Geography Weather and Climate Damage Studies
by
Jessica Weinkle, Roger Pielke
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0194

Introduction

The long history of scientific efforts to understand and predict weather reflects society’s concern for weather’s impacts on life, property, and other values. Damage refers to any number of things that may be harmed. For instance, medical professionals are concerned with damage to public health. Understandings of damage shape political debate about the meaning of weather and climate extremes. In recent decades, the lens in which weather and climate damage is viewed has become tightly bound to the evolution of the insurance industry, technological innovations, and climate change policy debate. Popular perceptions of a link between the emission of greenhouse gases and disaster losses places research on weather extremes and damage trends at the forefront of climate change policy debate. These debates find practical meaning in the context of decision-making, particularly in estimating damage for the purposes of insurance. While a robust literature attributes observed trends in weather damages to increases in wealth and population, attributing the increases in losses to changes in the frequency or intensity of specific weather phenomena resulting from human-caused changes in climate has proved more difficult and remains an evolving area of research. In any case, the research collectively points toward societal vulnerability as the leading cause of direct economic damage and national-level macroeconomic damage. Research in resilience to environmental extremes is the most recent iteration of the longer winded discussion of weather and climate damage, vulnerability and economic development. This article is focused on studies of direct economic losses from tropical cyclones/hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires/bushfires. There is a short section on indirect and macroeconomic damages, but this literature is very much a product of the study of disasters and economic development more generally. A short section is presented on vulnerability, as this is the natural end point for nearly all studies of weather and climate damage.

Reviews of Weather and Climate Damage Trends

Reviews of weather and climate extremes occur in two fashions. First, individual or groups of scholars will work together to review the peer-reviewed literature on weather and climate damage. Often, if not always, these are done with appeal to understanding the state of the science on the relationship between climate change and damage, including extensive assessments of the uncertainties in claims of attribution. Second, large-scale international and national research programs regularly review the climate science literature in producing consensus reports framing the state of the scientific literature on climate change and associated extreme weather events. The reports couch meaning of these findings in terms of the potential for extreme weather to cause damage. These reports are lengthy and mostly technically oriented with specific sections geared toward nontechnical audiences. Their release is often associated with much fanfare. In 1988, the United Nations convened the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to review the climate change science literature and produce consensus statements on the state of the science. IPCC Assessment Reports (AR) consist of several volumes of information, each geared toward a different audience. AR5 is the most recent assessment (IPCC 2014). In 2012, the IPCC released a special report exclusively on extreme events, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, better known as SREX. The report included sections explicitly focused on trends in disaster damages and managing risks associated with climatic extremes. In 1990, the US Congress established the Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), a multiagency research initiative overseen by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The USGCRP produces National Climate Assessment reports on the state of climate change science with a focus on observed and expected changes in the United States. The most recent is USGCRP 2017, released during the first year of the Trump administration. Independent reviews of damage trends began in the 1990s in response to several larger than expected insurance industry losses. Most notable of these is Changnon, et al. 1996. Since then, scholars initiate reviews as means of engaging with public debate about the connection between weather and climate damage and climate change. For instance, Bouwer 2011 is in response to quarrels about attribution of loss. Mohleji and Pielke 2014 sheds light on an ambiguous but commonly referenced data set. Kousky 2014 is in substantiation of preferred policy preferences.

  • Bouwer, L. M. “Have Disaster Losses Increased Due to Anthropogenic Climate Change?” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 92.1 (2011): 39–46.

    DOI: 10.1175/2010BAMS3092.1E-mail Citation »

    Bouwer presents a review and analysis of quantitative studies on past increases in weather disaster losses and the role of anthropogenic climate change. Analyses show that although economic losses from weather-related hazards have increased, anthropogenic climate change so far did not have a significant impact on losses from natural disasters. The observed loss increase is caused primarily by increasing exposure and value of capital at risk.

  • Changnon, S. A., D. Changnon, E. R. Fosse, D. C. Hoganson, R. J. Roth, Sr., and J. Totsch. Impacts and Responses of the Weather Insurance Industry to Recent Weather Extremes. Final Report to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Mahomet, IL: Changnon Climatologists, 1996.

    E-mail Citation »

    This study is historically significant as an early work documenting the complex relationship between weather and climate damage, the insurance industry, and the atmospheric sciences. The study reviews losses during 1991–1994 and explores the causes and outcomes. The work’s tone, concerns, and verbiage set the stage of contemporary debate. The reference section is valuable for a historic perspective on relevant works.

  • IPCC. Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by C. B. Field, V. Barros, T. F. Stocker, et al. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    The IPCC produced this report, better known as SREX, in response, at least in part, to criticisms of how it handled reporting on damages in AR4. Relevant findings include: increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in economic losses from weather and climate related disasters and low-regrets measures provide benefits under current climate and a range of future climate change scenarios.

  • IPCC. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Edited by R. K. Pachauri and L. A. Meyer. Geneva, Switzerland: IPCC, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    This report synthesizes reports by three IPCC working groups. Relevant findings include: low confidence that anthropogenic climate change affected the frequency and magnitude of fluvial floods on a global scale, low confidence that long-term changes in tropical cyclone activity are robust, low confidence in observed global-scale trends in droughts, and high confidence that losses from weather-related disasters increased in recent decades due to increasing exposure of people and economic assets.

  • Kousky, C. “Informing Climate Adaptation: A Review of the Economic Costs of Natural Disasters.” Energy Economics 46 (2014): 576–592.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.eneco.2013.09.029E-mail Citation »

    Framed in the context of climate adaptation, this article provides a rather thorough overview of the literature on disaster damage and, specifically, on weather-related economic losses. The work provides discussion of the many ways in which researchers approach the issue of economic losses, such as short-term and long-term impacts.

  • Mohleji, S., and R. Pielke Jr. “Reconciliation of Trends in Global and Regional Economic Losses from Weather Events: 1980–2008.” Natural Hazards Review 15.4 (2014).

    DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)NH.1527-6996.0000141E-mail Citation »

    This study disaggregates global losses from 1980–2008 from a reinsurance data set into regional components and compares this disaggregation to the literature at the regional scale. The authors find that North American, Asian, European, and Australian storms and floods account for 97 percent of the increasing trend in losses over the time period of analysis with US hurricane losses accounting for nearly 60 percent of global losses.

  • USGCRP. Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume I. Edited by D. J. Wuebbles, D. W. Fahey, K. A. Hibbard, D. J. Dokken, B. C. Stewart, and T. K. Maycock. Washington, DC: US Global Change Research Program, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    Relevant findings include: the number of “nuisance” tidal floods has increased since the 1960s in several US coastal cities, tornado activity in the United States has become more variable, the incidence of large forest fires in the western United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s, and detection and attribution of past changes in tropical cyclone behavior remain a challenge due to the nature of the historical data.

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