What Has the Climate Crisis Actually Cost? $16 Million an Hour for Two Decades

The impact of the climate crisis has been devastating, causing extreme weather events that have taken lives and destroyed property. A recent estimate reveals that these disasters have cost a staggering $16 million an hour over the past two decades. This article explores the findings of this study, shedding light on the economic toll of human-caused global heating and its implications for the future.

Extreme Weather’s Financial Toll

With increasing frequency, storms, floods, heatwaves, and droughts have not only destroyed property and homes but taken the lives of countless individuals.

These events have resulted in average costs of $140 billion per year between 2000 and 2019, with variations from year to year. In 2022 alone, the costs soared to $280 billion.

Human-Caused Global Heating

This study is the first to calculate the direct economic impact of human-caused global heating. Unfortunately, due to a lack of data, especially in low-income countries, the figures are likely underestimated.

In addition to this lack of comprehensive data, this estimate does not include other climate-related costs, such as crop yield declines and rising sea levels.

The Human Toll

The consequences of extreme weather events have affected 1.2 billion people over two decades. Surprisingly, two-thirds of the damage costs were attributed to lives lost, while one-third resulted from property and asset destruction.

Storms, like Hurricane Harvey and Cyclone Nargis, accounted for the majority of climate costs, followed by heatwaves and floods.

Implications for Climate Funding

The researchers behind this study suggest that their methodology can help calculate the funding needed for a loss and damage fund established at the UN’s climate summit in 2022.

This fund aims to aid poorer countries in recovering from extreme weather disasters. Moreover, it can expedite the disbursement of funds for specific climate-related disasters.

The Underestimated Impact

The $140 billion per year headline figure may be a significant understatement, according to Professor Ilan Noy, one of the study’s authors. He pointed out that many extreme weather events lack data on casualties and economic damage.

Noy pointed out that data on heatwave-related deaths is only available for Europe, so “We have no idea how many people died from heatwaves in all of sub-Saharan Africa.” While reported losses from extreme weather disasters have increased sevenfold since the 1970s, attributing these losses solely to global heating is complex. 

Using Attribution Studies

This study takes a unique approach by examining how climate change exacerbates extreme weather events through “attribution” studies, which calculate the increased frequency of these events due to global heating.

The analysis uses a statistical value of $7 million for a life lost, to which Noy said, “This is very standard economic practice and comes about because, ultimately, we need to make decisions about [the value of] investments in various things.”

Impact on Poorer Countries

Professor Noy also stressed the importance of considering not only economic damage to infrastructure but also the disproportionate impact on poorer countries since most damage occurs there.

The $140 billion estimate contrasts with the $100 billion promised by rich countries to poorer ones, primarily for efforts to reduce emissions. Additionally, this estimate sharply differs from the $7 trillion in annual subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry.

A Path Forward

In 2022, at the UN Climate Summit Cop27, nations established a loss and damage fund to help poorer countries rebuild after climate-related disasters. Professor Noy believes that the study’s methodology can assist in determining the fund’s necessary size.

This approach could also facilitate quick attribution studies for climate-related damages and aid in climate lawsuits. Dr Stéphane Hallegatte, who is not part of the study team but works at the World Bank, said, “The key message is that climate change is visibly increasing global economic losses from disasters.”

He then commented on what he felt should be learned from the study and said, “One lesson of the study is that global research centres — mostly located in rich countries — need to work more on what is happening in poorer countries.”

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