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Benefits of curbing climate change far outweigh costs

Posted on 12 June 2018 by dana1981

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 theAmerican Economic Journal finding that higher temperatures reduce economic growth rates, particularly in poorer countries. A 2015 paper by Stanford scientists published inNature 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 inNature 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.

Burke’s study also estimated the economic impact of higher levels of global warming, if we fail to meet the Paris climate targets. For example, global warming of 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures in 2100 would reduce global GDP by about 10 percent as compared to 2 degrees Celsius global warming. A temperature of 4-to-5 degrees Celsius would make us 10 percent poorer yet, as compared to 3 degrees Celsius. Those would be massive economic losses that could exceed $100 trillion. And it wouldn’t just impact poor countries—a working paper recently published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond found that global warming could significantly hamper economic growth in the United States as well, especially in the hotter Southern states. The paper found that if we meet the 2 degrees Celsius Paris climate target, US economic growth will only slow by about 5-to-10 percent, but global warming of 3-to-3.5 degrees Celsius would dampen the American economy by twice as much—10-to-20 percent.

It’s also worth noting that these are not controversial findings. Even economists and organizations most-cited by climate contrarians agree that further global warming will hurt the economy, and has been hurting the economies of poorer countries for about 40 years.

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. Climate change will indeed reduce rates of economic growth. Heat stress is not going to be helpful in terms of increasing labour productivity, crop yields, etcetera, and these are some of the basic causal factors in generating economic growth.

    But economic growth is going to decrease for other reasons as well adding to this. This means there's just no way continued economic growth can pay for adaptation to climate change. Its utterly delusional to believe otherwise. This is why mitigation has to be the preferred principal option, so that we avoid as much adaptation as possible.

    The following graph shows how economic growth rates have been steadily falling in America and the UK for the last 50 years. The trend is rather starkly obvious. Many people think they will continue to fall. Look at how much public spending and newly created money has been thrown at economies since the global financial crash of 2008, and it has barely managed to get growth to about 2% pa in western countries. (I'm not saying these were the wrong things to do as such). But its been the same for about 20 years, in that high levels of public and private spending, much based on borrowing,  are not generating much gdp growth in western countries.

    The following book summarises the key reasons and the following in depth article goes into the details, and related published economic research.

    Growth will most probably continue to fall in developed countries until it hits zero or close to it, and it probably increase in developing countries medium term then fall.

    The causal factors relate to saturating markets, lower rates of technological advance (this may be counter intuitive but read the article), costs of extraction of finite resources, and poor labour productivity rates. And none of this is likely to improve, given the nature of the issues.

    Sounds rather doomy and gloomy, but growth in some aspects of the economy will probably continue, and zero or steady state growth can still deliver a high quality of life and will be more sustainable long term.

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  2. There is a school of thought that says not only is continued endless economic growth implausible, given resources are finite, the world should deliberately aim for zero economic growth in the short term, to avoid painfall longer term shocks and severely depleted resources. Of course poor countries can't be expected to stop growing their economies and would have to be exempted or assisted.

    However it depends on the nature of the economic growth, and whether it's based around resources or the services sector, and the ability of some materials to be recycled. It also relates to increasing population growth trends which obviously magnify the problems, and which simply have to slow right down.

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  3. Do any of these studies consider how much the US will be disadvantaged when other countries are using free source energy generation while the US is still paying for energy sources if it falls behind in converting?

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  4. It has seemed likely for quite some time that at least in the conversion to renewable energy and even after we have converted, we will be better off economically.  Countries are now even conemplating a universal wage whether you work or not.  How much better to have high employment with the satisfaction that comes with it.  The extraction of fossil fuel uses less and less people as more and more automation is employed.  Installing and maintaining renewable energy facilities employs far more people.  The way we are going, soon there will be no one left to buy the goods produced by automated factories.  For heaven sake, they are now automating the massive trucks that shift the iron ore up in the Pilbara in WA.  However conversion to renewables doesn't benefit the companies who finance our politicians.  Who pays the piper calls the tune.  It isn't rocket science.  Until our politicians are financed from the public purse they will do the bidding of their financiers.  Does it sound expensive that we finance the politicians.  The present system is costing us so much more in so many ways.

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