The Cost of Climate Change

By Hamilton Waldron


While the causes of natural disasters vary, and questions about the role of climate change persist, no one disputes their costs: in 2017 alone, damage from extreme weather events for the United States totaled $306 billion.

A trifecta of hurricanes was to blame for most of that costly damage. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria became the household names that marked 2017 as an especially turbulent year for natural disasters, but other noteworthy weather events had impacts as well.

In Pennington County, South Dakota, 13 cows were found dead in a field. The cause of death? Ingesting anthrax spores from the soil. It happened in November 2017 when the herd was forced to alter its grazing routines during a nearly yearlong drought across South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana.



At the very least, these natural disasters can be tied to a warming trend, as the United States experienced its third-warmest year on record in 2017. The temperature surged to 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, according to Jake Crouch, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Adam Smith, an NOAA climatologist, believes that climate change is “playing an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of extreme weather that lead to billion-dollar disasters, most notably the rise in vulnerability to drought, lengthening wildfire seasons and the potential for extremely heavy rainfall and inland flooding.”

Solomon Hsiang, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied how natural 

disasters impact societies and believes that the economic effects of the 2017 disasters may resonate for years to come.

“While we have to be careful about kneejerk cause-effect discussions,” cautioned Marshall Shepherd, a meteorology professor at the University of Georgia, “the National Academy of Science and recent peer-reviewed literature continue to show that some of today’s extremes have climate change fingerprints on them.”

The long-lasting effects of these natural disasters will continue to be costly, and while the cause of any single event cannot be directly attributed to climate change, experts expect an even greater frequency of such extreme weather events in the future — a forecast that is no doubt alarming to not only a wide swath of Americans, but also to climatologists and economists alike.