Over at Vox, Brad Plumer notes a new report on how droughts have gotten less deadly in recent decades:
In the 1980s, droughts were one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters, triggering food shortages and causing at least half a million deaths in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Mozambique alone. But according to a new report from the World Meteorological Organization, the number of deaths attributable to drought appears to be declining over time.
The current data confirms a long term trend. Deaths from drought are down a stunning 93% since the 1920s.
And yet: the earth has gotten warmer since 1980 (though surface temperatures have been basically flat for more than a decade). So how has this increased warming gone hand in hand with a decrease in drought-related death?
The answer, in a word, is adaptation:
Ethiopia is a good case study here: Back in 1983-85, several consecutive years of low rainfall triggered by a strong El Niño led to a widespread famine that killed at least 300,000 people in the northern part of the country.
But this wasn’t entirely a “natural” disaster. The famine that followed was exacerbated by a slew of man-made factors – including an ongoing insurgency and civil war in the country, a slow response from international donors, and a government that was re-directing food away from civilians and toward its own militias.
In the decades since, Ethiopia has taken a number of steps to better prepare for drought. Crucially, the country now has an early-warning system that helps prepare for shortages in rainfall beforehand. That helps give a better sense of where to distribute food aid – rather than scrambling after the fact.
The results were notable: In 2003, Ethiopia had yet another severe drought that left more than 13 million people in need of food aid – but a major famine was avoided.
As the economist Amartya Sen has noted, there has never been a famine in a free democratic nation. Human beings are very inventive, adaptable creatures. If allowed to exercise their ingenuity through open political activity and secure property rights, we can meet pretty much any challenge that the weather throws at us. Catastrophes like famines are indeed man-made; but blaming them on climate change is wrongheaded. The problem, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is not in our greenhouse gases, but in our governments.