Why is extreme weather causing fewer deaths?

The changing climate is leading to more disasters but warnings and management of impacts is improving

A woman carrying her child wades through flood water in Myanmar
Heavy rain brought devastating flooding to Yangon, Myanmar, last year
(Image credit: STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images)

Extreme weather events frequently hit the headlines for the severe damage they cause, but the death tolls that result from them have plummeted in recent years.

Floods, storms and wildfires often cause homelessness and economic chaos, upending the lives of those caught in the heart of these disasters.

However, a new report from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) suggests that fewer people are dying due to these events, said the BBC.

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It is thought weather-related disasters caused 22,608 deaths between 2019 and 2021, the news site added, which is fewer than recorded in previous periods.

Why have there been fewer deaths?

There has been a surge in the number of extreme weather events in the past 20 years, which Semafor said can be attributed mostly to “rising global temperatures and other effects of climate change”.

But the deadly nature of these instances has “fallen sharply”, the news site added.

Lower death tolls are not a result of events “becoming less frequent or severe”, said the BBC, as WMO data shows weather-related disasters have “increased five-fold” between 1970 and 2019.

Instead, the The Independent reported that “improved early warning systems and disaster management” can be pinpointed as the primary reason for improved fatality statistics over time.

“In the past,both Myanmar and Bangladesh suffered death tolls of tens and even hundreds of thousands of people,” said Professor Petteri Taalas, the WMO’s secretary-general, but “these catastrophic mortality rates are now thankfully history”, thanks to greater monitoring and communications.

What has the impact of climate changes been?

“Half a million fewer people died in England and Wales as a result of cold weather as the climate warmed over the past 20 years,” reported The Telegraph, citing Office for National Statistics (ONS) data.

Myer Glickman, a senior statistician at the ONS, told the paper that while hospital admissions had increased, there was a decrease in deaths, thought to be “at least partly because of warmer winters”.

The Telegraph added colder weather is “far more lethal” than extreme heat, while Glickman noted the impacts of climate change on “mental health and chronic diseases” would have to be considered in future.

Although these disasters are becoming less deadly, they are becoming more expensive, said Axios’s Andrew Freedman, adding that “the vast majority of economic losses stemmed from industrialised countries”.

Despite this, economic inequalities are often highlighted by natural disasters, as the “least developed countries and small island developing states have suffered a disproportionately high cost in relation to the size of their economies”, said ITV News.

The worst effects of extreme weather “often fall on the poorest”, according to Vox. It also argued that warnings are not sufficient without “the means to act on those warnings”.

What can be done in the future?

While fewer deaths as a result of extreme weather conditions have been welcomed, experts stress it is important not to take declining numbers for granted.

“As we keep seeing record-setting events occurring, looking backward isn’t preparing us,” Craig Fugate, who led the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Obama, told Vox.

The UN stressed that earlier warnings and more coordinated disaster management helps to “mitigate the deadly impact of disasters”, saving lives as a result. But the organisation is keen to improve its efforts to ensure no one is “left behind”.

The Early Warnings for All initiative was launched by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Cop27 conference last year, and intends to ensure these systems reach all countries by the end of 2027. “Currently, only half of the world is covered,” the UN said.

“Now it is time for us to deliver results”, said Guterres. “Millions of lives are hanging in the balance.”

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Rebekah Evans joined The Week as newsletter editor in 2023 and has written on subjects ranging from Ukraine and Afghanistan to fast fashion and "brotox". She started her career at Reach plc, where she cut her teeth on news, before pivoting into personal finance at the height of the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis. Social affairs is another of her passions, and she has interviewed people from across the world and from all walks of life. Rebekah completed an NCTJ with the Press Association and has written for publications including The Guardian, The Week magazine, the Press Association and local newspapers.