2011, A Year of Living Dangerously: SREX Report Highlights Need to Prepare for Extreme Events and Climate Change

For millions of Americans, and people around the globe, 2011 has been nothing if not a year of extremes: 14 disastrous weather events in the US so far this year have each cost over a billion dollars in damages, an all-time record. My NRDC colleague Theo Spencer blogged about the human toll still felt across the nation. And the year isn’t over yet. 

Today, with the release of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s SREX report– “SREX” being the acronym for The Summary for Policymakers of the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation– we know even more about the connections between extreme weather events and the human disasters they trigger. For example, the SREX summary finds at least a 66 percent chance that extreme temperatures and coastal extreme high water (which contributes to flooding) have worsened as a result of human activities.

From the SREX press release:

"For the high emissions scenario, it is likely that the frequency of hot days will increase by a factor of 10 in most regions of the world", said Thomas Stocker, the other Co-chair of Working Group I. “Likewise, heavy precipitation will occur more often, and the wind speed of tropical cyclones will increase while their number will likely remain constant. 

Hot days increasing by a factor of ten, if we do nothing to reduce the rate at which we spew carbon pollution into the atmosphere?  And more heavy rain and higher winds? Heat waves and hurricanes are the most lethal weather-related hazards in the US over the last decade (2001-2010), according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

And just how much will such escalating climate-related disasters cost us if we don’t take actions to counter them? Last week, my NRDC colleagues and I released, with economists from the University of California, a study revealing the enormous health-related costs of climate change in the US. From evaluating a group of just six case studies occurring in the last decade, examples of categories whose effects climate change are likely to worsen in future, we estimated health costs exceeding $14 billion and over 760,000 interactions with the health care system. These findings are described in a paper in the journal Health Affairs, which can be accessed from NRDC’s website here.

Because these health-related costs are substantial and have not previously been included in climate damage estimates in the US, prior valuations are underestimates. The total costs are even higher if you consider all climate change-related events and the associated health costs that occurred in the US during the last decade. We estimated costs ranging up to $40 billion in our study, from just those six events. NRDC’s President Frances Beinecke reflects on the study here.

The good news is: preparedness pays. With a better understanding of these economic impacts and health risks, as offered by the study, government agencies and key players can create effective partnerships for climate-health preparedness that aggressively limit and reduce public health damage.

We know that only 13 US states have climate-health preparedness in their state climate action plans. (You can see which 13 states do have health plans by visiting NRDC’s webpages here). That leaves 37 states, or 74% of the nation, without anything in the way of planning on climate & health. We can do better.

So here is the great news in the SREX report today: we have an enormous opportunity to improve our lives and create healthier communities.

We can prepare ourselves for climate change’s effects. Climate change preparedness is indeed happening already, across the nation and the globe.

NRDC has terrific webpages that show how climate change threatens health right in your backyard, and what’s being done (or not) to prepare. You can take action to prepare yourself, and your actions matter.

A new update of NRDC’s seminal report on stormwater pollution and green infrastructure, Rooftops to Rivers, was just released this week, to great fanfare (see NRDC colleague Peter Lehner’s blog). The report looks at 14 case studies of how climate change will affect water issues cities already face, such as flooding in extreme rainfall events. Cities like New York, Philadelphia, and a dozen others are making green infrastructure improvements to become more climate-ready and resilient. NRDC’s Thirsty For Answers report highlights the strides that some major US cities are making as climate change challenges urban water resources.

Seattle, Chicago, and New York, for example, are among the cities making strides in terms of adapting their water infrastructure for climate changes. St. Louis, on the other hand, hasn’t yet been able to accomplish as much on the water-related risks of climate change (although they have been leaders on watching for heat-related illness and mortality among their residents, since they’ve experienced historic heat waves in the past).

And indeed, some members of Congress are trying to help us promote health preparedness and natural resource adaptation. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) recently introduced the Climate Change Health Protection and Promotion Act (I describe it in a blog here); and Sens. Whitehouse (D-RI) and Baucus (D-MT) have just introduced the Safeguarding America’s Future and Environment (SAFE) Act.

The SREX report makes a point of saying that future emissions become the “dominant” source of uncertainty for projections about some weather extremes by the end of the century. The energy choices we make today directly impact the world in which our children and grandchildren will live. A lack of action means a world in which extreme weather is the norm -- summers are unrecognizably hot, floods regularly disrupt businesses,  and catastrophic winds blow away long-tended farm topsoil, trees, and beloved homes. The uncertainty about these findings is not about climate change, but rather is about whether we will lower carbon emissions.  

Our carbon-spewing rate is, unfortunately, still climbing, as detailed in an LA Times piecelast week. The “greenhouse gas index” jumped last year by the biggest amount on record. Those carbon emissions we spew out today are currently running higher than any of the scenarios envisioned by the IPCC in 2007. We are already outdoing the scientists’ most aggressive model projections of carbon polluting. We can do better than this.

The findings of the SREX report also afford us a chance to pause and reflect on the wisdom and pioneering work of Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard University, who died earlier this week. Paul’s work has inspired many, many people to get involved with researching the ways that climate change is affecting our health. He published widely beginning in the early 1990s on the connections between climate change and human health, writing many highly influential reports and papers.

Dr. Epstein also advocated for the opportunities we have to improve our lives and create healthier communities, by demanding that we put more funding toward climate change preparedness efforts in more states and localities. He was a voice of reason, humanity, and heart. He highlighted the need to reduce carbon pollution and limit the worst of the health-harming effects that carbon pollution triggers.

So entirely relevant to today’s SREX report is Paul's quote this week in the NY Times: “If extreme weather events are part of a changing climate, we’ve seen lots of evidence of the profound health effects associated with climate change this year.” 

If a leader is the person who never gives up, Paul Epstein was surely that person. He will be deeply missed. We can all carry on for Paul, whether we knew him personally or not, by working to create a healthier, climate-prepared world.