Study: Climate change will perpetuate U.S. inequality

A truck drives through a flooded interstate in Louisiana, a state where researchers warn of flooding and rising sea levels in coming years. (Chuck Coker/Flickr)

Unmitigated climate change will make much of the United States poorer and generally exacerbate rising wealth inequalities, according to a new study.

For every one degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, the study projects that the country will lose about 1.2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. The economic impact of climate change will not be uniform, say the researchers in this week’s Science magazine, with a few regions possibly experiencing gains.

“Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States,” said lead author Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at the University of California-Berkeley, as reported by Reuters.

“If we continue on the current path, our analysis indicates it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country’s history.”

The study is the first of its kind to put a price on global warming using decades of accumulated climate data and evidence. Researchers ran thousands of simulations and used 116 climate projections to predict what would happen to the U.S. economy under different emissions scenarios.

Unless significant changes are made to reduce heat-trapping gasses, the researchers warned that the U.S. South and lower Midwest, which tend to be poor and hot already, will suffer the heaviest losses.

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Counties in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida will be plagued by rising sea levels and more intense hurricanes, for example, while the South and the Midwest will be threatened by increasingly rising temperatures — a trend which the researchers warns can slow productivity, increase violent crime, disturb agricultural patterns, and increase energy demands and costs.

On the other hand, colder and richer counties along the northern border and in the Rockies could actually benefit from warmer temperatures and longer growing seasons. Some counties could see improvements in health, agriculture and energy costs, as well as economic gains of as much as 10 percent or more of their gross county product, according to the researchers.

Experts agree that the world must cut carbon emissions to avoid rapid changes to the climate. Study co-author Amir Jina, a researcher at the University of Chicago, told Newsweek that following protocols set up in the Paris Accord could help limit warming to between two and three degrees Celsius, which would tremendously reduce costs.

The Paris Agreement commits signing countries to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, which is blamed for melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels and more extreme weather events.

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President Donald Trump on June 1 announced America’s withdrawal from the accord, which he dubbed a “bad” deal that would leave “millions and millions of families trapped in poverty and joblessness”.

But European leaders are prepared to put on a united front against Trump over climate change at a major meeting next week with leaders from the world’s 20 major economies — and major polluters — in Hamburg, Germany. German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed Thursday to seek a clear commitment to fight global warming from at the July 7-summit, calling the 2015 Paris deal “not negotiable.”

“The European Union unconditionally stands by its agreement in Paris and will implement it. Since the US decision to leave the Paris climate agreement, we are more determined than ever to make it a success,” Merkel said.

“Anyone who believes the problems of this world can be solved with isolationism and protectionism is a making a huge mistake,” she added.

The United States is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com