Hurricane Michael topped the climate costs of 2018Hurricane Michael, which devastated the Florida Panhandle, was among the most expensive climate-related disasters of 2018. Photo credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

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By Dana Drugmand

With 2018 having just drawn to a close, some organizations have begun to tally the staggering climate-related costs of a year featuring severe drought, heat, fires, floods and storms around the world. Ten of the biggest disasters cost at least $85 billion in total damages, according to a recent report by the United Kingdom-based organization Christian Aid.

The report, “Counting the Cost: A Year of Climate Breakdown,” looked into events including catastrophic flooding in Kerala, India to devastating wildfires in California, extreme weather events exacerbated by a warming climate. Christian Aid, which works to eradicate global poverty, identifies the top 10 climate-related disasters of 2018 costing more than a billion dollars each. Hurricanes Florence and Michael and the California wildfires in November topped the list, marking yet another expensive year of extreme weather for the United States.

“The year has once again featured extremes of weather made worse by human-induced climate change, with major consequences, costs, and human suffering,” said Dr. Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The devastation of 2018 comes on the heels of 2017, which was the costliest year yet in the U.S. with more than $300 billion in damages from climate-related disasters. In 2018, at least a dozen extreme weather events cost at least a billion dollars each, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

According to NOAA, the seven years with the most billion-dollar disasters have all come in the past decade.

While it is impossible to predict whether billion-dollar events will continue to climb,  “We are seeing a gradual upward trend in the number of billion dollar disasters even when counting for inflation,” said Climate Central meteorologist Sean Sublette.

Other factors, like increasing population and economic development, contribute to higher damage costs because more people and property are concentrated in climate-vulnerable areas like coastal cities. But climate change is the underlying factor that leads to more extreme, and more expensive, natural disasters.

“As the climate does continue to warm, so will the odds of greater floods,” Sublette said. “There’s more moisture in the atmosphere and heavier rain that in turn leads to more flooding. Then you compound that with the fact that there is a growing population and more development so those two things together are dramatically increasing the risk to life and property from natural disasters. When we look at climate change, we need to look at this as a risk management thing.”

As reports like Christian Aid’s show, that risk is already a reality with real human impacts and economic costs. “This report shows that for many people, climate change is having devastating impacts on their lives and livelihoods right now,” said Dr. Kat Kramer, Christian Aid’s global climate lead.   

As global temperatures continue to rise, so too will the costs and consequences. The $300 billion price tag of extreme weather in the U.S. in 2017 is not an anomaly: The federal government’s latest national climate report warned that climate change could cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars annually by century’s end. Worldwide, damage costs are projected to climb into the tens of trillions of dollars without rapid decarbonization. A UN report released last October estimated that global economic damages by 2100 would reach $54 trillion with 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, and $69 trillion with 2 degrees C warming.

“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth,” World Meteorological Organization secretary-general Petteri Taalas said in a recent statement.

While more extreme weather and other impacts are commonly described as the “new normal,” experts explain that the climate system is dynamic and unpredictable. “It’s going to continue to progressively get worse until we find a way to mitigate it or adapt,” Sublette said.