A week in America | 17 June 2021

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This week in America, Martin Liptrot discusses extreme weather season and climate change in the USA.

It is summertime here in the USA.

Schools are breaking up and the kids are being dispatched to camp or loaded into SUVs and ferried to the beach, the lake, the mountains or distant grandparents homes.

It is also the start of extreme weather season.

Here on the Gulf Coast, we are bracing for the first named storm of the season to make landfall, watching it brew a few hundred miles to the south somewhere over Hispaniola and the Yucatan Peninsula.

Storms are now so frequent and numerous they are named alphabetically so you can distinguish them and they can be memorialized in history.

This current depression rolling through the Gulf of Mexico has been given the alluring name of Claudette – remember the cool Parisienne girl from the Marsaud family in our French text books?

Her predecessors in this storm season, Ana and Bill, both fizzled out over the ocean but she is forecast to strike the Louisiana Coast later this week

But don’t be fooled – despite the cute name, these storms are huge. Claudette will impact four coastal states – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida over a three-day period, dumping 20 inches of rain and gusting winds in excess of 40mph.

Meanwhile on the West Coast, the driest winter on record has created drought conditions and rising temperatures have state and federal officials worried about severe wildfires. Already this year an area the size of Lancashire has been destroyed by wildfires as tinder dry conditions stretch from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas through Southern California and as far as Los Angeles. This is twice as much scorched earth as the states would have expected by this time in the year.

And America’s antiquated electricity network creaks and groans every time there is a storm, meaning rolling blackouts are now a part of summer living US style.

So, while President Biden is focussing on an economic recovery post-COVID 19 – scientists are warning about the cost of unchecked climate crises. They point to the increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events – heatwaves, heavy downpours and hurricanes as signs that something must be done.

These events are also having a huge financial impact. The Center for Energy and Climate Solutions reports that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – the government agency responsible for tracking climate and weather data – knows the true cost.

The NOAA calculates the total costs – insured and uninsured – of climate events to residential, commercial and government buildings, assets, infrastructure, energy platforms, agricultural and forest land as well as the cost of business interruption, restoration and rebuilding. Their costs don’t include the healthcare and medical costs or the devastating impact of loss of life.

The most expensive storm to date – 2005’s Hurricane Katrina – inflicted $170billion in economic impact as well as a reported 1800 deaths from the storm. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston,Texas before rampaging across many of the Southern states causing a similar economic toll.

So with annual estimates of climate crises being around the trillion-dollar mark, the President’s plan to fortify the nation’s power and energy infrastructure is not only good for jobs and pandemic recovery, it will help prepare America to manage and deal with future events better.

Biden’s plan – called The America Jobs Plan (AJP) – would position the U.S. for success in the 21st century by investing in inter-regional electric transmission and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for the folks that build it, while providing cheaper, cleaner electricity and bolstering electricity system reliability.

On the west coast, electricity is shifted back and forth via huge grids from the Pacific North West through California to the South West States as it is required. But with climate crises hitting all these places at once, there simply isn’t enough reliable energy to go around. Texas, which lost much of its power during a winter storm earlier this year, has a grid unconnected to neighbouring states – largely for political purposes – and found her residents left without heat and light for weeks as a result.

And these climate conditions are also making it difficult or impossible for homeowners in U.S. to get adequate insurance. 27% of American homeowners reported they were having difficulty finding insurance for their property and 26% said their premiums had increased in the past twelve months.

Yale University Environment blog stated:

“Many insurance companies are choosing not to renew homeowner policies in areas with increased risks of wildfires, sea level rise, or other natural disasters, or are significantly raising premiums.”

And earlier this month, the United States Treasury Department’s Federal Advisory Committee on Insurance recommended the Government get involved in the issue, requesting the Federal Insurance Office begin a study of “the availability and affordability of residential property insurance”.

While the Government can invest and legislate to ease the burden, it is going to take some serious lifestyle changes for America to control the extreme weather this part of the globe experiences. In general, we are reluctant to make the link between our love of SUVs, fleets of family cars and air conditioning everything with the weird weather outside our window. The sudden rise in produce prices in our supermarkets is a direct result of the destruction of much prime agricultural land by fire or drought and soaring utility bills, insurance and household costs are all directly-linked too.

The President at least has acknowledged the problem, unlike his predecessor. He told media at the recent G& event, that Pentagon officials consider climate change to be the “greatest threat” to America’s national security in the coming years. Let’s hope he is able to push his AJP bill through Congress in the coming months and start the tricky task of taking the heat out of America’s sweltering summers.

Martin Liptrot is a writer and commentator on public affairs and politics based in Florida.

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