovering afterwards. You know, how, after the disaster strikes, will people be able to build or rebuild their homes, resume their lives?

Otherwise, you know, these are things that are going to continue to mount and compound. You know, we may see things like mass migration in the wake of climate change. When you have things like sea-level rise and persistent disasters, people are going to have to move. And so unless you start anticipating that, that can cause a lot of political turmoil and a lot of other kinds of economic and, you know, social harms. And so this - warnings are definitely an important step, but they're not the complete solution to this.

RASCOE: That's Umair Irfan, who writes about climate change, energy and COVID-19 vaccine development for Vox. Thank you so much for joining us.

IRFAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.

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