Weather-Related Disasters Cost $60 Billion in 2003

December 11, 2003

Delegates attending the current meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Milan heard a report, prepared by Munich Re, estimating that the cost of natural disasters, most of which were weather-related catastrophes, was over $60 billion in 2003 up from around $55 billion the year before. Approximately $15 billion of those were insured losses.

The UNEP stressed that the high economic losses are part of a worrying trend that is being linked with climate change. It called on “governments, business and industry to back emerging emissions trading markets as one way of tackling the crisis.”

The findings are likely to increase the rancor involved in the debate over climate change between the U.S. and the rest of the world. According to a report from the BBC, Senator James Inhöfe, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said he was increasingly convinced that “global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people and the world.” His views are more or less shared by the current Adiministration

The UNEP bulletin, however, contained some impressive findings. Europe’s “extreme summer heat wave, in which crops and livestock wilted across many parts of Europe and some 20,000 people were killed, is expected to have been the most costly single event with agricultural losses alone estimated to be over $10 billion.”

It also cited the floods along the Huai and Yangtze Rivers in China between July and September that damaged around 650,000 apartments with overall losses estimated at nearly $8 billion. In the U.S. tornadoes that hit the Midwest in April and May caused insured losses estimated at $3 billion.

“These are just some of the preliminary ‘snapshot’ findings from Munich Re, one of the world’s biggest re-insurance companies, which has been tracking the economic and insured losses as a result of natural and weather-related catastrophes since the 1950s,” said the bulletin. “The final, full report, will be completed at the end of the month.”

Thomas Loster, Munich Re’s Head of Weather/Climate Risks Research, who also heads the Climate Change Working Group of the UNEP Finance Initiative, stated that the years of the late 1990s and early 21st century had been marked by increasingly “extreme” weather and climate-related events.

“We will have to get used to the fact that extreme summers, like the one we had in Europe this year, are to be expected more frequently in the future and that they will become more or less the norm by the middle of the century,” he continued. “The summer of 2003, with its extensive losses, is therefore a glimpse into the future, a ‘future summer’ so to speak.”

Taking direct issue with Senator Inhöfe and the U.S. position, UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer, stated: “Climate change is not a prognosis, it is a reality that is, and will increasingly, bring human suffering and economic hardship. Developed countries have a responsibility to reduce their emissions, but also have a responsibility to help developing countries adapt to the impacts of global warming. So I welcome pledges, made here in Milan and amounting to over $400 million, that will support funds that will help poorer nations cope with the impacts. We need to make these operational.”

While Toepfer heavily criticized countries that had failed to ratify the Kyoto protocol, and were refusing to implement the steps it mandates to bring down harmful emissions, he diplomatically avoided mentioning the U.S. by name. The implications, however, were clear. He cited “numerous programmes underway in places like Europe, North America and Japan designed to encourage cleaner and renewable energies, promote energy efficiency in the workplace and in homes and introduce new technologies, like hydrogen fuels for cars,” as proof that “the world is not deaf, nor blind, to the seriousness of this most alarming of global threats.”

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