How many billion dollar climate and weather disasters are enough?

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | December 9, 2011 | Climate Change

We set a new record in 2011, but not one that anyone would want to brag about. This year, the U.S. has been battered by 12 separate natural disasters, each sporting a $1 billion price tag. The final number could be higher still as damages from Tropical Storm Lee and a late October snowstorm in the Northeast are still being totaled. Few regions of the country escaped damage altogether, but the Southeast has been particularly hard hit suffering from (1) five tornado outbreaks in April and May, (2) flooding along the Mississippi River during the summer, (3) another tornado outbreak in June, and (4) storm damage from Hurricane Irene in August.

A majority of those Americans surveyed by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication believe that global warming made 2011’s extreme weather worse. And while some may hold onto the belief that this year’s onslaught of floods, droughts, wildfires, windstorms, blizzards, tornadoes and hurricanes was simply an aberration, studies suggest what we’ve experienced this year might be a harbinger of things to come. Climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicate “there is evidence that climate change may affect the frequency of certain extreme weather events. If the climate continues to warm, the increase in heavy rain events is likely to continue. There are projections that the incidence of extreme droughts will increase if the climate warms throughout the 21st century.”

The measurable uptick in the number of billion dollar disasters in the past decade lends weight to NOAA’s statement: the chart below confirms that more than half of the disasters (58 of the 112) have occurred since 2002.

Projections of increased extreme weather incidents doesn’t bode well for the Southeast.  As the map below notes, the majority of the $1 billion weather/climate disasters in the last 31 years have occurred here in the Southeast according to extensive record keeping by NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Warming temperatures may lead to an increased numbers of natural disasters, but we needn’t spend more time trying to answer the question“What’s causing warming temperatures?” A large body of evidence, accumulated over several decades from hundreds of studies, supports the conclusion that human activity is the primary driver of recent warming. “Science and Distortion” – a video tribute to the late Climatologist and Stanford Professor Stephen Schneider (1945-2010) – makes it clear the question we should be trying to answer is “What steps can we take to reduce the amount of warming to mitigate its impacts?”

Stephen Schneider: Science and Distortion

The ‘simple’ answer is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn – by shifting to renewable energy and seeking energy efficiency gains – and to help/require other nations to do the same. However, this year’s international climate talks will conclude today in Durban, South Africa without a global agreement on how to reduce carbon pollution.  If we don’t agree quickly and begin reducing carbon pollution, and climate scientists are right that a warming world may cause more extreme weather, then we may face a future in which billion-dollar disasters become all too common.

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