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Increasingly Extreme Weather Is Costing Us in More Ways Than One


A report released this week by two senior members of Congress notes that the unusual number of extreme weather events in 2012 has cost the country billions of dollars and that the unusual frequency of these events is consistent with what scientists have predicted from climate change.

The staff report, “Going to Extremes: Climate Change and the Increasing Risk of Weather Disasters” is from the offices of Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the prime movers behind the last attempt at significant climate legislation. It cites information from a variety of sources, including NOAA, the news media and the private sector to show how rising weather risk costs real money.  

Their report comes a week after Congress headed home for the elections having accomplished very little to address climate change. Nearly half the bills introduced by the current Congress would block or hinder climate action, though none of these have been enacted into law.

It also comes the same week that three environmental groups dropped off a petition with 160,000 signatures calling on moderator Jim Lehrer to ask about climate change at next week’s presidential debate and two other environmental groups launched a website criticizing both Gov. Romney and President Obama for failing to talk about the problem (beyond making a joke about it at one convention, and saying it’s not a joke at the other.)

The report notes that this July was the hottest month ever for the contiguous United States, and the first eight months of this year were the hottest on record. The extreme heat has been paired with a severe drought in nearly two-thirds of the contiguous United States, an expanse of drought unmatched since the 1950s. In addition, the unusual heat and drought are contributing to what could end up as the worst fire year of the past decade.

And the extremes haven’t been confined to the land. Ocean temperatures off the Northeast coast were higher this summer than at any point in records dating back to 1854. In the Arctic, sea ice shrank to a new record low, 18 percent below the previous record set in 2007, which itself was a very unusual year.

This year’s extreme weather events are not only destroying forests, crops and homes, they’re also acting as a drag on the economy. Wells Fargo estimated that the drought could cost the economy $50 billion over the next year. Aon Benfield, a reinsurance company, estimated that insured U.S. losses are already into the billions with drought losses still unaccounted for. If these estimates are accurate, this year will be the second year in a row where U.S. disaster losses have topped $50 billion. 

Extreme weather events over the past several years illustrate the consequences of the underlying increase in extreme weather risk as the climate changes.  As Going to Extremes states, “Global warming has stacked the deck with extra jokers, making some weather events more frequent and severe.” That’s why it is so important to get the topic back on the political agenda.

There will always be uncertainty about future weather conditions, but we know the risk is increasing as the planet warms. That allows us to plan for more bad weather, but only if we heed the warnings and learn from the events that expose our vulnerabilities. Assuming that the recent weather was just a fluke will set us up for more and more unwelcome surprises.

Image: Extreme Weather via Shutterstock

Content Discussion

Rajat Sen's picture
Rajat Sen on October 3, 2012

I agree that climate change should be on the political agenda -- but we all know that is is not. To me the question is why not? Extreme weather, drought, floods is costing businesses, federal, state and local governments and of course the citizen a lot. Yet, we are not willing to act politically.

Is it because that we are not connecting the dots between the extreme weather and climate change? If that is the case, informing the public on a sustained fact based approach is essential. Now, some may say that politically we are so polarized that a majority of us are not willing to listen to plain and simple economic arguments. I refuse to believe that. 

The second reason maybe is that we recognize that acting now would raise energy costs and would hurt our pocket books. We probably think that paying for occasional weather related calamity is economically cost-effective than raising the cost of fossil fuel based energy now to prevent potential sustained catastrophes decades into the future. The concept of taking out an insurance policy against the potential dire impacts  of climate change, must then be aggressively discussed.  It is, however, very hard to do in a democracy based on two and four year election cycles.

I do take hope in that "the mandate" that every american must carry a health insurance has survived Supreme Court review. Maybe, there will come a day when every american will be required to carry a climate change insurance (carbon tax?) to address climate change. Having said that, I also believe the first politician to say that directly will loose the elction. Remember Walter Mondale?



Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on October 3, 2012

I do not believe that a failure to connect the dots is a primary reason.  I think the primary reason is that we have political power entities who have done an amazingly effective job of creating a mentality against the reality of climate change.  Those who are the targets of this propaganda have bought it hook, line and sinker, in part because it allows them to avoid facing their dire predicament.  The political leaders are made incapable of taking action because of direct pressure from these power entities and because of the pressure from those who have been propagandized.

Rajat Sen's picture
Rajat Sen on October 3, 2012

Paul -- I understand your view, but I do think you give our political power entities too much credit. I came to the US when the political leaders were solidly for the Vietnam War. From what I saw then, it was the public , particularly the younger public, informed by the news media (there was no internet then) changed the political leaders. An informed public in a democracy is a very powerful force indeed.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on October 3, 2012

I very much hope you are right.  However, back in the 60's, it was mainly people's attitudes and prejudices that needed to change.  That's not easy, but I think what we face may be more challenging.  I think the role of money in our politics has much to do with it, along with the power given to corporations "as people".  I also think the media is much more corporatized.  You only need to look at how the "Occupy Movement" was dealt with to appreciate that.  Regardless of what you think of that movement, it is clear that the powers-that-be were able to manipulate the media and the public to shut it down quite easily.

All that said, we need to keep trying to find constructive ways to move things forward.  I'm starting to see some conservatives challenging their party leadership on the issue.  That's a very hopeful sign to me.  If I were Bill McKibben (for example), I'd be finding those people and giving them the biggest megaphone I could find.

Elizabeth Kraus's picture
Elizabeth Kraus on October 4, 2012

I think the main reason is because we are making it an environmental and humanitarian issue rather than an economic issue. Here's my attempt to make it more economic focused:

Rajat Sen's picture
Rajat Sen on October 4, 2012

You make some very good points.

Paul Ebert's picture
Paul Ebert on October 5, 2012

I think this is certainly a worthwhile approach, but it seems to me that people just dispute the findings of the studies or point to another study done by some other group that counters the findings.  Perhaps highlighting the costs of what is happening already (such as the drought in the midwest) is harder to dismiss.

But, what does it say about our society that it seemingly cannot effectively be engaged at the level it really, truly is - that being a moral issue?  I personally find this to be a very troubling question.