Don Boudreaux Offers a Bet

Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben believes there is a link between recent natural disasters, including the rash of deadly tornadoes, and global warming. GMU economist Donald Boudreaux is skeptical. In an op-ed in today’s WSJ he notes that 2011 has yet to see more F5 tornadoes (those with windspeeds between 261-318 mph) than 1953 or 1974. More importantly, Boudreaux is quite confident natural disasters present a lesser threat to Americans today than in the past, largely due to economic growth and technological advance.

Contrary to what many environmentalists would have us believe, Americans are increasingly less likely to be killed by severe weather. Moreover, because of modern industrial and technological advances—radar, stronger yet lighter building materials, more reliable electronic warning devices, and longer-lasting packaged foods—we are better protected from nature’s fury today than at any other time in human history. We do adapt.

Research by UCLA economist (and VC guest blogger) Matthew Kahn supports the view that economic development helps insure against the risks of natural disasters.

Past trends may not be indicative of the future, however, and global warming may well increase the intensity of extreme weather events. Nonetheless, Boudreaux is willing to make a bet.

So confident am I that the number of deaths from violent storms will continue to decline that I challenge Mr. McKibben—or Al Gore, Paul Krugman, or any other climate-change doomsayer—to put his wealth where his words are. I’ll bet $10,000 that the average annual number of Americans killed by tornadoes, floods and hurricanes will fall over the next 20 years. Specifically, I’ll bet that the average annual number of Americans killed by these violent weather events from 2011 through 2030 will be lower than it was from 1991 through 2010.

If environmentalists really are convinced that climate change inevitably makes life on Earth more lethal, this bet for them is a no-brainer. They can position themselves to earn a cool 10 grand while demonstrating to a still-skeptical American public the seriousness of their convictions.

But if no one accepts my bet, what would that fact say about how seriously Americans should treat climate-change doomsaying?

You don’t have to be a doomsayer to accept Boudreaux’s bet, however, as it appears he already has a taker in Roger Pielke Jr. Although Pielke has often challenged environmentalist efforts to attribute increases in natural disasters to anthropogenic climate change, he thinks Boudreaux has made a bad bet.

So far 2011 has seen 518 deaths from tornadoes. This means that from today through 2030 the United States could see only 3,500 additional extreme weather deaths, or 180 per year (using the higher baseline that includes Katrina deaths, or 154 per year using the lower number of 3,000). Such numbers would represent an improvement over 1991-2010, and Prof. Boudreax would still lose the bet. We should be so lucky, and it would take a lot of luck, to see so few deaths due to extreme weather.

The fact of the matter is that our vulnerability to extreme weather is increasing, due to a combination of a growing population and especially urbanization in locations prone to extreme weather events. This means that even with the hard work by many professionals in a range of fields that has contributed to the dramatic decrease in the number of deaths over recent decades low death totals are unlikely to continue into the future, as this year’s tragic tornado season tells us. Of course, given expected societal trends a reversal in statistics would not necessarily mean that our disaster policies are failing. What it means is that our responses to extreme weather require constant vigilance, investment and continued hard work.

UPDATE: It appears Boudreaux and Pielke have a bet.