How do we prepare for a just future when faced with a threat multiplier?

How do we prepare for a just future when faced with a threat multiplier?
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The threat multiplier effects of climate change are playing out across our nation, as extreme weather events disrupt the lives of Americans already reeling from a pandemic that has claimed more than 180,000 lives, shuttered countless businesses, sent tens of millions into unemployment and triggered anxiety and uncertainty among families and communities everywhere. 

Damaging and increasingly frequent weather disasters, driven by climate change, are worsening every national crisis we face, draining available resources and limiting our ability to build a better and more just future. Consider this.

Packing 150 mph winds, Hurricane Laura slammed into the Gulf Coast near the Louisiana-Texas border as the fifth most powerful hurricane to strike the U.S. and the strongest ever to hit Louisiana. Wildfires are raging in Colorado and California, where the Bay Area saw its air quality reduced to the worst in the world. Cleanup and recovery from a massive derecho in Iowa, which affected one-third of the state’s corn crop, is expected to cost billions of dollars, while most of the state is in drought condition and COVID-19 cases are spiking. Heat records are being shattered in Arizona where temperatures in Phoenix have exceeded 110 degrees for 50 days so far this summer.


How do you evacuate from the path of a hurricane when public health officials warn against leaving home? How do you afford high electricity bills during a deadly heat wave when you’ve lost your job? If your home sustains storm damage, how do you afford repairs when facing financial insecurity? With mounting fear and anxiety, these conversations are taking place now in homes across the country. The challenges are greatest for Blacks and Latinos and those who live in low-income and vulnerable communities that disproportionately face the worst impacts of the pandemic and the climate crisis.

This is the threat multiplier scientists have warned us about with climate change; it exacerbates existing socioeconomic conditions and increases their risk. 

Since 1980, the number of billion-dollar, severe weather disasters has increased fourfold in the United States, costing taxpayers more than $1.75 trillion cumulatively, according to a new analysis from Datu Research — a comprehensive analysis of the costs sustained by U.S. taxpayers from climate-fueled extreme weather. Both of us advised in crafting the analysis. 

From the staggering economic blow dealt by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas in 2018 to the devastating 2017 and 2018 California wildfire seasons, the tangible costs of severe weather events are falling directly on American families. And they’re falling disproportionately on people of color — one year after Hurricane Harvey’s $130 billion devastation 27 percent of Hispanics and 20 percent Blacks in Texas still had homes that were unsafe to live in, compared with 11 percent of whites.

The message of the analysis is unmistakable: We must act now to cut the pollution that’s driving climate change and giving rise to these increasingly costly weather disasters. By 2050, scientific models project that without action to address climate change, we could see up to 70 more extreme heat days annually in the Southwest, up to six times more acreage burned by wildfires in the West and at least a 45 percent increase in the frequency of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin.


With COVID-19, we’re experiencing firsthand the devastation an unexpected catastrophe can have on state and local budgets — paralleling what can happen when a super-charged weather event rips through a state. Nationally, states are projecting a combined budget deficit of $555 billion and likely higher. And unlike the federal government, states are required to balance their budgets, meaning that in times of crisis they must slash services and jobs, turn to Washington for help, or both.

The president and his allies on Capitol Hill are rejecting out-of-hand sweeping economic relief and stimulus ideas, while simultaneously dismissing climate science experts who have been sounding alarm bells about the dangerous weather patterns. The standoff is sending state and local budgets into free-fall, while more and more communities are staggered by the one-two punch of COVID-19 and costly, repeated weather disasters. Our elected leaders cannot continue to ignore the clear implication of this mounting economic and societal strain: the pandemic and all future crises will play out against a menacing backdrop of increasingly frequent, severe and costly weather events.

First and foremost, our leaders must take steps to protect communities — particularly low-income communities and communities of color that are often on the front lines of the worst climate change impacts — from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the extreme weather events that are happening now. We need to put people to work by investing in pre-disaster mitigation and other projects that will shore up natural infrastructure along our coasts and rivers to lessen costly impacts. And we need to invest in shovel-ready, job generating projects that will modernize and decarbonize our transportation and power sectors, the largest contributors of climate pollution.

We can ill afford the impacts of climate change, let alone its threat multiplier effect. Policy solutions already exist — and can be found in the report that the House Select Committee on Climate Change released earlier this summer and the newly released report by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis. 

We know what we need to do. It’s time for our lawmakers to commit to action, and for voters to use this November’s election to replace those who won’t.

Elgie Holstein is senior director for Strategic Planning at Environmental Defense Fund, and the former deputy undersecretary of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Felice Stadler is vice president of Political Affairs at Environmental Defense Fund, and a climate and clean air policy expert with over 20 years’ experience.