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Nearly 1 in 3 Americans Lived in Areas Affected by Weather Disaster This Summer

This summer’s climate disasters have been particularly fierce, showing growing urgency for action on the climate crisis.

Firefighters try to control a back fire to help battle the Caldor fire along highway 89 west of Lake Tahoe, California, on September 2, 2021.

Nearly one third of all Americans live in a county that experienced a weather disaster this summer, according to an analysis from The Washington Post. The data starkly shows the intensification of the climate crisis in recent years and the urgent need for action to prevent further disaster.

Over 32 percent of Americans lived in a county or state declared a disaster area by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the analysis of federal disaster declarations. The publication also found that 64 percent of Americans live in an area that experienced a multiday heat wave over the past months.

The analysis reveals a concerning trend regarding the impacts of the climate crisis on the U.S. The share of Americans living in a weather-disaster-afflicted county or state has increased steadily since 2018, when it was only 5 percent. Even 2020, which was a landmark year for climate disasters, saw a smaller share of Americans — 28 percent — affected by natural disasters where they lived.

This summer, however, has indeed been particularly disaster-prone. Intense heat waves hit the Pacific Northwest in June, shattering records in the area where a large share of residents don’t have air conditioning; nearly 200 people in Washington and Oregon died. In July, heat waves hit elsewhere in the West, where Death Valley experienced the hottest temperature in recorded history. July ended up being the hottest month in Earth’s recorded history.

Wildfires raged — and in some cases, are still raging. They not only choked out communities in Idaho and California, but also as far east as New York, where smoke had traveled from across the country. And, as climate crises converged, Hurricane Ida tore through Louisiana before heading into New York, leaving floods, blackouts and destruction in its wake.

The overlapping disasters demonstrated that the climate crisis isn’t a far-off crisis; it’s here and now. All of these weather events were either caused directly by or intensified drastically by the climate crisis. They show no sign of stopping, as carbon dioxide concentrations increase year by year and fossil fuels continue to dominate the energy industry.

The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of dire consequences if the world stays on its current track. The average temperature could rise past 4 degrees Celsius or more over the next few decades on the trajectory we’re on now, causing unprecedented damage.

Concerningly, even if the world’s powers stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the IPCC wrote that a certain amount of warming is already locked in. If corporations, financial institutions and governments agreed to begin drawing down emissions immediately — a more realistic but still incredibly improbable scenario — it would still be logistically difficult to stop the world from reaching 2 degrees Celsius of warming, much less the 1.5 degrees Celsius agreed upon in the Paris agreement.

Yet even some Democrats in Washington are recalcitrant about barring new fossil fuel projects that even traditionally conservative groups have deemed necessary. Certain legislators, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) maintain deep ties with fossil fuel lobbyists. Backed and funded by the lobbyists, conservative Democrats and Republicans have repeatedly blocked climate legislation, moves that are tantamount to climate denial.

“What we are doing with global warming is making ourselves play a game that is rigged more and more against us because of our own actions,” climate scientist Claudia Tebaldi told The Washington Post.

The U.S.’s best chance at passing significant climate legislation is currently sitting before Congress in the form of the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. Climate groups are urging lawmakers to include hundreds of billions of dollars worth of climate mitigation measures like clean energy tax credits and stopping fossil fuel subsidies — measures that would cost less than the climate crisis is currently costing and will cost over the next decades.