The changing climate has become a punch line for Mitt Romney. “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet,” he said to laughter at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. “My promise is to help you and your family.”
The implication is that rising sea levels and a warming planet aren’t serious, immediate problems for voters—certainly not compared with the problems of a stagnant economy, moribund housing market, soaring federal deficit, and an 8.1 percent unemployment rate. But homeowners, businesses, local and state governments, insurance companies, and taxpayers are feeling the effects of climate change right now, and right on the bottom line.
Rising sea levels, more extreme storms, and more-frequent droughts linked to climate change have caused billions of dollars in property damage, sent insurance rates and claims soaring, required coastal towns to invest taxpayer dollars in new infrastructure and flood-protection construction, and made it more difficult for some homeowners and businesses to obtain insurance at all. Those costs are only going to grow—especially if the government doesn’t act.
Last year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared a record 99 disasters, nearly all of them caused by extreme weather: storm surges and wind damage from Hurricane Irene; flooding along the Mississippi River; and drought and wildfires in Texas. The agency allocated $2.6 billion for relief, but experts estimate that taxpayers will ultimately be on the hook for $13 billion to help feed, clothe, and house people affected by the crises.
That’s part of a continuing pattern. Since 1990, total government exposure to losses in hurricane-ravaged states has grown more than fifteenfold to $885 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, private insurance companies paid out about $44 billion in insured catastrophe and extreme-weather losses, according to a report compiled by A.M. Best, a company that tracks insurance data. That payout was second only to the insured losses of $60 billion in 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Both the nation’s private insurers and the federal government, which provides flood insurance, have seen their costs soar in recent years—and as they begin to take climate-change projections produced by the National Academies of Science under consideration in crafting policies, they project those costs will soar even higher.
“We could see insurers dropping out of markets or pricing their product so high that it becomes unaffordable—both of which will hurt consumers. You could wind up with whole states desperate for federal intervention,” said Michael Kreidler, the insurance commissioner for Washington state, who wrote the introduction to a report on the problem released this week by the sustainable-business advocacy group Ceres.
Disaster-aid experts say that to date, flooding from heavy storms and higher storm surges on the nation’s coasts has been the most expensive form of damage. In June, Obama signed a law to reform the National Flood Insurance Program by expanding the nation’s floodplain boundaries and increasing insurance premiums on homes built in floodplains by up to 20 percent annually. That will raise insurance costs for homeowners and could lower the economic value of businesses built on that land, but it could ultimately shield taxpayers from spiking damage costs.
That may not be enough to help homeowners in Tampa, the city where Romney made his mocking remark: It ranks with New Orleans among the nation’s cities most prone to damage from storm surges exacerbated by climate change. “Tampa is a sitting duck, and climate change makes it worse,” said Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There are 3 million people within a relatively small range of shallow water, which can, ironically, cause the most destructive storm surge.” He estimates that Tampa could be vulnerable to $100 billion in damage in the coming years, thanks to more intense hurricanes linked to climate change.
The Tidewater region of Virginia, like Florida, a crucial swing state, is already feeling the impact of rising sea levels. “Sea-level rise is affecting families right now,” said Larry Atkinson, a professor of oceanography at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. “Storm surge is higher. The same strength of storm creates more flooding.” Among the biggest concerns: Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval base in the world. “There are security issues here, and thousands of jobs at stake if the flooding increases,” Atkinson said.
Vicki O’Rourke, a career adviser at the Norfolk Culinary Institute who has lived in Norfolk since 2000, experienced three destructive floods in her home in an 18-month period between 2007 and 2009. She collected $100,000 in damages from the flood-insurance program and then paid $50,000 to have her house elevated on stilts.
“I’m beginning to notice more events where the roads are impassible because of heavy rains,” she said. “The city can’t manage to keep them from being flooded anymore. People can’t get to work. They can’t get to the hospital.”
Farther north, in the coastal town of Hampton, N.H., residents are also feeling the effects. “We’re having more storms with significant property damage. We used to have the standard of the 100-year storm, which determined how we built drainage. But those storms are coming more frequently,” says Jay Deiner, chairman of Hampton’s conservation commission. That’s led the towns to write new zoning rules prohibiting homeowners from using first-floor and ground-floor spaces as living areas—a move that has lowered some property values. Meanwhile, Deiner said that increasing storm surges have caused flooding and knocked down seawalls, which coastal property owners are required to pay out of pocket to repair.
“There’s demonstrable proof that the oceans are rising,” he said. “The damage at this stage of the game has not been huge, but we think we’re just seeing the beginning of much more damage to come.”
This article appears in the September 22, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.