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Economic losses from extreme weather hit £3.6tn over five decades

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Developed nations have incurred the bulk of $3.6tn in economic losses from severe weather events over the past five decades, while high death tolls endured by poorer nations have been partly reduced by better evacuation.

Scientists at the UN’s World Meteorological Organization said the number of weather-related disasters around the globe had increased fivefold over the past 50 years.

The death toll of 115 people and more than $200m lost every day in the period was driven by climate change, more extreme weather and improved reporting, according to the WMO Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate and Water Extremes, covering 1970 to 2019. The total losses over the period amounted to $3.6tn and 2m deaths.

The latest example is the estimated cost of Hurricane Ida, the fifth-largest hurricane to make landfall in the US, which the commercial forecaster AccuWeather has projected could be as high as $80bn.

The wider economic cost includes an estimated hit to insurers of between $17bn and $25bn, according to catastrophe and risk modelling group AIR. This would cover the damage from wind and the storm surge, paying out to repair everything from cars to residential, commercial and industrial property.

But the final bill could be higher still, as the AIR numbers do not include insurance claims to come from the heavy rains and flooding caused by Ida that hammered New York and other eastern US states in recent days.

“Reconstruction costs are more expensive today than they were a year ago,” AIR added, highlighting a sharp increase in prices for certain materials that will further inflate claims.

The increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events — including wildfires across southern Europe, the US and Siberia, and flooding in northern Europe — would not have been possible without global warming, according to many of the world’s leading scientists.

“The number of weather, climate and water extremes are increasing and will become more frequent and severe in many parts of the world as a result of climate change,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas.

Three of the world’s costliest 10 disasters occurred in 2017: hurricanes Harvey ($96.9bn), Maria ($69.4bn) and Irma ($58.2bn). 

Despite the rising intensity of events, better forecasting and evacuation procedures meant the number of deaths had been reduced, according to the WMO.

However, gaps remained in some parts of the world in early warning systems and timely weather forecasting, including in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific Islands and some parts of Latin America. Only half of the 193 members of the WMO had multi-hazard early warning systems.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, which contributed to the latest WMO Atlas, said more international co-operation in managing disaster risk was needed to tackle the “chronic problem of huge numbers of people being displaced each year by floods, storms and drought”.

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