U.S. Geological Survey Finds No Link Between Greenhouse Gases and Floods

A study released this week by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) fails to find a link between greenhouse gas levels and flooding. E&E reports (subscription required):

That is puzzling because scientists have long anticipated that as greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere rise, so will the magnitude of floods. The logic went like this: As the amount of heat-trapping gases rose, the climate would warm. That warmer air would, in turn, evaporate and absorb more water, leading to more rain and less snow, among other things, and contributing to greater floods.

The ongoing problem with climate change reporting is the lack of understanding how adaptation plays a role in any changes in climate. The reason less Americans die from extreme weather events is not because there are less GHGs in the air than they were a century ago. It is because we found ways to adapt to our surroundings as we became wealthier and more innovative as a society.

Dr. Indur Goklany, author of a recent Reason Foundation study on extreme weather events over the past century, noted that “overall mortality around the world is increasing, while mortality from weather events is decreasing. Despite the intense media coverage of storms and climate change’s prominent role in political debates, humanity is coping far better with extreme weather events than it is with other much more important health and safety problems.”

Julian Morris explains:

“The number of reported extreme weather events is increasing, but the number of deaths and the risk of dying from those events have decreased. Economic development and technological improvements have enabled society to protect against these events and to cope better with them when they do occur.”

The E&E article makes note of this, but breezes by it as an anecdote, not fully grasping its significance:

Far more influential on the sizes of floods than greenhouse gases, the scientists observed, were other human activities such as dam and levee building, shifts in vegetation types, and drainage of soils and wetlands.

Exactly. As humans evolve we learn to adapt to our surroundings to better protect ourselves.

Click here to learn more about Reason’s recent work on adaptation to extreme weather.

Adam Peshek is a research associate at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets, where he focuses on energy and environmental policy.