How much does climate change cost? Try $1.5 trillion and counting has only started

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 6.44.08 AM
Dominica’s capital of Roseau in the days after Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Timothy Fishleigh, Caapi Cottage Retreat Center.)

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

The Trump administration, and its allies in Congress, are fighting a losing war. They continue to press forward for the development of oil, gas, coal, when the rest of the world understands the implication of that folly. Global warming is the most pressing issue for our time. Period.

The thing is governments really have two choices when it comes to managing the impact on its peoples from global warming: Spend money on trying to reduce the problem; or spend money on cleaning up the catastrophes.

The Trump administration is on the hook for the catastrophe. A report released Monday by The National Centers for Environmental Information pegged the total cost this year at $1.5 trillion, including estimates for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. (And that doesn’t even begin to count the human toll, lost lives, lost jobs, lost opportunity.)

I witnessed first hand the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island of Dominica last month. We keep hearing stories about the power grid being down (similar to Puerto Rico) and you think, why? It’s been months. Why aren’t the lights on? Then you see nearly every electrical pole on the island sideways. The entire grid needs to be rebuilt (or better, rethought) and that’s decades of infrastructure. So the figure of $1.5 trillion is far short of what will be needed. Nearly every electrical line, every other house, the damage was so widespread it’s impossible to overstate. And that’s just one island. Multiple the effect across the region. The planet.

Even the United States.


The Centers for Environmental Information says there were sixteen weather and climate disasters  with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the country last year. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one severe freeze, eight severe storms, three cyclones, and one extraordinary wildfire. These “events” as the center defines them resulted in 362 deaths.

Turns out 2017 was a record-breaking year. “In total, the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events tying 2011 for the record number of billion-dollar disasters for an entire calendar year,” the report said. “In fact, 2017 arguably has more events than 2011 given that our analysis traditionally counts all U.S. billion-dollar wildfires, as regional-scale, seasonal events, not as multiple isolated events.More notable than the high frequency of these events is the cumulative cost, which exceeds $300 billion in 2017 — a new U.S. annual record.”

A similar report was published by the Government Accountability Office including a recommendation that Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”

But instead of trying to reduce the impact — and the costs of weather-related catastrophe — the Trump administration continues on course for new development of oil and gas. The Interior Department announced new rules that, if enacted, will open up nearly all of the United States coastal waters to more oil and gas development beginning next year.

“By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, Counselor for Energy Policy at Interior in the news release. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allows us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”

Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it: “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”

Dominance is such a funny word. How can any nation be dominant in the face of hurricanes that are ever more powerful and destructive? How does energy dominance work when tens of thousands of Americans will have to move because their homes are no longer there because of fire or storms? What happens if that number grows into the hundreds of thousands? Millions? How can we afford to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding what we have now?

A group of elders on the Bering Sea immediately condemned the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. “We told them that in person last October and again in writing, that there were 76 tribes in these regions opposed to this,” said the statement from the elders. “The draft plan implies that Bering Sea communities were ‘generally supportive of some’ oil and gas activity. This is not accurate and there is no evidence of this from Bering Sea communities. For decades, our people have opposed oil and gas activity and we continue to oppose it today. The northern Bering Sea is a very fragile ecosystem. The marine mammals that we rely on use it as their highway and they follow specific migration routes. That is how we know when and where to find them. The noise and vibration associated with drilling will interfere with their sonar and disrupt their migrations. Then we the coastal people will lose our primary food source.”

There is a connection between developing oil and gas and paying the high costs to clean up after a storm. One side of the ledger goes to a few; the oil and gas “industry.” The folks who bought and paid for this administration.

The other side of the ledger is the rest of us. The taxpayers who will foot the bill for this continued folly.

And on the Bering Sea? The folks who live there are one storm away from a tragedy. As the elders put it: “Our people and our way of life are being exposed to danger and we do not understand why.”

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

Reposting or reprinting this column? Please do so. Just credit: Mark Trahant / #IndigenousNewsWire #NativeVote18

Trahant Reports is on iTunes or Soundcloud. Download here. 



Published by

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist. He currently serves as the Charles R. Johnson Professor at the University of North Dakota.

5 thoughts on “How much does climate change cost? Try $1.5 trillion and counting has only started”

  1. If you include moving entire villages this number goes up, up, up. Alaska is experiencing climate change at twice the rate of the rest of the country – not as many people impacted perhaps, but it isn’t just coastal erosion, it is also declining fishing stocks (Chinook salmon) and changing migration patterns of entire caribou herds.

  2. Loved your article. It’s hard to break through the propaganda and electronic distractions, no? After watching Sanders get knee-capped, and for him to allow it…’s easy to admit we’ve lost our way politically too. Living in Minnesota, I’ve been a great fan of Winona Laduke. She could have been a great vice president. Her organization, Honor the Earth, has been credited with spawning the phrase “Love Water, Not Oil”. She may have penned it herself, however, it got bravely and dangerously displayed from a banner at the heights of the stadium at a recent All-Star baseball game in Mn.
    Anyone following the re-insurance industry knows that the actuarial tables for wind, flooding, etc. are rapidly undergoing change. If there is to be hope to avert the worst of the baked-in climate disasters, it is necessary to organize politically. The hard carbon energy industries are too invested in both parties for either of them to deserve our support.
    Time for the Pachamama Party. Maybe a better moniker is out there, but there is an urgent need for us all to ‘honor the earth’.
    Global financial circles are all atwitter with talk of bitcoin. Just another distraction, another signal that ‘experts’ are losing faith in present accounting methods. A great waste of energy to boot.
    Seems like the best hope for a sane future is coming from the tribes. Seven-generation thinking is needed today, as always. Energy shift is key. The performance of pv solar with battery back up…..both in Puerto Rico, and more recently in Australia, are demonstrably ready for prime time. Musk may have long range goals I’m a little indifferent to (Mars travel), but he has more immediate goals of a vertically integrated energy/transportation system that will end oil dominance.
    This is a threat that oil/coal/gas has never seen. They have mostly dug in their heels to deny, propagandize, bribe, and otherwise delay the inevitable. The fact that new jobs are being created by wind/solar is under-reported. Maybe because our media is controlled by the same forces that profit from climate destruction.
    The time is ripe to go on a full-court press against big oil. Exxon is fighting litigation concerning their own climate studies which showed the very disruptions we now see. It was first brought to light by a rare piece of investigative reporting by Inside Climate News. Attorneys general for at least a dozen states are litigating against Exxon, and other oil majors. New York is very serious in their suit for damages caused by Hurricane Sandy. Our best hope is to tax(or otherwise penalize) those corporations that engaged is this fraud most foul.
    Lots of low-hanging fruit here Mark. Keep up the good work.

Leave a Reply to Brian Lavelle Cancel reply