Could big bills from extreme weather drive climate action?

Extreme weather events have been extremely costly, yet this hasn’t led to widespread political support for action on climate change. But a new World Bank report may change that.

The report from the World Bank suggests that the recent staggering costs and losses due to extreme weather are in fact just the beginning, and could rise drastically. Flooding in Germany during UN climate talks this month will cost the government and insurance companies US$8 billion, experts say. Recovery from Hurricane Sandy is costing the US over $50 billion. The costs of extreme weather globally last year totalled over $250 billion.

The monsoon in South Asia, once a regular guest, is becoming erratic, with implications for the food security and lives of some 1.6 billion people. When early, as this year’s, it can cause severe flooding. When late, it has led to widespread power blackouts, due in part to increased need for irrigation pumps. Drought in the Amazon means less rain in croplands as far away as Argentina; Brazil’s agriculture is 95% rainfed, and hydropower is a mainstay of its energy; The Caribbean takes in $5 billion yearly from its coral reefs, but expected global temperature rises will kill most of the world’s coral reefs; worsening drought in southern and southwestern Africa by 2030 means some 40% of the area that grows its staple crop of maize may no longer be able to do so, and pastoralists will be hurt as increased CO2 turns savannahs into brushy woodlands; the surging population inhabiting Southeast Asia’s coastal cities will get hotter and riskier, as storms become more severe.

All of these changes are hugely expensive, and they’re occurring more quickly than we expected them to – the 4 degree Celsius rise may happen by 2060. So, who will pay the costs of all this? Clearly, this is a deeply political question. The big bills that result from this extreme weather look likely to be passed on to people, companies, and communities, as rich countries in the UN have so far refused to accept responsibility for their higher carbon emissions. It is possible that as these costs get higher, pressure for action may build.