Climate Change Will Hurt the Poor and Help The Wealthy

Climate change will exact heavy costs in the US, and particularly hurt the poor. Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al / Science

Costly and alarming effects of climate change are already being felt; storms like Hurricane Sandy, for example, have already proven more destructive thanks to warming-driven sea level rise, and heat waves expected to be increasingly common have killed thousands. If emissions aren't reduced significantly, researchers warn, the costs will continue to mount.

A new study published in the journal Science estimates that every 1 degree celsius of warming will cost the United States 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product, which in 2016 was projected above $18 trillion. At the current pace of warming, world temperatures are expected to increase by about four degrees celsius by 2100, which would result in a price tag approaching $1 trillion in today's dollars. Of course, as the GDP keeps growing, the cost is likely to be much larger.

Climate change also is expected to worsen economic inequality, and the South and Southeast will fare the worst of any region. Areas that are better off economically like the Northeast and Pacific Northwest actually stand to gain in some ways, says study co-author Amir Jina, a researcher at the University of Chicago.

One of the primary projected "costs" of warming temperatures is the toll it will take on human life. While every death is tragic in ways that can't be quantified, lives also have an economic cost. When the weather turns extremely cold or hot, elderly and sick people are more likely to die. As areas in the north warm, there are expected to be fewer cold snaps, and thus fewer deaths on this end of the spectrum, Jina explains. However, the same is not true in the South, where extreme heat waves are projected to worsen.

Other costs of climate change include effects on agriculture; crop yields in areas such as the Midwest are expected to decline with the projected warming, the study found. Research also has tied higher temperatures to higher levels of crime. When people are hot, they are more likely to act aggressively, and interactions are more likely to turn violent, Jina says.

This study "is the first comprehensive estimate of climate change damages driven by state-of-the-art empirical studies of climate change impacts," says Billy Pizer, with Duke University, who wrote a perspective accompanying the study in Science but wasn't involved in the research. "These are combined into a single, aggregate damage function, relating temperature change to dollar estimates of damages."

As for what can be done, there isn't much besides cutting emissions. Jina says that following protocols set up in the Paris Accord (President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. from the global pact) could help limit warming to between two and three degrees Celsius, which would tremendously reduce costs.

"It is not clear that anything, besides cutting emissions, can be done to avoid these economic consequences," Pizer says. "Because of the way the estimates are constructed, they should already include various opportunities for averting behavior. Perhaps innovation and technological change in the future will find ways to avoid some of these consequences more cheaply.That said, there are many relatively inexpensive opportunities to cut emissions."