Damage from Hurricane Michael is projected to cost billions of dollars, and experts say such storms will only get worse and more costly as climate change wreaks havoc on weather patterns.
The Category 4 storm that pummeled Florida Gulf Coast communities this week, leaving more than a dozen people dead, was the third-strongest storm ever to hit the continental U.S.
AccuWeather estimated this week that Hurricane Michael will cause about $30 billion in damage. And the economic costs associated with Hurricane Florence, which largely affected coastal communities in the Carolinas when it made landfall last month, could be as high as $50 billion, according to an analysis of Moody's Analytics data.
Experts say the devastation from hurricanes will worsen.
“Damages are increasing because the severity of the storms are increasing,” said Nathaniel Keohane, an economist and senior vice president for climate at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We can say these impacts are worse, these storms are more severe, the risk of more extreme outcomes are more probable. That’s the way that climate change has reshaped our worlds.”
While it’s difficult to pinpoint what storm is related to rising temperatures or warming waters, recent research indicates climate change is affecting the strength of storm systems.
“Ten years ago it was common to say we can’t say any one storm is due to climate change. Now we are much better able to say what the connection is,” Keohane added. “It’s not that Hurricane Michael wouldn't have happened without climate change; it would have. It’s knowing that climate change is making these storms much more devastating.”
Economists say that increased intensity is leading to costlier damage.
“When one tries to quantify the damages, in many ways it’s the extremes that matter the most,” said Gernot Wagner, a research associate at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Several regular-sized storms hitting in a row is typically not as bad as having one extreme storm hitting. The fact that the extremes go up, that increases costs even more so than if the averages would move up.”
In the case of the most recent hurricanes to hit the U.S., it’s both increased intensity and frequency.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this month estimated that so far this year there have been 11 weather or climate disaster events that caused more than $1 billion in damage. Hurricane Michael will likely expand that list to 12.
Earlier this week the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that warned the world might be on a path toward catastrophic climate change if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t cut significantly by 2030.
Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill largely shrugged off the warnings, saying the report was politically motivated or that cutting emissions was not economically feasible. Democratic lawmakers have promised to make climate change a top issue if they win back the House in the November midterm elections.
A number of insurance companies are already adjusting their rates and their policies based on climate change outlooks.
“We don’t discuss the question anymore of, ‘Is there climate change,’ ” Torsten Jeworrek, chief executive for reinsurance at Munich Re, told The Wall Street Journal. “For us, it’s a question now for our own underwriting.”
The federal government also offers insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is often the last option for victims of weather-related tragedies.
Experts say low-income households are the most affected by hurricanes, and they’re the group most likely group to rely on FEMA’s public insurance.
Those insurance policies are often heavily subsidized through taxpayer dollars, a reality that Keohane says makes it all the more important for the government to plan for climate change and take action to thwart it.
“Many of the communities in low-lying areas are going to be poor communities, communities with not a lot of other economic alternatives,” he said. “Taxpayers are footing the bill for this, and that is one of those hidden enormous multibillion-dollar costs we are already paying.”