Analysis: How Climate Destruction Harms Middle- and Lower-Income Americans

by Daniel J. Weiss, Jackie Weidman, and Mackenzie Bronson

The devastating and tragic Hurricane Sandy and its connected storms caused a huge swath of destruction in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States on October 29, before then dumping vast quantities of snow in the Midwest. The storm is responsible for at least 110 fatalities in the United States and preliminary estimates indicate that it caused $30 billion in damages, with only one-quarter to one-half covered by insurance. It may be one of the costliest U.S. hurricanes in history.

Unfortunately, Sandy is only the latest in a line of extreme weather events that severely afflicted Americans over the past two years. This includes destructive wildfires in Colorado, record-breaking temperatures across the nation, and severe thunderstorms and tornadoes across the Midwest. Farmers in the Great Plains are expecting to harvest just a fraction of their corn and other crops this year as the worst drought in 50 years plagues nearly two-thirds of the nation. Vicious heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes, and severe storms left more than 1,000 people dead. These are the extreme weather events that scientists predict will become more frequent and/or severe if the industrial carbon pollution responsible for climate change remains unchecked.

Scientists and government agencies documented the devastating extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported 14 weather events that caused at least $1 billion in damages each in 2011. By our estimates, from January through October 2012, there were at least seven additional extreme weather events with more than $1 billion in damages each, with total damages from the two years combined topping $126 billion. In addition to these events, economists predict that the 2012 drought will cause between $28 billion and $77 billion in damages, potentially bringing the two-year total to $174 billion.

The events during this time affected all but 4 of the lower 48 states. A recent study by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance firm, found that North America is experiencing a tremendous rise in extreme weather disasters-a nearly fivefold increase over the past three decades. The firm concluded that this is due to climate change and that this trend will continue in the future.

One overlooked aspect of these disasters, however, is the rate at which they harm middle-and lower-income households-people who are less able to quickly recover from such disasters. This Center for American Progress analysis finds that on average, counties with middle-and lower-income households were harmed by many of the most expensive extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012. (see Table 1)

Most of these extreme weather events typically harmed counties with household incomes below the U.S. median annual household income of $51,914:

  • Floods damaged households in affected counties with average household incomes of $44,547 annually-14 percent less than the U.S. median income
  • Drought and heat waves affected counties with households that earned an average of $49,340 annually-roughly 5 percent less than the U.S. median income
  • Wildfires, tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms devastated areas with households that earned an average of $50,352 annually-3 percent less than the U.S. median income

In fact, tropical storms and hurricanes were the only types of extreme weather events that affected more-well-off areas, on average, since January 2011. (see Table 2 in full report)

In the following sections, we review the most damaging extreme weather events in the United States over the past two years, the household income of the counties harmed by them, and how climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of these devastating disasters. We also explain why middle- and lower-income Americans are disproportionately harmed by extreme weather events.

In order to curb climate change and help communities prepare for future extreme weather events, we propose a list of policy recommendations, detailed at the end of this report:

  • The Obama administration should promulgate the proposed carbon pollution reduction standard for new power plants
  • The administration should propose and promulgate carbon pollution standards for existing power plants and oil refineries
  • Existing infrastructure should be hardened to become more resilient to floods, severe storms, and other effects of climate change
  • Congress should provide $5 billion annually-full funding-for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, or LIHEAP, to assist low-income families with higher utility bills due to extreme heat and cold
  • The Obama administration and Congress should oppose budget cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to ensure that there is adequate funding for Disaster SNAP that assists people harmed by natural disasters to purchase food
  • Congress should reauthorize the National Dam Safety Program and provide $1 billion annually to rehabilitate our rundown dam and levee infrastructure that helps reduce flood risk
  • Flood insurance for primary homes of middle- and lower-income households should be more affordable. A means-tested voucher program could help them purchase it
  • Replenish the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Program fund, which enables local communities to evaluate their disaster risks and develop plans to make them more resilient to extreme weather damages. This annual funding should equal the three year average of federal disaster recovery spending

Read the full report here (PDF).

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress; Jackie Weidman is a Special Assistant for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress; Mackenzie Bronson is an intern with the Center for American Progress.

14 Responses to Analysis: How Climate Destruction Harms Middle- and Lower-Income Americans

  1. John McCormick says:

    Thank you for this piece.

    Seeing the photos and video of the structural damage from megastorm Sandy sheds only a glimpse of the human tragedy that occurred.

    Many thousands of families and individuals lost their homes completely with possibly no insurance coverage. Now they must find new homes in a very crowded and expensive real estate market.

    In 1964, I rented a room in a house adjoining the lighthouse in Seagate, a gated comunity at the eastern end of Coney Island. It was heavily destroyed by the storm. Videos showed complete devistation of buildings once the home of many retired eledery Jewish families. How they will recover is hard to imagine. Everything they owned was lost…including their community and circle of friends.

    I know this is becoming a typical story across America and will likely accelerate as the earth warms. Millions of Americans will become entirely dependent on the generosity of strangers.

  2. Paul Magnus says:

    Climate Portals shared a link on FaceBook (FB).
    a few seconds ago

    Industrial Production in U.S. Drops 0.4% on Sandy Effect
    Industrial production in the U.S. unexpectedly declined in October as superstorm Sandy knocked out power in the Northeast.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    It’s obvious to CP readers, but it will be hard
    to persuade these folks:

    Any ideas?

  4. Paul Magnus says:

    I think we have to be realistic here – were at 0.8C and the current frequency of extreme weather makes things untenable. So the middle class as we know it is gone. We are now on Eaarth.

    Unfortunately its going to get worse as we fly on towards higher temperatures. The next 0.8C will be crushing. So all this talk of 2C and 3C+ is missing the point. (and we haven’t even considered SLR)

    We are going to have to keep adding ‘a’s to the middle of this new word Eaarth.

  5. Jim Baird says:

    Where is the symmetry between threat and response?

  6. fj says:

    This is still a democracy & when a well-informed population makes the right noises the right things will tend to happen.

  7. Exactly. 2ºC might have looked like the point of no return to the IPCC and world leaders five years ago (when the 2007 IPCC report came out), but it’s now clear that the sensitivity of the climate to warming — especially the Arctic climate — was seriously underestimated.

    We’ve provoked the bear, and she’s coming after us.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    The approach could be guided by

    Libertarian paternalism is similar to asymmetric paternalism, which refers to policies designed to help people who behave irrationally and so are not advancing their own interests, while interfering only minimally with people who behave rationally. Such policies are also asymmetric in the sense that they should be acceptable both to those who believe that people behave rationally and to those who believe that people often behave irrationally.

    More here

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Paul, please link to the article directly, thanks.

    Can’t see the link on Climate Portals either.

    Ofc, i could google now myself for it, but for your future submission’s and for the search engine bots it makes sense.

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The critical variable now is the degree of sensitivity, or the interdependence, of the major parts of the biosphere to each other, and the evidence we have seen so far says it is extremely high. This renders mechanistic estimates such as 2C pretty irrelevant, ME

  11. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Direct attempts at persuasion don’t work any more than supplying information does. Unless these ‘believers’ cut themselves off completely from reality and majority views, most will evetually succumb to the majority view as Asch showed many years ago. The rump will attain cult status, ME

  12. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Very Interesting post.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  13. fj says:

    The stats here — which I do not fully understand — may give further indication how poor-people-first must become extremely important policies; where the more we are able to raise the value of the human capital available to fight climate change — through healthcare, education, social services — the more likely we’ll succeed . . .

    Profound integration with natural capital where human capital is the more most important component.

  14. fj says:

    In any case, for the rich, and similar to mortility, great wealth will likely, ultimately, only provide limited immunity from climate change.