March 2, 2024

$11 billion is a lot of money. It’s more than the annual budget of Montana, among other states. It’s more than the loan the International Monetary Fund is considering giving to Egypt to stave off economic collapse. It is 14 times the size of the latest funding gap for the public transit system here in the District of Columbia, described as an “existential crisis” forcing service cuts.

That enormous sum is the estimated cost of the damage from the atmospheric river that’s been pummeling California since Sunday—after a previous atmospheric river deluged the state last week. While AccuWeather released its $9 billion–$11 billion estimate on Monday, rains continued Tuesday and even into Wednesday, with the death toll rising from three as of Sunday to nine by Tuesday morning (mainly caused by falling trees or car accidents). Sunday alone was Los Angeles’s “wettest February calendar day in 110 years, and the third overall wettest day since records began being kept in 1877,” according to local news service KTLA. Several areas of Los Angeles County got a foot of rain in around 48 hours, causing some 475 mudslides, while winds and fallen trees left over 850,000 homes and businesses without power further north.

We know that climate change is increasing the severity of many types of weather events. Category 5 hurricanes, for instance, are becoming so common that scientists, in a paper published Monday, now say we need a Category 6 to account for hurricanes with wind speeds well above Category 5’s threshold of 157 mph. So it’s no surprise that multiple studies have found that atmospheric rivers, which are bands of moisture in the air, are also getting worse. As Dave Levitan wrote for The New Republic this week, “The warming atmosphere can hold more water, meaning it can drop more of it on us all at once.”

And all of this increasingly destructive weather has a cost. For more than 40 years, from 1980 to 2023, the average number of annual weather disasters in the United States each year “with losses exceeding $1 billion” was 8.5. In 2023, there were 28. And California, along with pretty much everywhere else, remains dangerously underprepared.

As Dave observed, some of the most important measures cities could take to mitigate extreme precipitation are strikingly “mundane”: not massive seawalls, but stuff like bigger sewers, green roofs, strategic landscaping. Not that this necessarily comes cheap, though. “The reason the sewers and storm drains aren’t built for anything even close to the catastrophe unfolding in California is largely thanks to cost,” Dave wrote.

Which brings us back to $11 billion. Granted, one of the reasons the costs of this storm could be so high, AccuWeather noted, is that it has hit “some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the state.” And you might see numbers like this and think, Well, insurance companies and wealthy real estate owners will bear the brunt of it. In some cases, sure. But storms can financially wreck the people, businesses, and municipalities that don’t fall into that category. And don’t forget: The insurance industry is slowly abandoning California, while similarly retreating from Florida, Louisiana, and other disaster-prone states.

Our safety nets for extreme weather, which were always inadequate, are getting even more threadbare. $11 billion—and, let’s not forget, nine lives—is a reminder that not preparing for climate change, and not cutting emissions fast enough, costs a heck of a lot, as well.

Good News/Bad News

The EPA estimates that its tougher air quality standard—specifically regulating fine particulates, commonly called soot—could prevent “up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032,” according to the agency’s press release. The standard is also predicted to result in 800,000 fewer “asthma-related emergency visits” per year, reports NPR.

Researchers studying sea sponges think they’ve discovered evidence that the world has already warmed 1.7 degrees Celsius (that’s over three degrees Fahrenheit) relative to preindustrial levels. That’s way more than previously estimated. Other scientists dispute the finding.

Stat of the Week

$57.4 billion

That’s the combined profits of ExxonMobil and Chevron last year. While it’s down from the obscene profitability of 2022, The New York Times’ Stanley Reed reports, it would “otherwise” be both giants’ “biggest annual profit in a decade.”

What I’m Reading

Rise of the Lone Star Tick Brings New Disease Threats

A lot of people in the Northeastern United States hear “ticks” and think “Lyme disease.” That’s outdated, reports Rene Ebersole:

Environmental conditions have tilted toward the lone star [tick]’s advantage, said Monmouth County tick researcher Andrea Egizi. The forests are recovering from decades of logging, white-tailed deer populations have rebounded, and winters are getting warmer due to climate change. “It’s kind of this perfect storm for them to be taking over,” Egizi said. Citizens in New Jersey encountered mostly blacklegged ticks until roughly 10 years ago, when the counts “switched over to being dominated by lone stars,” she added.

Research shows the lone star tick’s expansion has been progressing for a few decades; it’s now established from Florida to Maine and as far west as Nebraska.

The rise of the lone star tick is alarming, say public health officials, because it carries novel maladies. These include a Lyme-like bacterial disease called ehrlichiosis, which first appeared in humans [in] the mid-1980s; a meat allergy that sounds like a female superhero, alpha-gal syndrome; and the emerging Bourbon virus, first identified in humans around 10 years ago when a Bourbon County, Kansas man died after being bitten.

Read Rene Ebersole’s report at Undark.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.