WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is on a pace in 2011 to set a record for the cost of weather-related disasters and the trend is expected to worsen as climate change continues, officials and scientists said on Thursday.
“The economic impact of severe weather events is only projected to grow,” Senator Dick Durbin said at a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial Services and Government, which he chairs. “We are not prepared. Our weather events are getting worse, catastrophic in fact.”
Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, held a hearing on the role of government in mitigating the economic impact of weather disasters as Republicans in the House of Representatives were considering an appropriations bill with a number of riders designed to curtail environmental regulation.
As of June, the United States has seen eight weather disasters exceeding $1 billion each in damage, and the annual hurricane season has hardly begun, said Kathryn Sullivan, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction and NOAA’s Deputy Administrator.
The record is nine in a single year, 2008. But April alone saw separate tornado, wildfire, flood and drought disasters.
“Any one such a event in a year would be considered quite notable, and we had four in totally different hazard categories in the space of a month,” Sullivan told Reuters.
The costs of weather-disaster damages have climbed past $32 billion for 2011, according to NOAA estimates.
The agency also projects that water flowing into the Gulf of Mexico from record flooding will create the largest-ever “dead zone” from pollutants led by run-off from agricultural chemicals, threatening marine life and threatening the $2.8 billion annual commercial and recreational fisheries.
“Every weather event that happens nowadays takes place in the context of the changes in the background climate system,” University of Illinois scientist Donald Wuebbles, who worked on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told the panel.
“So nothing is entirely ‘natural’ anymore,” he said.
Since roughly 1980, the United States has seen a total of 107 weather-related disasters of over $1 billion each in damage, with total losses exceeding $750 billion.
Almost 90 percent of all Presidentially declared disasters are weather-related, and vulnerability to the impacts is also increasing with population, Sullivan testified.
“The scientific and analytical consensus is ... that patterns and frequencies of weather events are changing,” said Sullivan. “That alone says past is no longer prologue.”
Durbin flagged the trend of rising weather disasters as a major budget issue for Congress. Over the next 75 years, he said, cumulative exposure of the U.S. government budget to weather-disaster damages could reach $7 trillion.
Durbin said federal funding for disaster relief has been typically provided only as needed, rather than as regular budget projections. So weather disasters have been a budget disaster too, he said.
“In years with catastrophic events, we are left scrambling to fund relief programs,” he said. “If we hope to put this country on a sustainable fiscal path, we need to be prepared to manage this increase in natural catastrophes.”
Congress has asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how federal, state and local authorities are adapting to climate change. But David Trimble, Director for Natural Resources and Environment at the GAO, told Reuters that environmental regulations addressing climate change have fallen victim to political pressure in the current budget debate.
“I think it’s more your sort of pressing needs today versus tomorrow, the ‘my roof’s not raining now’ idea,” he said.
“This is a difficult, complex issue that involves pretty much every aspect of the government,” he said. “To tackle it we need greater clarity about where the money we are spending on climate change is going, and on our national priorities.”
Editing by Peter Bohan