Teresa Reynolds sits exhausted as members of her community clean the debris from their flood ravaged homes at Ogden Hollar in Hindman, Ky., July 30. (Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press)

Teresa Reynolds sits exhausted as members of her community clean the debris from their flood ravaged homes at Ogden Hollar in Hindman, Ky., July 30. (Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press)

Editorial: How many billion-dollar disasters will it take?

A tally of climate disasters shows an ever-increasing toll of costs and lives. Congress must act.

By The Herald Editorial Board

The weather disasters striking around us — torrential rain and flooding that have recently killed at least 37 in Appalachia, extended droughts over the last two decades in the Southwest U.S. that have reduced reservoirs such as Lake Powell and Lake Mead to near “dead pool” status, increases in wildfire frequency and acreage and property destroyed in the West and extended heat waves in the Northwest — have long moved past unrelated anecdotes to alarming trend.

It’s a devastatingly costly trend; in dollars and in lives, and one inescapably attributable to global warming and climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has tracked the costs of weather-related disasters since 1980, totaling data on damage to infrastructure and private property to estimate the economic impact, counting up what it calls “billion-dollar disasters,” including hurricanes, tornadoes, winter storms, droughts, floods and wildfires.

For the years from 1980 to today, it has tallied 332 such disasters resulting in individual costs totaling $2.278 trillion, with an average annual cost of $53 billion a year. Over the same period, those disasters have resulted in 15,355 deaths, for an annual average toll of 357 deaths.

But with each decade — and now with each year — the number of billion-dollar disasters, their frequency, total costs and the lives claimed have intensified.

Between 1980 and 1989, NOAA tallied 31 such disasters, totaling $201.5 billion in costs and 2,970 deaths. For the decade of 2010-19, the agency counts 128 such disasters, with $918.8 billion in losses and 5,227 deaths.

Where we have averaged fewer than eight such disasters in the last 40 years, the average for the last three years has jumped to nearly 19 a year, with more than $105 billion in average annual losses and an average of 343 deaths each year.

“In 2021, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, putting 2021 in second place for the most disasters in a calendar year, behind the record 22 separate billion-dollar events in 2020,” a NOAA report from January concludes. Those 20 weather and climate disasters for 2021 saw total losses of $152.6 billion and claimed 724 lives.

The most damaging months occur July through December, so 2022’s tally is just beginning.

Even at just a fraction of climate change’s total costs to resources, economies, culture, health and lives caused by rising seas, water scarcity, shifting local climates and loss of farmland and wildlife habitat, those disaster losses can no longer be ignored in the accounting now demanded by climate change and its economics. And they stand against the claims that efforts to reduce carbon emissions and brace for the impacts of climate change are impractical and too costly.

And it’s why Congress must pass the Inflation Reduction Act now being considered in the Senate.

You can ignore the act’s title; marketing was never the Democrats’ strong suit. The legislation’s effect on inflation, while not negligible, isn’t among the act’s strongest points, which pledges to:

• Lower the costs of medications, by allowing Medicare to negotiate the price on an increasing number of prescription drugs;

• Lower Affordable Care Act premiums for millions of Americas;

• Close loopholes, reform taxes and improve fairness by strengthening IRS scrutiny on tax cheats and increasing the share paid by larger corporations and wealthy Americans making more than $400,000 a year; while

• Reducing the nation’s deficit by more than $300 billion over the next 10 years.

Most importantly, though, are the act’s provisions related to climate change, including more than $396 billion in investments over the next 10 years.

Included in those investments are incentives, grants and loans that will encourage:

• Industries to increase production of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries, as well as energy-efficient heat pumps, water heaters and appliances;

• Utilities to make the transition to clean electricity, and encourage chemical, steel and cement industries to reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions;

• U.S. automakers to increase production of electric and other zero-emission vehicles;

• And provide tax credits for the purchase of those vehicles, $7,500 for new; $4,000 for used; as well as consumer credits for the purchase of rooftop solar panels, heat pumps and energy-efficient appliances.

The legislation, a deal hammered out by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., required a concession to the coal-state lawmaker, one that at first seems counterproductive, as it would eat into carbon reductions by allowing an increase in oil and gas drilling, including in the Gulf of Mexico. However, as reported by FactCheck.org, those leases will set caps and charge fees on excess emissions of methane, a particularly powerful greenhouse gas.

The act’s investments, according to research firms Rhodium Group and Energy Innovation, are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 44 percent by 2030. Admittedly, that’s less than the 52 percent goal that President Biden set early in his first year and might have been achievable with more of the provisions he had originally outlined in Build Back Better’s climate package, but where Congress is concerned, victories have to be incremental.

And even those victories aren’t assured.

As welcomed and unexpected as the deal between Schumer and Manchin was — not to mention the conditional yes from Sen. Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz. — passage of the act is not a given in an evenly split Senate. The bill’s path through reconciliation, which allows it to avoid a filibuster by Senate Republicans, still must endure a weekend of unlimited GOP amendments intended to derail the bill, dubbed vote-a-rama (because, how else can a senator have any fun?)

But by whatever name and whatever process, the act and its climate provisions must pass.

The Paris Agreement, the legally binding international treaty on climate change agreed to by 196 nations in 2016, set a target that global temperatures should not rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, in order to avoid devastating climate disruptions that will become increasingly harmful for people and the planet itself.

A report in May from the World Meteorological Organization concluded that there is now a 50-50 chance that the 1.5-degree limit will be reached in the next five years and a 93 percent chance that one year in the next five will break 2016’s record for warmest on record.

With each tenth of a degree rise, the effects increase and with them the losses.

How many billion-dollar disasters before we understand the price of inaction?

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