Unnatural disasters: A look at our “new normal” and the cost of inaction
October 10, 2023
By Lindsay Kuczera
I still vividly remember childhood winters in coastal New Jersey. Every winter seemed to bring enough snow to play in. Most memorable was the blizzard of 1993, when 12 inches of snow and 2.5 inches of sleet fell in Central New Jersey, and my dad made the best of it by building my brother and me an igloo out of sheets of ice from our driveway. As I sipped hot chocolate and played in our temporary hut, I never could have imagined that this “Storm of the Century” had also caused an estimated $5.5 billion in damage (the equivalent of $11.5B today) and claimed 270 lives across 13 states. Nor was I aware that this type of storm was one of more to come.
Weather in Washington, D.C., where I’ve since moved and spent the better portion of my adult life, is noticeably different in the wake of climate change. Winters are milder, the iconic cherry blossoms bloom earlier, and we haven’t seen much more than a dusting of snow in recent years. Winter storms do still make an appearance but they’re becoming more powerful and damaging, like last December’s Winter Storm Elliott that created dangerous conditions and grounded aviation travel across much of the U.S.
Severe weather like this is increasing in frequency and intensity. It’s a growing trend that we are beginning to see year-round, and climate change is responsible. The burning of fossil fuels has released unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere for over 100 years. Other human-driven changes such as deforestation, habitat destruction, soil and water contamination, and monoculture farming have also affected the Earth’s capacity to absorb and store carbon, meaning the natural carbon cycle is overwhelmed. While natural variations continue to play a role in extreme weather events, human-induced climate change increases the likelihood that these climate disasters—or unnatural disasters—will become more common, more severe, and longer lasting.
Unprecedented… in the Global North
Today, words like “unprecedented” and “record-breaking” are tossed into headlines almost mechanically. People are calling it “the new normal,” but there’s nothing normal about it. This reality we’re in—a seemingly endless cycle of damaging floods, uncontrollable wildfires, multi-decade droughts, and deadly heat waves—is different.
People in the Global South have known for decades what more wealthy countries are just starting to experience—that the climate has changed and that it is causing more catastrophic extreme weather events. These vulnerable communities are least responsible for climate change but are among the most impacted. This is a statement that is finally gaining attention in prominent climate circles, even prompting conversations about loss and damage at last year’s United Nations climate change conference, also known as the COP.
As scientists continue to sound the alarm that we are quickly reaching our carbon budget, how do we drastically cut emissions, protect natural environments, and restore equity and equality in vulnerable communities in the next 12 years? It’s an existential problem that requires all the tools in our toolbox.
A holistic suite of climate solutions
We need both natural and technological solutions to make an impact in the short window of time we have left. First and foremost, we must double down on nature-based strategies that improve air and water quality, protect wildlife, increase community adaptation and resilience, and revitalize economically depressed communities. But as the situation has gotten more dire, we now know that nature is not enough. Whereas once we could rely on nature to sequester much of our carbon emissions, as we’ve unfortunately seen in recent years, climate-fueled wildfires are wiping out considerable acres of forest—more than 25 million acres since 2020 in the U.S. alone. Which is why we also need technological solutions.
A strategy of transitioning our fossil-dependent economy to cleaner sources of energy, like wind and solar, is paramount and accepted widely. We also need to focus on industrial decarbonization, where we retrofit hard-to-abate industries like cement and steel with carbon capture and reuse technology. We can also take carbon dioxide straight out of the ambient air using direct air capture, which can provide both local air quality and health benefits as well as address our global emissions.
The cost of inaction
Climate disasters claim countless lives, damage wildlife habitats and ecosystems, and undermine vital infrastructure. Our relationship with nature has changed over the centuries. As extractive Western societies rooted in colonialism and capitalism, our violence against nature has become violence against our neighbors and ourselves. The fire in Lāhainā, Maui left over one hundred dead with hundreds more missing. Meanwhile, Canada is having its worst wildfire season on record, with over 1,000 active wildfires at the moment. Elsewhere, catastrophic flooding inundated places like Vermont, Beijing, and the Punjab Province.
The economic and emotional toll that these events have on communities is staggering. In 2022 alone, weather and climate disasters cost the U.S. about $177 billion dollars and claimed 474 lives. The cost of our inaction on climate means we’ll continue to experience more frequent and severe floods, mudslides, blizzards, wildfires, and heat waves—and the deaths and destruction they bring.
The summer of 2023 has broken records across the globe. Is this our new normal? Or will we rise to the occasion, act with urgency, and protect future generations? The choice is quite literally ours.
Lindsay (Lin) Kuczera believes in the power of storytelling to educate, inspire, and mobilize diverse audiences in our fight against climate change. An avid outdoor enthusiast, Lindsay knows that increasing education about and access to nature has a profound impact on people’s desire and ability to positively shape our future. After a decade in digital marketing, Lindsay decided to refocus her career in the climate field and gained a Master of Natural Resources degree from Virginia Tech. Now, Lindsay merges her background in visual and written communications with her newfound knowledge in environmental science to contribute as a freelance writer to the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability and lead the communications and storytelling for the National Wildlife Federation’s climate and energy policy team.