The federal budget is threatened by climate whiplash.
Growing damage from rising temperatures to property and people is expected to jack up spending, while economic activity is being eroded in sectors like agriculture and manufacturing.
The U.S. Treasury could see losses on both sides of the ledger, and government economists are working to assess the magnitude of those expenses at a time when making payments on the nation’s growing debt of $31.8 trillion has led to political battles that brought the U.S. within days of defaulting.
Experts say it promises to get worse as climate change intensifies.
“Climate change is already impacting the federal budget, in ways many don’t realize,” said former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
Frist, who is now global board chair of the Nature Conservancy, said the unpredictability of climate change makes it hard to compare it to other budgetary challenges the U.S. will face this century.
“While we can use census data to estimate our aging population and the associated costs, and the interest on the growing debt can be calculated, the costs of climate change are largely tied to the increased frequency and impact of natural disasters and spreading viruses — much like the costs of a global pandemic,” said Frist, who served on the Senate Budget Committee, in an email to E&E News.
The White House Office of Management and Budget is working on short- and long-term forecasts for the fiscal consequences of warming, along with the Council of Economic Advisers and the Treasury Department. Its early projections are preliminary, but they range from significant to catastrophic.
Federal agencies are already flagging record payouts related to climate change.
NOAA last year reported that the five years between 2017 and 2021 saw an average of 17.2 disasters that cost the taxpayer at least $1 billion each in response and recovery dollars. That’s 10 disasters a year more than the 40-year average. Then last year, the number of billion-dollar disasters reached 18.
While NOAA’s report blamed a boom in real estate development in disaster-prone areas for some of the costs, “climate change is also supercharging the increasing frequency and intensity of certain types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters,” it said. Drought and wildfire in the West and heavy rainfall in the East topped the list of those threats.
The U.S. funds rescue-and-recovery efforts when private and state insurance falls short. But Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago, said the U.S. has fallen behind Europe or Japan in limiting those costs by demanding that individuals or local governments split the tab.
Those governments “try to make sure that they are bearing a minimal amount of the risk in terms of that role as the last-mile insurer,” he said.
By contrast, U.S. disaster aid isn’t conditioned on a state’s disaster preparedness or planning. And individual homeowners aren’t always required to carry insurance that internalizes the risk of living in a floodplain or hurricane corridor.