In the US, 2021 was chock full of climate extremes. Last year, the country experienced its fourth-warmest year on record and saw its second-highest number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters on record, new federal data shows. It’s our latest evidence that the climate crisis isn’t just waiting for us in some distant future, it’s here right now.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual State of the Climate report, released Monday, found that average temperature for the contiguous United States last year was 54.5 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s 2.5 degrees above the average for the twentieth century.
The year was capped off by the hottest December the nation has seen since record keeping began in 1875. That month, the average temperature in the Lower 48 was 39.3 degrees, 6.7 degrees above average.
In New England, temperatures soared to even more abnormal heights. Maine and New Hampshire both saw their second-warmest year on record. A separate study also found that it was the third warmest year on record for Massachusetts, and that the state saw its warmest June and second warmest summer on record.
Though the year was marked by above-average temperatures, cold weather broke records, too. In February 2021, the US saw its costliest winter storm on record as a cold snap sent the Texas electricity grid into disarray. The storm carried a $24 billion economic toll. That’s more than double the cost of the previous record-bearer, the Storm of the Century in March 1993.
Other extreme weather bore even larger price tags. Hurricane Ida was the most costly event of the year, exacting a toll of $75 billion.
2021 also brought record-smashing wildfires to the West, destructive December tornadoes to Kentucky, and an array of other extreme weather events. 20 of these events cost the nation over a billion dollars in damage, which is the second-highest number on record.
“The science is clear, climate change is happening at an accelerated pace and we are seeing the effects manifest in the form of more extreme weather events,” Reverend Vernon K. Walker, senior program manager at the Massachusetts-based group Communities Responding to Extreme Weather, said.
Altogether, billion-dollar disasters cost the nation a stunning $145 billion last year. They also killed at least 688 people, which is the highest annual number of climate-related fatalities since 2011.
Mark Paul, an environmental economist at the New College of Florida, said the new report shows that failure to implement bold climate policies comes at a high cost.
“Inaction is extremely costly, yet our economic models fail to take that into account,” he said.
For instance, when the Congressional Budget Office analyzed US Democrats’ Build Back Better package — which includes a historic $555 billion in climate policy proposals — it estimated that it could add $158 billion to the national deficit over the course of 10 years. Yet it did not include any assessment of the price of failing to implement climate policies. As the new NOAA paper shows, the US spent more than that on climate disasters in 2021 alone.
“Inaction does not result in business as usual, it results in catastrophic death and devastation and a great deal of economic instability,” said Paul. “The Earth underpins the entire economy. Without a stable planet, there is no stable economy.”
If leaders don’t curb greenhouse gas emissions, the resulting extreme weather events, loss of labor productivity, and other climate impacts could result in the US losing 10.5 percent of its gross domestic product (or total economic output) by the end of the century, according to a 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper. These tolls have already begun: In 2018 alone, extreme weather events destroyed more than 1.5% of GDP, wiping out over 60% of the economic growth seen that year, according to Paul’s calculations.
Last year, President Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement. By the decade’s end, his administration has also pledged to halve carbon pollution from 2005 levels.
Yet just hours before the new NOAA study was released, Rhodium Group scientists published a preliminary analysis showing that in 2021, the nation’s annual greenhouse emissions increased by 6.2 percent compared with the previous year.
“What we’re seeing is, the US talking out of both sides of its mouth right now,” said Paul.
Coal power generation, the dirtiest form of energy, also surged in the US in 2021. And in December, the country also became the world’s top exporter of natural gas, another planet-warming fuel source.
“These trends are consistent with record heat, but they are fundamentally opposed to legitimate climate leadership,” said Mitch Jones, managing director of advocacy programs and policy at Food and Water Watch, said. “We need the federal government to get serious about confronting climate change by transitioning off fossil fuels, banning [gas] exports, and stopping new pipelines.”
These actions could not only prevent climate-related fatalities, they could also present an economic opportunity.
“Right now, the United States has a has an opportunity to build up robust green energy sectors, from electric vehicle and bus manufacturing domestically to the domestic creation of renewable energy through manufacturing of solar and wind, and much, much more,” said Paul. “This could not only create millions of well paying American jobs, but it can also help situate the US as a leader in the production and export of green energy moving forward.”