Extreme Weather As Far As the Eye Can See

If you want to know who is really, really upset about natural disasters—ranking right after the victims, of course, but probably ahead of the environmental activists who point to the disasters and see the hand of climate change—look no further than the insurance industry and its re-insurers (those are the companies that insure the insurers). One of the biggest, Munich Re, is already saying that 2008 is likely to “go down in history as a year with one of the highest numbers of victims of natural catastrophes.”

As I wrote in a recent column, the world is suffering more and more extreme weather, and scientists are coming around to the view that global warming is contributing to the increase. According to Munich Re’s analysis, of about 400 natural catastrophes in the first half of the year, “300 were attributable to weather extremes.”

That’s been costly. Overall losses (excluding the China earthquake, which no one blames on climate change) come to $30 billion.

If you think there have been an unusual number of tornadoes among those "natural" catastrophes, give yourself a gold star. “There have never been so many tornadoes recorded [in the U.S.] in the first six months of a year,” Munich Re reports. In addition, heavy rain, hail and flooding in the Midwest caused estimated losses of $10 billion.

2008, said Munich Re’s Torsten Jeworrek, “is following the long-term trend toward more weather catastrophes, which is influenced by climate change.”

The goal adopted by the G-8 this week, of halving emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 (from what baseline is not clear), will of course do almost nothing to mitigate the problem. Think of it this way: Your teenager throws dirty clothes and empty food containers on his floor every day. The junk never leaves, because you refuse to clean up after him and he doesn’t care if he lives in filth. But you prevail on him to add only half as much debris from now on. Guess what? The total mount of debris keeps on rising, just at a slower rate.

So it is with carbon dioxide. Its atmospheric residence time is about a century. Most of what we have already spewed up there is going nowhere fast. Even if we send only half as much up there eventually—and we have 42 years until, according to the G-8, we even get to that halving of emissions—the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will keep going nowhere but up.