Was 2022 the worst year yet for climate disasters?

World was battered this year by deadly floods, drought, earthquakes and hurricanes

Tourists observe the Grey Glacier at the tail of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in Chile. The park reached 20 degrees celsius on 25 December, a record in the middle of southern winter. EPA / Javier Martin
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From floods in India, drought in Europe, earthquakes in Afghanistan and hurricanes in America, this year was plagued by climate disasters.

It’s impossible to calculate the human cost, though. Whatever the death toll, countless lives will have been disrupted, with the United Nations estimating millions of people have been displaced, driven to refugee status by extreme weather.

In March, Tropical Cyclone Gombe struck northern Mozambique, displacing up to 2.2 million people, and killing at least 1,000. And that’s only one disaster.

This summer, heatwave records were broken across the globe. Europe particularly suffered, with the mercury reaching shocking new highs. The UK recorded its hottest temperature on July 19, when temperatures hit 40.2°C. Compare that to the average UK temperature for July, which is around 21°C. The World Health Organisation estimated that the heat caused at least 15,000 deaths in Europe, with Spain and Germany worst affected, recording 4,000 and 4,500 fatalities respectively.

In central and eastern Afghanistan, unseasonably heavy rain struck villages in August, setting off flash floods that killed at least 182 people. The country was already reeling from drought, and an earthquake that killed more than 1,000 people two months before the rainfall.

In India, flooding and landslides killed 192 people, due to a monsoon season with 3.4 per cent above average rainfall, with floods in Pakistan claiming at least 1,739 lives. A tropical storm in the Philippines killed 214 people, while in Indonesia, a 5.6-magnitude earthquake killed 344. In South Africa, 461 people lost their lives in heavy rain. Months later, more than 70 are still missing and thousands are without permanent housing.

“The theme is more extremes,” Jeff Parrish, global managing director for Protect Oceans, Lands and Waters, at The Nature Conservancy, told The National. “Bigger and longer droughts. Biblical floods in Pakistan. Tornadoes in winter. Late fall hurricanes. Arctic and Antarctic sea ice extent some of the lowest on record. We are not heading in the right direction."

Climate refugees

Climate events such as these don’t merely result in more refugees. The correlation between conflict and the climate crisis has been well documented since the desertification of fertile farming land in Syria. Between 2006 and 2010, 85 per cent of livestock died and 800,000 people lost their income, exacerbating existing tensions and playing a pivotal role in the breakout of civil war.

And, Mr Parrish said, the world is not getting any better at dealing with disaster.

“We simply can’t engineer our way out of these extremes," he said. "The best climate adaptation safeguards are those created over hundreds of millions of years by nature, and we need to protect, restore, and fortify those solutions — create habitat linkages; protect and restore wetlands, mangroves and coral reefs; continue to green our cities to reduce urban heat islands; and use nature to pull more CO2 out of the air.”

A costly problem

In financial terms, there were at least 29 billion-dollar weather disasters this year, according to a quarterly disaster report released in October. There has been a noticeable rise in disasters wreaking $20 billion plus of damage in recent years, a huge cause for concern. Disrupting global supply chains and the recovery of small communities or developing nations with little resources to cope with such disasters, are only two examples.

“Disasters that cause $20 billion of losses or more remain relatively rare and there hasn’t been such a significant increase in their number over the past 30 years as can be observed, for example, in billion-dollar disasters,” says Michal Lorinc, head of catastrophe insight for Aon’s Reinsurance Solutions.

“There were two such events in 2022 — Hurricane Ian and the European drought. Beyond primary physical impacts, secondary and tertiary losses related to large-scale disasters pose a threat to economies that can extend beyond regional boundaries.”

This includes a risk of supply chain disruption, putting additional pressure on the global economy, Mr Lorinc added.

'The National' in Charleston, South Carolina, as Hurricane Ian rips roof off hotel

'The National' in Charleston, South Carolina, as Hurricane Ian rips roof off hotel

Hurricane Ian, which hit Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Cuba in late September, has caused $20 billion of damage so far, with insurance broker Aon saying financial losses will continue to add up. They may even top $100 billion, according to another broker, Gallagher Re. The drought in West, South and Central Europe throughout this year has caused an estimated $20 billion of damage, while flooding in China racked up $12 billion in costs.

Cumulatively, drought damage has cost $38.4 billion globally, a figure projected to continue rising. However, there were fewer billion-dollar tropical cyclones this year than last; there were three — Hurricanes Ian and Fiona, and Typhoon Nanmadol in the western Pacific – compared to six in 2021.

Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe. Meanwhile, global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels — the main driver for climate change — hit a record high this year. This came despite a worldwide effort to curb fossil fuel-use and keep the world’s temperature rise to under 1.5°C. To achieve this, CO2 emissions must decline by 45 per cent. The outlook appears bleak; the UN Environment Programme (Unep) insisted in a report released in October that there was “no credible pathway to 1.5°C”.

Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said: “This report tells us in cold scientific terms what nature has been telling us all year, through deadly floods, storms and raging fires: we have to stop filling our atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and stop doing it fast."

And unless drastic action is taken, next year may be even worse in terms of extreme weather events, although there is some hope that the world is waking up to the seriousness of the situation.

“This year, more people and more governments have come to realise that the climate crisis and the biodiversity and nature crisis are one in the same,” says Mr Parrish, who recently attended Cop15 in Montreal, Canada. “They are tightly intertwined and we can’t mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis without saving nature, and vice versa. Organisations are beginning to collaborate rather than compete, like never before, reflecting the urgency we face.”

Updated: December 29, 2022, 1:58 PM