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Losses from U.S. weather and climate disaster events are getting more costly

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

California isn't the only state where extreme weather events are increasingly costly. Last year alone, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration looked at the whole country and found 18 weather and climate disasters where losses topped $1 billion each. Susan Joy Hassol is a director of the nonprofit Climate Communication, and she's spent the past three decades working to help people understand climate change. Susan, I actually just said the word - or the term climate change. You don't use that. You prefer climate disruption. Why do words matter here?

SUSAN JOY HASSOL: Well, words really do matter because they affect the way we think and feel about things. So, for example, some people are calling this crazy, wild weather we're seeing a new normal. But I call it a new abnormal. We shouldn't - there's nothing normal about it. We shouldn't normalize it and come to accept it. It should alarm us enough to spur more urgent climate action. You know, I also call what some people call natural disasters - in many cases, these weather disasters are unnatural disasters. And, you know, when you call something the new normal, it implies that we've come to a new steady state. But this is only the beginning. It's going to keep getting worse until we eliminate heat-trapping pollution.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, and change certainly feels a lot softer than disruption.

HASSOL: Yeah. You know, any kind of climate change for any reason is referred to as climate change. This is now human-caused climate disruption.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, as more people experience the costs of extreme weather, are you hopeful at all that there will be maybe more of an effort to address this climate emergency?

HASSOL: Well, absolutely. This is really, now, up close and personal. You know, this is not projections of the future. We're seeing it right outside our windows. And most Americans are now experiencing these kinds of disasters - floods, wildfires and the like. Seventy percent of Americans have experienced those things in the last few years, and they're coming to recognize that because of those - that extreme weather and the exacerbation of that, that this really is a crisis. And I think they are more willing and want to address it. The good news is that they like clean energy, and that's the main solution.

MARTÍNEZ: And it took, you know, billions and billions in losses - in actual losses to people's pocketbook - to actually get to the point where I think we're starting to care a little bit more about this, right? And it took that - right? - and not maybe just some science.

HASSOL: Well, absolutely. You know, people who think that if we just explain the science a little better and more clearly - or like the typical American tourist in Paris, thinking that if they just speak English more loudly and slowly, that people will understand them. But, you know, it's not about that. It's about people experiencing this on their own. Well, you know, the good news is really that tackling climate change does not need to be about sacrifice and deprivation. It can be about opportunity and improvement in our lives, our health and our well-being. It can be a story of humans flourishing in a post-fossil fuel age.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Susan, how do you think scientists and policymakers should be talking about the issue? Because for a lot of people, it feels overwhelming, like they can't do enough, even if they do something in their lives. So how do you think this needs to be communicated? Got about 30 seconds left.

HASSOL: Yeah. Well, you know, these are things that we want to do anyway. Doing what we need to do to preserve a livable climate will also give us cleaner air, friendlier, more walkable communities, will send fewer kids to the hospital with asthma. It'll be the best thing for our personal health as well as our planetary health.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Susan Joy Hassol of Climate Communication. Susan, thank you.

HASSOL: Thank you, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "RIDDLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.