This article is part of Insider's "The True Cost of Extreme Weather" project. Read more here.
The climate crisis is about many things. One of them is that tiny numbers add up to big effects.
About two degrees Fahrenheit. That's how much the planet has warmed since the preindustrial era, before the advent of smokestacks and cars.
At least $165 billion. That's how much the US recorded in weather-related damage last year — a total that can't all be blamed on the climate crisis, but has been made worse by a warming world.
This story keeps getting replayed around the world and in people's wallets.
Those costs will only climb if we don't address the climate crisis, economists tell Insider. But in these sometimes-scary numbers, there are is also opportunity — a chance to remake the global economy into one that's far more resilient and in which the climate isn't blowing holes in our wallets.
The ultimate goal, Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago, told Insider, should be to create a world where "climate or weather is a problem as boring as plumbing."
But to get there, we'll need to spend a lot of money up front and be real about the climate costs we're already paying — even if we don't always notice them.
The full costs of extreme weather are often hidden
The biggest fires, floods, and heat waves tend to draw headlines. But for years, the more subtle effects of extreme weather had gone pretty much unnoticed. That's changing.
Research over the past decade has exposed the wider-ranging fallout from wild weather. It's been linked to poorer health and higher mortality, of course. Yet extreme weather is also linked to costs like lower productivity at work, reduced crop yields, and worse mental health. It's also tied to an increased risk of suicide, and higher rates of property crime, murder, rape, and civil unrest.
In short, "How's the weather?" is becoming an increasingly important question. Weather extremes put a strain on society, and that leaves the social safety net to pick up the slack.
"The science on this in the past 10 years has just shown that even in the wealthiest countries, we are very much susceptible to exposure to weather, heat, disasters, etc. in a way which we probably thought we could adapt our way out or spend our way out of," Jina said.
One study looking at the cost of hurricanes between 1979 and 2002 found that about a decade on, the storms cost about tenfold more than the initial amount spent on disaster relief. Those costs, the study found, were hidden in local budgets, in spending on social programs, and in insurance payouts.
All of these sleeper effects cost money. And that has to come from somewhere. This "affects the taxes, it affects health insurance, and many other costs that we pay towards the running of the government, and it spreads down across the economy," Jina said.
"There's almost no sector of the economy that people have looked at where we haven't seen a negative effect — particularly of heat," he added.
Still, for many of us, unless we get hit with a big event, we don't always notice when we encounter these costs.
"You could pick up the shadow of extremely hot days on people's incomes at the end of the year," Jina said. "There's this incremental increase in costs that people are facing, where no one in the US, or no one in the world, is truly insulated from the economic consequences of climate change."
As climate disasters rise, social safety nets start to strain
The steepest cost of extreme weather can't be measured in dollars and cents: People are dying, losing loved ones, and forgoing livelihoods.
Yet, for now, governments can offset many of the most acute financial costs of catastrophic events by drawing on emergency funds and letting some of the bills fall to private insurance.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a similar type of catastrophe, Creon Butler, the director of the global economy and finance program at the London think tank Chatham House, told Insider.
Even though the crisis brought enormous costs, many governments managed to shell out enough money to insulate their populations from the worst economic pain, he said.
Those safety nets and economic buffers will likely start to strain and fail in a warmer world, Butler said, as catastrophes become more common.
Just look at property insurance.
"Insurance only works if the frequency of events doesn't change," Butler said. In a world where extreme weather becomes the norm, "private insurance won't be able to cope with that."
At first, your premiums might start growing so that insurers can keep making a profit, Jina said. Down the line, insurers might decide to pull out of a market entirely. That's already happening in parts of the US.
As the government starts shouldering more of the relief costs, taxes could go up and spending on other priorities like health or education could go down.
"It begins to then raise the question, can the government constantly protect its public?" Butler said. "And the answer is probably no."
Economies lose out if they don't control climate change
Economists haven't agreed on exactly how much climate change will cost in the future, though they do tend to share the sentiment that unless we limit emissions fast, these costs are going to be very difficult to deal with.
"Each new piece of information we learn is showing that the problem is actually worse than we thought," Jina said.
One 2017 paper by Jina and his colleagues, which takes into account climate disasters and the growing effect of extreme weather on society, provides a sneak peek at how much the warming climate could cost the US by the end of the century.
It found that if little effort is made to control emissions — meaning temperatures rise by about three to six degrees Fahrenheit — these costs could strip about 2% to 5% off of the US gross domestic product every year between 2080 and 2099.
If that estimate proves right, the economy "is probably still going to be growing," but the price of climate change will compound year over year to enormous, avoidable costs, Jina said.
"If we think about the future — even very conservatively — the benefits of mitigation always outweigh the costs," he said.
This situation could be made worse by a looming financial "mega shock," which could arise as more people wake up to the reality of the climate crisis, Butler said.
Investors could suddenly pull out of markets, developing countries could quickly lose access to international financial markets, and people could demand governments bring in rapid policy changes as they see the weather get worse, Butler forecasted in a blog post.
All of this means the longer people take to realize drastic action is needed, the more abrupt the transition will be. And economies aren't very good at dealing with rapid change.
Mitigation and adaptation are going to be expensive, but they'll pay off
There's now a "golden hour" to limit the worst of the effects of climate change and reach the best scenario available today, Jina said.
Unfortunately, historic emissions mean that some of the effects of the climate crisis are inevitable, per Jina.
That means some will need to relocate and pricey infrastructure will need to be built to protect others from harsher environments. Countries will also need to invest to slow the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by moving away from fossil fuels and investing in measures to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.
But those measures won't come cheap.
The Biden administration has already earmarked $52 billion to tackle the climate crisis for 2024. That's likely not enough. Demand for climate spending could make for difficult economic times, Butler said.
"We've got lots of priorities in terms of social care, general health, retirement, and so on. But none of that makes much sense unless you are actually protecting your public," said Butler. "And governments are going to have to choose."
With effort, the climate crisis could be made "boring"
Despite a long list of worries, there's reason for optimism: Climate change has never been so visible, and it's never been higher on the political agenda of government and international meetings, Jina and Butler said. At the same time, the price of renewable energy has dropped much faster than many analysts predicted.
Both Jina and Butler said it's wrong to see the spending going to the net-zero transition as a loss. Instead, they said, we should see it as a necessary investment to build a sustainable and climate-resilient economy.
"We currently have a system, both an energy system and an economic system, where we are quite susceptible to fluctuations in climate, where we are quite susceptible to big disasters, because of an interlinked economy," Jina said. "I would like a transition to an energy economy, facing this global energy challenge that we have, where this just becomes a completely boring issue."
Jina points to how countries brought down the death toll from diarrheal diseases by rolling out plumbing. That initial investment must have seemed huge, yet now we reap the benefits of that infrastructure without even thinking about it, even though stomach bugs are still around.
In the same way, a future economy could mean that thanks to clever adaptation policies, people are able to thrive in spite of an inevitable rise in climate extremes.
"Everything is taken care of. We don't have to talk about it. It's not politically contentious, and people aren't dying," Jina said of this future economy.
Jina and Bulter said most economists agree investment in mitigation and adaptation today will be paid back many times over by the end of the century.
There could be short-term benefits to this investment, according to the UN. For instance, cleaner air could save global economies $1.2 to $4.2 trillion by 2030 by reducing pollution. The transition to renewable energy could create up to 24 million jobs by 2030, compared with an estimated 6 million that could be lost, the UN reported.
As of now, however, only four countries — Botswana, Denmark, Namibia, and the UK — are on track to meet zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050, per the UN's World Intellectual Property Organization.
"We're at this point where we could shift pretty dramatically. That really involves people raising their voices and people realizing there might be some short-term pain," Jina said.
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