Increasing extreme weather is costly in many ways

A report released this week by two senior members of Congress notes that the unusual number of extreme weather events in 2012 has cost the country billions of dollars and that the unusual frequency of these events is consistent with what scientists have predicted from climate change.

The staff report, “Going to Extremes: Climate Change and the Increasing Risk of Weather Disasters” is from the offices of Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Henry Waxman (D-CA), the prime movers behind the last attempt at significant climate legislation. It cites information from a variety of sources, including NOAA, the news media and the private sector to show how rising weather risk costs real money.

Their report comes a week after Congress headed home for the elections having accomplished very little to address climate change. Nearly half the bills introduced by the current Congress would block or hinder climate action, though none of these have been enacted into law.

It also comes the same week that three environmental groups dropped off a petition with 160,000 signatures calling on moderator Jim Lehrer to ask about climate change at next week’s presidential debate and two other environmental groups launched a website criticizing both Gov. Romney and President Obama for failing to talk about the problem (beyond making a joke about it at one convention, and saying it’s not a joke at the other.)

The report notes that this July was the hottest month ever for the contiguous United States, and the first eight months of this year were the hottest on record. The extreme heat has been paired with a severe drought in nearly two-thirds of the contiguous United States, an expanse of drought unmatched since the 1950s. In addition, the unusual heat and drought are contributing to what could end up as the worst fire year of the past decade.

And the extremes haven’t been confined to the land. Ocean temperatures off the Northeast coast were higher this summer than at any point in records dating back to 1854. In the Arctic, sea ice shrank to a new record low, 18 percent below the previous record set in 2007, which itself was a very unusual year.

This year’s extreme weather events are not only destroying forests, crops and homes, they’re also acting as a drag on the economy. Wells Fargo estimated that the drought could cost the economy $50 billion over the next year. Aon Benfield, a reinsurance company, estimated that insured U.S. losses are already into the billions with drought losses still unaccounted for. If these estimates are accurate, this year will be the second year in a row where U.S. disaster losses have topped $50 billion.

Extreme weather events over the past several years illustrate the consequences of the underlying increase in extreme weather risk as the climate changes.  As Going to Extremes states, “Global warming has stacked the deck with extra jokers, making some weather events more frequent and severe.” That’s why it is so important to get the topic back on the political agenda.

There will always be uncertainty about future weather conditions, but we know the risk is increasing as the planet warms. That allows us to plan for more bad weather, but only if we heed the warnings and learn from the events that expose our vulnerabilities. Assuming that the recent weather was just a fluke will set us up for more and more unwelcome surprises.