Skyrocketing Assaults on Americans: Who’s Behind It? What Can We Do About It?

April 18, 2011
Violent crime exploded in the United States during the three decades after 1960.  As Chart 1 shows, the FBI’s violent crime rate had nearly quintupled by 1993 (see here and here).  Refusing to submit to mounting terror in their homes and communities, Americans and their leaders went after the perpetrators with more policing and harsher sentences.  By 2008, the latest available FBI reporting year, these measures and other changes had reduced the violent crime rate by 40%.Since the FBI’s measure began dropping in the 1990s, however, assaults on Americans have surged from a new and frightening quarter.  Unlike FBI-reported violent crimes, which are concentrated in urban areas, these new assaults are occurring everywhere.  Farms, villages, cities, lightly guarded homes, gated communities, Red states, Blue States – all are equally vulnerable.  Some strikes occur in the dark of night, others in broad daylight.  The police are powerless to prevent them, and the toll is frightening.  Thousands are being killed and injured each year, and the economic losses are huge.  On average, victims who survive these assaults have lost about 90% of a year’s income.Chart 2 compares this new threat to the FBI’s violent crime reports, using the same risk measure – the probability (per 100,000 Americans) that an average citizen will be victimized during the course of a year.  As the chart shows, victimization is rising so fast that it has now eclipsed the FBI’s violent crime rate and is skyrocketing toward unprecedented levels.  Nearly 2,000,000 Americans are hit annually, and the number is climbing fast.  As Chart 3 shows, the economic impact of this new threat is growing at a terrifying rate:  $68 billion in 2008, up from $5 billion in 2000.Suddenly we’re faced with a challenge on the scale of the urban crime epidemic or a major war.  Americans are determined, pragmatic people, and they have always organized behind effective leaders to face down such threats.  So surely we’re doing the same now, right?I’ve got news for you – we aren’t.  In fact, you probably can’t even identify this threat because you’ve had no cues from the news media, community leaders and politicians.  It’s all around you, but they’re pretending that it doesn’t exist and hoping that, by some miracle, it will simply go away so they won’t have to deal with it.  Unfortunately, this stance didn’t work against Hitler, or the violent crime epidemic, or international terrorism.  And it won’t work against this threat either.What’s the culprit here?  As I document in my recent CGD working paper, it’s no less than a sudden, terrifying upsurge in victimization by extreme weather events – floods, extreme temperatures, wind storms, droughts, and an associated epidemic of wild fires.  In 1980, as Chart 4 shows, fewer than 10,000 Americans were affected by these events in an average year.  This climbed to 100,000 per year by 2000 and, unbelievably, nearly 2,000,000 per year by 2008. We’ve never seen anything like this before – not even close.And lest you think that this is some strange, temporary American fluke, let me assure you that the same thing is happening all over the world.  I’ve blogged about a similar story in Pakistan, and I could have done the same for China … and dozens of other countries.No serious observer doubts where this is coming from.  We knew it would happen eventually, but we’ve been lulled by the belief that our profligate greenhouse gas emissions would create dangerous climate change “someday” – hopefully far enough in the future to let our generation off the hook.  No such luck:  It’s here now, big-time, as the victimization data clearly show.No doubt left folks, so let’s move.  In fact, let’s handle it like we handled the urban crime epidemic:  Identify the perps, vote out the politicians who have coddled them, and get things back under control.  Let’s start with the perps:  I’ve included the names of the ten worst -- the largest coal-burners among our power companies.  They’re still acting with impunity and, believe it or not, they’re still building dozens of new coal-fired plants.  To find the biggest perps in your area, go to our CARMA (Carbon Monitoring for Action) website.  I’ve also included the names of their enablers -- the key politicians who have coddled them.  These are the members of the Senate who have loudly and proudly voted no on repeated attempts to cage this beast by limiting carbon emissions.Just to speed things along, here’s a suggestion.  The next time you and your community take a big hit – and you will — from an extreme weather-related event like a major drought, flood, wild fire, heat wave or wind storm, you’ll know that it probably wouldn’t have hit you at all two or three decades ago. And you’ll know why, and who’s to blame. So if you lose your house, or your car or, God forbid, a member of your family gets hurt, have your lawyer send the bill to one of the ten perps listed below.  Or look around for one of the class-action mega-suits that are bound to crop up before long.  You’ll be in good company, since the people of Kivalina, Alaska and several New England states have already sued the biggest coal-burners for damage from climate change.  While you’re at it, let the coddlers in the Senate know how you feel about them and their leadership.  And come down hard on any local politicians who pretend that this isn’t happening, or that we don’t know why.  They may not care about the evidence, or about you and your family, but they undoubtedly care about their jobs.  So send them a message.Major Perps: Ten top coal-fired power producers.  Click for contact information and forms.Southern Co.American Electric Power Corp.Duke Energy Corp.Mid-American Energy HoldingsTennessee Valley AuthorityXCEL Energy, Inc.NRG Energy, Inc.Ameren Corp.Dominion Resources, Inc.Energy Future Holdings Corp.Major Coddlers: Senators who always vote no on carbon regulation.  Click for contact forms.John Barrasso (Wyoming)Richard Burr (North Carolina)Saxby Chambliss (Georgia)Tom Coburn (Oklahoma)John Cornyn (Texas)Jim DeMint (South Carolina)John Ensign (Nevada)Michael Enzi (Wyoming)Orrin Hatch (Utah)Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas)James Inhofe (Oklahoma)Mike Johanns (Nebraska)Jon Kyl (Arizona)Mitch McConnell (Kentucky)Pat Roberts (Kansas)Jeff Sessions (Alabama)Richard Shelby (Alabama)David Vitter (Louisiana)Roger Wicker (Mississippi)


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.