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The Cost of Climate Inaction: Extreme Weather Causes Billions in Damage

Peter Lehner's picture

I am the Executive Director of NRDC. The position is my second at NRDC. Beginning in 1994, I led the Clean Water Program for five years, before leaving in 1999 to serve as the head of the...

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  • Dec 10, 2011

While candidates on the GOP campaign trail continue to pretend climate change doesn’t exist, communities across the nation are already being pummeled by a hallmark of climate change: extreme weather events.

A new extreme weather mapping web tool produced by NRDC maps out more than 2,900 record-breaking events that took place in 20011. Several prominent studies have linked these kinds of intense heat waves, storms, and droughts to unchecked greenhouse gases.

And because the United States has failed to curb this pollution, extreme events are already devastating towns and cities.

They are also costing us billions of dollars.

So far in 2011, America has experienced 14 disastrous weather events that created over a billion dollars in damages each—and all-time record.  Taken together, extreme events have cost our country at least $53 billion this year. Compare that with an average of $18 billion a year in the 1980s, when our atmosphere contained far less carbon pollution than it does now.

We all pay for extreme weather events, even if we may think we’re personally unaffected. For example, federal, state and local taxpayers will help foot the $30 million cost of rebuilding two schools lost to devastating floods in Minot, North Dakota, where heavy spring rains combined with the melting of heavy snows created the most devastating flooding the area has seen in more than 130 years, submerging 4,100 homes and displacing nearly 11,000 residents.

Taxpayers will also share the $237 million price tag for FEMA’s efforts to put up temporary housing for thousands of displaced residents of the town. The price of the psychological distress the flooding has caused in this town of almost 41,000 is harder to figure, but no less important.

In Texas, record heat waves and droughts have destroyed the state’s normally bountiful cotton crop. “It’s an unmitigated disaster,” says Darren Hudson, director of the Cotton Economics Research Institute at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. In August, cotton plants that were supposed to be waist-high were just a few inches tall, and farmers gave up the majority of their harvest. Yields are expected to decrease by two-thirds this year, raising costs for cotton clothes everywhere—costs we’ll pay for every time we buy a new t-shirt or a pair of jeans.

And when the Mississippi River hit record levels last spring, the Army Corps of engineers spent $79 million fighting back the water. The Corps predicts rebuilding its damaged flood-control infrastructure along the Mississippi will cost $2 billion. But the corps’ budget in the Mississippi Valley totals just $210 million. It looks like taxpayers will have to fill the gap once again.

If global warming continues unchecked, these bills will continue to climb. When I hear people say fighting climate change will be too expensive, I ask: What about the cost of doing nothing? The damage caused by extreme weather events is just one piece of the price tag. What about elevated health care bills, higher insurance premiums, lost productivity, more job cuts, and other costs associated with climate change?

Taking action to fight climate change will help mitigate the cost of extreme weather events and spur our sluggish economy into action.

President Obama’s recent decision to increase fuel efficiency standards is a case in point. It will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 240 million metric tons (that’s the equivalent of shutting down 72 dirty coal-fired power plants) while saving drivers an average of $4,000 over the lifetimes of their cars, and creating jobs, too.

The new rules are inspiring innovation in the auto industry, such as carbon-fiber car bodies that are safer, stronger and lighter than steel, and more than 150,000 Americans are already working to build cleaner cars in Detroit and elsewhere in the country.  As has happened in the past, with catalytic converters and power plant scrubbers, new, clean technologies can put US manufacturers on top again.

It seems to me we have a clear choice. Either we can spur innovation and create jobs by tackling our addiction to fossil fuels, or we can continue to pay through the nose for our failure to act. 

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on Dec 10, 2011


Let me be frank, it is sheer hypocricy and/or ignorance for lefties to denounce the GOP while doing everything to retard the use/implementation of advanced Nuclear Power.

In my eyes, It is Criminal to spend bIllions on feel good projects and Wind Mills that do nothing to assuage GW and its assumed weather consequences. President Obama should have used the Billions of dollars he wasted on the “Simulus” to fund efficiency from the start, and also on realizing 4th Generation Nuclear power.

Peter, Until and unless cheap and effective energy can be found for places like India, China, and the Third World, GW will continue in spite of what is done ine the US and Europe. This imediately rules out Solar and Wind power. I like the Efficiency part of your article, but as I said, stemming GW goes beyond anything we do in the US.

What we need is this: Bill Gates to build nuclear reactors in China?

And This: Bill Gates Teams With China on New Nuclear Reactor


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