Hurricane Irma ravaged Florida. Hurricane Harvey pummeled Houston. Hurricane Maria thrashed Puerto Rico. Dubbed “once in a lifetime” by multiple news sources due to their severity, these natural disasters all occurred within the span of one month. They are no longer few and far between.
Beyond the obvious loss of life, homes, and natural ecosystems, the economic damage caused by these disasters is catastrophic. The cost of damages caused by Huricane Irma and Huricane Harvey is estimated to be between $200-290 billion, factoring in the costs of flooded homes and businesses, damaged roads and powerlines, water-logged machinery, lost business and tourism revenues, a decrease in consumer spending, and a higher price for consumer commodities. By comparison, Hurricane Katrina, the United States’ previously most expensive natural disaster, has racked in costs of upwards of $100 billion, without accounting for the impact the hurricane had on the U.S. economy for years following.
Interestingly, hurricanes in the United States are getting larger and larger. Simply from an economic standpoint, nine of the ten biggest and thus costliest Atlantic hurricanes, not including Harvey or Irma, have occurred since 2000. And according to the National Center for Environmental Information, the United States has had 212 climate disasters since 1980 that have cost more than $1 billion in damages, totaling in a whopping $1.2 trillion in damage costs. This number is expected to rise significantly once the costs of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria are factored in.
The United States has a department to provide emergency aid for those affected by these disasters—the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA. It has an annual budget of approximately $13.5 billion, although President Trump proposed cutting this budget in late September. FEMA helps pay for emergency meals, shelter, and home repair grants. However, this is only a drop in the bucket of the funds needed to repair peoples’ lives following these disasters. One thing that is certain is the United States cannot keep up with the astronomical costs of one disaster after another. Scientists have provided explanations behind the severity of this year’s hurricane season—the prevalent being climate change.
Politicians and global leaders have offered their opinions on the role of climate change in these disasters. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt dodged questioning the role of climate change in Hurricane Irma by stating that, “to have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.”Pope Francis, on the other hand, was staunch in his view of climate change as a factor of the recent disasters. “Those who deny climate change must go to the scientists and ask them. They speak very clearly,” adding if they continue to deny climate change, “history will judge those decisions.”
Scientists do agree on one thing. Although it cannot be said for certain that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were caused by climate change, they were certainly worsened by it. For example, sea levels have risen by more than half a foot in recent years due to human disturbances such as oil drilling. This resulted in a storm surge half a foot higher than it would have been a few decades ago, causing far more flooding and destruction. As a result, far more resources have been needed to combat the recent disasters.
Climate change is undoubtedly expensive. Based on the recent rise in astronomically expensive natural disasters, the cost is only going to increase. It is up to us to realize the role we play in climate change, and thus the influence we have on the destruction caused by these disasters. Given the accelerating rate of these catastrophes, we need to take action before it is too late.