Extreme Weather: The Climate-Chaos Tax

As I prepared to leave Prince Edward Island last week, I said my goodbyes as many of my new  agroforester-friends headed back to their homes across the U.S. and Canada.

There was Valerie, headed back to Alaska where the mercury had just topped 96 degrees Fahrenheit, smashing all prior records, hotter than Miami in many parts of the state. There was a large contingent headed back to Calgary, where the Bow and Elbow Rivers had inundated Canada’s fourth-largest city in a devastating flood. Many were on their way to the American Southwest, trapped in a record heat wave and an unrelenting multi-year drought, with wildfires raging over 1.8 million acres so far this year. (In less than one week, nineteen elite firefighters would lose their lives fighting a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona.)

Calgary's rivers overwhelmed the city

Calgary’s rivers overwhelmed the city

Others were headed back to Texas, whose climate-denying governor, Rick Perry, had just renewed and extended his two-year-old emergency drought declaration to 200 counties, as drought conditions persisted over 95 percent of the parched state.

Back at my hotel, the breakfast-room attendant held forth with surprising knowledge on the prospect that climate change was splitting beautiful PEI into two separate islands, as rising sea levels flood and erode the island’s picturesque coastlines. On the other side of the world, the 68,000 islanders who inhabit the Pacific Marshall Islands battled the rising seas, as high tides surged over the seawalls defending the tiny nation’s capital and flooded the airport.

When I arrived at the Charlottestown-PEI airport, the TV news splashed graphic images of countless Indians stranded in churning water, as the Ganges River claimed more than 1,000 victims in a record monsoon flood. The prior week, floods on rivers too numerous to name had ravaged Warsaw and Budapest, among many other cities in Germany, Austria, Poland and other European countries.

Maybe you’ve noticed too? Extreme weather is all over the news, practically all the time. Perhaps you’ve wondered if the media is just finally reporting on bad weather that’s been there all along?

Only a statue, but Idia's flood killed more than 1,000

Only a statue, but India’s flood killed more than 1,000

But arriving home, I found a new report from the National Climate Data Center that put my questions to rest for good. The NCDC is the nation’s scorekeeper for climatic events, and they rated 2012 as the 2nd most expensive year for major extreme weather events. In 2012, the U.S. endured eleven climatic events costing more than $1.0 billion each. Together, those eleven events cost us $110 billion, or around $370 for every single American man, woman and child.

Six of 2012’s climate disasters were tornado clusters, which wreaked $13.4 billion in damages and killed 50 Americans. One was a massive “derecho” that swept from Illinois to Virginia. One was a wildfire season that incinerated 9.2 million acres of Western land. The worst drought to hit our land since the “Dust Bowl” cost us another $30 billion, and claimed 123 lives. And finally, two hurricanes ravaged our shores, including “super-storm” Sandy, which left us holding a $65 billion tab, and mourning the loss of 165 of our fellow citizens.

Maybe 2012 was just an unlucky year, no? Into each life, some rain must fall, right?

How I wish that were the case. The NCDC has been keeping records of billion-dollar extreme weather events for each of the 33 years since 1980, adjusted for inflation. The record number of disasters struck the U.S. the prior year – 2011, with 14 “billion-plus” events, including droughts, river floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and a blizzard, which together left us a $60 billion bill. That’s another $200 tab for every single American.

The record-cost year struck in 2005, a relatively uneventful year, except for Hurricane Katrina and three other major hurricanes that swept ashore, costing us a whopping $160 billion, or $530 for every American, not counting the 2,000 of us who lost their lives.

And how do these recent years compare with those in the early years of the NCDC database, when the threat of climate change was known to only a handful of scientists? In the 1980’s, seven years saw one or zero billion-dollar events. The remaining three years saw three or four events each, costing an average of $20 billion per year.

The 1990’s brought us a taste of what was to come. Eight of the ten years suffered four or more billion-dollar events, reaching nine such events in the record-hot year of 1998. The 2000’s brought us worse and worse losses. The average year saw five major climate disasters, costing us an average of $40 billion per year. And that brings us to the present, where we’ve clocked an average of ten billion-plus disasters per year, costing an average of $65 billion in the first three years of the current decade.

Think how you’d react if this were a tax.  In the 1980’s, you – and every member of your family – paid an extreme-weather tax of about $67, in today’s dollars. Atmospheric carbon pollution was getting serious, and the decade ended at a worrisome 353 parts per million. Fast forward to 2010-2012: CO2 has now steadily marched to 400 parts per million, and your extreme weather tax has more than tripled to $220, with an average of ten major disasters every year. That’s $220 for you and every member of your household, your church, your neighborhood, your city. Every year, another, higher tax. And that’s only counting events exceeding $ 1.0 billion. Sad to say, but the greatest cost comes from the thousands of smaller climate events that are happening all around us.

But thankfully, there is no climate-chaos tax, right?

Or is there? We know who pays for subsidized National Flood Insurance, don’t we? Or FEMA disaster relief? Or subsidized crop insurance programs for drought-stricken farms? Or the Army Corps of Engineers rebuilding breached levees?  Don’t we know who pays for new hardened infrastructure after major storms?

Do we need to state the obvious? You pay. I pay. Your kids pay. Their kids pay. And with Congressional heads firmly planted in the sand, serious action on climate policy is nowhere on the horizon, other than the modest plans outlined last week by the President which circumvent Congress entirely. Today’s 400 ppm will be well north of 440 ppm in twenty years. Anyone care to guess what our climate-chaos tax will be by then?

It looks pretty bleak, doesn’t it? But maybe the news isn’t as bad as it sounds. The climate-chaos tax could be reduced so easily, if Congress heard that people of faith thought that this was a bad way to go. Imagine if evangelical churches in America began talking about the harm we’re doing to ourselves and to our children – not to mention our Father’s world – by permitting polluters to pour unlimited amounts of greenhouse gases into our atmosphere at no cost to themselves whatsoever. Imagine if ordinary Christians in churches all over the country began writing their congressional representatives to demand action to protect the creation? And imagine if they began speaking to each other about the ever-growing burden we’re laying on the children of the world to keep bearing these mounting costs?

People of faith know that the Creator of the Earth will call on everyone to account for what they did in the very first job He assigned to our species: to tend and keep his garden. Based on the costs we’re piling up to be borne by future generations, I suspect we have more reason than most to be deeply concerned.

Thanks for reading; thanks for acting; and may God bless you.

 J. Elwood

2 thoughts on “Extreme Weather: The Climate-Chaos Tax

  1. Allen Johnson

    John, by far the worst part of a weather disaster is the personal and community suffering that results. Financial costs are secondary. However, many folks, most corporations and investment firms, and probably a lot of government policy makers prioritize money interests. And your column makes the clear point of cost externalization of global warming-related severe weather events onto the victims. This is a moral issue, a form of theft, that needs addressed, and you challenge Christians to step up to meet the challenge.

    1. John Elwood Post author

      Allen, you are right about the primacy of personal costs. But it might not be so easy to separate them from financial impacts. My company invested in properties that have been repeatedly flooded, against all historical precedent. As such, I have suffered heavy losses. My church has fallen short of budget the last several years, by about the giving that would have come in on storm-cancelled Sunday services. My neighbor’s farm has lost it’s fall broccoli to floods the last two years; no one can remember this happening before. Struggling investment firms, churches unable to meet all community needs, farmers suffering unusual losses — these might seem to be petty compared to those losing all their water in the Southwest, entire communities inundated along our great rivers, and the loss of our Western forest lands to fire. And even these pale compared to the climate-related suffering of Pakistan, Bangladesh, the African Sahel and the Pacific islands. But I can’t always tell where the financial stops, and where the personal begins.
      Thanks for the comment.


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