January 9, 2018 – Yesterday NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center released its yearly report on “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters” that affected the US in 2017. Not surprisingly, the numbers were staggering.
The costs of 2017 disasters, at $306.2 billion dollars cumulatively, set a new US record that blew past previous totals. These events also resulted in 362 fatalities. (This number only reflects official tallies to date—as news reports indicate the true death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico could as high as 1,052, over 16 times the current official figure.)
A disaster-filled year
2017 was truly an historic and unprecedented year of disastrous extremes—from hurricanes and wildfires to drought and flooding. Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma propelled 2017 to become the costliest hurricane season on record at $265 billion, and California’s terrible wildfires also led to it also being the costliest wildfire year at $18 billion.
There were 16 disasters in the US in 2017 whose costs topped a billion dollars, a record number of events for a single year and tied only with 2011. These events affected every region of the country either directly or indirectly (see map).
2017 global insured losses also record-breaking
NOAA’s report today echoes reports from the insurance industry, which has also cited 2017 as a record-breaking year for costly disasters globally.
Last week, Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, stated that the costs to the insurance industry from Harvey, Irma, and Maria and other 2017 disasters are expected to reach $135 billion globally, the highest ever, with the US share dominating at 50 percent of these costs. Overall economic losses, including uninsured losses, will amount to $330 billion, the second highest ever for a single year. They also tagged 2017 as the most expensive hurricane season ever.
Last month, Swiss Re released a similar report stating that global insured losses for 2017 were $136 billion, and total economic losses are estimated to be $306 billion.
Globally, the human impact of these disasters has been particularly tragic with the total toll from 2017 disasters estimated at more than 11,000 people dead or missing. An estimated 2,700 people lost their lives in the flooding in South Asia alone.
Climate change is contributing to rising disaster costs
Disaster costs are rising both because of climate related factors and because growing development is putting more people and property (often very expensive property) in harm’s way. The NOAA report does not specifically parse out the relative contribution of these factors to growing costs.
Yet, we know that climate change is exacerbating the risks of many types of disasters, including heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding worsened by heavy rainfall events and sea level rise. As my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel pointed out, this year’s abnormal and catastrophic hurricane season bore the fingerprints of climate change.
NOAA also released data today on the US climate in 2017. It shows that the continental US had its third warmest year on record and, for the third consecutive year, every state across the contiguous US and Alaska was warmer that average. Five states had their warmest year on record. Precipitation was also above average for the year.
A recent report published as a special supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS), Explaining Extreme Events in 2016 from a Climate Perspective, highlights several extremes in 2016 that were exacerbated by climate change. They include the record global heat, extreme heat over Asia, and unusually warm waters in the Bering Sea. The report contains 27 peer-reviewed analyses of extreme weather across five continents and two oceans during 2016, based on the research of 116 scientists from 18 countries.
As the science of attribution advances, we can expect more and more research of this type to explain whether and how human-made global warming influenced specific extreme events.
We’ve got to do more to limit the toll from disasters
There’s a lot we can and must do to limit the economic costs and human toll from disasters. First and foremost, we must do more to prepare and protect communities ahead of time by investing in risk reduction and disaster preparedness and by ensuring that our federal, state and local policies are guided by the best available science.
Earlier this year in the midst of the hurricane season, my colleagues and I offered some thoughts on what we were seeing as key priorities.
Federal agencies tasked with disaster preparedness and response need to be appropriately staffed and receive adequate budgets to do their job well. As just one example, the money we invest in satellites and other early warning systems are vital to limiting the human and economic toll of disasters. Accurate flood risk maps and storm surge maps are key to helping communities and emergency responders understand risks and take appropriate action.
We also need robust policies to support building back stronger after disasters, including a strong federal flood risk management standard, a robust flood insurance program, and funding for investments in flood mitigation.
Our nation’s recovery from 2017’s disasters will take a long time and we’ve got to pay attention to the needs of communities long after the hurricanes and wildfires have dropped out of the headlines. The people who are hit hardest and have the most difficulty recovering from disasters are often in low-income, minority, and disadvantaged communities. We’ve got to pay specific attention to their needs. The people of Puerto Rico, for example, many of whom still don’t have power, are suffering from the long-term effects of living in siege-like conditions.
Finally, limiting the carbon emissions that are fueling climate change is absolutely critical to containing the risks and costs of runaway climate change.
Climate change is a threat to human health and to the economy
Today’s NOAA report and recent reports from the insurance industry reinforce the fact that climate change is a threat to our health, and also a threat to our economy. The American people—and people around the world—are already experiencing these harmful impacts.
Forward-thinking businesses understand the economic implications too. In a press release accompanying the Munich Re report, Torsten Jeworrek, Munich Re Board member responsible for global reinsurance business, was quoted saying: “For me, a key point is that some of the catastrophic events, such as the series of three extremely damaging hurricanes, or the very severe flooding in South Asia after extraordinarily heavy monsoon rains, are giving us a foretaste of what is to come.”
Yet we have a Congress and an administration that continue to deny scientific realities and are failing to take the necessary and urgent steps needed to deal with the threat of climate change. What a shameful abdication of responsibility in the face of one of the most urgent issues we face.
Rachel Cleetus is Lead Economist and Climate Policy Manager, Union of Concerned Scientists. www.ucsusa.org