The news today is that the US Federal government spends a lot of money on disasters and, because of climate change, is set to spend a lot more.
The story has turned up both online and on the PBS NewsHour, and probably elsewhere; Republican Senator, Susan Collins, of Maine, and Democratic Senator, Maria Cantwell, of Washington, together asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into how much money is spent on disaster assistance programs, plus the economic losses through flood and crop insurance—and how these costs may increase in the future due to climate change.
The Associated Press headline is “GAO: Climate Change Already Costing Us Billions.”
Look, I’ll be the first one to say that the headline is plausible–disaster spending is increasing frighteningly fast, and climate change has already made several forms of natural disaster (heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires) worse in measurable ways, as I’ve explored elsewhere in this blog. But the article is a bit fuzzy on the details, as are the other articles on related subjects I’ve found, and it would be nice to get clear on these things.
First bit of fuzz?
From the AP article:
A Government Accountability Office report released Monday said the federal government has spent more than $350 billion over the last decade on disaster assistance programs and losses from flood and crop insurance. That tally does not include the massive toll from this year’s three major hurricanes and wildfires, expected to be among the most costly in the nation’s history.
The report predicts these costs will only grow in the future, potentially reaching a budget busting $35 billion a year by 2050. The report says the federal government doesn’t effectively plan for these recurring costs, classifying the financial exposure from climate-related costs as “high risk.”
Ok, $350 billion-plus over ten years, increasing over the next three decades to $35 billion per year. Except that one tenth of 350 billion is 35 billion so it seems that we’re averaging over 35 billion per year already.
Another bit of fuzz is that not all of those dollars can be laid at the feet of climate change—if climate change weren’t happening, there would still be extreme weather, just less of it. How much less? How much is climate change costing us? More than zero, obviously, but how much?
I have not found an answer, so far. I’m not sure if there is one. How do you sort out how much of a storm is due to climate change? It may be possible to use statistics to tease that out, but only for aspects of weather that can be quantified—and these aspects may or may not scale with how “bad” an event is, which in turn may or may not scale with how expensive it is. The cost of a storm (or a drought, or a fire) is not just a factor of the weather event itself, but also of which human concerns happen to be in the way, and how much money the relevant officials choose to spend. It’s worth noting that the impact of disaster would have increased in recent decades even if the climate were not changing, because every year there is more development in existence that can be damaged. Go back far enough, and there was no Federal spending on disasters, not because there were no disasters, but because the Federal government did not involve itself in paying for them.
How do you sort out all of those threads?
The GOA study was not designed to measure climate change—it was designed to estimate how Federal costs are likely to go up if current policy remains the same, given that the climate is changing. The idea is presumably to examine whether current policy needs to change and how. The use of the study’s results as a climate wake-up call is legitimate, but partial.
It’s also worth noting that the figure of $350 billion, is also partial. It doesn’t include the startlingly high costs of this year’s catastrophic hurricanes. It doesn’t include costs borne by states nor by private individuals. Nor does it include Federal expenditures related to climate change that don’t come under the heading of disaster assistance, such as wildlands firefighting or the efforts of coastal parks to adjust their infrastructures to rising sea levels—costs that are met through the ordinary annual budgets of programs that would exist even if climate change did not. But without climate change, those funds could have gone to something else. Those budgets could have been stretched farther.
Ultimately, despite all these complications and provisos, the question raised by Senator Collins and Senator Cantwell is a good one. If climate change ends up being the thing that radically alters, or even does in, the United States of America, the end won’t come in a made-for-Hollywood superstorm or a heatwave from the imagination of Dante, it will come through unravelling budgets. It will come through a reduction of prosperity, a loss of options, a constraint of national choices.
We will see the country stop being able to take care of its own, and whatever political repercussions flow from that uncomfortable truth.