The knowledge that you might soon be choked with forest-fire smoke, roasted on the sidewalk, flooded out of house and home or savaged by tornadoes and hurricanes tends to concentrate the mind wonderfully.
As this summer of catastrophic weather events and raging infernos reaches its midway point – it’s only half over! – you can’t help noticing the shift in the way people talk about climate change.
Even skeptics can no longer credibly deny that years of record-breaking temperatures are unrelated to a greenhouse-gas warming trend, or that forest fires, floods and extreme wind events are now statistically more likely owing to climate change. If they still don’t accept it, their insurance companies and employers do.
Perhaps more importantly, this summer of natural horrors has shifted public dialogue away from intangibles involving ecosystems, collapsing ocean circulation, melting ice caps and the survival of the species, to the more emotionally and politically engaging topic of money.
And not just any money. Whereas previously most attention had been focused on the very high cost of stopping and reversing global warming and the often unpopular taxes and expenditures needed to reach that goal, events such as this summer’s catastrophes have focused the world’s attention on the costs of not stopping it. Unlike the sometimes abstract goals behind those first costs, the costs of warming tend to be concrete and often very personal.
To start with, thousands of homes have been rendered uninsurable (and thus effectively unsellable) owing to the risks of climate-related disasters – and, as many people in Alberta, Quebec and Nova Scotia are learning, it isn’t just houses on flood plains or forest edges that insurance companies are refusing to cover, but many that are removed from the epicentres of flood, fire and wind, yet lack expensive defences against those risks. An industry study in June estimated that “millions” of Canadians could lose their home insurance in coming years owing to climate risk. In Australia, one in 25 homes are expected to be uninsurable by 2030; Canada appears to face similar risk.
The cost of fighting these disasters has mushroomed. Canada has likely spent tens of billions battling climate-related disasters this summer; the insurance cost alone is likely to be an order of magnitude higher than the record year of 2016, which cost insurers at least $6-billion. South of the border, the White House estimated last year that Washington would have to spend an extra US$25- to $128-billion each year to cover such costs as “coastal disaster relief, flood insurance and crop insurance”; this could reach US$2-trillion a year by the end of the century.
Then there’s the loss of business – and of income for individuals and economic activity for countries. Smoke from Canadian fires forced many offices in New York City and other economic hubs to shut down for several days this year. A research paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that wildfire smoke alone has cost U.S. workers US$125-billion in lost pay every year between 2007 and 2019, or 2 per cent of all labour income. The Natural Resources Defence Council found that smoke and pollutants alone cost the economy 3 per cent of all economic output.
A set of economic studies by the Canadian Climate Institute estimated that catastrophic climate events cost Canada 5 to 6 per cent of annual GDP growth during the 2010s, up from 1 per cent in previous decades; the cost this decade is surely even higher. In the next two years, they found, climate-induced damages will “slow Canada’s economic growth by $25-billion annually, which is equal to 50 per cent of projected GDP growth in 2025.”
You might think that people would be motivated by the human, rather than financial, cost of climate change. But death, for many, is not a motivator – not when it’s someone else’s. We learned that during the peak of the pandemic: the certainty that inaction would lead to mass loss of life was not enough to persuade 13 per cent of eligible Canadians and 30 per cent of Americans who didn’t bother getting fully vaccinated.
By shifting focus from death to money, disastrous summers have made climate-change devastation personal. As of 2021, the Pew Research Centre found that 72 per cent of people worldwide (and 68 per cent of Canadians) believe climate effects will “harm them personally,” up 7 per cent from 2015; the last two months have most certainly raised that proportion.
After horrors like this summer’s, many people now realize that the considerable personal and public cost of stopping and reversing climate change is lower than what they personally will have to pay, and lose, for not doing so. And many more – those who aren’t living on floodplains or forest edges or hurricane areas or hot-weather zones, but have realized they’re not safe from the effects – have changed their calculations.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said catastrophic climate events cost Canada 5 to 6 per cent of GDP during the 2010s. This version has been corrected.