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Costs of Climate Change Running Hundreds of Billions a Year

Updated: Jan 4, 2019



Debris from a damaged home in Spring, Texas, serves as a reminder of Hurricane Harvey's fury. Such storms may be spurred by a changing climate, with expensive consequences. Photograph by Luke Sharrett, Bloomberg via Getty Images via National Geographic

A new report warns of a high price tag on the impacts of global warming, from storm damage to health costs. But solutions can provide better value, says author Stephen Leahy

in an article by National Geographic published September 27, 2017.


Extreme weather, made worse by climate change, along with the health impacts of burning fossil fuels, has cost the U.S. economy at least $240 billion a year over the past ten years, a new report has found.


And yet this does not include this past month's three major hurricanes [in 2017] or 76 wildfires in nine Western states. Those economic losses alone are estimated to top $300 billion, the report notes. Putting it in perspective, $300 billion is enough money to provide free tuition for the 13.5 million U.S. students enrolled in public colleges and universities for four years.


In the coming decade, economic losses from extreme weather combined with the health costs of air pollution spiral upward to at least $360 billion annually, potentially crippling U.S. economic growth, according to this new report, “The Economic Case for Climate Action in the United States,” published online Thursday by the Universal Ecological Fund.

“Burning fossil fuels comes at a giant price tag which the U.S. economy cannot afford and not sustain," said Sir Robert Watson, coauthor and director at the U.K's Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research.


“We want to paint a picture for Americans to illustrate the fact that the costs of not acting on climate change are very significant,” Watson, the former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told National Geographic.


Watson is quick to point out that extreme weather events, including heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts, are not directly caused by climate change. However, there is no question their intensity and frequency in many cases has been made worse by the fact the entire planet is now 1.8 degrees F (1 degree C) hotter, he said in an interview.


While a 1.8 degree F (1 degree C) increase may seem small, it’s having a major economic impact on the U.S. According to data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the number of extreme weather events causing at least $1 billion in economic losses has increased more than 400 percent since the 1980s. Some of that increase is due to increased amounts of housing and commercial infrastructure along coastlines.

“However that doesn’t account for big increases in the last decade,” Watson said.


And much more global warming is coming—3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) temperature by 2050 and even greater warming beyond that—unless bigger cuts in fossil-fuel emissions are made than those promised in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, said Watson. “The impacts of climate change are certainly going to get more than twice as bad,” he said. (Learn more about why this hurricane season has been so catastrophic.)

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