It's true: there really are more disasters than there used to be

And the next victim may be the insurance industry.

The world really is becoming a more dangerous place. An authoritative report published today documents an alarming worldwide increase in floods, hurricanes, storms and other climatic catastrophes over the last few years.

Losses from such "weather-related disasters" in the 1990s are so far running at six times the level of the 1980s, says the report, by Washington's prestigious Worldwatch Institute. And, it says, this may just be "a preview of things to come", as global warming takes hold.

Insurance firms, who have seen their payouts soar in parallel with the costs of the catastrophes, are warning that the trend could "bankrupt" their industry. They are so concerned that a worldwide alliance of more than 50 companies will next week issue an unprecedented appeal to governments at international negotiations in Geneva to cap emissions of the pollution that causes the climatic change.

"During the past five years," says the report, "the world has experienced unprecedented damage from weather-related disasters". It calculates that they cost the world $162bn (pounds 105bn) during the first half of the 1990s, compared to just $54bn for the entire decade of the 1980s, which means that the rate of damage has jumped sixfold.

Between 1990 and 1995 the world suffered 16 climatic catastrophes that each cost more than $3bn: up to 1987 there had never been a disaster that cost even as much as $1bn.

These include:

A 170 mph cyclone that hit Bangladesh in May 1991, killing 140,000 people and damaging or destroying more than a million homes. The cost, $3bn, was more than 10 per cent of the country's gross national product.

Hurricane Andrew, the most expensive disaster ever, which virtually flattened more than 160 square miles of Florida in August 1992. Losses reached $30bn, equivalent to the cost of the three previously most expensive US storms put together.

The 1993 flooding of the Mississippi, and the 1994 Italian floods, which cost $12bn and $9.3bn respectively.

Floods in China and North Korea in 1995, which together caused damage worth $21.7bn.

Christopher Flavin, Vice President for Research at the Worldwatch Institute and one of the authors of the report, said last week: "We keep expecting things to return to normal, but they don't. We thought this might be happening in the early part of last year, but then the Asian floods pushed the figures right back up again." It was also one of the worst ever years for hurricanes in the Atlantic, and in the end the year set a new record for disaster losses.

"This has now gone beyond the level at which it could be a simple anomaly," Mr Flavin added. "It is such a sharp change, happening right across the globe, that there really seems to be something happening to the climate."

The report stops short of blaming global warming for the disasters so far, but says that it is likely to cause more of them in future. Recent studies had concluded that "the coming period of rapid climate change is likely to be erratic, disruptive and unpredictable". It is backed by the latest report of the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing the consensus of more than 2,000 leading scientists, published this month, which says that "the incidence of floods, droughts, fires and heat outbreaks is expected to increase in some regions" as temperatures rise.

Some scientists believe that the warming could greatly increase the power of hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons, producing winds of up to 220mph. One leading insurance expert has predicted that it could even cause Caribbean hurricanes to reach as far north as New York.

The insurance industry has already been badly shaken by Hurricane Andrew. Its costs wiped out seven US insurance companies and the then director of the US National Hurricane Centre estimated that if Andrew had strayed just a little further north, it would have hit Miami and New Orleans, causing damage of $100bn - more than half the capital of all the property and casualty insurance companies in the country.

Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, warns: "The insurance industry is first in line to be affected by climate change... It could bankrupt the industry." HR Kaufmann, general manager of Swiss Re, one of Europe's largest insurers, adds: "There is a significant body of scientific evidence indicating that last year's record insured loss from natural catastrophes was not a random occurrence. Failure to act would leave the industry and its policyholders vulnerable to truly disastrous consequences."

Now 56 insurance companies are about to add their weight to calls for strengthening the international treaty to combat climate change, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio four years ago. Next week they will urge governments meeting in Geneva to review the treaty and put a ceiling on emissions that cause global warming.

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