The climate crisis is about many things. One of them is that tiny numbers add up to big effects.
About two degrees Fahrenheit. That’s how much the planet has warmed since the preindustrial era, before the advent of smokestacks and cars.
At least $165 billion. That’s how much the US recorded in weather-related damage last year — a total that can’t all be blamed on the climate crisis, but has been made worse by a warming world.
This story keeps getting replayed around the world and in people’s wallets.
Those costs will only climb if we don’t address the climate crisis, economists tell Insider. But in these sometimes-scary numbers, there are is also opportunity — a chance to remake the global economy into one that’s far more resilient and in which the climate isn’t blowing holes in our wallets.
The ultimate goal, Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago, told Insider, should be to create a world where “climate or weather is a problem as boring as plumbing.”
But to get there, we’ll need to spend a lot of money up front and be real about the climate costs we’re already paying — even if we don’t always notice them.
The full costs of extreme weather are often hidden
The biggest fires, floods, and heat waves tend to draw headlines. But for years, the more subtle effects of extreme weather had gone pretty much unnoticed. That’s changing.
Research over the past decade has exposed the wider-ranging fallout from wild weather. It’s been linked to poorer health and higher mortality, of course. Yet extreme weather is also linked to costs like lower productivity at work, reduced crop yields, and worse mental health. It’s also tied to an increased risk of suicide, and higher rates of property crime, murder, rape, and civil unrest.
In short, “How’s the weather?” is becoming an increasingly important question. Weather extremes put a strain on society, and that leaves the social safety net to pick up the slack.
“The science on this in the past 10 years has just shown that even in the wealthiest countries, we are very much susceptible to exposure to weather, heat, disasters, etc. in a way which we probably thought we could adapt our way out or spend our way out of,” Jina said.
One study looking at the cost of hurricanes between 1979 and 2002 found that about a decade on, the storms cost about tenfold more than the initial amount spent on disaster relief. Those costs, the study found, were hidden in local budgets, in spending on social programs, and in insurance payouts.
All of these sleeper effects cost money. And that has to come from somewhere. This “affects the taxes, it affects health insurance, and many other costs that we pay towards the running of the government, and it spreads down across the economy,” Jina said.
“There’s almost no sector of the economy that people have looked at where we haven’t seen a negative effect — particularly of heat,” he added.
Still, for many of us, unless we get hit with a big event, we don’t always notice when we encounter these costs.
“You could pick up the shadow of extremely hot days on people’s incomes at the end of the year,” Jina said. “There’s this incremental increase in costs that people are facing, where no one in the US, or no one in the world, is truly insulated from the economic consequences of climate change.”