As the Costs of Extreme Weather Rise, Americans Cannot Afford Denial

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By Nick Sundt & Lynn Englum, World Wildlife Fund

As costly climate extremes exact a mounting toll on the U.S. economy and further strain the Federal budget, the path forward is clear: acknowledge and better understand the growing threat posed by climate variability and change, do what we can to slow climate change by sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improve our weather forecasts and climate projections, and prepare ourselves for future impacts. Yet ideologues are pushing an opposite agenda: deny climate change and systematically eviscerate the Federal government’s efforts to address it. They are leaving Americans dangerously unprepared, saddled with the rapidly mounting costs of increasingly extreme weather

Hurricane Irene makes 2011 a Record Year for Billion-Dollar Weather Disasters

Above: Tropical Storm Irene Makes Landfall Near New York City.  Source: NOAA.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on 31 August, Hurricane Irene compelled authorities to order the evacuation of 2.3 million people, left about 9 million people without power, and killed at least 40 people. Twenty six rivers in New Jersey, New York, and Vermont broke all time flooding records.  

Kinetic Analysis Corporation’s early damage estimate of around $7 billion from Irene makes it the 10th weather disaster of the year of at least a billion dollars, breaking the previous annual record (since 1980) of nine such disasters set in 2008.  A 30 August report from EQECAT indicates that much of those losses were uninsured: insured losses in the US likely range between $1.5 and $2.8 billion. The White House reported on 5 September that it would need an additional $1.5 billion in disaster relief funding to address Irene’s impacts.

NOAA reports that by mid-August, the cost of billion-dollar weather disasters exceeded $35 billion.  That does not include the costs of Irene and later hurricanes, of additional impacts from the devastating drought centered in Texas, and of other weather extremes during the final third of 2011.

Above: Scientists discuss the connection between climate change and the increase in extreme weather events.  Source: Climate Communication.

In the report Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States (2009), the U.S. Global Change Research Program concludes that “[m]any types of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and regional droughts, have become more frequent and intense during the past 40 to 50 years.” The U.S. Climate Extremes Index for the summer (June-Aug) of 2011 was at the third highest level on record (i.e. since 1910). These costly weather extremes are only going to become more common as climate is increasingly disrupted by rapidly rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Combined with sea level rise, they pose a particularly severe long-term threat to coastal areas. 

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the leading insurer Allianz SE released a report in November 2009 warning that sea level rise could dramatically increase risks to buildings, transportation infrastructure and other assets exposed to severe storm surges in coastal areas of the U.S. The study, Major Tipping Points in the Earth’s Climate System and Consequences for the Insurance Sector[PDF] estimated that current assets at risk to a 1-in-100-year storm surge amount to $1.4 trillion. A mid-century global sea level rise of 0.5 meters (20 inches), with an additional 0.15 meter (6 inches) regional rise expected along the northeast U.S. coast, could jeopardize assets worth close to $7.4 trillion (see Climate Change Puts Trillions of Dollars in Assets at Risk Along U.S. Coasts, WWF Climate Change Blog, 23 Nov 2009).

Climate Preparedness is Cost Effective and Saves Taxpayer Dollars… But Climate Change Denialists would Leave Americans Dangerously Unprepared and Saddled with Mounting Disaster Costs

So what does this mean for cities and communities faced with more frequent extreme weather events? It’s critical that they prepare for an era of climate disruption. According to the Multihazard Mitigation Council’s study Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves: An Independent Study to Assess the Future Savings from Mitigation Activities (2005), a dollar spent on disaster mitigation may save society an average of $4. Furthermore, it concludes that “each dollar spent by the federal treasury by FEMA on disaster mitigation grants potentially saves it $3.65.” Disaster preparedness not only protects communities, but it is cost effective and saves taxpayer dollars. In a political environment heavily emphasizing long-term deficit reduction, both political parties should be able to support such efforts.

However, most Congressional Republicans seek to cut funding that addresses climate variability and change, including funds that better prepare communities for extreme weather events (see Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes, WWF Climate Change Blog, 21 July). For example, House Republicans oppose funding for NOAA's proposed Climate Service. NOAA says the goal of this centerpiece of its climate work is “an informed society capable of anticipating and responding to climate and its impacts." Hurricane Irene was a clear example of the importance of capabilities to anticipate and respond to major events as many states benefited from NOAA’s information on the hurricane. House Republicans, however, are blocking Climate Service funding, with some claiming that it would disseminate “propaganda" and conduct research to support policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Similarly, most of the Republican presidential candidates deny that humans are increasingly disrupting climate. As Rick Piltz of Climate Science Watch said on the KPFK (Los Angeles) program, Background Briefing, (6 September), the candidates “seem to regard global warming denialism as a kind of political litmus test.”

In no other state is there a greater contradiction between climate-related policy positions and climate impacts than in Texas, where record temperatures and drought have resulted in disaster declarations in virtually every county.

Above: One of 1,386 homes consumed by the Bastrop Complex fire by 8 September 2011. Credit: TEXAS Forest Service Information.

"We can't say climate change is causing the extreme weather Texas is having right now,” Dr. Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, told National Public Radio’s John Burnett in an interview published on 7 September. “On the other hand, we can say humans have increased the temperature of the base climate state pretty much everywhere. And what that means is it makes the heat more extreme and increases evaporation from the soil. We can be confident we've made this hellish summer worse than it would have been."

The Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, told the Texas Tribune in December 2010 that temperatures in the state are rising and that “a significant fraction of it” likely results from rising greenhouse gas concentrations." He says in his Climate Abyss blog on 6 September that Texas just set the all-time record for hottest summer in the lower 48 states” and that the “present drought is the most severe one-year drought on record for Texas.” On 29 August, Nielsen-Gammon said that compared to all previous summers since records began in 1895, conditions this year are “way beyond the previous envelope of summer temperature and precipitation.”  NOAA reported on 8 September that "the summer 2011 drought in Texas is matched by only one summer (1789) in the 429-year tree-ring record" extending back to 1550.

By mid-August, agricultural damages alone already exceeded $5 billion dollars and by 9 September over 3.7 million acres and more than 4,376 homes and other structures had been consumed by wildfire in 2011. 

Yet the Texas Republican delegation to Congress does not fully recognize the threat of climate change and has opposed efforts to adequately address it, including NOAA’s proposed Climate Service. Referring to the views and policies of the Texas Republican delegation to Congress, journalist Forrest Wilder said on 24 Feb 2011 in the Texas Observer (Rising Seas Could Swamp Some Texas Cities By 2100) that representatives’ “willful suspension of trust in what ever-mounting evidence –and dare I say, common sense? –tells us is happening to the planet is not just short-sighted. It's reckless.”

Meanwhile, like the state’s Republican Congressional delegation, Texas Governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry rejects the strong scientific evidence that humans are disrupting climate not just globally but in his own state – and that the threat is growing. Perry charges that the “so called science” of climate change is “one contrived phony mess,” suggesting that scientists are manipulating data “so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.”

In the 7 September debate among Republican presidential candidates, Perry reiterated his position, saying the science “is not settled” and equated climate change denialists with Galileo. He asserted that curbing greenhouse gases would “put America's economic future in jeopardy” while he remained entirely silent on the emerging economic threat posed by climate disruption in Texas and elsewhere. 

Above: Editorial cartoon by Tom Toles, 8 September 2011, Washington Post.

The Costs of Denial

Climate change denial and ideological opposition to measures that would slow climate change and prepare for its impacts have left the U.S. with no coherent climate change policies. We face the growing threat of climate disruption unprepared and facing ever escalating impacts and costs, raising concerns about the implications for local, state and Federal government budgets, and costs to the private sector. In contrast, in countries where the denialists have not been as influential, coordinated national initiatives to curb emissions and to prepare for climate change have been underway for years. 

The demand for Federal disaster assistance driven in part by a rise in climate extremes is complicating efforts to contain the Federal deficit, and increasing pressure to offset disaster relief with cuts elsewhere in the budget. The Senate Appropriations Committee on 7 September approved a Fiscal Year 2012 budget for Homeland Security that included $6 billion for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund, $3.35 billion above FY2011. “We recognize that additional funds may be required to cover damages which have not yet been estimated based on recent flooding in the Midwest, the Northeast, and the South,” said the committee chairman, Senator Daniel K. Inouye (Democrat, Hawaii), in a prepared statement on 7 September. “Accordingly, the amounts could be adjusted as the affected bills continue to move through the legislative process if and when additional cost estimates are confirmed.”

Above: Wildfire damage to a home in Bastrop County, Texas. September 7, 2011. FEMA provides firefighting assistance through Fire Management Assistance Grants. Photo by Jacqueline Chandler/FEMA .

On 28 July, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, held a hearing on Federal Disaster Assistance Budgeting: "Are We Weather Ready?" [webcast], chaired by Senator Dick Durbin (Democrat, Illinois). According to a press release issued by Senator Durbin’s office:

“…Durbin argued that the federal government should follow the lead of the private sector and begin to focus strategically on the long-term budgetary impacts of increasingly severe weather events. “We are not prepared.  Our weather events are getting worse, catastrophic in fact,” said Durbin. “The private sector is prepared, but the federal government is ignoring the obvious.  We need to do more to protect federal assets and respond to growing demands for disaster assistance on an increasing frequency.”

Five years earlier, Eugene Linden said in the preface of his book, The Winds of Change: Climate, Weather, and the Destruction of Civilizations (2006): “If there is a message to take away from a look back at past predictions of potential calamity, it is that the risks of erring on the side of caution tend to be fewer than the costs of dismissing predicted threats out of hand.In his excellent op-ed piece, Betting the Farm Against Climate Change, in The Miami Herald on 28 August – the day of Hurricane Irene’s landfall in New Jersey, he again warned of the costs of denial:

Leon Trotsky is reputed to have quipped, `You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.' Substitute the words `climate change' for `war' and the quote is perfectly suited for the governors of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, all of whom have ridiculed or dismissed the threat of climate change even as their states suffer record-breaking heat and drought.”

He says that while they “dismiss climate change, a changing climate imposes costs on their states and the rest of us as well.” Linden warns that there are “real economic costs of mispricing this risk” and that influential deniers -- including those governors -- are “betting the farm” that global warming is a myth.   “In the states governed by climate-change deniers — and in the nation as a whole, where we are doing too little to address the threat of a warming globe — nature seems to be calling that bet,” Linden concludes.

Online Resources

Talking about the Texas disasters -- climate and political. Climate Science Watch, 7 Sep 2011.

Drought, Wildfires Haven't Changed Perry's Climate-Change Views. National Public Radio, 7 Sep 2011.

Current Extreme Weather and Climate Change. Report from Climate Communication, 7 Sept 2011.

Hell and High Water Stoke Texas Blaze: “No One on the Face of This Earth has Ever Fought Fires in These Extreme Conditions” By Joe Romm, Climate Progress, 6 September 2011

Insurance Companies Unprepared for Climate Change, Report Says. By Alyson Kenward, Climate Central, 2 September 2011.

Can We Handle Nature’s New Norm? Part 1: Angry Weather. By Bill Becker, Climate Progress, 2 Sep 2011. 

State Climatologist: “It’s Likely Much of Texas Will Still Be in Severe Drought” Next August, With Worse Water Shortages. By Joe Romm, Climate Progress, 1 September 2011.

[San Antonio Mayor Julián] Castro declares Climate Change Awareness Month as Texas cooks. San Antonio Current, 31 August 2011.

Shooting the messenger. By Andrew Dessler, The Miami Herald, 28 August 2011.

Rick Perry Is Trying To Make Climate Denial A Faith-Based Issue. By Brad Johnson, 22 Aug 2011, ThinkProgress Green.

Texas Scientists: $5 Billion Drought Caused By Deadly Combination Of Climate Variability And Carbon Pollution. By Brad Johnson, 18 Aug 2011, ThinkProgress Green.

Denier Rick Perry Takes $11 Million from Big Oil, Then Claims Climate Scientists ‘Manipulated Data’ For Money. By Joe Romm, 17 August 2011, Climate Progress.

Rick Perry On Climate Change And Texas Agriculture: ‘We’ll Be Fine’. By Brad Johnson, 16 Aug 2011, ThinkProgress Green.

Texas Climate Scientist Katharine Hayhoe Responds To Rick Perry By Brad Johnson, Think Progress Green, Aug 16, 2011.

Rick Perry Thinks America Desires Another Rigid, Anti-Science, Idealogue Governor From The Great State of Big Oil.   By Joe Romm, Climate Progress, 12 Aug 2011.

Texas State Climatologist: “It may well be the worst drought on record for agriculture” and “probably … the most unbearable.” By John Nielsen-Gammon, 8 Aug 2011, Climate Progress.

Durbin: Federal Government Unprepared for Growing Number of Extreme Weather Events. Press release, 28 July 2011, from the office of Senator Dick Durbin. See also the webcast, the American Geological Institute summary of the hearing, and the Climate Science Watch piece, Federal Disaster Assistance Budgeting: Are We Weather ready? (5 Aug 2011)

Climate data spark battle in Congress, Houston Chronicle, 17 July 2011.

Extreme Texas Drought & Wildfires Sharpen Contrast Between Texas Congressional Delegation's Climate Views and Conditions at HomeWWF Climate Change Blog, 10 April 2011.

In Texas Field Hearing, House Subcommittee To Attack EPA as State Faces Another Year of Devastating DroughtWWF Climate Change Blog, 23 March 2011.

Texas Congressman in Copenhagen Dismisses Climate Science: "We don’t have an icecap in Texas." WWF Climate Change Blog, 23 Dec 2009 .

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