climate change

The front lines of climate disaster in 2020

A lot happened in the world in 2020, and climate change didn’t pause while the world’s attention has been on the Coronavirus pandemic. But which areas of the world have been most affected by climate change in 2020?

There are various ways to answer that question. One of them is to look at the most expensive natural disasters – the ones that caused the highest measurable amounts of damage. Christian Aid released a report at the end of December that gave us a top ten. They are as follows:

  1. Atlantic hurricanes – $40 billion in damage to the US and Central America.
  2. Floods in China – $32 billion
  3. US fire season – $20 billion in damage across the West Coast.
  4. Cyclone Amphan – struck India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, $13 billion.
  5. Floods in India – $10 billion
  6. Locust swarms in Africa – $8.5 billion in harvest losses across East Africa.
  7. Storms in Europe – windstorms Ciara and Alex caused $5.9 billion in damage.
  8. Fires in Australia – $5 billion.
  9. Floods in Japan – the Kyushu floods cost $5 billion.
  10. Floods in Pakistan – $1.5 billion.

This is a list calculated through insurance losses, which has limits as a way of calculating the damage from climate change. For a start, it is the financial costs that are calculated, not the harm to human lives or wildlife.

Secondly, insurance based lists naturally tilt in favour of places that have established insurance markets and where people can routinely afford to insure their properties – like the US or Australia. The richer a place is, the more expensive it will be to rebuild it, so large disasters in poorer regions may score lower than smaller disasters in richer places.

Christian Aid recognise this, and mention the floods in South Sudan as a situation that could be overlooked – a million people were displaced as the Blue Nile hit a new record water level, but the official cost of $81 million in damage doesn’t make the top ten.

Another problem is that insurance needs events, and so everything on the list here has a specific incident behind it. It’s harder to capture the damage that climate change does by attrition, through drought and desertification. Millions of people may be affected and billions of dollars may be lost, but without being able to pin it on any one headline grabbing moment.

Finally, you can also have a climate related disaster that leaves little trace on the insurance records and may not even be identified as a natural disaster. For example, the deadliest incident in the list above is the floods in India, which killed 2,067 people. That’s fewer casualties than the ‘excess deaths’ caused by the heatwaves in Britain in 2020, which totalled 2,556. And yet since heatwaves don’t damage property in any widespread way and nobody is displaced, it is quite possible to miss the fact that a natural disaster has occurred.

Still, lists like this one give us a snapshot of climate impacts in 2020. And one thing that’s notable from Christian Aid’s report is that while the effects of climate change are not evenly distributed, it’s increasingly clear that it affects everybody. Places such as Australia and the US have not adopted serious climate change policies, but it is costing them billions in insurance losses already. This ought to push climate change up the agenda.

4 comments

  1. Hi Jeremy

    As a school teacher I happened upon the Christian Aid report to do a project on clinate change with my 9-10 year olds.

    If really appreciatednyou insights about comparstive cost and heatwaves.

    If you have any other ideas and online resources, I would be grateful to receive it.

    Regards
    Kerry

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