The World Lost

The World Lost $160 Billion to Disasters Last Year, and Climate Change Played a Big Role

2018 was the year climate change became ever clearer, with wildfires, cyclones, and hurricanes ravaging the world. Now we have the receipts.

Insurance behemoth Munich Re released its annual accounting of all the damage wrought by weather and natural disasters on Tuesday. It shows that catastrophes—some of which were likely amplified by climate change—caused $160 billion in losses globally, with just four events in the U.S. responsible for a third of all losses. The news, unfortunately, comes on a day when we learned U.S. greenhouse gas emissions rose last year and at a time when the leader of the free world is a climate denier.

The Munich Re report shines a light on all the ways in which the planet is changing as well as all the natural calamities we face. On that front, the worst disaster was September’s tsunami that struck Indonesia, killing 2,100 and causing widespread damage.

But the biggest losses financially were all driven by wild weather, with the top three spots belonging to U.S. catastrophes. California’s Camp Fire, which caused nearly the entire town of Paradise to burn to the ground, leads the list with losses of $16.5 billion. That’s followed by Hurricane Michael ($16 billion in losses) and Hurricane Florence ($14 billion). Typhoon Jebi and flooding, both which afflicted Japan, round out the top five while other notable climate-related catastrophes include Europe’s major heat wave and drought and California’s Woolsey Fire. The only silver lining is that while $160 billion in losses is above average, it’s still well below the $350 billion in losses that befell the world in 2017.

Munich Re said the fires in particular show “clear indications of the influence that man-made climate change” has had on losses. California, like the rest of the world, has warmed thanks to human carbon emissions. That’s created a situation where large fires are becoming more common, destructive, and happening basically any time of the year. And in California, the nation’s most populace state, it has spelled absolute calamity. Last year was the worst year for wildfire losses on record, according to Munich Re.

“Our data shows that the losses from wildfires in California have risen dramatically in recent years,” Ernst Rauch, head of Climate and Geosciences at Munich Re, said in a statement. “At the same time, we have experienced a significant increase in hot, dry summers, which has been a major factor in the formation of wildfires.”

But wildfires aren’t alone in their clear climate change links. An analysis found that climate change doubled the odds of the European heat wave that revealed signs of ancient civilization and shrunk Sweden’s tallest peak. Hurricane Florence’s record rainfall is right in line with climate change trends towards juicier storms. And Michael’s storm surge got a boost from higher sea levels.

All this points to the need to slash carbon emissions rather than letting them rise. The reason is as much financial as it is humanitarian. Munich Re isn’t crunching these numbers from the bottom of its heart. They’re cold, hard calculations of climate risks and how those risks threaten the $56 billion in annual insurance policies the company underwrites. And those calculations could eventually mean certain places become uninsurable and people have to move or become homeless.