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Study: global warming will make much of the world poorer

Annie Baxter Oct 21, 2015
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A new report in the journal Nature gives a dire forecast about climate change: adapting to it is going to be much more difficult than many people think.

The reason? The researchers said that economic productivity falls as temperatures rise.

A look at the projected effect of temperature changes on regional economies by 2100; this figure shows the change in GDP per capita relative to projection using constant 1980-2010 average temperatures. (Courtesy Marshall Burke, Solomon M. Hsiang, Edward Miguel and ESRI)  

Marshall Burke of Stanford University and his co-authors studied the relationship between temperature and economic activity over the last 50 years. And they found that an average annual temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) was an important threshold.

“That is the temperature at which humans are just really good at producing things around the world,” Burke said.

If a country’s average annual temperature is below that threshold, Burke said, it might actually see an economic boost from global warming.  

But if it’s higher, as is the case in tropical regions, the research projects global warming will hurt productivity. Burke said even countries like the U.S. and China, which are right on the threshold of the optimal temperature, stand to suffer. 

Regional GDP estimates by 2100. The red shaded area shows a 95% confidence interval. (Courtesy Marshall Burke, Solomon M. Hsiang, Edward Miguel and ESRI)  

“We project these countries could be harmed and often harmed dramatically by future increases in warming,” he said.

Burke said by the end of this century, these effects will make the world 23 percent poorer than if not for global warming. And he said technological advances will not shield economies.

But some environmental experts were skeptical of the findings, saying that as societies become richer and more sophisticated, they are better able to adapt to extreme climate events.

“Precisely because they’re more technologically developed and they have an economic cushion,” said Dale Jamieson, an environmental expert at New York University. He said the new paper does not prove otherwise.  

He and others also questioned the idea that there is an optimal temperature for economic production.

“Large countries like the U.S. or Brazil or India have a range of different climates and vibrant economies across that range,” said Heather McGray with the World Resources Institute. “For me it’s a little tricky to try to have a fixed notion of optimal temperature. There’s such diversity in different economies.” 

Still, Jamieson said the new research does help show that the economic toll of climate change will be bad. How bad, he said, is still in question.

 

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