The next time you hear a politician say that our country simply can’t afford to tackle climate change, send him a copy of the new report documenting the more than $300 billion in damage caused by natural disasters last year. That figure made 2017 the most expensive year on record for disasters in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Another NOAA finding: There were 16 billion-dollar events, which has happened only once before, in 2011. (There’s a great map in the NOAA report linked above.) The list includes Hurricanes Harvey ($125 billion), Irma ($50 billion) and Maria ($90 billion); floods and wildfires in California; hail storms in Colorado and Minnesota; and three tornado outbreaks. There was drought and fire in the Plains states. The 16 events killed 362 people, according to NOAA’s report.
The previous most expensive disaster year was 2005, when events such as Hurricane Katrina caused $215 billion in U.S. damage, when adjusted for inflation. NOAA’s record of billion-dollar natural disasters goes back to 1980.
One factor in the rising disaster toll is the growing number of homes and businesses in vulnerable places. That's especially true with recent losses from wildfires and hurricanes. The wildfires in California’s wine country killed 44 people and claimed more than 10,000 homes. The 2017 totals do not include the early-January 2018 mudslides that southern Californians suffered after the fires eliminated vegetation and important soil ingredients that probably would have prevented those slides. So far, 17 people are known to have died from the mudslides, which destroyed scores of homes and damaged hundreds of other structures.
The top five wildfires in California by size have occurred since 2003. Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo wrote, “It is a cliche by now for commanders at every big fire to say they have never seen ‘anything like this.’”
Obviously, we can’t blame climate change for all the damage caused by 2017’s natural disasters; there have always been hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires. NOAA did not try to estimate how much greater the damage was because of climate change. But NOAA’s Deke Arndt did note that a warmer world clearly makes some weather worse. "Heat waves, their duration, their intensity, their frequency is going up," he said, as is the frequency of very heavy rainfalls.
In fact, the human influence on hurricanes and wildfires is increasingly obvious, The Washington Post reported. For years this has been a subject clouded in uncertainties. But now scientists say they have hard numbers. “This job gets easier over time, unfortunately,” said Michael Wehner, senior staff scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and co-author of a study on Hurricane Harvey released in December. “There is a large, new body of literature about attributing human influence on individual extreme events,” he said. “It’s no longer appropriate to say scientists can’t say anything about these individual events.”
Insurers are painfully aware of the costs that climate change is imposing. The industry is set to pay out a record $135 billion stemming from natural disasters around the globe last year, according to data released this month by the world’s largest reinsurer.
“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,” Torsten Jeworrek, a Munich Re board member, said in an announcement about the global losses. “Because even though individual events cannot be directly traced to climate change, our experts expect such extreme weather to occur more often in future.” The United States made up an unusually high share of the world’s insured losses last year — about 50 percent, compared with just over 30 percent on average.
The nation’s power utilities are also running some sobering numbers through their computers. After Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, NextEra Energy, the owner of the largest utility in Florida, estimated $1.3 billion in damages. Duke Energy estimated $500 million in damages in Florida, and Texas’ American Electric Power Co. put their costs at $250 million to $300 million. All told, about $2.5 billion, Bloomberg News reported.
“If climate victims here and across the globe understood that carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels played a role in their losses, perhaps they would rise up to demand policy changes,” wrote Leah C. Stokes, a University of California-Santa Barbara professor after witnessing the devastation of the recent wildfires and mudslides.
What can we do? The most rational response is to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we are emitting. And almost any economist will tell you that the quickest and most efficient way to do that is to put the free market to work--that is, enact a national carbon fee so that we accelerate the inevitable transition from dirty to clean energy.
If Congress were to do so, the results would include a massive flow of revenue. Roughly half should go to low- and middle-income households to compensate them for slightly higher energy costs. The rest could go for infrastructure, reducing the fast-growing national debt, or any number of other worthy uses. How much worse must hurricanes and wildfires become before we act?