More than 90% of the people killed in extreme weather events during the last half-century lived in the Global South, a new World Meteorological Organization report has found.
The figure came from an update Monday to the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) Atlas of Mortality and Economic Losses from Weather, Climate, and Water-related Hazards to cover the years 1970 to 2021. The U.N. agency counted a total of 11,778 extreme weather, climate, or water-related disasters during that time period, which claimed more than two million deaths and cost $4.3 trillion in economic losses.
“The most vulnerable communities unfortunately bear the brunt of weather, climate and water-related hazards,” WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas said in a statement.
While more than 60% of the economic losses caused by these storms occurred in developed nations — with 39% occurring in the U.S. alone — developing nations were disproportionately harmed financially relative to the size of their economies. None of the events in the Global North cost a country more than 3.5% of its gross domestic product (GDP), and over four-fifths of these disasters cost less than 0.1% of GDP. In Least Developed Countries, however, 7% of the disasters took out a more than 5% chunk of their GDPs, and some cost them as much as 30%. Small Island Developing States were hit especially hard, with 20% of disasters having an impact worth more than 5% of their GDPs and some costing more than 100% of local GDP.
Taalas offered the example of Cyclone Mocha, which bore down on the world’s largest refugee camp in the Bangladeshi city of Cox’s Bazar on May 14. The Category 5 storm killed at least 145 people in Myanmar and destroyed thousands of shelters in the Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, BBC News reported.
“It caused widespread devastation in Myanmar and Bangladesh, impacting the poorest of the poor,” Taalas said.
In general, Asia accounted for 47% of all reported deaths from extreme weather events, and tropical cyclones were the leading cause. Of Asia’s 984,263 deaths, Bangladesh accounted for more than half of them at 520,758 — the highest death toll for any nation in the region and a higher number than the total death toll for the regions of Europe; North America, Central America, and the Caribbean; South America; and the South-West Pacific.
The findings are a clear example of climate injustice — as those who did the least to contribute to the crisis disproportionately suffer its impacts. All of the disasters considered in the study — droughts, extreme temperatures, flooding, glacial lake outbursts, landslides, storms, and wildfires — are becoming more extreme, more frequent, or both because of climate change due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels, and their impacts are not evenly distributed.
“Both vulnerability to current climate extremes and historical contribution to climate change are highly heterogeneous with many of those who have least contributed to climate change to date being most vulnerable to its impacts,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in its most recent Synthesis Report.
In 2009, developed nations pledged $100 billion a year through 2020 to help developing nations both adapt to the climate crisis and reduce their emissions, as Eurodad explained in a 2022 analysis. The 2020 deadline was later extended to 2025. However, as of 2020, nearly 50% of the promised amount had not been paid.
The most recent U.N. Adaptation Gap Report moreover found that the money the Global North is sending to the Global South to help it adapt is five to 10 times below what it actually needs.
At 2022’s COP27, wealthier nations agreed to a second Loss and Damage fund to help poorer nations pay for the inevitable harms already caused by the climate crisis. However, in a peer-reviewed paper published in One Earth on Friday, Marco Grasso and Richard Heede argued that the lengthy process involved in organizing and financing such an agreement — as well as the delay in other climate finance — meant that major fossil fuel companies should step in to help foot the bill.
“The recent progress in climate attribution science makes it evident that these companies have played a major role in the accumulation and escalation of such costs by providing gigatonnes of carbon fuels to the global economy while willfully ignoring foreseeable climate harm,” Grasso and Heede wrote. “All the while they successfully shaped the public narrative on climate change through disinformation, misleading ‘advertorials,’ lobbying, and political donations to delay action directly or through trade associations and other surrogates. Fossil fuel companies have a moral responsibility to affected parties for climate harm and have a duty to rectify such harm.”
The two authors calculated that the top 21 fossil fuel companies owed a total of $5.4 trillion in reparations from 2025 to 2050, with Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom, ExxonMobil, Shell, and BP owing the most.
“The analysis offers a starting point for much needed action to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their financial responsibilities,” Greenpeace International general counsel Kristin Casper said in response to the findings. “Now, communities on the frontline of environmental breakdown can decide how to wield the study’s powerful findings in their own struggles for justice.”
There was some good news in the WMO report. While the yearly cost of extreme weather disasters has increased over the last 51 years, the death toll has decreased due to early warning systems. For example, Cyclone Nargis in 2008 killed 138,366 people in Myanmar and Bangladesh, a toll much higher than Mocha’s.
“Thanks to early warnings and disaster management these catastrophic mortality rates are now thankfully history,” Taalas said. “Early warnings save lives.”
The WMO published its findings to coincide with the World Meteorological Congress, which launched Monday with a talk on extending early warning systems to every country on Earth by 2027, a goal spearheaded by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. Currently, these systems only cover around half of all countries, and Small Island Developing States, Least Developed Countries, and Africa nations are especially left out.
“Delivering #EarlyWarningsForAll can be the game changer to address the massive injustice of loss that communities face from the climate crisis,” Jagan Chapagain, secretary general and CEO of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said at the conference.
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