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What Are The Costs Of Climate Change?


The Gulf Coast faces catastrophic flooding after yet another hurricane - this one's Sally - lumbered ashore early this morning. Meanwhile, record-setting fires have been burning in the West for weeks. These climate-fueled disasters are not only dangerous, they're costly. Billions of dollars have been lost so far this year. NPR's climate team has been looking into what that means for the economy and for families. Nate Rott is in Oregon, and Rebecca Hersher is just back from the Gulf Coast.

Nate, Rebecca, hello to both of you.



PFEIFFER: And, Becky, let's put this first question to you. We know that climate change makes a year like this one more likely to occur. That's because hotter temperatures help drive bigger, more damaging wildfires and hurricanes. But what do we know about the economic toll that takes?

HERSHER: Well, you know, unfortunately, this isn't the first year that the U.S. has had this kind of back-to-back situation with fires and storms. And that's the kind of thing, as you said, that global warming helps fuel. And the federal government - it actually tracks this data, so we have some idea of how expensive these things are. And the cost is just huge. So in the last five years, the U.S. has experienced more than $500 billion - with a B - in losses directly from climate-fueled weather disasters. And that's not including 2020's disasters that will likely be in the tens of billions.

PFEIFFER: Five hundred billion dollars in the last five years - an enormous amount of money. Nate, you're outside Eugene, Ore., near where one of the major fires is burning. Give us some sense of what those fires mean for the local economy there.

ROTT: Well, they've just been devastating. You know, you have businesses here in Eugene, up and down the state that have had to close just because of the smoke. And a lot of these businesses were already just hanging on by a thread because of the pandemic. Then you've got the direct damages from the fires - lost homes, lost timber, lost buildings, lost infrastructure. I talked to a telecom worker the other day at the incident command post for the fire I'm near, and he had just gotten back from being in the burnt area. His name is Rob Robison, and he described the scene where it just looked like a ghost forest, he said. They lost something like 60 miles worth of telephone poles that had been built. And he says each of those poles costs about $10,000.

ROB ROBISON: We're looking at, you know, multimillions worth of infrastructure to replace. I mean, it's just - there's so much infrastructure out there that's been destroyed now.

ROTT: And that's just in one valley from one fire in a state that's got fires in it, you know, basically from north to south. And Robison was frustrated because he said he felt like there were things that we could do right now to decrease risk to infrastructure but we haven't because it costs money.

PFEIFFER: Nate, on that point, when it comes to wildfires, for example, what can be done to decrease their long-term costs?

ROTT: So it's going to take a big change in the status quo. You know, right now, we spend billions of dollars just about every year fighting fires, you know, trying to put them out. And fire ecologists, land managers, even firefighters will tell you that money would be way better spent on the front end. Here's Sarah Altemus-Pope, a former smoke jumper who now runs a forest collaborative in southern Oregon.

SARAH ALTEMUS-POPE: We do have a lot of work that we need to do in our forests to get them back to a more healthy state where they're going to be more resilient in the face of climate change and resilient to disturbance. And to do that, we're going to have to invest in them.

ROTT: So she says we're going to need more prescribed fire, more thinning, more management of these places. And that is going to cost a lot of money, you know, billions of dollars.

PFEIFFER: So that's wildfires. Then there's hurricanes. And, Rebecca, as we mentioned, you just got back from the Gulf. Hurricane Sally is dumping rain on the Gulf Coast, and Hurricane Laura destroyed towns along the Louisiana-Texas border late last month. Give us a sense about the hurricane cost.

HERSHER: Well, you know, hurricanes are consistently the most expensive disasters that we see, especially hurricanes that cause a lot of flooding, like Sally. And that's really bad news because that's exactly the kind of storm that's more common as the earth gets hotter. This year has been really bad. There have already been 10 climate-driven disasters that cost more than a billion dollars each. That was as of July. And one thing to remember is that where people live really matters. You know, the number of homes in flood-prone areas - it's skyrocketed in the last three decades. So this same disaster today is going to cause more damage, hurt more homes than if it had happened previously. So zoning laws, building codes - they are really important. And climate experts say that there are big economic benefits to be had if we build in more resilient ways.

PFEIFFER: Rebecca and Nate, we've been talking about the overall economic costs of these climate-fueled disasters. But let's go to a more personal level. How does this affect families? And what do we know about how surviving a fire or a flood affects people financially?

HERSHER: Well, the effects are really dramatic for a lot of people, especially poor people. If you don't have savings to fall back on or can't afford adequate insurance, a disaster can totally derail a family's finances for decades. People whose home is their only source of wealth, for example, they're more likely to end up renting even years later. Bankruptcy is more likely. There are other costs, too. Like, for example, research suggests that young people who survive a hurricane - they're less likely to enter college. It takes longer to graduate if they do go. And survivors also have long-term mental and physical health problems often, and that can interfere with work. That obviously hits your income or create new costs of their own.

PFEIFFER: These are extreme weather disasters we've been focusing on. But what about the financial hit from less dramatic or less immediately noticeable climate impacts like the gradual rise of temperatures?

ROTT: So yeah, I mean, rising temperatures and heatwaves hurt agriculture, health, you know, certainly electrical bills. You know, you have warmer waters affecting fisheries. And, you know, then there's just that down-the-road impacts of ecological decline. You know, we're in an extinction crisis right now that climate change is only going to make worse. And we depend on ecosystems for everything from clean water and air to places to go where we can just escape from it all. And I don't really know how you put a price tag on something like that.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's climate team Nate Rott and Rebecca Hersher.

Thank you to both of you.

HERSHER: Thanks so much.

ROTT: Happy to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.