Paying for Extreme Weather: Wildfire, Hurricanes, Floods and Droughts Quadrupled in Cost Since 1980

Northern California fire crews set fire back burn to stop a 2007 fire from advancing westward. (FEMA photo)

Lisa Paul was still recovering from the wildfire trauma of 2017 when she experienced a renewed wave of sickening dread last week, the skies above her home and vineyard in the mountains east of Sonoma, California, filled with lightning that sparked hundreds of wildfires.

"I had pretty close to a panic attack when the Hennessy Fire, near Lake Berryessa, exploded into almost a mushroom cloud," she said, adding that she could see the blaze just over the hills, "where the 2017 fires crested." 

The Wine Country fires of two years ago were fanned by a diablo wind that pushed the flames directly toward her property, destroying gardens, orchards and vineyards. 

Those fires killed 22 people and damaged or destroyed more than 5,600 structures, burning across about 56 square miles. Property damage totaled $14.5 billion. Firefighting costs were estimated at $1.5 billion.

One year later, the $16.5 billion Camp Fire burned across 240 square miles and incinerated the town of Paradise in Butte County, California, about 180 miles northeast of Sonoma, killing 85 people and destroying or damaging more than 18,000 buildings.

The cost of this year's fires—the first of which have so far burned their way across more than 1,400 square miles, destroyed hundreds of structures and are still not close to being contained—can't even be guessed at. Fire season is just beginning. And global warming is going to make it worse, according to a new analysis commissioned by the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Defense Fund that looks at the cost of climate-linked natural disasters.The report details how the financial impacts of fires, tropical storms, floods, droughts and crop freezes have quadrupled since 1980. 

"It shows what happens if we don't do anything about global warming," said EDF's Elgie Holstein. "There's no denying the trends and the fact this all becomes more expensive going forward." 

Extreme Weather Disasters are Proliferating

 

As if to underscore Holstein's point, the latest swarm of wildfires to erupt in northern and central California have pushed the state's wildfire fighting capacity to the edge, with officials warning that they are running out of resources to respond to new blazes, and urgently requesting help from other regions.

Here are five take-aways from the report:

1. Climate Disasters are Expensive, and the Damage is Increasing 

In the last 40 years, 663 disasters linked to climate change in the United States killed 14,223 people. The total cost: an estimated $1.77 trillion, a bit more than Canada's Gross National Product in 2018. 

Economic losses in Europe resulting from climate-linked extreme weather from 1980 to 2017 were lower, totaling $537 billion. The difference was the cost of tropical storms, which don't affect Europe but accounted for nearly half of the U.S. total costs. 

The report analyzed data going back to 1980 from several sources, including a database of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that catalogues climate disasters with costs of $1 billion or more and is continually updated. Only disasters with costs of that magnitude were included in the analysis.

Staggering Costs of Climate-linked Disasters

 

The $1.77 trillion total cost in the United States included $954.4 billion from 45 tropical storms and hurricanes, by far the most costly extreme weather category. Next came $268.4 billion in costs from 125 hail, wind, ice storms and blizzards, followed by $252.7 billion from drought, $150.4 billion from flooding and $85.4 billion from wildfires. 

In the 1980s, the annual average cost of climate and extreme weather disasters in the United States was about $18 billion per year. By the 2010s, the total annual cost more than quadrupled, to $80 billion per year. 

A key assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change estimated that the the economic damage caused by climate change will continue to increase by about 1.2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product for every 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warming, coming out to $257 billion, just a little more than California's entire current state budget of $222 billion.

2. Scientific Evidence Shows Strong Links to Climate Change 

Tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts and floods account for about three-quarters of the cost of the extreme weather damage categorized in NOAA's $1 billion disaster database, and there is strong scientific evidence showing that global warming caused by humans is making their impact worse. Based on that research, the EDF report says the current costs are "only a lower bound to what is anticipated" if global temperatures continue to rise.

Here are the costs of various types of disasters in the United States in the 40 years from 1980 to 2020, and how global warming is making such extreme weather worse.:

Tropical Storms

Most of the damage from tropical storms and hurricanes is caused by flooding, and damage from the storms totaled $954.4 from 1980 to 2020. The warmer the atmosphere gets, the more moisture it can hold, at the rate of 7 percent for every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit warming. So tropical storms also have the potential to produce heavier rains. 

  • One study showed that global warming made Hurricane Harvey three times more likely and 15 percent more intense. 

  • Other research suggests that hurricanes may stall more often over coastal areas to drop devastating rainfall, and there are signs that global warming will cause an increase in the number of the largest and most damaging hurricanes, prompting warnings of "super storms."

  • Research also suggests hurricane paths are shifting, potentially threatening new areas that aren't expecting destructive storms.

  • Added to that is the steady increase in sea level rise, which is happening faster in tropical and subtropical areas where hurricanes are active. Low-lying coastal areas are increasingly being swamped by sunny flooding because the ocean is creeping up. When a hurricane pushes a storm surge on shore, it magnifies that increase, pushing coastal flooding farther inland.

    The Rising Costs of Climate Change

 

Droughts

Droughts accounted for 14.1 percent of the total cost of climate-linked disasters in the 40-year period analyzed in the EDF report, totaling $252.7 billion, nearly the size of the annual budget of Germany, the world's fourth-largest economy. 

  • Global warming makes drought worse because a warmer atmosphere sucks moisture out of the ground and from plants, and also shifts rain patterns, as well as the timing and melt of snow. 

  • One indicator of the change is the steep decline of spring season snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere. That trend sets the stage for drying during the hottest summer months. 

  • Global warming is drying up the Colorado River Basin and the larger surrounding Southwest region, with huge implications for the 40 million people who depend on the river for water. 

  • The current climate trajectory is toward a Southwest megadrought that could last for centuries, perhaps punctuated by a few decades of extreme rains.

  • Consistent with climate evidence from past geologic eras of warming, Earth's dry subtropical belts, which include most of the world's desert areas, are expanding poleward, which could be the force that's driving the intensification of regional droughts.

Floods

Floods were the fourth-costliest type of extreme climate disasters from 1980 to 2020, accounting for $150.4 billion, about 8.4 percent of the total cost.

3. The Poor and People of Color Are Most Vulnerable 

With nearly every climate-related disaster, poor people and people of color, and often, indigenous communities, are most vulnerable. They have the fewest resources to adapt, or to get themselves out of harm's way.

  • During the current California wildfires, thousands of agricultural workers are harvesting produce in extreme heat and exposed to unhealthy levels of smoke that can cause severe illness. The EDF report noted that about 70 percent of California's agricultural workers is Latinx. During the 2017 fires, some vineyards had to close because workers left after losing their homes. 

  • A December 2019 study found that during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, "Hispanic, black and other racial/ethnic minority households experienced more extensive flooding than white households," and lower income households faced more extensive flooding than higher income households.

  • A 2008 report from a Washington, D.C. think tank said that Hurricane Katrina in 2005 offered a "bitter gift" by refocusing attention on the enduring legacy of racial segregation and poverty in the Gulf South.

  • Climate experts have found that drought in Central America is part of the reason for a continued stream of migration to the United States, which can multiply the already existing environmental injustice in immigrant and refugee communities.

  • Globally, drought and water shortages have increased the potential for international conflicts.

4. Nowhere is Safe; Specific Threats Vary by Region  

Nowhere is immune to the threat of increasing weather extremes, made more likely by global warming. The National Climate Assessment outlines the regional risks. 

  • Based on the damage trends over the last 40 years, the Gulf Coast and the Southeastern United States are most at-risk for deadly and costly damages from sea level rise flooding, storm surge and the extreme winds of tropical storms and hurricanes. 

  • Extreme rainfall events have increased substantially in the Midwest, leading to more extreme floods that damage homes and fields, and so also threatening food supplies.

  • The Southwest is threatened by a persistent and intensifying drought that has dried up forests and brushlands and drained rivers and reservoirs.

  • Wildfires have increased exponentially with warming temperatures, and global warming will increase the risk in most of the West, especially California, recent research concluded.

  • Parts of the East Coast are sea level rise hotspots, according to a 2017 study.

5. The Biggest Future Safeguard: A Zero Emissions Economy 

The EDF report recommends that, to protect the most vulnerable communities that are hit by "climate change-fueled extreme weather events first and worst," federal lawmakers should invest in adaptive strategies in advance of disasters and not just after the fact.

  • Coastal areas vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding from tropical storms should build up natural ecosystems like dunes and wetlands to buffer storm and sea level rise impacts

  • Some emergency response funds should be freed up to help with analyzing growing risks from floods and droughts.

  • Overall, the biggest goal must be to build a zero emissions renewable economy to avoid as much additional global warming as possible

  • The EDF report focused in part on decarbonizing the transportation sector by switching to electric vehicles. Electrification of school bus fleets and commercial trucks represent low-hanging fruit, the report said.

  • Modernizing regional electric grids will help integrate and maximize the benefits of the rapidly growing supply of renewable energy, according to the report. Making buildings more energy efficient is another short-term goal with a big payoff.

  • Finally, investing now in sustainable agriculture will help protect food supplies and farm livelihoods.

None of this is new, said EDF's Holstein, who was a high-level NOAA official in the early 2000s.

"We already knew ice caps were melting and that glaciers were retreating," he said. "The changes we're seeing are best explained by climate change. Nothing has changed, except all the indicators are moving in the direction of bad news. That's what is in this report. There's no denying the trends and the fact this becomes more expensive going into the future."

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