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Extreme weather has already cost the US $350 billion — and climate change is going to add to the bill

Extreme weather has already cost the US $350 billion — and climate change is going to add to the bill


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Illustrations by Alex Castro / The Verge

Extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires have already cost the US more than $350 billion over the last decade, and climate change is only going to make things worse, according to a new government report released today.

The study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal agency that does audits on behalf of Congress, warns that climate change will impact various sectors and regions differently. For instance, storm losses from sea level rise, more intense storms, and increased flooding in coastal communities could cost the US as much as $89 billion by 2099, while changes in labor productivity from lost work hours could cost the country as much as $150 billion by the end of the century. The agency recommends that the Trump administration take into account the economic risks of climate change and “craft appropriate federal responses.”

“craft appropriate federal responses”

The study comes on the wake of a particularly active hurricane and wildfire season that’s been ravaging communities across the US. Hurricane Harvey, which hit Texas in August, and Hurricane Irma, which barreled through Florida last month, caused millions of dollars in damages. Puerto Rico is largely still without power after Hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island’s power infrastructure last month. Meanwhile, wildfires in California destroyed more than 8,000 homes in wine country, killing 42 people — the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history.

This year’s extreme weather events have been made worse by climate change, according to experts. And they represent a taste of what’s to come if we don’t stop pumping heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Climate change is “‘loading the dice’ toward more extreme floods, heat waves, droughts, and hurricanes,” Michael Mann, a climatologist and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told The Verge last month. “We shouldn’t be surprised we’re turning up snake eyes so often now.”

The GAO report is trying to assess the economic effects linked to those extreme weather events in the years ahead, based on what climate projections say. Research mentioned in the report shows that the Southern US could face a number of serious economic impacts by the end of the century: the Southwest, for instance, could experience a rise in wildfires, decreased agricultural yields, increases in energy demands, as well as an increase in the number of people who’ll die because of higher than normal temperatures. The Southeast, as well as the Northeast, could experience damages to coastal infrastructures because of rising sea levels and flooding. Other areas, such as the Northwest and Midwest, could actually see some economic gains: warmer temperatures could make it easier to grow crops there.

“We shouldn’t be surprised we’re turning up snake eyes so often now.”

Several sectors — from health to energy to agriculture — will be impacted by climate change, according to the report. Warmer temperatures and drought, for instance, could cost the US up to $53 billion by the end of the century. Increased energy demands could cost up to $87 billion by 2099. These calculations are based on 30 studies and interviews with 26 experts, the report says.

Whether the GAO report is going to spur any government action is unlikely. The Trump administration has been busy trying to roll back many environmental regulations passed under President Barack Obama. Earlier this month, Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced that the administration will take steps to repeal a federal policy that would have pushed states to abandon coal and switch to renewable energy.