A deadly earthquake in Mexico, Hurricane Maria, and South Asia’s fatal monsoon season are just a few of the natural disasters to strike the globe in 2017. And they inflicted a hell of a lot of damage—so much that last year’s natural disaster-related insurance claims totaled a record $135 billion, according to numbers released Thursday.
When taking uninsured losses into account, that number explodes to $330 billion. That’s compared to a 10-year, inflation-adjusted average of $170 billion. The only other year where the total loss was higher was 2011 ($354 billion), and that’s the year the Tohoku earthquake hit Japan.
Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer based in Germany, released a review of 2017’s “natural catastrophes” and, well, damn. The three major hurricanes to strike the United States in a span of about a month—Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria—coupled with our devastating wildfire season definitely did the States in. Fifty-percent of the globe’s overall losses belonged to the U.S. in 2017
“A key point is that some of the catastrophic events, such as the series of three extremely damaging hurricanes, or the very severe flooding in South Asia after extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains, are giving us a foretaste of what is to come,” said Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re board member, in a press release. “Because even though individual events cannot be directly traced to climate change, our experts expect such extreme weather to occur more often in future.”
Since 1980, these numbers have been slowly rising. The insurance company tallied more than 700 events in 2017. For comparison over the last 30 years, that number has hovered around 500.
While U.S. losses were the highest, expensive natural disasters were a worldwide phenomenon in 2017: European farmers lost billions of dollars of potential crop revenues from late-season frost. In South Asia, about 2,700 people died due to a severe monsoon season. Not much in poor South Asian countries like Nepal was insured, but the losses “contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe,” per the report.
Part of what the report is encouraging is for governments to take disaster-related insurance more seriously, especially as climate change makes future weather patterns less predictable. People around the world are also concentrating near coastlines despite the growing risk—and that trend is only going to increase.
“This year’s extreme natural catastrophes show how important insurance is in absorbing financial losses in the wake of such disasters,” Jeworrek went on.
He’s got a point. Researchers at the University of California, Davis published a study in the journal Environment and Development Economics in December showing how important insurance can be for the world’s poorest households in the face of climate change. The poorest countries are set to see some of the worst impacts of climate change, yet they’re the least equipped to handle it. (They also contributed to climate change the least, go figure.) Insurance can also help keep families on the edge of poverty from falling into it after a natural disaster.
For families that depend on agriculture for their livelihood, disaster-related insurance is especially important. Munich Re’s numbers show that crop damages from natural disasters will only worsen as climate change progresses.
“Families can lose absolutely everything in the space of a couple of months,” said Michael Carter, a professor of agricultural and resource economics and co-author of the study, in a press release.
At the end of the day, though, protection can only go so far. Insurance can become expensive, and if the risk keeps increasing, poor families won’t be able to afford insurance, according to Carter’s research.
“If climate change gets sufficiently severe, then even addressing those at risk of falling into poverty is not going to work,” he went on. “Parts of the Earth are going to become economically non-viable, and people are going to go elsewhere.”
That’s happening now in Puerto Rico, where people are fleeing by the thousands as they search for work, light, and hope.