Climate Disasters: Billions and Billions of Dollars

NCEI (the National Center for Environmental Information) has some fascinating data about the number, and cost, of billion-dollar climate related disasters in the U.S. since 1980. Cost estimates are adjusted for CEI (the Consumer Price Index) in order to make older costs comparable to their modern counterparts.

Perhaps most basic is the number of such disasters each year, which is usually presented in a graph like this one:

I prefer this graph, which is not as attractive but is, I think, just as informative — and I’ve fit a trend line using Poisson regression:

Clearly it has been going up, and tied the record in 2017 (the most recent complete year). That year also broke the record for total cost of billion-dollar disasters in the U.S., over $300 billion total:

Since the data report individual types of disaster, I was interested in which ones show statistically significant change over the period of record.

A few things to note are that some categories are actually multiple; for example, “drought” includes heat waves. Also, some categories don’t count individual events, they simply record “an event” if that category cost a billion dollars or more throughout the year. Wildfire, for instance, is never reported as multiple events, it’s either zero (when the total yearly cost is under a billion) or one (when it’s a billion or more). With those caveats in mind, I looked for statistically significant changes in both the number, and the cost, of each of the seven categories of climate-related disaster.

Three different categories passed statistical significance at 95% confidence. First is flooding, for which the number of billion-dollar floods has gone up:

The second category is severe storms, for which both the number and the total cost has gone up:

Last but not least is wildfire, and again both the count (despite always being zero or one) and the cost have risen:

What is abundantly clear is that the number of billion-dollar climate-related disasters has risen, both the total and at least three of the individual categories. All are going in the direction expected due to man-made global warming. That’s because they are due to man-made global warming.

Cue the climate deniers to invent excuses (often ridiculously contorted, sometimes outright lies) to blame it on something — anything — other than climate change.

Cue the American taxpayer to foot the bill for $300 billion in climate disasters.

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22 responses to “Climate Disasters: Billions and Billions of Dollars

  1. This is a great and important set of statistical displays. Thank you .

  2. Mark Harrigan

    You have to be a little bit careful here – and that is to correct for the increase in the amount of infrastructure that exists – especially on the coast and in areas subject to these sort of events. Merely correcting for dollar value is insufficient. I doubt that would alter the point of the narrative but it is a factor that matters – perhaps you could investigate

  3. Cue the climate deniers to invent excuses (often ridiculously contorted, sometimes outright lies) to blame it on something — anything — other than climate change.

    The usual course is to blame it on increased development.

  4. You’re going to upset the Jnr Pielke! Was wondering why he always normalises to GDP, I think it’s because GDP goes up following a disaster so the trend in his data will be flat or negative.. Very shifty

    [Response: Upset RP Jr.? Somehow that news fails to disquiet me.]

    • Harold Brooks

      He doesn’t always adjust for GDP (which doesn’t necessarily go up as a result of a disaster). In the 1998 paper on hurricane damage, he adjusted for inflation, coastal population growth, and wealth. Adjusting just by CPI leaves a strong trend in time. Consider a house and contents getting destroyed now compared to 70 years ago. There will be a lot more stuff in the house (TVs, computers, appliances). Simply using CPI doesn’t taken into account the fact that there’s more stuff to damage. Everything else being equal, you’d expect to see damage adjusted for CPI go up over time for the identical meteorological events because there are more people in the path and they have more stuff.

      A much better metric for adjustment than CPI would be the Net Stock of Fixed Reproducible Tangible Wealth, which is crudely how much it would cost to replace everything in the country (typically without the public sector). My colleague and I compared the adjustment methods in a paper on tornado damage in 2001 ( and inflation adjustment has all the big events in recent years. Wealth has the 1896 and 1927 St Louis tornadoes as 1 and 2.

      Now, the Fixed Reproducible Tangible Wealth data don’t seem to updated very often and I never found data before 1925. Prior to that, we used GNP (data go further back than for GDP). The correlation between GNP and the Tangible Wealth series is high, so it’s not a terrible fix.

      • Michael Sweet

        As I posted below, new construction is much more damage resistant than old construction. In Florida for example, the shingles on modern roofs have 3 large nails while old construction used much weaker staples. In flood areas, houses are built on 2 meter berms and have a sacrificial first floor so they do not suffer damage until the water is over 15 feet deep. You would expect there to be less damage for the new construction.

        You appear to have left off this adjustment in your work.

      • And the size of the loss due to this sturdier construction? You appear to have left that out of your comment and report.

  5. Neat, but not so sweet.

  6. From the sequel to the PBS YouTube video you posted.
    Climate change must cause P.A.I.N.
    P — it must be Personal
    A — we must see Abrupt change
    I — it must trigger our sense of Immorality or Indecency
    N — it must be Now.

  7. “Poisson regression”
    There is something very “fishy” about that :)

  8. @Gary, @chrisd, @tamino,

    Ironically, the quickest way to get people to do more regarding climate mitigation and adaptation might be to withdraw all government support for rebuild and reimbursement after such disasters. The risk to real estate on the East Coast, for example, hasn’t been priced in because Uncle Sam will make it good, and won’t even ask you to move. (In fact, you can’t move.) Moral hazard, anyone?

    Regarding development as being the cause, plotting the same against k-year lagged development dollars would settle that, where k would need to be picked with a cross-correlation.

  9. Michael Sweet

    Re: new development

    A brief glance at new development here in Tampa shows all the new mansions on beachfront are built on artificial berms at least 2 meters high. They also have very strong hurricane shutters. You might expect new development to be more damage resistant. In that case you would see less damage in the same amount of storm, or similar damage from additional development.

    Ir is certainly not as simple as more development, more damage.

    • That’s very true, Michael–we recently drove much of the seashore highway between Pensacola, FL, and Gulf Shores, AL, and later east to Appalachicola, FL (though much of the coastal highway along that stretch seems to have been rerouted inland some, which perhaps tacitly speaks to our point here as well.)

      Those two informal surveys, along with shorter jaunts around the Pensacola area, show pretty clearly how prevalent storm-resilient lower stories have become there; a great many now are completely open to the air, allowing for parking space, storage, or a shaded/sheltered outdoor recreational space. It’s not new, but people used to favor ‘breakaway’ enclosures more, as well as machine rooms (HVAC, laundry, etc.) I’m thinking those options are increasingly too expensive these days, for reasons both economic and climate-related.

      You also see some use of berms such as you discuss, though less often than various forms of piers (at least along the beachfront.) I don’t think there was a single recent build that *wasn’t* elevated in some form or fashion, not that I noticed, anyway. I don’t know if it’s code, or just prudence, or a mix of both, but it’s clearly a big thing.

  10. Susan Anderson

    Been reading a grim bestselling tome: “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes”, a good if depressing read. And now this:

  11. The incineration of Athens’ suburbs,has driven The Economist to bid fairwell to Matt Ridley, and re-enlist in the Climate Wars under the grim rubric:

    “Blood, Sweat, and Geoengineers

  12. Russell, are you talking about the unsigned Leader article The world is losing the war against climate change?

    If not, whut are you talking about? If so, OTOH: thanks, that’s an excellent piece, especially to see in that venue. Should help make it clear to non-AGW-denying capitalists what they’re up against. One hopes at least some of them are smart enough to figure out the key work-arounds in the US, so we can have a national carbon price. It also offers a crumb of optimism:

    Around 70 countries or regions, responsible for one-fifth of all emissions, now price carbon. Technologists beaver away on sturdier grids, zero-carbon steel, even carbon-negative cement, whose production absorbs more CO{-2} than it releases.

    Now I want to find out which countries and regions those are.

  13. Got it from Citizens Climate Lobby:

    As of January 2018, 42 national and 25 sub-national governments have instituted some form of carbon pricing. [1] These include both carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes (ETS), and cover about 22 percent of worldwide emissions.

    The list of governments that already practice some method of carbon pricing includes Chile, Colombia, Denmark, the European Union, Finland, France, Ireland, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. Other countries that are considering joining them include Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey.