Washington, D.C. — After yet another year in which many parts of the country were hit by scorching heat, devastating wildfires, crippling drought, record floods and severe storms like Hurricane Sandy, a new Environment America Research & Policy Center report finds that weather-related disasters are affecting hundreds of millions of Americans, and documents how global warming could lead to certain extreme weather events becoming even more common or more severe in the future.
The report found that almost 80 percent of Americans live in counties hit by at least one weather-related disaster in the last six years. Hurricane Sandy, which led to the loss of 72 lives and racked up more than $70 billion in damages in the Northeast, was cited as just one example in the report.
“Hundreds of millions of Americans have endured extreme weather causing extremely big problems for our nation’s health, safety, environment and economy,” said Nathan Willcox, federal global warming program director with Environment America Research & Policy Center. “Given that global warming will likely fuel even more extreme weather, we need to cut dangerous carbon pollution now.”
The new report, In the Path of the Storm, examines county-level weather-related disaster declaration data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for 2007 through 2012 to determine how many Americans live in counties hit by recent weather disasters. The complete county-level data can be viewed through an interactive map available here. The report also details the latest science on the projected influence of global warming on heavy rain and snow; heat, drought and wildfires; and hurricanes and coastal storms. Finally, the report explores how the damage from even non-extreme weather events could increase due to other impacts of global warming, like sea level rise.
Key findings from the Environment America Research & Policy Center report include:
• Federally declared weather-related disasters have affected counties housing nearly 243 million people since 2007—or about four out of five Americans.
• Nationally, 11 weather disasters inflicted economic damages of $1 billion or more.
• Other research shows that the U.S. has experienced an increase in heavy precipitation events, with the rainiest 1 percent of all storms delivering 20 percent more rain on average at the end of the 20th century than at the beginning. The trend towards extreme precipitation is projected to continue in a warming world, even though higher temperatures and drier summers will likely also increase the risk of drought in between the rainy periods especially for certain parts of the country.
• Records show that the U.S. has experienced an increase in the number of heat waves over the last half-century. Scientists project that the heat waves and unusually hot seasons will likely become more common in a warming world.
• Other research predicts that hurricanes are expected to become even more intense and bring greater amounts of rainfall in a warming world, even though the number of hurricanes may remain the same or decrease.
Willcox noted that every weather event is now a product of a climate system where global warming “loads the dice” for extreme weather, though in different ways for different types of extreme weather. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently concluded that it is “virtually certain” that hot days will become hotter and “likely” that extreme precipitation events will continue to increase worldwide, there is less scientific consensus about the impact of global warming on events such as tornadoes.
“Extreme weather is happening, it is causing very serious problems, and global warming increases the likelihood that we’ll see even more extreme weather in the future,” said Willcox. “Carbon pollution from our power plants, cars and trucks is fueling global warming, and so tackling the problem demands that we cut emissions of carbon pollution from these sources.”
Environment America Research & Policy Center called on decision-makers at the local, state and federal level to cut carbon pollution by expanding efforts to clean up the largest sources of pollution, shifting to clean, renewable energy, using less energy overall, and avoiding new dirty energy projects that make the carbon pollution problem even worse.
The report was released as the Obama administration is considering whether to approve construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and as the Environmental Protection Agency is developing carbon pollution limits for power plants—the largest single source of the carbon pollution fueling global warming.
“Between the millions of Americans who have spoken in support of strong action to address global warming, and the threat that extreme weather poses to our communities and future generations, we desperately need the president to follow his recent strong statements on global warming with equally strong action,” said Willcox. “We urge President Obama to finish implementing strong limits on carbon pollution for power plants, and to reject the dangerous Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.”
The report was released two months after the nine Northeastern member-states of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) announced a new agreement to make deeper cuts in power plant carbon emissions that would lead to a 20 percent reduction over the next decade.
Two years ago New Jersey’s Governor, Chris Christie, pulled the state out of RGGI. Environment New Jersey has sued the Christie administration for illegally withdrawing from the program and New Jersey state leaders are now engaged in a vigorous debate about rejoining the program.
“In the wake of Winter Storm Nemo, Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Irene, we need all of the Northeast to double down on its commitment to lead the nation in reducing the pollution that’s warming the planet and changing our climate,” said Willcox.