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January 15, 2024

US billion-dollar climate disasters soar, but debate remains divided

A storm-damaged petrol station following 2023’s Hurricane Idalia in Perry, Florida. 28 disasters causing damages of at least $1bn each struck the US last year. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
A storm-damaged petrol station following 2023’s Hurricane Idalia in Perry, Florida. 28 disasters causing damages of at least $1bn each struck the US last year. (Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

The material and economic impacts of climate change are increasing being felt in the US. Experts hope voters will take notice and act accordingly in the 2024 elections

The US saw a record number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in 2023, a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows. In total, 28 disasters causing damages of at least $1bn each struck the US last year, an increase on the previous record of 22 disasters in 2020.

Over the past three years, US weather and climate disaster costs reached a total of more than $400bn and between 2000 and 2009, the US spent an average of $60.4bn a year on disaster relief, adjusted for inflation, NOAA data reveals.

In the past 12 months, the US experienced 17 severe storms, four flooding events, two tropical cyclones, two tornado outbreaks, one winter storm, one wildfire and one drought and heat wave. Of the 50 US states, 24 experienced their top 10 warmest year, and across the country 2023 was the fifth warmest year ever recorded. 

“[The 2023 results] mark a consistent pattern that is becoming the new normal,” Adam Smith, climatologist with the US National Centers for Environmental Information, who worked on the NOAA study, tells Sustainable Views.

“Over the last seven years across the US, 137 separate billion-dollar disasters have killed at least 5,500 people and the total direct costs have exceeded $1tn in damage,” he adds. 

Increasing damage is driven by changes to climate and weather, but also the movement of people to more vulnerable areas for work and lifestyle reasons in the past decade. In the western states the wildfire season is becoming longer, and in the eastern states heavy rainfall is becoming more common, Smith explains.

“The NOAA study is an indication of how consumers, households, families and individuals are encountering a significant increase in natural disasters and suffering losses of real significance,” adds John Morton, managing director of US-based climate change investment and advisory company Pollination, and former White House senior director for energy and climate change under President Barack Obama.

“Climate has a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks now, in a way that it hasn’t historically,” Morton tells Sustainable Views.

Globally, 2023 was the hottest year on record, the EU’s Copernicus Climate Change Service reported in January. On average, 2023 was 0.60C warmer than the 1991-2020 average and 1.48C warmer than the 1850-1900 pre-industrial average level. Every day in 2023 was also at least 1C above pre-industrial levels, according to a global average, another first, says Copernicus.  

‘A third-rail issue’

As US voters look to the 2024 elections, scheduled for November, opinions on climate are a key distinction between presidential hopefuls.

Following the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which increased tax incentives for clean energy in the US, Climate Power has committed $80mn to a campaign aimed at encouraging US voters concerned about climate change to vote for US President Joe Biden.

“It’s somewhere between a crying shame and a travesty that a scientifically proven phenomenon has become a third-rail issue in American politics”

John Morton, Pollination

Meanwhile, Donald Trump, former US President, who is currently leading in the polls to be selected as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, has vocally denied climate change, calling it a “hoax” and a “make-believe problem”.

“It’s somewhere between a crying shame and a travesty that a scientifically proven phenomenon has become a third-rail issue in American politics,” says Morton, referring to the controversial nature of climate change discussions in the US.

“What is not a third-rail issue is the fact you have tens of millions of people that have been directly affected by events that are exacerbated by climate change. People who have lost their homes, their productive lands, their assets to extreme weather events… those people know that something is happening that wasn’t happening 15 or 20 years ago,” he continues.

“Climate is a very controversial issue for US voters,” agrees Jennifer Marlon, senior research scientist with the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication. “However, trends in our opinion data very clearly show that people are becoming more and more worried about the impacts”.

Lack of understanding

A report published in November 2023 by the YPCCC and George Mason University found that 56 per cent of registered US voters say global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president or congress. 

The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 American adults who were registered to vote in October 2023. Only 12 per cent of respondents say the government is responding well to global warming, and 64 per cent support transitioning the US economy away from fossil fuels to “100 per cent clean energy” by 2050. However, 52 per cent of registered voters also support expanding offshore drilling for oil and natural gas off the coast of the US.

For the YPCCC’s Marlon this “paradox” could be the result of a poor understanding among the US electorate of the relationship between fossil fuels and extreme weather. “Most people do not have a clear conceptual model in their minds that links the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change in a coherent framework,” she says.

Morton from Pollination says support for drilling comes down to household costs. “The average American household makes completely rational decisions about procuring their electricity and they want it to be the cheapest and most reliable as possible. I don’t think it is necessarily that Americans support drilling, they support affordable, reliable electricity supply,” he says.

A 2023 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency found that around 86 per cent (187GW) of all newly commissioned renewable capacity in 2022 had lower costs than fossil fuel-fired electricity. In the US, solar PV has been cheaper than fossil fuel generation since 2021, and onshore wind has been cheaper since as early as 2013, the IRENA report also shows. The levelised cost of energy for utility-scale solar, onshore and offshore wind have fallen by 58-74 per cent over the decade between 2013-2023, data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance also reveals.

In a December note, the YPCCC said growing numbers of Americans are “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change. The researchers routinely monitor Americans’ feelings about climate change across a six-point scale. Survey respondents are described as alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful or dismissive. 

Over the past 10 years, the “alarmed” group has grown more than any other audience, nearly doubling in size to 28 per cent in 2023 from 15 per cent in 2013. Conversely, the “cautious” group, defined as those people who have not yet made up their mind about climate change, has decreased in size the most during that time, to 15 per cent in 2023 from 26 per cent in 2013. The “dismissive” group, largely made up of those who do not believe the climate is changing, has remained mostly unchanged, to 11 per cent in 2023 from 12 per cent in 2013.

Evident polarisation

The 2024 edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Perception Survey of international experts from academia, business, government, the international community and civil society, shows increasing concern about environmental risk. The survey was published ahead of this month’s annual WEF gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where political and financial leaders will discuss the major economic risks posed in 2024 under the theme of “rebuilding trust”.

WEF survey respondents selected extreme weather as the risk most likely to present “a material crisis on a global scale” in 2024. Extreme weather ranked above AI-generated misinformation, societal or political polarisation and the cost-of-living crisis as likely to cause significant harm if it becomes a reality.

The WEF results show a difference in perceptions of urgency when it comes to environmental risk. Young people and those working in civil society or government tended to rank biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse as well as critical change to Earth systems as a key risks in the next two years; those working in the private sector viewed these risks as more pressing over a 10-year period.

The YPCCC’s Marlon says “polarisation is particularly evident” when voters are asked whether they want to see action in the short or long term. But “the faster we stop polluting, the better chance we have of keeping the climate system stable in the long term”, she says.

“Designing an industrial policy that is centred around the reorientation of the American economy towards a lower carbon footprint is not a small achievement [but] that is 100 per cent what the administration should be doing,” says Pollination’s Morton. “[US policymakers should be] helping companies and investors to take advantage of [tax] incentives [outlined under the IRA] as quickly as possible for not just climate reasons but for economic competitiveness reasons.” 

A service from the Financial Times