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You've likely been affected by climate change. Your long-term finances might be, too

A woman reacts to seeing the remains of her mother's home destroyed by the Marshall Wildfire in Louisville, Colo., in 2021. A new survey finds that most Americans say they have experienced extreme weather in the last five years.
Jack Dempsey
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AP
A woman reacts to seeing the remains of her mother's home destroyed by the Marshall Wildfire in Louisville, Colo., in 2021. A new survey finds that most Americans say they have experienced extreme weather in the last five years.

A great majority of Americans have been affected by extreme weather in recent years, and many suffer long-term financial problems as a result, according to a new nationwide survey conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

More than three-quarters of adults in the United States say they have experienced extreme weather in the last five years, including hurricanes, wildfires, floods and heat waves, the survey found. And most people who suffer major weather damage or financial problems do not receive money from the federal government.

People who experience extreme weather are also more likely to consider climate change a crisis or major problem, according to the survey, titled "The Impact of Extreme Weather on Views About Climate Policy in the United States."

The results underscore how ubiquitous and dangerous climate change is for Americans, as the hottest part of the year gets underway, and people across the country gird themselves for another year of severe hurricanes, floods, fires and heat waves.

"Facing extreme weather has had a substantial impact on millions of Americans, who have had serious property damage, health, and financial consequences," said Robert J. Blendon, co-director of the survey and professor of health policy and political analysis emeritus at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Heat waves affected the most people by far. More than half of the survey respondents say they personally experienced extreme heat. Just last week, a heat wave tied or broke temperature records in dozens of U.S. cities.

Extreme weather is also hurting people's health. Nearly one-quarter of those who experienced extreme weather in the last five years said someone in their household had a serious health problem as a result. Wildfires were particularly dangerous: 38% of households affected by wildfires had someone with a serious health problem, most often from smoke exposure.

The survey also found widespread support for state efforts that would protect people from extreme weather, such as making electrical grids more resilient to storms and heat waves and upgrading infrastructure to prevent floods.

"It doesn't surprise me that there's a high level of support for policies to protect against future weather disasters," says John Kotcher, a professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. "Nobody wants to have their house flooded. Nobody wants to have a wildfire encroaching on their home."

People see a link between extreme weather and climate change

Severe heat waves, floods, wildfires and hurricanes are all happening more frequently because of human-caused climate change.

That connection appears to be clear to many Americans. People who personally experienced extreme weather are much more likely to see climate change as a serious problem and are much more likely to support government spending to protect people from future disasters and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the survey found.

"This pattern of findings certainly is consistent with what we see in some of the research," says Kotcher. He notes that there is a growing body of academic research that shows a connection between people's personal experiences with the weather and their opinions about climate change.

People rest at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., in June 2021 during a record-breaking heat wave that killed hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures soared above 110 degrees.
Kathryn Elsesser / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
People rest at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, Ore., in June 2021 during a record-breaking heat wave that killed hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest. Temperatures soared above 110 degrees.

However, he says, there are still a lot of questions about what's going on below the surface.

"Is it that people's experience of extreme weather is influencing their attitudes about [climate change]? Or is it the other way around?" he says. "It's hard to disentangle exactly which one is influencing the other."

That's because many surveys, including the latest one, rely on the subjective experiences people have with the weather: Judging whether a string of hot days was "extreme" is left up to the person answering the survey question. And people who are already more concerned about climate change may be more likely to attribute a hot day to the effects of global warming.

Studies that examine people's climate-related views based on objective measures of extreme weather, such as temperature or flood depth, have produced mixed results.

But the survey makes clear that most people in the U.S. are being affected by weather that feels extreme, in part because that weather is causing lasting problems for millions of families.

Floods, wildfires and hurricanes are emptying bank accounts

The survey also makes clear how financially devastating extreme weather can be for families, even when that weather doesn't make headlines.

That's because even relatively common weather, like severe thunderstorms or high tide floods, can be extremely expensive. A damaged roof or waterlogged car costs thousands of dollars to fix or replace.

And, in most cases, insurance and government assistance are inadequate, the survey suggests. About 17% of those affected by extreme weather said they experienced serious financial problems, which potentially represents tens of millions of households across the country.

Most families end up paying for the costs of disasters themselves, the survey suggests. Among those who had serious property damage or financial problems after a disaster, more than 70% said they were either uninsured, or underinsured, meaning the money they got from their insurance company didn't cover most of the repair costs.

One reason may be that insurance is expensive. "This is an affordability question," says Roy Wright, the head of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety and the former head of the federal government's National Flood Insurance Program. He points out that people who rent and people who don't have mortgages often forgo insurance because of the cost.

But even those who do have home or rental insurance often find themselves paying for the costs of repairs after a weather disaster, the survey found. About one-quarter of those who experienced major property damage or financial problems after a weather event said their insurance did not cover most or all of the bill.

That's what happened to Jennifer Harris and her family. Harris and her husband have three kids and live in coastal Hampton, Va., and she says their home has been damaged by storms twice in the past decade or so. Rising seas and a hotter atmosphere are contributing to more severe rainstorms and hurricanes in that part of the country, according to the National Climate Assessment.

For the Harris family, the costs have been huge. When a hurricane damaged the roof, the family found out that their home insurance policy required a gigantic out-of-pocket payment — 10% of the home's value — before the insurance would kick in. But they had no choice: They literally needed a roof over their heads. They drained their savings and asked relatives for help to make the repairs.

"It was horrible," Harris says. "I don't want to make it seem like we're poor, but, honestly, we do live paycheck to paycheck and it's hard to save up when something like that happens." She says it took them at least five years to recover financially.

And the costs of a hotter climate don't stop there. When the Harris family bought their house, it was not officially located in a high-risk area for flooding. But as sea levels rise and heavy rain gets more common, more homes are in harm's way, including theirs.

Now, the Harris family is required to evacuate when a storm is bearing down — which means they will need gas for a long drive to stay with family or money for a hotel room. And the family is also required to buy expensive flood insurance. "It's just an extra financial hardship," Harris says. "We're on a budget."

Extreme weather is worst for people who are already marginalized

Around the world, climate change is most dangerous for people who are already marginalized. The new survey confirms that pattern and offers a snapshot of who is living on the front lines of global warming in the U.S.

Native Americans who experience extreme weather are much more likely to have long-lasting financial problems as a result, compared to other racial and ethnic groups, the survey found. Almost half of Native Americans who were affected by extreme weather in the last five years said their household faced serious financial problems as a result — more than four times the rate of white people.

Black people who experienced extreme weather experienced financial problems at three times the rate of white people. Respondents who identified as Latino faced financial problems after weather disasters at more than twice the rate of white people.

And across all racial and ethnic groups, households with income below $50,000 per year suffered weather-related financial problems at more than four times the rate of households who earn more than that amount.

Those results are backed up by research that finds, after a disaster, mortgage delinquency and debt grow and credit scores fall most in poorer neighborhoods and in communities of color, compared to neighborhoods where most people are wealthier or are white.

"Disasters can have the effect of widening existing inequalities," says Caroline Ratcliffe, one of the authors of a 2020 paper that looked at the financial effects over the four years after a weather disaster.

She says a storm, wildfire or flood doesn't need to be record-breaking to cause long-term financial problems, in part because those who experience medium-size disasters don't qualify for emergency federal relief money. "You can think of these medium-sized disasters a bit punching above their weight," she says.

That is backed up by the new survey, which finds most people who either suffered major damage to their home or who had serious financial problems from extreme weather did not receive money from the federal government.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.