Researchers have long understood that climate change threatens the global economy, with some regions worse off than others. Now, new research shows how unchecked climate change would exacerbate inequality in the U.S., worsening economic conditions in many of the country's poorest regions, while improving conditions elsewhere.
"America is a very diverse place," says study author Solomon Hsiang, an associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. "To say that the U.S. will have one experience of climate change is not what we see in the data."
The study, published in the journal Science, evaluates the economic effects of climate change on individual counties toward the end of the 21st century if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, looking at the effect of warming on energy costs, storm damage to coastal regions, crime rates, labor patterns, mortality and agricultural yields. Many places in the southern part of the U.S. stretching from Texas to Florida will experience a sharp GDP decline totaling more than 10%. That percentage is even higher in some counties, including Florida's Union County, where losses could near 28%.
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"When you get much hotter, economic systems and people’s health start to deteriorate," says Hsiang. "That’s the main reason the South gets hammered. It happens to be hot. But it also happens to be poor."
The opposite is true across the North. Warmer temperatures will benefit local economies, reducing energy costs in some places and increasing agricultural yields. Across the North, mortality rates will likely decline in more moderate temperatures.
But people in counties that may see a spike in GDP should not rest on their laurels, researchers say. Overall, the country should expect a 3% decline in national GDP as a result of climate change. And that sustained recession could lead to political instability and mass migration, affecting everyone from coast to coast.