Monday, July 18, 2011

The Declining Death Toll from Natural Disasters

I have published only one "macro" paper in my career.  My 2005 Death Toll from Natural Disasters has generated a lot of cites and some media attention.  In that paper, I argued that economic development protects nations from death risk from natural disaster.  A richer government can provide better public goods and richer citizens are better able to self protect against disaster risk by living in better housing, and having access to better medical care.  In Beijing this week, I met with a Professor from Renmin University named Xinye Zheng.  He told me that he has written several papers using data from within China to document the declining death toll from natural disasters within China and that this reduction in damage is most pronounced in richer geographical areas. It is true that the economic damage caused by disasters in these areas is an "inverted U" because middle income areas have valuable assets that are at risk to be hurt by natural disasters but are not rich enough to defend them well.   Another economic geographer in China (Canfei He) told me that China's cities are investing to adapt to climate change and are investing more in areas that are at risk from sea level rise such as in the Delta river regions.   Such investment patterns are consistent with my core thesis in Climatopolis that the expectation of challenges posed by the very real threat of climate change triggers early investment that helps to protect us from climate change.

In his review of Climatopolis,  Ed Glaeser expressed concern about how the developing world will cope with climate change. I share this concern but I believe that the developing world will develop and that the same forces and investment patterns observed in recent years in China will play out in other developing countries. If a nation can grow at 4% per year, then its per-capita income will double in 18 years.  Such growth will go a  long way towards helping such countries to protect themselves.   If you want to minimize the damage caused by climate change, then you should support the development of the "renewable green economy" (to decouple GHG production from energy production and consumption) and you should favor policies that promote national growth.