Record heat was a broken record for the 2010s

The National Centers for Environmental Information has released its year-end data for 2019, and it was another year when climate change’s impact on the weather was undeniable. From Alaska’s hottest year on record to wildfire in California, rain in the Midwest, and storms Imelda and Dorian, 2019 was another reminder that climate impacts are happening now.

The total of $45 billion is above the 40-year average, and brings the country’s 3-year price tag for disasters to $450 billion and decadal (2010–2019) price tag to $800 billion.

According to the federal data, 2019 was the second-hottest year on record, just a hair (.07 degrees F) behind 2016. Sure, we’ve heard this story before—after all, the last six years have been the hottest six years on record. It contributes to the other climate threats that will continue to break other extreme weather records. In 2019, the United States experienced 14 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion, together totaling about $45 billion in damages.

In 2019, large floods in the middle of the country caused more damage than any other extreme weather events— The flooding affected nearly 14 million people in the Midwest and South. Roads and bridges were washed out, and farmers planted corn and soybeans weeks behind schedule due to waterlogged soil, reducing their yields. We learned some critical lessons from these floods:

  • Climate change and extreme weather do not only affect the coasts. In the latter part of the 20th century, Even when the precipitation is caused by tropical storms, more deaths and damages occur in inland counties than in coastal areas, and this has continued in 2019.
  • While climate impacts are creating hazards, inadequate infrastructure is enhancing risk. Flood systems, navigation, and transportation systems were all severely affected by the flooding.
  • Flooding affects real estate and cities, and storms on track to population centers earn headlines, but the impacts to agriculture can be devastating.

Billion-Dollar Extreme Weather Events, 2000-2019

Climate change influenced flooding in many ways that we saw in 2019: A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, causing more precipitation in some areas of the country (especially the Midwest and northeast). Last year was the and months of above average precipitation, large amounts of snowfall, and an abrupt increase in temperature and rain storm in March all triggered large amounts of runoff with nowhere for that water to go, except for to creeks, streams, and eventually to the nation’s largest rivers. The National Climate Assessment ties a warmer climate to wetter springs in the northern part of the country, as we observed in 2019.

In 2019 we also learned more about the impacts that will shape future disasters. The Earth’s oceans were the warmest ever in 2019. We know the last five years were the five hottest years for the world’s oceans, and the last 10 years were also the 10 hottest on record. Additionally, an October report found that sea level rise might affect three times the number of people worldwide by 2050 than previously expected.

Natural Disaster Occurrences, 1980-2019

In 2019 we saw some policy responses to these climate challenges: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced the availability of over $6 billion in pre-disaster mitigation funds to communities impacted by disasters in 2015, 2016, and 2017. The money is to be used for enabling “grantees to mitigate against disaster risks, while at the same time allowing grantees the opportunity to transform state and local planning.” The Mitigation Framework Leadership Group released a National Mitigation Investment Strategy, while FEMA announced a new method to measure and map flood risk.

As we anticipate the future years of temperature and precipitation records, we need to invest significant resources, time and effort to avoid setting more records for disaster costs and frequency, or even worse, deaths.

C2ES has been in conversation with cities, companies, asset managers, credit ratings agencies, and others working at the intersection of climate risk, economics, policy, and health or well-being. From these conversations, a few critical opportunities to be more resilient emerge:

  • Adaptation costs money, the primary barrier for communities. More diverse funding sources and innovative finance mechanisms are needed to encourage private and public funders to invest in resilience projects. These could include a national infrastructure bank, loan programs, and tax incentives for companies and individuals.
  • Many communities are identifying risks and developing resilience or adaptation plans, but for those who have already taken these steps, it’s time to get to work. Different non-structural and infrastructure solutions need testing, so more funding and support should be available for implementing and monitoring their success. Practitioners should work with the federal government and private sector to develop ways to measure success and promote projects that can be adjusted if they are not effectively addressing risk or have unintended consequences.
  • While communities and companies are taking steps to implement easier steps of their adaptation plans, it’s time for a longer-term discussion about how property buyouts and migration may affect community preparedness. States and cities are beginning to acknowledge the possible need for retreat (e., limiting or removing residences in risky areas), but because it could affect large coastal areas, disproportionately displace low-income and long-term coastal residents, and trigger inter-state migration, this should be coordinated on a national level.
  • Any pre-disaster mitigation or resilience initiative should include provisions for low-income households, communities of color, or otherwise vulnerable populations. This includes the efforts at the federal level. This is especially important following a March 2019 report from NPR that found disaster aid and funds to “buy out” vulnerable properties are overwhelmingly used for affluent communities and individuals. As we shift to more proactive risk management, there is opportunity to also address these inequities before disasters.

Now, in 2020 and looking ahead to 2021, as a new Congress and presidential term begin, is the time to coalesce around resilience and adaptation action. Much stronger federal focus is needed on rural as well as urban communities, especially those facing flooding and extreme heat. Less severe events like repeated flooding, as well as extreme events like hurricanes, deserve increased attention. The increasing price of events outlined above is falling on states and local governments, with significant financial impacts on the federal government and businesses. With those impacts comes loss of economic vitality and competitiveness.

To avoid these consequences, federal leadership on adaptation policy is crucial to enhance state, local, and private sector action. High priorities for the president and Congress should include incentives to increase coordination of cross-boundary climate resilience actions and planning to help reduce future costs, private-sector engagement with state and local governments, and support for local action with resources, project funding, and guidance.