04/04/2013 10:17 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2013

Normalizing Extreme Disaster

Cross-posted with

Even if you set aside the man-made environmental disaster that is China (at a cost now estimated conservatively at $230 billion annually), ever more expensive disasters seem to be on the rise globally. Moreover, thanks to climate change -- that is, the greenhouse gases we've been pumping into the atmosphere at record levels -- the distinction between man-made catastrophes and natural ones is rapidly blurring. In the United States, we've recently suffered a one-two punch when it comes to extreme weather: 2011 now holds the American record for weather disasters that cost $1 billion dollars or more with 14 of them, and 2012 came in an uncomfortably close second with 11. (You can check out the list here.) The Swiss Insurance firm Munich Re points out that "nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America." A dubious honor.

And of them all, perhaps the most expensive of recent times, already estimated to have cost more than $50 billion, is the drought that had 60 percent of the country in its grip last year and has continued relentlessly into 2013, parching the Southwest, the Midwest, and parts of the West. This, in turn, almost assures another season of "record" wildfires and, according to early predictions, possibly a new round of flooding from late season heavy snowfall in the upper Midwest and especially along the Red River.

In addition, on the billion-dollar bad-news side of things, scientists now believe that the continuing dramatic loss of ice in Arctic waters, which has been heating up that region, is also changing northern hemispheric weather patterns. It is evidently ensuring more extreme weather in the middle latitudes which helps explain, for instance, Europe's "frozen spring" of 2013, and will evidently lead to even warmer summers for most of us.

And when we're talking about extreme weather, extreme events, and disasters, let's not forget that globally the likelihood of extreme energy events like BP's massive oil spill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico is also on the rise. After all, as Michael Klare has long argued at this site, energy companies are now ever more regularly going after extreme energy in situations of rising danger. As a result, from the frack zone in the U.S. and the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil to the Arctic seas of Alaska, the possibility of distinctly energy-company-made disasters is on the rise (as, of course, are record oil company profits).

In other words, we're now on a planet where extreme disaster seems ever more normal and, when it comes to the weather, such extremes can increasingly be considered man-made or at least human-influenced. It's important to keep in mind as well that what's a catastrophe for many of us always turns out to be the main chance and a profit center for at least a few of us. As Steve Fraser, TomDispatch's historian-in-residence (who tells tales of American history you never learned in school), reminds us, there's a backstory to the way genuine disasters are never disasters for everyone and it couldn't be more relevant to our increasing catastrophe of a world. (As a tiny example, consider that each horrific oil spill means more oil company dollars flowing to lobbyists and to Congress -- and so yet more high times on Washington's K Street.)

With that in mind, don't miss being enveloped in the great fires, earthquakes, and floods of our past history, and learning who profited from them via Fraser's new piece, "Making Disaster Pay."