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Majority of US affected by climate disasters, but nation is moving in the wrong direction

In this Aug. 17, 2021, file photo, seen in a long exposure photograph, embers light up hillsides as the Dixie Fire burns near Milford in Lassen County, Calif.Noah Berger/Associated Press

Experts warn the world must urgently phase out fossil fuels to avert climate catastrophe. But ending production doesn’t seem to be in the energy industry’s plans.

Two new reports, both released as world leaders wrap up international climate policy debates at the United Nations climate talks in Egypt, bring that dissonance into focus: One shows that the climate crisis is bringing deadly weather events that are costing billions while the other shows that oil and gas production is continuing to expand.

Climate catastrophe is here

Between 2011 and 2021, nine in ten counties across the United States experienced a flood, wildfire, hurricane or other extreme weather event grave enough to receive a federal disaster declaration, according to one of the new reports.


300 million people — 93 percent of the country’s population — live in counties that experienced at least one of those calamities. And some counties experienced as many as 12 disasters, says the 350-page “Atlas of Disaster,” which was prepared by climate adaptation nonprofit Rebuild by Design.

They report concludes that climate emergencies caused more than $740 billion in damages from 2011 to 2021. In 2021 alone, the U.S. experienced 20 separate billion-dollar climate disasters, which led to some 400 direct or indirect fatalities.

Even those numbers are deceptively low because they don’t include extreme heat, the authors said. Heat waves are the deadliest form of extreme weather in the US but don’t receive federal disaster declarations because they don’t cause widespread property damage like fires and storms.

As climate change progresses, the US should expect to spend even more on disasters, the report said. And progress, it seems, the crisis will. That’s true not only because some baked-in climate impacts, like sea level rise, will occur even if the world cuts emissions and adapts to rising temperatures, but also because the world, including the US, is still expanding the very technologies that got us into this crisis in the first place.


More fossil fuels

The other report shows that despite mounting evidence of the urgency of the climate crisis, the oil and gas sector is continuing to plan expansion that will usher in even more global warming.

The report, compiled by the research and advocacy group Oil Change International, which is pushing to end fossil fuels, analyzes the cumulative carbon emissions that will result from global oil and gas production approved to date this year, in addition to the projects that companies are forecasted to greenlight by 2025.

The analysis draws on data from leading business analyst Rystad Energy, as well as climate scientists’ estimates of how much carbon the world can emit and still keep global warming within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Exceeding the 1.5 degree threshold would mean surpassing the ambitious goals of the Paris Climate Accord and thereby ushering in widespread climate devastation.

Between this year and 2025, the oil and gas industry is expected to greenlight new oil and gas projects that could account for an additional 70 gigatons of carbon emissions, the authors write — almost as much as the entire world emits from energy in two years.

Over a quarter of that expansion is planned for the US, putting the nation’s energy sector fully out of step with national promises to curb warming.

Experts estimate that from 2022 onward, the world can emit a maximum of 420 gigatons of carbon to preserve a 50-50 chance of keeping warming below that threshold. The oil and gas expansion that companies are expected to approve between 2022 and 2025 will deplete 17 percent of that carbon budget, the report’s authors conclude.


That presents an existential problem, the report says, because oil and gas fields and coal mines already in operation or under construction globally contain enough fuel to cause 936 gigatons of carbon dioxide pollution, if fully extracted. Even without planned expansion, we’re set to blow past the 1.5 degree target — and fossil fuel expansion, it seems, will make things even worse.

These plans to expand fossil fuels will, unless world leaders put a stop to them, all but ensure the US sees even more climate disasters in the coming years. At 1.5 degree Celsius of warming, storms, fires, and other disasters will become far more common and extreme, scientists warn.

“Oil and gas producers are continuing to bet on climate failure,” David Tong, the global industry campaign manager at nonprofit Oil Change International, who worked on the report, said.

Dharna Noor can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @dharnanoor.