Last week, there was widespread concern about Hurricane Irene’s potential damage, and even wider concerns about the intensifying power of hurricanes due to a storm season or global warming, or both. However, fear is often misdirected when complex patterns are involved. The hype about Irene, in particular, and hurricanes, in general, is out of place.
That’s because the most dangerous type of extreme weather in recent times has been extreme temperatures, not natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, which don't claim nearly as many lives as they used to. For most of the 20th century, the most dangerous weather events were droughts and floods, but now these categories are responsible for only a tenth of the deaths as they used to be. Humans have adapted well to these mother nature challenges.
Deaths related to extreme temperatures (heat and cold), however, have astronomically risen in deaths, killing roughly 5,700 people from 1990 to 2006, which is more than 50 times the amount of people that heat and cold killed in the rest of the 20th century.
Telescoping the data down to the U.S. and to recent times reveals this pattern even more clearly. From 1979-2002, hurricanes killed 460 people, but extreme heat killed 8,000 people (and extreme cold killed around 16,000). Southern cities have seen their numbers of heat-related deaths decline, while the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast have seen their number of deaths remain steady or in some cases, increased.
Our focus on hurricanes is easy to understand; they can harm any person unlucky enough to be caught in the wrong place. Extreme temperature, by contrast, predominantly harms vulnerable groups such as the elderly. As global warming creates more extreme temperatures, deaths from heat and possibly cold are likely to rise (Or, will they balance each other out?).
What can we do to reduce these deaths?
Many public policy decisions can have an indirect bearing on heat deaths (a comprehensive report is here), but the most important factor is money. From 1985-2004, the federal government only spent an average of 200 million dollars annually on preventing disasters. Sadly, we spend much more on repairing damage after the fact, when the same money could have had a much greater impact ahead of time.
For the threat of heat deaths specifically, prevention could involve subsidizing electricity for poorer Americans (some states do this already), as well as increasing public education campaigns. Cities also have a role to play by being more vigilant and creating “check in” lists for the elderly, as well as making sure that local officials (like block captains in Philadelphia) watch isolated populations.
These changes only flirt with what's really necessary: a change in public consciousness on two fronts.
As many have noted, Americans are addicted to extreme weather. For us, there is something about watching weather reporters in network flank jackets alternating between soothing reassurances and apocalyptic predictions. We have to see past this though and think prevention instead of picking up the pieces, and we have to look at what actually causes a lot of deaths.
The second change springs from a deep fact about our culture: We don't relate to our old people the way many other countries do. People lament when babies are left in cars for hours while parents shop, but the same sort of condemnation is not directed at the social conventions that leave the elderly alone in hot apartments.
We are often encouraged to think of disasters as "Acts of God" (thank you Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) for bringing up this theme again), but they collide with a social world that is there to receive them, and that social world can be changed.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons