2018: More Extreme Weather, More Links to Carbon Pollution

2018 brought more evidence that carbon pollution is pushing weather disasters. Time to hold polluters responsible.
Credit: American Meteorological Society

Part of NRDC's Year-End Series Reviewing 2018 Climate & Clean Energy Developments

This post written with NRDC attorney Peter Huffman

“Everyone complains about the weather,” the old saying goes, “but nobody does anything about it.”

Well it turns out that someone has been doing something to the weather—and everyone should be complaining.

A new report last week by the American Meteorological Society (AMS) demonstrates the clear ties between human-caused climate change and extreme weather. The report examines 17 peer-reviewed analyses of specific extreme weather events in 2017, from droughts to floods to heatwaves. Virtually all these disasters, including the $2.5 billion-dollar drought in the northern Great Plains, were made more severe by human-caused climate change. Some events could not have occurred at all without the carbon pollution that’s driving dangerous climate change.

Senior fossil fuel company executives have known for at least 50 years that their products are destabilizing our climate. So have our elected officials. Fossil fuel use produces the vast majority of the carbon pollution that drives climate change, and more extreme weather is a direct consequence. Devastating storms that should be very rare events now arrive on a yearly basis. Three of the five costliest U.S. hurricanes on record—Harvey, Maria, and Irma—all hit in 2017 and cost nearly 300 billion dollars.  Hurricanes Florence and Michael slammed into the East and Gulf Coasts this year, killing dozens of people.  And wildfires devastated California and other western states, killing more than 80 people at current count.

Update: InsideClimateNews reports today on seven separate billion-dollar U.S. climate disasters in 2018, including $5 billion in damages at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida from Hurricane Michael.

The AMS report should be another wake-up call to government and industry leaders to act. Not that they need one. The alarm clock is already bouncing off the bedside table. Three weeks ago, the Lancet released its second annual assessment on the devastating effects of climate change and extreme weather on human health. The week before that, the U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) confirmed that carbon pollution from fossil fuel combustion is the primary cause of climate change. The month before that, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report laid bare the dangerous consequences of letting global temperatures rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—including ever more extreme weather events.

Extreme weather costs lives. It also costs money—a lot of it. Someone has to pay. As things stand, it is the victims and taxpayers picking up the tab. And the tab will keep growing until we do something.

From Fanning the Flames to Lighting the Fire

Scientists have been able to show for years that human-caused climate change is making natural disasters like heatwaves, wildfires, and storms more destructive. That’s bad enough.

But scientists are now identifying extreme weather events that “could not have happened without warming of the climate through human-induced climate change.” In other words, natural disasters are not just getting worse: we are facing even more disastrous events that would not have occurred at all without human-induced climate change.

Changing the Forecast

The AMS report, the Lancet, the NCA, and the IPCC all paint a grim picture of the world we will live in and pass on to our children if we stick to business as usual.

The most important takeaway, however, is that we can still avoid the worst of these impacts. But only if we’re honest about the cause. And only if we act now.

Honest policymakers acknowledge reality: carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels is causing climate change and more extreme weather. Nations met last week in Poland to act on the scientific consensus and move forward under the Paris agreement. Predictably, the Trump administration lined up with Saudi Arabia and Russia in the attempt to deny and deflect the science.

The Trump administration is staffed with fossil fuel lobbyists and ideologues, so official denial shouldn’t come as a surprise. For decades the fossil fuel industry actively misled the public about the dangers of its products. But under the threat of legal liability, even fossil fuel companies are now being forced to admit the truth: Chevron told a federal judge this year that it accepts the consensus of the scientific community embodied in the IPCC reports. And legal action is slowly—but surely—forcing the Trump administration to face reason. When the administration denies climate change in court, it loses.

Reasonable government officials and industry leaders know what needs to be done. We need comprehensive action across government and industry to reduce the use of fossil fuels to decarbonize our power and transportation systems. While the Trump administration dithers in the past, state and local leaders are advancing bold policies to protect our future. Political leaders ultimately answer to the voters. Millions of Americans are experiencing extreme weather and climate action is now a rising issue across the political spectrum.

But the fossil fuel industry doesn’t answer to voters. It answers to investors. Coal, oil, and gas executives know that fossil fuel burning leads to more extreme weather and billions of dollars in costs. Yet these companies are pushing the Trump administration to lease every available acre of public lands and waters at bargain basement prices. 

What’s missing is that they don’t pay for the damages their products cause. When extreme rain floods homes and destroys crops, the fossil fuel companies don’t pick up the tab. They continue to profit and stick everyone else with the bill. They’re even asking taxpayers to pay for seawalls to protect coastal refineries from the rising seas and storms that the companies themselves have helped cause. This may look good in the boardroom, but it looks bad for our communities.

We can change the forecast. The companies responsible for destabilizing our climate have to start paying their fair share for the damage they are causing. And through action by cities, states, and—yes—our government in Washington, we must transition rapidly from burning fossil fuels to clean energy. 

Dirty energy has put us billions of dollars in the hole. As another old saying goes, “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”