Climate Events Wreaked Costly Damage Across the U.S. in 2019

Climate change is an expensive and deadly problem.
2019 Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters in the U.S. (Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

This week, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the last quarterly update from 2019 to its Billion Dollar Weather and Climate Disaster List, an ongoing tally of the economic burden from climate and weather-related disasters across the country.

All told, the 14 events highlighted in 2019 caused huge damages: an estimated $45 billion in losses to property, crops, and infrastructure.

These damages are just a fraction of the total harms Americans endured from environmental disasters last year, in part because NOAA doesn’t tally the impacts on public health, and because its list is limited to the costliest events—those in which overall damages reached or exceeded $1 billion:

Climate Change Signals in 2019's Disasters

The science is clear: climate change is expensive, because it worsens already-costly problems like hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, extreme heat, and air pollution. Several of 2019’s billion dollar disasters were the kind of events being made worse by climate change:

  • In North Carolina ($1.6 billion), Hurricane Dorian caused ten deaths and flooding inundated many homes and businesses. The storm’s rapid intensification and extreme rainfall are characteristic with the “hallmarks” of climate change, according to scientists.
  • In Texas ($5.0 billion), Tropical Storm Imelda dropped 2 to 3 feet of rainfall over a 36 hour period. Many thousands of homes, cars, and businesses were flooded. Five people died as a result. Scientists estimated that the probability of such an event has increased by a factor of 2.6 since 1900 due to human-caused climate change.
  • In midwestern states ($6.2 billion), historic floods ruined crops, harmed livestock, overwhelmed levees, and damaged infrastructure. The flooding killed four people, and scientists tell us that climate change makes these heavy precipitation events even worse.

Flooding in Freeport, Illinois on March 17, 2019 (Credit: Stephenson County Emergency Management Agency)

Costly Damage to Health

Importantly, the serious human health toll of these events is not included in the NOAA price tag. So, the true costs inflicted by these events are likely much higher. But by how much?

We recently investigated the health costs of climate-sensitive events in the U.S. over one year (2012). That year was, at the time, the hottest ever recorded in the United States. More than 350 all-time-high maximum temperature records were broken in locations around the country. Wildfires raging in the West burned more than nine million acres (about 14,000 square miles). About two-thirds of the contiguous United States suffered through drought—a new record, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. There were 19 named tropical storms that year, and at least 99 million Americans experienced 10 days or more of temperatures that reached or exceeded 100 degrees.

Our study identified about $10 billion dollars in health costs stemming from a sample of ten climate-sensitive case study events across eleven states. Those costs were derived from an estimated 900 lost lives, 21,000 hospitalizations, and nearly 18,000 emergency room visits. The NOAA climate and weather disaster total for 2012 was about $39 billion, so another $10 billion in missing health damages represents about a 25 percent increase in the overall national price tag.

Climate change is costly, and while health-related costs are seldom tallied, they can be enormous.

That’s important, because in recent surveys, more than half of American adults report difficulty paying for healthcare expenses. The science tells us that the public health burden of climate change—in deaths, illnesses, injuries, and the need for medical care—will only grow more deadly and more expensive if we do not address the problem. We must demand strong action to transition our economy away from dangerous fossil fuels to cleaner, healthier energy sources and expanded energy efficiency measures, and strengthen community preparedness and adaptation to the adverse health impacts of climate change.

Climate Investments Save Lives and Money

2019 was the fifth consecutive year in which ten or more billion-dollar weather and climate disaster events hit the U.S. As climate change accelerates, it’s crucial that we step up to address the root of the problem and cut carbon pollution. At the same time, we’ve got to better prepare communities for climate impacts to avoid irreversible damage to public health. Doing so will prevent profound suffering and, as our study shows, save Americans billions of dollars in health costs. We can’t afford to do anything less in 2020 and beyond.

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