CREDIT: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews
The federal government spent nearly $62 billion for disaster relief in fiscal years 2011 and 2012, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress. And these federal funds only cover a portion of the price tag exacted by extreme weather; private insurance and individuals harmed by the events also spent billions of dollars.
In these two years alone, there were 25 severe storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires that each caused more than $1 billion in economic damages, with a total price tag of $188 billion.
There is new evidence that climate change played a role in the extreme weather events of 2012. A recently released analysis from the American Meteorological Society, for example, determined that:
Approximately half the analyses found some evidence that anthropogenically caused climate change was a contributing factor to the extreme event examined, though the effects of natural fluctuations of weather and climate on the evolution of many of the extreme events played key roles as well.
Interestingly, many of the states that received the most federal recovery aid to cope with climate-linked extreme weather have federal legislators who are climate-science deniers. The ten states that received the most federal recovery aid in FY 2011 and 2012 elected 47 climate-science deniers to the Senate and the House. Nearly two-thirds of the senators from these top 10 recipient states voted against granting federal emergency aid to New Jersey and New York after Superstorm Sandy.
As the following map shows, the ten states that received the most federal disaster relief are primarily farm states in the plains and the Midwest. These states suffered billions of dollars of crop losses due to prolonged drought in 2011 and 2012. This necessitated an estimated $28 billion in crop insurance expenditures in FY 2011 and 2012, which comprised a majority of the spending for disaster programs where we could identify state-by-state expenditures.
Extreme weather on the rise
Data from the past 30 years reveal an increase in both presidential disaster declarations and billion-dollar extreme weather events. In the 1980s, there was an annual average of less than two extreme weather events that caused at least $1 billion in damages, and the average annual total damages from these events was $20 billion (in 2012 dollars). From 2010 to 2012, however, there was an annual average of more than nine extreme weather events with at least $1 billion in damages, with average annual total damages of $85 billion (in 2012 dollars).
What’s worse, the draft National Climate Assessment predicts that the number of extreme weather events will continue to grow and that our communities face growing risks because they were not built for an unstable climate:
Human-induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase. Heat-trapping gases already in the atmosphere have committed us to a hotter future with more climate-related impacts over the next few decades.
Many [climate-related changes] will be disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future.
Extreme weather continues in 2013
This past June was the fifth-hottest month on record, and the first six months of 2013 were the “seventh warmest such period on record,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As of September 4, there were 44 presidential disaster declarations in 2013 due to climate-related extreme weather events. AON Benfield, a reinsurance company, estimates that extreme weather caused at least $32 billion in economic damages in the United States during the first half of 2013.
What’s more, one-third of the continental United States is suffering from severe, extreme, or exceptional drought as of August 27; the drought has shrunk available Colorado River water for cities dependent on it. As The Weather Channel reported:
More than a dozen years of drought have begun to extract a heavy toll from water supplies in the West, where a report released last week forecast dramatic cuts next year in releases between the two main reservoirs on the Colorado River, the primary source of water for tens of millions of people across seven western states.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—the agency charged with managing water in the West—announced Friday [August 16] that it would cut the amount of water released next year by Lake Powell in Arizona by 750,000 acre-feet, enough to supply about 1.5 million homes.
It marks the first reduction in water flows since the mid-1960s.
“This is the worst 14-year drought period in the last hundred years,” said Larry Wolkoviak, director of the bureau’s Upper Colorado Region.
Wildfires are plaguing the West as well. Nationwide, nearly 35,000 wildfires have burned 3.9 million acres of land as of September 4, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This includes the ongoing Rim fire in California, which has already burned an area the size of Chicago in and around Yosemite National Park. The U.S. Forest Service, which receives 70 percent of federal fire-protection funding, has depleted its budget for wildfire response, forcing the agency to divert hundreds of millions of dollars from other programs to fight ongoing fires. This funding shortage was exacerbated by the automatic across-the-board sequester budget cuts that shrunk firefighting funds by five percent, forcing cuts of 500 firefighters and 50 engines.
Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.