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• The group cites federal data showing that every county in New York has experienced a federally declared disaster during the period in question.
• There’s wide agreement that climate change is making serious weather events more frequent and more severe. However, it’s impossible to link any given weather event to climate change, meaning the group’s term "federal climate disaster" goes beyond the official definition.
Rebuild by Design, a climate research and development group, recently published a report that included a striking statistic about disasters in New York state.
The group, launched after Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, works with regional leaders and communities to better understand and protect against environmental risks.
In its report, "New York: Atlas of Disaster," Rebuild by Design wrote, "We have witnessed a shift in public understanding of how climate change will affect our communities" in the decade since Sandy hit. "New Yorkers are seeing the impacts nearly every day on the news and on their doorsteps. Republican and Democrat, coastal and inland, urban and rural communities are all affected."
The report specified the scale of destruction in New York state: "Every single county in New York has experienced a federal climate disaster between 2011-2021." It said 16 counties experienced five or more disasters during that period, with Suffolk, Herkimer and Delaware counties recording seven each.
The group cites federal data showing that every New York county has experienced a federally declared disaster during the period studied. But the group’s describing these declarations "federal climate disasters" is a stretch, because it goes beyond what the federal government itself uses — "disaster declaration."
Rebuild by Design wrote in its report that it was counting "federally declared disasters, as there is no entity that collects and publishes state disaster declarations." The group added that it was counting events that "have met the cost threshold for a federal disaster declaration" under federal law.
(From Rebuild by Design, "New York: Atlas of Disaster")
Tying these disaster events to a changing climate is not implausible. It’s widely accepted that severe weather events are becoming more common and more severe over the past few decades as climate change has accelerated.
For instance, data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a rise in the number of billion-dollar disasters in the United States since 1980, and a rise in the cost of these billion-dollar disasters over the same period.
"There is no debate that the reason is climate change," Amy Chesters, Rebuild by Design’s managing director, told PolitiFact New York. She added that the group’s calculations excluded disaster declarations related to the coronavirus pandemic because they were not climate-related.
However, Susan Clark, an environment and sustainability professor at the University at Buffalo, said climate change focuses on evolving climatological patterns over a long periods, such as decades. Therefore, it’s impossible to say that climate change caused any given weather event. It’s not as if severe meteorological events didn’t occur before climate change began accelerating in recent years.
"It’s hard to say that any single weather event, or even a collection of them over a short time frame, is due to climate change," Clark said. "You have to look at how the numbers are changing over time and say something about the trend." And even the trend suggests "correlation, not necessarily causation."
Although Rebuild by Design didn’t use the term "federal climate-change disaster," its use of the term "climate" does suggest a link to broader climatological patterns rather than isolated weather incidents.
Clark added that one factor for determining a federal disaster declaration is the cost of the damage. She said disaster costs are increasing over time not only because of the severity of the weather event — which could be linked to climate change — but also because of increased building and development in the affected zones.
"The damage and insurance costs for disasters even of similar magnitude would still see higher damage costs," she said. "So there are many other factors to keep in mind here as to why we may be seeing more events with high damage costs that rise to the levels where they may be considered a federal disaster."
Despite such caveats, Clark said she felt Rebuild by Design’s general concerns were reasonable.
"I agree with the main message of the report," she said, referring to calls for more funding for resilient infrastructure. There’s "plenty of evidence that we are and will continue to experience more and more extreme weather events in New York state due to a warming climate, and we need to make the critical infrastructure systems on which we depend more adaptable to these changing conditions."
Rebuild by Design wrote, "Every single county in New York has experienced a federal climate disaster between 2011-2021."
The group cites federal data showing that every New York county has experienced a federally declared disaster during the period studied and experts say climate change likely played some role.
However, because climate change refers to decades-long patterns, rather than individual weather events, it’s impossible to say which of these disasters in New York state were because of climate change.
We rate the statement Mostly True.
Rebuild by Design, New York State disaster atlas, accessed March 27, 2023
Rebuild by Design, "Atlas of Disaster," accessed March 29, 2023
National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, "United States Billion Dollar Disaster Events," accessed March 27, 2023
Federal Emergency Management Agency, "How a Disaster Gets Declared," accessed March 29, 2023
Federal Emergency Management Agency, "Disaster Declarations for States and Counties," accessed March 27, 2023
National Geographic, Climate Change, accessed March 27, 2023
Email interview with Susan Clark, environment and sustainability professor at The University at Buffalo, March 21, 2023
Email interview with Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design, March 22, 2023
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