Nearly 1 in 3 Americans live in a county hit by a weather disaster in the past three months, according to a new Washington Post analysis of federal disaster declarations. On top of that, 64% live in places that experienced a multiday heat wave — phenomena that are not officially deemed disasters but are considered the most dangerous form of extreme weather.
The expanding reach of climate-fueled disasters, a trend that has been increasing at least since 2018, shows the extent to which a warming planet has already transformed Americans’ lives. At least 388 people in the United States have died due to hurricanes, floods, heat waves and wildfires since June, according to media reports and government records.
Record-shattering temperatures in the Pacific Northwest cooked hundreds of people to death in their own homes. Flash floods turned basement apartments into death traps and in one instance ripped twin babies from their father’s arms. Wildfires raged through 5 million acres of tinder-dry forest. Chronic drought pushed federal officials to impose mandatory cuts to Colorado River water for the first time.
Americans’ growing sense of vulnerability is palpable. Craig Fugate, former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Florida’s Emergency Management Division, has never known a summer as packed with crises as this one.
The question, he wonders, is whether this calamitous season will mark a turning point in public opinion that finally forces political leaders to act. “If not,” Fugate asked, “what will it take?”
Even seasoned survivors say that recent disasters are the worst they’ve ever experienced. People who never considered themselves at risk from climate change are suddenly waking up to floodwaters outside their windows and smoke in their skies, wondering if anywhere is safe.
The true test of this summer’s significance will be in whether the United States can meaningfully curb its planet-warming emissions — and fast.
The nation’s most ambitious plan to address climate change and adapt to its impacts — Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget bill — is now in jeopardy after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., called for a “strategic pause” on the legislation Thursday, citing concern over the price tag. The proposal to institute renewable energy requirements for power companies, impose import fees on polluters and provide generous support for electric vehicles cannot pass without Manchin’s vote.
Yet time is one thing the world lacks. The planet has already warmed more than 1.1 degrees Celsius (roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit) since the start of the industrial era. The United States has contributed more to that warming than any other country in history; a quarter of all carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere since 1850 has come from Americans burning fossil fuels.
Humanity must roughly halve emissions by the end of the decade to have a chance of avoiding the worst effects of warming, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The climate will not stabilize unless greenhouse gas emissions cease.
Until then, the scientists warn, we commit ourselves to an even hotter and more disastrous future with each ton of carbon we unleash.
Extreme weather has always been a “game of chance,” said earth scientist Claudia Tebaldi. People have long weighed the risk of storm surge against a view of the ocean, bet against the threat of fire by building homes nestled in the trees.
But climate change has loaded the dice for disaster. Studies show the chance of a given tropical storm becoming a hurricane that is Category 3 or greater has grown 8% every decade. The area of the West burned by wildfire is twice what it would be without human influence. For every degree Celsius of warming, the atmosphere is able to hold 7% more moisture, leading to exponential increases in rainfall. Scientists say the Pacific Northwest heat wave, which killed more than 200 people in June, was “virtually impossible” in a world without climate change.
“What we are doing with global warming is making ourselves play a game that is rigged more and more against us because of our own actions,” said Tebaldi, a researcher at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a lead author of the IPCC’s latest climate report.
As extreme weather events become more frequent and intense, that report cautioned, they are more likely to coincide — creating “compound catastrophes” that are still more dangerous than each disaster would be on its own.
Experts pointed to the deadly deluges in the Northeast this week. The region had already experienced a historically wet August, which left waterways close to overtopping and the ground so saturated it couldn’t absorb any more rain. By the time Hurricane Ida’s remnants plowed through, dropping record amounts of rain in a matter of hours, flash flooding was inevitable. Seven rivers saw record-breaking floods, according to Dartmouth hydrologist Evan Dethier, at a time when waterways usually record their lowest flows of the year.
Similarly, the intense heat Louisiana has experienced in Ida’s wake has compounded the storm’s damage. Nearly a week after the storm made landfall, New Orleans has begun evacuating residents to save them from the sweltering conditions. The 100-degree heat index would be easier to withstand if so many people hadn’t lost power during the storm, experts said. And the toll of the hurricane would be less catastrophic if it wasn’t followed by temperatures that could kill.
Using advanced computer models, scientists can calculate the degree to which climate change made a given disaster more likely. This type of research, known as “attribution science,” has revealed how warming boosted Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall by at least 15% and a 2020 heat wave that blasted Siberia was almost impossible in a world not altered by humans.
For its analysis of exposure to disasters, The Post considered FEMA-declared severe storms, fires, hurricanes, coastal storms and floods — events that scientists have found are made more frequent or severe by climate change. Though most of those events were not subject to an attribution analysis, experts increasingly say the fact that these extremes are unfolding in a hotter world makes them, inevitably, climate disasters.
As Texas Tech researcher and Nature Conservancy chief scientist Katharine Hayhoe put it on Twitter: “The question today is not … how could climate change affect this event — but rather how could it NOT, as it is occurring over the massively altered background conditions of our 1.1C warmer planet.”
Things certainly felt worse to Margie Smith as she waited in line for water outside a city-run food assistance center in New Orleans’ West Bank. The lifelong Southerner is used to hurricanes, used to people measuring their lives in the number of storms they’ve witnessed, used to people saying nothing could ever be as bad as Katrina.
But now, on her fifth day without electricity, surrounded by broken telephone poles and splintered trees, she’s not so sure.
The storms seem stronger. The summer heat lasts longer. The normally mild winters have been shattered by ice storms and wild temperature swings.
Smith is no expert, she insisted. “But it feels like something’s amiss.”
Surveys show that concern about climate change has been steadily rising among Americans for the past decade. In a 2019 poll from The Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation, 63% of people who said their area had been affected by severe storms, droughts or extremely hot days identified climate change as a “major factor.” A slightly smaller fraction, 54%, viewed climate change as a major contributor to wildfires in their area.
Mariana Arcaya, a social epidemiologist and urban planner at MIT, has noticed an uptick in confessions of outrage, grief and fear from people in her life. Friends have reached out to ask where they should move to “escape” climate risks.
And in her research on the health effects of natural disasters, Arcaya is hearing more and more people worry about hotter temperatures creating higher utility bills and basement flooding damaging rental homes.
“People have rightly been talking about climate change as the emergency that it is for years,” Arcaya said. “And it feels like that sense of urgency is finally spreading to those who, until now, have felt pretty safe.”
Yet views of the issue are sharply polarized. This year, a Gallup poll found a record high 82% of Democrats said the effects of global warming had already begun, compared with 29% of Republicans. In the Post-Kaiser poll, Democrats in the Southeast were more than twice as likely as Republicans to blame climate change for recent severe storms.
And even among those who worry about warming, the issue lacks political urgency. When the Pew Research Center asked Americans about President Biden’s policy agenda in January, just 38% said climate change should be a top priority. Fourteen other issues, from strengthening the economy to dealing with immigration, ranked higher.
The record-breaking nature of recent disasters has strained infrastructure that wasn’t built to withstand them. Storms have overwhelmed the pumps that remove water from New York City’s subway stations, nearly drowning people who were trapped underground. Temperatures high enough to melt streetcar cables forced Portland’s transit agency to suspend service during the heat wave, making it harder for vulnerable residents to reach cooling centers.
Preparations for Hurricane Ida were hampered by its rapid intensification, a trademark of climate change-driven storms. Officials had just 76 hours between when a tropical depression was identified in the Caribbean and the minute Ida made landfall — not enough time to change the flow of traffic on highways to enable a full evacuation.
And the breathless pace of emergencies has pushed America’s first responders to the breaking point.
A U.S. Forest Service firefighter said he’s been working for five straight months, struggling to contain blazes that move faster than any he’s ever seen. His crew is so tired he’s had to ask members to stay home from assignments. As much as they are needed to help battle the 84 large fires currently burning across the country, their fatigue makes them a hazard.
But there is no one to replace them. Since mid-July, the National Interagency Fire Center has set the nation’s preparedness level at 5 — the highest possible rating, which indicates the country is at risk of exhausting its firefighting resources.
The firefighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing his job, said hundreds of requests for help from incident commanders have gone unfilled.
“We’re so on our heels, we’re so burnt out, we’re so understaffed,” he said.
Trevor Riggen, the head of the American Red Cross’ domestic disaster program, said the agency is “testing the limits” of its network. This week alone, more than 2,000 staff and volunteers have deployed across 10 states. Many of them are on their second or third crisis of the summer.
“It’s no longer, ‘We have a big event and then there’s time to recover,'” Riggen said. “Disaster has become a chronic condition.”
But the extent of damage wrought by climate change will be determined by plans for it, and how the nation rebuilds.
Almost half of public roadways are currently in poor or mediocre condition, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers — making events like the deadly collapse of a Mississippi highway during Hurricane Ida more likely. The location and condition of some 10,000 miles of levees in the United States are unknown. Chronically underfunded storm water systems are unable to cope with record rainfall. Many electric utilities have not taken steps to ensure the grid keeps functioning amid worsening hurricanes and wildfires.
Communities need to start preparing for the unprecedented, Fugate said. Coastal cities should develop alternative evacuation plans to avoid getting caught off-guard by rapidly intensifying storms — for example, building comfortable, well-equipped shelters for people who don’t have time to flee. Levees and storm-water systems must be built to withstand floods that would have been impossible in a cooler world. Amid unstoppable wildfires, homes at the edge of forests can be made safer with flameproof building materials.
Social systems are also in need of repair, said Arcaya. During heat waves, early warning systems and check-ins from neighbors have been proven to save hundreds of lives. After hurricanes, research shows, people with strong connections to their neighbors experience less trauma and are better able to get back on their feet.
The country will need a robust support system to help thousands of displaced people navigate the bureaucracy required to obtain federal assistance, Arcaya said. And since disasters often destroy affordable housing, the nation will need to invest in building more places for people to live.
These changes will be expensive, Fugate acknowledged. But the cost of responding to disasters already totals more than $81 billion per year. “It’s a choice between spending now or spending more in the future.”
However, no amount of investment in infrastructure will be enough, experts say, if people don’t stop the world from warming.
Under the worst-case scenarios for climate change, average temperatures in much of the country are projected to be between 6 and 8 degrees Fahrenheit higher by the end of the century. More than 60,000 additional people may be killed per year by extreme heat by 2050. Hurricanes that gain 70 miles per hour of wind speed in half a day could happen every few years by the end of the century.
Most people will not be able to keep up with such a rapid pace of change, Tebaldi said. And the most vulnerable citizens will inevitably suffer the most. Low-income people won’t be able to afford insurance or home repairs. On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency released findings that people of color are disproportionately likely to live in communities hit by flooding, extreme heat and other climate impacts in a warming world.
“If we want to limit these probabilities, if we want to limit the damages, then we should start to do something for real about mitigating,” Tebaldi said. “And we need to start now.”
The Washington Post’s Holly Bailey and Scott Clement contributed to this report.