The fierce tornadoes that killed hundreds of Americans during the past month have prompted some environmentalists, including Bill McKibben in a recent Washington Post op-ed, to declare that these disasters are related to man-made climate change — and that things are only going to get worse.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, economist Don Boudreaux instead points to data showing that, single-year variances notwithstanding, in fact the “number of weather-related fatalities, especially since 1980, has dropped dramatically”:
For the 30-year span of 1980-2009, the average annual number of Americans killed by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes was 194 — fully one-third fewer deaths each year than during the 1940-1979 period. The average annual number of deaths for the years 1980-2009 falls even further, to 160 from 194, if we exclude the deaths attributed to Hurricane Katrina, most of which were caused by a levee that breached on the day after the storm struck land.
This decline in the absolute number of deaths caused by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes is even more impressive considering that the population of the United States more than doubled over these years — to 308 million in 2010 from 132 million in 1940.
Contrary to what many environmentalists would have us believe, Americans are increasingly less likely to be killed by severe weather. Moreover, because of modern industrial and technological advances — radar, stronger yet lighter building materials, more reliable electronic warning devices, and longer-lasting packaged foods — we are better protected from nature’s fury today than at any other time in human history. We do adapt. …
Since 1950 there have been 57 confirmed F5 tornadoes, with winds between 261–318 miles per hour, in the U.S. Of those, five struck in 1953; six in 1974. So far this year there have been four F5 tornadoes in the U.S., including the devastating storm that killed more than 130 people in Joplin on May 22. F5 tornadoes are massive, terrifying and deadly. But they generally touch down in unpopulated areas, thus going unnoticed. The tragedy of Joplin and other tornadoes this year is that they touched down in populated areas, causing great loss of life. Yet if these storms had struck even 20 years ago there would have been far more deaths.
But what makes Boudreaux’s counterargument really interesting is this:
So confident am I that the number of deaths from violent storms will continue to decline that I challenge Mr. McKibben — or Al Gore, Paul Krugman, or any other climate-change doomsayer — to put his wealth where his words are. I’ll bet $10,000 that the average annual number of Americans killed by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes will fall over the next 20 years. Specifically, I’ll bet that the average annual number of Americans killed by these violent weather events from 2011 through 2030 will be lower than it was from 1991 through 2010.
Boudreaux writes, and I agree, that the reaction by prominent environmentalists and commentators to his offer will be telling. The libertarian economist Julian Simon famously won a bet with Paul Ehrlich, author of “The Population Bomb,” in which Simon predicted commodity prices would fall in spite of growth in the world’s population (and thus demand for limited resources).
I’ll update the post with any news that someone has Boudreaux’s challenge. But if any of you would like to take Boudreaux’s bet, please let us know here first!
– By Kyle Wingfield