The vast majority of US adults have been personally affected by extreme weather events in the past five years, triggering serious health and financial problems as well as property damage, according to a new nationwide survey. And this could be just the start, as global warming will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather.
NPR, alongside the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, surveyed over 2600 people. They looked at problems faced by US households who have recently experienced extreme weather events, as well as broader experiences and perspectives on climate change and related policies.
The frequency of heat waves, heavy rainfall, and big hurricanes has increased in the US, and the strength of these events has also increased. Since 1991, for example, the amount of rain falling in very heavy precipitation events has been significantly above average. This has been more visible in the Northeast, Midwest, and upper Great Plains.
“Facing extreme weather has had a substantial impact on millions of Americans, who have had serious property damage, health, and financial consequences,” Robert J. Blendon, co-director of the survey and professor of health policy and political analysis emeritus at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told NPR about the findings.
Climate change and extreme weather
The survey showed heat waves affected the most people by far, with over half of the respondents saying they’ve experienced extreme heat. Last week, a heat wave broke temperature records in several US cities, with over 100 million Americans under heat alerts due to a dangerous combination of heat and humidity that affected 48 states.
Extreme weather is also affecting people’s health, with one-quarter of those who experienced extreme weather in the last five years claiming someone in their household had a health problem as a result. Wildfires were very dangerous, as 38% of the households affected by wildfires had someone with a serious health problem.
The survey also found widespread support for government actions that protect people from extreme weather, such as upgrading infrastructure to prevent floods. People who personally experienced extreme weather are more likely to see climate change as a big problem and to support government action to protect people from future disasters.
“It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a high level of support for policies to protect against future weather disasters,” John Kotcher, a professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, told NPR. “Nobody wants to have their house flooded. Nobody wants to have a wildfire encroaching on their home.”
The survey highlighted how distressing these extreme weather events can be for people’s families — extreme weather events made more common by climate change. For most people, this translates into extra stress and extra costs, and insurance assistance is inadequate. About 17% of those affected by extreme weather said they have had financial problems because of these events.
Most people end up dealing with the costs of disasters themselves, the survey showed. Among those who had financial problems or property damage after a disaster, over 70% were either underinsured or uninsured. This means the funding they got from the insurance company wasn’t enough to cover most of the repair costs.
A study last year showed that climate change could wipe off up to 18% of the GDP of the global economy by 2050 if temperatures rise by 3.2 degrees Celsius. The forecast is based on temperature increases staying on their current path and climate pledges not being met. The impact was forecasted to be the hardest hit for Asian economies.