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How climate change may affect your long-term finances

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Extreme weather - it's much more common because of climate change, and most people in the United States have experienced some form of extreme weather in the last five years. That's according to a new survey conducted by NPR, Harvard University and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team is here with more. Good morning, Rebecca.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, Rebecca, for the purposes of this survey, if you would start by defining what we mean by extreme weather events.

HERSHER: Yeah, absolutely. So here we're talking about things like hurricanes, wildfires, floods, tornadoes and heat waves. That is what this survey was talking about. And what it did was it asked people all over the country whether they've been personally affected by that kind of weather. And most people said yes. So about three-quarters of U.S. adults have experienced extreme weather in the last five years.

FADEL: Why is it important to hear these answers, do this survey?

HERSHER: Well, you know, I cover climate change, and weather disasters are getting more common as the Earth heats up. So you can see that right now - you know, a record-breaking drought in the West. It's the seventh year in a row that we're expecting more hurricanes than usual. So it's useful to ask people, you know, what are your experiences? And one thing that this survey found is that many people who are affected by extreme weather have long-term health and financial problems.

FADEL: What kind of problems?

HERSHER: One example that came up a lot is debt...

FADEL: Yeah.

HERSHER: ...Also trouble paying bills. And some types of disasters stick out. So about a fifth of people who experience floods - they had long-term financial problems. And as far as health goes, about a third of the people who are affected by wildfires said that they had serious problems, mostly because of smoke in the air. So that, you know - it potentially represents tens of millions of households that are struggling with these long-term problems from climate change.

FADEL: A lot of people affected...

HERSHER: Yeah.

FADEL: ...But, presumably, some families hit harder by this than others. For example, if you're already living paycheck to paycheck, a weather disaster would likely impact you in a bigger and more dangerous way, right?

HERSHER: Yeah, exactly. And the survey results back that up - both in terms of income and in terms of race and ethnicity, actually. So people who are already marginalized in our society, they are more likely to suffer long-term financial impacts, long-term health impacts after a weather disaster. So, for example, Native American people experience financial problems after disasters at more than four times the rate of white people. That's what the survey found. And I talked to economist Caroline Ratcliffe about this. She did a big study a couple years ago that looked at the financial effects of weather disasters.

CAROLINE RATCLIFFE: Disasters can have the effect of widening existing inequalities.

HERSHER: So basically, what that means is extreme weather expands that gap between richer people and poorer people.

FADEL: That's really sobering. Do we know if people are making that connection between climate change and what's happening in their daily lives?

HERSHER: You know, that's a really interesting question, and it's something that this survey tried to suss out. It's something past surveys have tried to suss out. So this survey asked people how concerned they are about climate change. You know, do they consider it a major problem, a crisis? And they also asked about support for specific policies - so things like federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and power plants, and also state efforts to make infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather.

So the survey found that people who said they've experienced extreme weather are more concerned about climate change and more supportive of these types of climate policies. And experts say it's hard to tease apart why that is exactly because survey results rely on people's subjective experiences. But it's clear that most people are experiencing some type of extreme weather.

FADEL: Rebecca Hersher from NPR's climate team. Thanks, Rebecca.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.