More record heat — and the $300 billion cost of U.S. climate disasters in 2017

Today NASA scientists announced that 2017 was the second-hottest year on record, behind only 2016. We already knew scientists at NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), using a different methodology, ranked 2017 third, after 2016 and 2015. Regardless of which group of experts is right, the news is worse than it sounds.

You might be getting used to hearing about record heat. Maybe the story is even fading into the background. After all, we set the record for global heat in 2014. Then again in 2015. And again in 2016. In fact, 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001.

But 2017 is different. The heat in 2016 and 2015 was attributable in part to a strong El Niño. Without that, 2017 should have been notably cooler. But it was barely cooler at all. This is scary stuff.

Extreme weather: now playing in a climate near you

The other major climate news from 2017 is NOAA’s recent estimate of the cost of weather and climate disasters last year: $300 billion. That report has gotten some decent press, in contrast to the scant media attention paid to the climate crisis in general. But I haven’t seen many pieces putting the number in context to make it meaningful. So here are some comparisons.

$300 billion is . . .

  • equivalent to 25.3 percent of federal discretionary spending annually ($1.19 trillion), or 7.8 percent of overall federal spending ($3.85 trillion);*
  • $217.9 billion more than federal spending on Education ($82 billion);
  • $207.4 billion more than federal spending on Transportation ($92.6 billion);
  • $125.5 billion more than federal spending on Veterans Benefits and Services ($174.5 billion);
  • more than half of federal spending on National Defense ($593.4 billion);
  • more than half of federal spending on Medicare ($594.5 billion);
  • more than the value of any U.S. company outside roughly the top 10;
  • more than twice the combined value of the “Big Three” U.S. automakers (GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler);
  • more than the value of any bank in the world except JP Morgan Chase;
  • about $34 billion shy of the cost of World War I to the U.S.;
  • enough to pay every one of the roughly 50,000 remaining U.S. coal miners $6 million to stop digging the stuff up. That’s $6 million each — per year.

Of course, we’re paying far more than the $300 billion in damages from climate disruption. There’s also the 200,000 people we kill each year with pollution from burning fossil fuels, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in medical costs we incur. And we spend about $875 billion a year on fossil fuels, which we can think of as the cost of buying all this death, destruction, and waste.

If we don’t act quickly, the annual toll will only rise. In the coming decades we’ll increasingly feel the pain of other climate harms as the crisis spreads more disease, hunger, and violence, and eventually threatens the livability of many places on Earth and the social stability of many more.

The good news is, we can stop this madness. In fact, we can stop it pretty quickly, and the solutions will pay for themselves in no time. There have been major advances in renewable technology in the past few years, and shocking declines in cost. The current debate is whether we can switch to 100 percent renewables in a few decades at relatively low cost, or get only 80 percent of the way there.

What are we waiting for?

*Federal budget figures refer to the 2016 budget, from historical tables provided by the Office of Management and Budget.