Climate disasters with billion-dollar price tags

Climate disasters with billion-dollar price tags

By Patti Wood

In the early hours of Saturday morning, the 8th of June, bleary-eyed legislators in the New York State Assembly passed the Climate Change Superfund Act by a vote of 95-46. The bill will make the fossil fuel industry pay for the costs associated with climate-driven weather events and climate resiliency projects. The Senate had already passed it, so it will now go to Gov. Hochul for her signature.

The bill will force the largest fossil fuel polluters to pay for the damage done to our communities, with a particular focus on vulnerable and disproportionately affected areas, and bear a share of the costs of infrastructure upgrades required to adapt to the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, increasing temperatures, extreme weather events and flooding.

No finding of wrongdoing will be required and the fossil fuel companies will pay $3 billion annually into a 25-year dedicated fund because the use of their products has caused the pollution driving increasingly unstable and more severe weather patterns.

When the National Centers for Environmental Information released its 2023 disaster report, it showed another historic year for the number of billion-dollar disasters, 28 in total with a price tag of at least $92.9 billion. These included wild fires, drought and heat waves, tornados and cyclones, severe storms with flooding, hail and winter storms and cold waves. They reported 492 direct or indirect fatalities.

But there are other costs related to burning fossil fuels that often go unreported. Here in the U.S. we spend approximately $120 billion a year in health costs related to air pollution from burning oil and coal in the form of fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide. Carnegie Mellon University led a study showing increased human deaths as a result of air pollutants emitted by power plants and vehicles. It reported that each year 20,000 people die prematurely from these exposures.

On a global scale, a new modeling study published in the British Medical Journal says that air pollution from using fossil fuels in industry, power generation and transportation accounts for 5.1 million extra deaths annually.

We’ve become accustomed to paying the bill for natural disasters. When Category 5 hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast or traverse the Atlantic Seaboard, or when tornadoes strike the Midwest or forest fires devastate towns in California, our federal emergency agencies are there, bringing in supplies of water, food, medicine and other necessities required for daily life. But those cases of water, those emergency shelters, those medical supplies cost money, and transporting them costs money, and storing them until they’re needed costs money.

We tend not to ask who’s responsible for these “natural” disasters. The insurance industry has always characterized these extreme weather events as “Acts of God,” but the longstanding assumption that humans cannot impact our weather is being challenged these days. Our homeowner insurance policies are going up, and those of us who live anywhere near the water know that homeowners insurance is becoming much harder to get.

We also don’t think about the cost, of course, when disasters happen. We worry about the people whose lives are upended or prematurely cut short. We think about children swept away by racing river currents or children left without parents when a tornado rips their home apart. We worry about people whose farms are destroyed or whose homes, pets and treasured family belongings are gone instantly, carried up into a dark sky in a ferocious funnel.

No one is predicting that these dangerous and destructive weather events will get better in the near future. And most people are slowly getting use to the new norm – unpredictable seasons and disruption of nature’s cycles, hotter and longer summers, shorter falls and springs and either warmer or frigid winters. And the irony, of course, is that these extremes of temperatures will probably force us to rely on burning more fossil fuels to keep ourselves comfortable.

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