2021 saw record damages from climate disasters, clarifying the costs of doing nothing



These multi-billion-dollar climate catastrophes are only going to get more common. Over the next ten years, $1.5 trillion in damages is the lower bound of what we can expect. But the numbers are likely to rise well above that, because of the damage being done by permanent drought, by new mega-fires, by more powerful storms, and by subsequent flooding. There 30 named tropical cyclones—a new record—last year, and a record seven of those each caused more than $1 billion in damage.

There’s no reason to expect the trends won’t continue. We know with certainty that the higher temperatures causing these storms will continue to increase. Emergency services will need to be boosted at all levels just to keep pace—though as what we’ve been seeing in the behavior of new Western fires, “keeping pace” may be an impossible task itself.

And none of that even contemplates what might happen as new permanent droughts dry up city water supplies. Cities in several states have been teetering at that edge already; if the taps do indeed run dry in major urban or suburban population centers, there’s no telling what the outcome might look like.

We can’t stop these new, more powerful disasters. That ship has sailed, thanks to literal decades of disinformation from the companies most responsible for the crisis. The new name of the game is mitigation, in two directions at once. First: Phase out the burning of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible in an attempt to keep coastal cities above water and guard against a complete collapse of food production. Second: Build infrastructure to protect against what can be protected against.

We have long been told that it will be impossibly expensive to do either, but as we can see from the numbers, decades of inaction have set us up to spend that money now—whether we act or don’t. The Senate has so far preferred to take the path that would lead to the most lobbyist money—and the most death. As new majorities of Americans themselves become the targets of climate-related crises, those political calculations may change.


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