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2020 has record climate disasters costing over $1B: NOAA

Adam Smith, NOAA Climatologist joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss the 2020 hurricane season and how this year's record number of climate disasters has caused more than $1 billion in damages.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Right now, I want to highlight what we're seeing play out on the weather front. Just six weeks after the Gulf was battered by Hurricane Laura, Hurricane Delta is barreling towards the very same region here, taking nearly the same path that we saw back then.

Right now, the hurricane is bringing gusts and storm surges through Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and expected to be a category 2 or 3 storm, bringing swells as high as 11 feet by the time it hits Louisiana on Friday. If Delta makes landfall in Louisiana as expected, it will be the fourth landfall of a named storm this year in the bayou state, something that has never happened before.

And the damage is already stacking up in terms of storms and climate catastrophes we've seen here in 2020. And we're not done yet. And it's a costly, costly number when you look at it, between storms, fires, droughts, costing the country at least $50 billion, including a record amount of events north of the $1 billion mark, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And I want to bring on our next guest to talk to that report. Adam Smith is National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, otherwise known as NOAA. Let's just call it that from now on. He's a climatologist over there. And Adam Smith, appreciate you taking the time to chat here today. The report's very interesting in terms of this uptick in expensive events. So talk to me about what's really going on here.

ADAM SMITH: Hi, thank you for having me. So yes, 2020, in addition to COVID, has had its fair share of weather and climate disasters across the United States, really. And in fact, this is the sixth year in a row we've had 10 or more separate billion dollars disasters, which is a trend caused by a number of factors.

First, the number and cost of these disasters are increasing because we have more exposure, more value at risk. But also, we have more vulnerability, how much damage happens from the wind, from the flood depth, to that particular location. And of course, climate change is playing an increasing role in the increasing frequency of some types of these extremes that lead to billion dollar disasters.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, it was a question posed-- it was a question posed to Vice President Mike Pence last night on the debate stage. I just want to play a clip of what he said when he was asked about climate change and why it might be leading to some of these climate disasters. We've seen specifically hurricanes. Here's what he had to say.

MIKE PENCE: And with regard to hurricanes, the National Oceanic Administration tells us that actually is difficult as they are--

- Thank you-- thank you, Vice President.

MIKE PENCE: --there are no more hurricanes today--

- Thank you.

MIKE PENCE: --than there were 100 years ago.

ZACK GUZMAN: All right, so Adam, I don't want-- I don't mean to change your title here from climatologist to fact checker here. But is that true? I mean, what have we seen in terms of hurricanes coming through here and impacting the Gulf over history?

ADAM SMITH: Well, what's interesting, actually, in the next 36 hours, when Hurricane Delta makes its impact in Louisiana, that will be the 10th hurricane or tropical cyclone to hit the United States this year, which breaks a record previously set almost 90 years ago.

And also, science, looking out, anticipates we'll have higher intensity hurricanes. It would be category 5-- 4 and 5 hurricanes. There are a number of reasons for that. We'll have warmer sea surface temperature.

But of course, the exposure along the Gulf and the risk there and the vulnerability is another factor, a human factor we have to try to figure out how to better plan for as well. So extremes have always happened, but climate change is making some of these extremes certainly more frequent and then more intense because there's just more energy in the atmosphere and in the ocean itself.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, I mean, that's just one piece of it, too, when you talk about the hurricanes. And obviously, there are much more than just hurricanes. You can look at fires, as well as some of these other climate disasters, and racking up all these costs.

So when you do break down those costs, I mean, talk to me about which one is contributing the biggest boost if this is to be another record costly year in terms of seeing these events pass that $1 billion mark.

ADAM SMITH: Yes, so since 1980, when this analysis began, we've analyzed 279 separate billion dollar disasters. And the conservative total cost of those disasters approaches $2 trillion.

And I say conservative because we do not account for things like mental and physical health care related losses or complete supply chain downstream economic ripple effects. The data just isn't there consistently enough to do that. So, clearly, this is not just a social problem, but it's an economic problem.

And hurricanes, as we mentioned before, actually make up the lion's share of the losses, about 55%, or $975 billion of the $2 trillion, of losses are for hurricanes. Also, they have the highest average losses as well.

But drought, wildfire, even flooding, we're getting a lot more inland flooding, urban and river basin flooding like we had in 2019. Those are all kind of on the uptick, regarding the frequency and, many times, the severity of those events.

ZACK GUZMAN: And lastly, I mean, it's a tough one to not give you a lot of time on, but I guess I'll just keep the question simple in that all these things seem to be getting worse, if you think about the destruction of these storms and the dollar cost you're speaking to there.

But how much of that ties back to a man's role in climate change? Because that was the question. And Pence basically said, look, you know, what the science says, I'll listen to. So what does the science say? Does it say that it is tied back to what we're seeing in terms of greenhouse gases and other things like that?

ADAM SMITH: Yes, specifically, a few areas that are very, very clear with regard to climate and extremes would be, we have longer western wildfire seasons. The season really doesn't end anymore in California. That's one change.

Also, in the west, which is a semi-arid climate, we have more vulnerability to drought. We've seen almost persistent drought come and go since the year 2000. In a way, actually, that's set off these catastrophic wildfires three of the last four years.

And lastly, as I mentioned, east of the Rockies, we have a warmer atmosphere, it's a wetter atmosphere. And it can hold more water, and we have more flood potential. And we've seen three times as many of these inland and urban flood events in the 2010s than we did in the previous three decades combined.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah. No, I mean, we're watching this current hurricane come through here, expected to be weaker than the category 4 that was Hurricane Laura. We'll see what happens. But obviously, hoping for the best down there in the Gulf. But Adam Smith over at NOAA, I appreciate you taking the time to chat.