Climate costs: Extreme weather one of largest non-defense budget items

Climate costs: Extreme weather one of largest non-defense budget items

May 19th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Repetitive Flood Loss Properties in the National Flood Insurance Program

Just in repetitive flood-zone losses alone, regional costs from 1978 through 2011 totaled more than $1.1 billion.

Alabama - 4,833 properties at $484 million

Georgia - 1,604 properties at $130.5 million

Tennessee - 1,077 properties at $64.6 million

North Carolina - 8,664 properties at $474 million

Source: Congressional Research Service

For all the talk in Congress about balancing the budget and trimming costs, climate change rarely gets a mention as a deficit driver.

Yet in 2012, it was one of the largest non-defense discretionary budget items, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And here's the real shocker: U.S. taxpayers are outspending private insurers 3-to-1 to cover climate and extreme weather disruption costs, according to Dan Lashof, director of the NRDC's Climate and Clean Air Program and Tom Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management.

When all federal spending on last year's droughts, storms, floods and wildfires isadded up, the U.S. spent more than $96 billion. The federal government spent more taxpayer money on the consequences of 2012 extreme weather than on education ($95 billion) or transportation ($91 billion).

Yes, 2012 was a bad year. It was the year of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region in October. But, even with more than $139 billion in total damage, it was only the second costliest climate-related disaster year in U.S. history. The 2005 double whammies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita still take the top spot.

But in these recent years, private insurers have been pulling away from the coasts and tornado-ripped states. In 2012 private insurers only covered about 25 percent of these costs ($33 billion), leaving the federal government and its public insurance enterprises to pay for the remaining claims. Uninsured losses stood at another $10 million.

Environmental groups and taxpayers aren't the only ones noticing.

In February, the Congressional Research Service prepared a report for Congress on the National Flood Insurance Program.

Stressing that the full economic cost of Sandy won't be known for years, the report notes that the storm "underscored the nation's growing exposure to extreme weather events, sea-level rise and coastal flooding."

In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, claims quickly exceeded the $4 billion in cash and the remaining borrowing authority from the Treasury Department. The Obama administration requested and Congress passed legislation increasing the flood insurance program's debt ceiling from $20.7 billion to $30.4 billion - just to pay claims related to Sandy.

Those flood figures don't include at all the costs of tornadoes, droughts and other ramifications of extreme weather. And there's still much to play out with how much more extreme weather climate change may bring.

Just last week, the level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, passed a long-dreaded milestone. It reached a concentration not seen on the earth for millions of years. Scientists believe the rise is a harbinger of large changes in the climate and sea levels.

But there is a glimmer of hope here and there.

Another recent study has claimed the temperature rise forecast with that increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may not be as bad as previously feared. If that study holds up, perhaps climate change might be slow enough that society can better adapt.

What seems clear is that there still will have to be adaptation - in budgets as well as daily lives, though that's still a little-discussed topic.

Instead of looking at climate needs and budgets, let alone carbon pollution cuts, Congress is still fixated on IRS slights to political groups.

Perhaps leaders will refocus after the next storm.