Climate Change Will Make the United States Poorer, Hotter and More Unequal

By: John Donovan

Climate Impact Lab's interactive data map shows county-by-county predictions through the year 2099; the above image shows average summer temperatures predicted by the end of this century. Climate Impact Lab/Screenshot by HowStuffWorks
Climate Impact Lab's interactive data map shows county-by-county predictions through the year 2099; the above image shows average summer temperatures predicted by the end of this century. Climate Impact Lab/Screenshot by HowStuffWorks

Climate change is real, and it's dangerous. Scientists the world over almost universally agree on that, even if a few stray politicians and assorted deniers bury their heads in the shifting sands and rising seas.

Now researchers have given us an idea of the very real dollars-and-cents impact awaiting the United States in a first-of-its-kind, county-by-county analysis of decades of data, and it's not pretty. Planetary scientists, economists, risk-management experts, computer engineers and others have released a study that finds that rising temperatures are already costing us at least 1 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, which currently sits at about $18 trillion, every year. Climate change will cost Americans trillions of dollars over the next few years alone — trillions! — as it eats up larger percentages of the GDP with each rising notch in temperature.

climate change chart
This chart displays is the projected economic damage from climate change in United States counties compared according to wealth.
Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al (2017)

Unabated, things could get much, much more expensive, as the study details. By the end of the century, economic losses due to climate change could rival the Great Recession — and much of it won't be recoverable, considering we won't be able to reverse the physical damage done.

Maybe worst of all, the economic fallout will be especially hard on those who can handle it least — the country's poor.

"When we compute these results," says James Rising, a researcher at the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, "the thing that came out really starkly is how some counties [in U.S. states] are going to be hit much harder than others, and they tend to be the poorer counties."

Rising is one of the co-authors of the recent study, published in the journal Science. He and his colleagues analyzed the real-world cost of climate change in six sectors of the American economy — agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality and labor — to come to their conclusions. The Climate Impact Lab has presented its findings in an interactive map that allows users to view predictions up to the end of the 21st century.


Southern Economies Will Be Hit Hardest

Chief among their findings is that counties in the American South and lower Midwest, already affected by high temperatures, stand to be the most adversely stung by climbing temperatures and the problems they bring. Some counties, especially those facing sea change along the Gulf Coast, could lose more than 20 percent of their wealth as agriculture suffers, storms batter homes and people lose their livelihoods — and in some cases, their lives.

Some areas in the cooler northern climes actually could see their economic fortunes improve by more than 10 percent as rising temperatures produce, among other things, a drop in mortality rates and in energy costs.

That is more than offset by the damage done in other areas of the country, though, as many parts of the country will see an increase in days per year above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C). This is a benchmark temperature at which energy costs rise significantly and agricultural crops experience dramatic results. The situation helps to explain what will be a widening wealth gap in the nation.

From the paper:

Combining impacts across sectors reveals that warming causes a net transfer of value from Southern, Central, and Mid-Atlantic regions toward the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, and New England. In some counties, median losses exceed 20% of gross county product (GCP), while median gains sometimes exceed 10% of GCP. Because losses are largest in regions that are already poorer on average, climate change tends to increase preexisting inequality in the United States. Nationally averaged effects, used in previous assessments, do not capture this subnational restructuring of the U.S. economy.

"If we continue on the current path," Solomon Hsiang, a UC-Berkeley public policy professor and the lead author of the study, says in a statement, "our analysis indicates it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country's history."

map showing projected impact of climate change
This map prepared by the authors of a new study shows county-level annual damages in the median scenario for the climate from 2080 to 2099, under a business-as-usual emissions trajectory. (Negative damages indicate economic benefits.)
Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al (2017)


Getting the Information

The paper is the first to put a price on climate change by using decades of data from more than 100 sources that project temperature changes and their economic effects at the county level. The scientists developed what they call the Spatial Empirical Adaptive Global-to-Local Assessment System (SEAGLAS), eventually using the data to run more than 29,000 simulations of the national economy.

Still, the researchers didn't account for many other factors that could further alter how much we spend because of climate change. Rising and others plan to incorporate those factors into their models in the years ahead, looking at things like the costs of contagious diseases that could arise from storms or other catastrophic events; the impact of rising temperatures on different ecosystems; how climate change could affect water resources; and the costs associated with tourism and migration.

When all those are taken into effect, Rising guesses, the overall costs of climate change, on the national level, could jump even more — and expand the gap between poor and rich even wider.


Planning for the Future

The study is not intended as some doomsday warning, Rising says, or to be used as a political hammer. Yes, bad things will happen because of climate change. Almost everyone agrees.

But we now have cold, hard, dollars-and-cents facts on what will happen. We know better what the cost of inaction is. And we know we can lessen that cost by acting, if we can figure out how.

"Our analysis is one of the most grounded ... that's ever been done in climate change," says Rising. "We're talking about a cost to society that is maybe 2-4 percent [of GDP] by the end of the century. Yes, that's trillions of dollars. But we're not talking about doomsday. This puts a little bit of sanity in the discussion. It's manageable. These are things we can do policy around."

Check out Climate Impact Lab's interactive map to dig into the data and projections.