Number of extreme weather events in the U.S. causing more than $1 billion in economic losses, 2007-2016. Graphic: Fundación Ecológica Universal

By Alister Doyle
27 September 2017

OSLO (Reuters) – Weather extremes and air pollution from burning fossil fuels cost the United States $240 billion a year in the past decade, according to a report [pdf] on Wednesday that urged President Donald Trump to do more to combat climate change.

This year is likely to be the most expensive on record with an estimated $300 billion in losses from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and a spate of wildfires in western states in the past two months, it said.

“The evidence is undeniable: the more fossil fuels we burn, the faster the climate continues to change,” leading scientists wrote in the study published by the non-profit Universal Ecological Fund.

Costs to human health from air pollution caused by fossil fuels averaged $188 billion a year over the past decade, it estimated, while losses from weather extremes such as droughts, heat waves and floods averaged $52 billion.

Trump could curb the $240 billion costs, equivalent to 1.2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, by revising his plans to promote the U.S. coal industry and to pull out of the 195-nation Paris climate agreement, it said.

“We are not saying that all (weather extremes) are due to human activity, but these are the sort of events that seem to be increasing in intensity,” co-author Robert Watson, a former head of the U.N. panel of climate scientists, told Reuters. [more]

Weather extremes, fossil fuel pollution cost US $240 billion: study


Number of extreme weather events in the U.S. causing at least $1 billion in economic losses, by decade. Graphic: Fundación Ecológica Universal

27 September 2017 (Fundación Ecológica Universal) – Climate change is happening now. It is already impacting our daily lives. It is also impacting the United States economy.

Action to address climate change is compatible and essential for economic growth. It also creates jobs.

However, the United States Federal Government under the Trump Administration decided to increase economic growth without climate action. In addition, against the world’s commitment to fight climate change, the United States has begun the process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. These decisions were based on the claim that action to tackle climate change is against America’s domestic interests. As a result, energy production in the United States will continue to be primarily generated by burning fossil fuels –the major driver of the observed changes in climate.

The impacts of climate change affect many sectors, including agriculture, water, human health and ecosystems, among others. Although some of these impacts are positive, most are negative and affect lives and livelihoods. Using different indicators and assumptions, numerous studies have assessed the impacts of climate change in the United States. The majority of these assessments use the end of this century as a timeframe for the analysis.

This report specifically focuses on economic losses caused by extreme and frequent weather events influenced by human-induced climate change and on health costs due to air pollution exposure caused by fossil fuel energy production. It is thus a partial assessment of the economic losses and costs of human-induced climate change and fossil fuel use on the United States economy.

Climate is the average weather –temperature, precipitation and wind– over a period of time. Changes in climate are usually measured over a 30 year period, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization. Thus, this report analyzes extreme weather events over three decades: 1980s (1980-1989), 1990s (1990-1999) and the last decade (2007-2016). Based on these past trends, a projection for the next decade is estimated. It also presents the opportunities to boost economic growth and job creation while taking climate action.

Sources used for the analysis presented in this report include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the American Meteorological Society, the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Lung Association, the U.S. Department of Commerce,  the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Second Biennial Report of the United States of America under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Peer-reviewed research studies published in prestigious journals were used as sources for health costs.

Economic losses, health costs and economic growth figures are presented in 2017 dollars. To harmonize and compare, all figures were adjusted using the latest Consumer Price Index.

Number of extreme weather events in the U.S. causing at least $1 billion in economic losses. Graphic: Fundación Ecológica Universal

Within one month, the United States has experienced two sides of the same coin.

Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana. It was an unprecedented event due to the heavy rainfall. Some areas experienced more than 40 inches of rain in less than 48 hours, while other areas had more than 50 inches of rainfall– a record for a storm in the contiguous United States1. Harvey was also unprecedented in its exposure since it flooded almost all of Houston –the fourth largest city in the United States.

Record dry conditions and record breaking heat triggered 76 active wildfires in nine Western states: Montana, Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming2. Combined, these wildfires burnt 8 million acres this year –or about the combined land area of Connecticut, the District of Columbia and New Jersey3.

After devastating the United States Virgin Islands as a catastrophic category 5 hurricane, Irma hit Florida as a category 4 hurricane. It sustained winds of 185 mph for more than 36 hours, placing it as the strongest hurricane on record globally4. After severely damaging and destroying Florida, Irma became a tropical storm, bringing strong winds, heavy rain, flash flooding and storm surge flooding to Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina as well as affecting Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee5.

Puerto Rico suffered significant damage from Maria, a category 4 hurricane. Parts of the island received 40 inches of rain, causing widespread flooding6.

These extreme weather events, which happened in August and September 2017, are indicators of climate change.

Weather events are the result of natural factors. For example, there are hot days in the summer and there is rainfall everywhere in the world.

Weather events, however, are also influenced by human-induced climate change. The changing climate has altered their intensity and/or frequency in a substantial and measurable manner. These include heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and severe storms (or heavy precipitation) and hurricanes (or tropical cyclones) –both of which lead to flooding7 8.

Economic losses due to extreme weather events in the U.S., by decade ($ billion). Graphic: Fundación Ecológica Universal

These weather events influenced by human-induced climate change are happening all over the United States. They are becoming more frequent and intense. They are also becoming more costly.

The facts are crystal clear. The number of extreme weather events causing at least $1 billion in economic losses have increased from 21 in the 1980s and 38 in the 1990s to 92 in the last decade (2007-2016) –a more than a two-fold increase compared to the 1990s and more than a four-fold increase compared to the 1980s9 (Figure 1).

The number of severe storms experienced the most significant increase in the last decade, with more than a four-fold increase compared to the 1990s. Drought events have almost doubled in number in the last decade, compared to the 1980s and 1990s. As a result of severe storms and hurricanes, flooding events in the last decade increased by almost a two-fold compared to the 1990s (Figure 2).

The cost from these weather events influenced by human-induced climate change, with at least $1 billion each in economic losses and damages, have significantly escalated from $145.7 billion in the 1980s and $211.3 billion in the 1990s to $418.4 billion in the last decade –a two-fold increase compared to the 1990s and an almost three-fold increase, compared to the 1980s10 (Figure 3).

Hurricanes caused the most economic losses in the last decade, with $144.6 billion, compared to $97 billion and $36.1 billion in the 1990s and 1980s respectively. The most significant increase in economic losses and damages, however, are from severe storms, which experienced a more than a four-fold increase in the last decade compared to the 1990s (Figure 4).

The rising trend continued in the 2000-2006 period, with $377 billion in economic losses and damages from 31 extreme weather events. The most costly event in that period was hurricane Katrina which caused $160 billion 11 in economic losses, affecting Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in August 200512.

Economic losses from extreme weather events are rapidly escalating. The economic losses of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the wildfires in the nine Western states combined could be as high as the aggregate economic losses from the 92 events in the last decade13.

The economic impact of extreme weather events influenced by human-induced climate change can be severe for a region or a state. For example:

Agricultural production in the United States is highly dependent on rain. In 2012, only six percent of all farmland was irrigated14. Drought, thus, affects crop output impacting food availability and driving up food price for consumers. It also affects farmers’ livelihoods.

Since 2012, American farmers in California, Texas, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico have lost crops on hundreds of thousands of acres, due to the persistent drought. Within the last five years, livelihoods of farmers in these states were impacted with $56 billion in economic losses15. If action to address climate change is not taken, the production of corn and soybean –the largest crops in the United States— could experience a 20 to 30 percent decrease within the next three decade16. This could potentially cost corn and soybean producers losses of $17 to $25 billion a year17.

Economic losses due to extreme weather events in the U.S., by decade and type ($ billion). Graphic: Fundación Ecológica Universal

Louisiana is one of the states where the highest number of flooding events happened in the last decade as a result of severe storms or hurricanes. In August 2016, 30 inches of rain fell in a few days, flooding southern Louisiana –a 1 in 500 year event. More than 50,000 homes, 100,000 vehicles and 20,000 businesses were damaged or destroyed. The economic losses due to the floods in Louisiana were $10 billion18. Some 75 percent of those affected by this record rainfall were uninsured19.

Many individuals, families and businesses lost everything due to extreme weather events, such as the one in Louisiana. So did those Americans affected by the severe flooding in Colorado in 2013, or by Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey in 2012 or by the wildfire in California nearly each year.

Not all states are impacted in the same way by extreme weather events. Many events impact more than one state. However, each state impacted by multi-state events did not suffer at least $1 billion in economic losses. The states impacted by these billion dollar events in the last decade are:

  • Drought: California (8, with no billion dollar drought events in the 1990s or 1980s), Idaho (7, with no billion dollar drought events in the 1990s), Oregon and New Mexico (6, a six-fold increase compared to the 1990s), Oklahoma (6, a two-fold increase compared to the 1990s), Kansas (6, a three-fold compared to the 1990s) and Texas (6, a three-fold increase compared to the 1990s).
  • Wildfire: California (6, a two-fold increase compared to the 1990s), Arizona and Oregon (6, a six-fold increase compared to the 1990s), Idaho (6, with no billion dollar wildfire events in the 1990s or 1980s), Texas, Nevada, Washington and Colorado (5 each, a five-fold increase compared to the 1990s) and Montana (5, with no billion dollar wildfire events in the 1990s).
  • Severe storm: Texas (32, a more than a four-fold increase compared to the 1990s), Kansas (24, a six-fold increase compared to the 1990s), Oklahoma and Illinois (23 each, a more than a four-fold and almost a six-fold increase compared to the 1990s, respectively) and Missouri (21, a more than a five-fold increase compared to the 1990s) and Tennessee (18, a more than a four-fold increase compared to the 1990s).
  • Hurricane: Alabama, Louisiana and Virginia (4 each, a two-fold increase compared to the 1980s); Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Connecticut (3 each, a 50 percent increase compared to the 1990s); North Carolina (3); and Mississippi and New Jersey (3 each, a three-fold increase compared to the 1990s).
  • Flooding, as a result of severe storms and hurricanes: Louisiana and Missouri (4 each, a four-fold increase compared to the 1990s); Texas (3); and Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas and Iowa (3 each, a three-fold increase compared to the 1990s). [more]

The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States

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