Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Benefits of Curbing Climate Change Far Outweigh Costs

Texas State Park police officer Thomas Bigham walks across the cracked lake bed of O.C. Fisher Lake Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011, in San Angelo, Texas. Heat and drought dried up the lake that once spanned over 5400 acres. (Photograph Credit: Tony Gutierrez/AP) Click to Enlarge.
Those who oppose policies to cut carbon pollution and slow climate change always claim that doing so will be too expensive and cripple the economy.  They argue that instead we should maximize economic growth so that we can pay for climate damages and adaptation in the future.  It’s an argument helped by the fact that models have essentially treated economic growth as an external factor that won’t be significantly impacted by climate change.

That assumption has been challenged in recent years, starting with a 2012 paper in the American Economic Journal finding that higher temperatures reduce economic growth rates, particularly in poorer countries.  A 2015 paper by Stanford scientists published in Nature Climate Change built on this work, similarly finding that global warming will particularly hurt economic growth in poorer countries, and that “Optimal climate policy in this model stabilizes global temperature change below 2 degrees C.”  This finding is consistent with the target set by the Paris climate accords. 

Later in 2015, a team of scientists led by Marshall Burke published a paper in Nature finding a relationship between temperature and Gross Domestic Product, or GDP.  There’s a sweet spot where regions with an average temperature around 13 degrees Celsius (55 degrees Fahrenheit) have the highest economic productivity.  When temperatures are much hotter or colder, GDP falls.  Countries like the United States, Japan, China, and many European countries happen to have temperatures right near that sweet spot, while many developing countries closer to the equator—in regions like Africa and southeast Asia—are already hotter than optimal.  Consistent with the findings of the aforementioned studies, the economies of these poorer tropical countries will be particularly hard hit by global warming, because their climates are already sub-optimally hot.

Just recently, Burke led another team of scientists in research quantifying these economic costs of higher temperatures. Their latest paper, also published in Nature, found that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would likely save the global economy more than $20 trillion by the year 2100 as compared to 2 degrees Celsius warming—at a cost of about $300 billion.  That means the benefits of curbing climate change would exceed the costs by about 70-to-1.  The study also only accounts for temperature effects on GDP and not other damaging factors like sea level rise, and is thus likely a conservative estimate.

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