(CN) – Unmitigated climate change could increase income inequality in the United States, as new research projects poor states will face severe economic damage, while richer areas could actually stand to benefit.
The poorest third of counties could pay as much as 20 percent of their total income if warming is not curbed, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.
States in the South and lower Midwest – areas that already tend to be poor and hot – will lose the most, with economic opportunity migrating northward and westward. In contrast, the research projects that colder and richer counties in the Rockies and along the northern border will experience improvements in health, energy costs and agricultural production.
“Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States,” said study co-author Solomon Hsiang, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “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.”
In order to measure the potential financial consequences if current warming trends continue, the researchers used 116 climate projections and state-of-the-art statistical methods to determine how rising seas, changing rainfall, higher temperatures and intensifying hurricanes could affect coastal communities, crime, agriculture and other real-world factors.
“In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit,” co-author Robert Kopp, a professor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, said. “Its exposure to sea-level rise–made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes–poses a major risk to its communities. Increasingly extreme heat will drive up violent crime, slow down workers, amp up air conditioning costs, and threaten people’s lives.”
If greenhouse gas emissions are not slowed, the resulting 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit of warming above 19th century levels projected for the last two decades of this century will produce economic challenges on par with the Great Recession, according to the research.
“The ‘hidden costs’ of carbon dioxide emissions are no longer hidden, since now we can see them clearly in the data,” said co-author Amir Jina, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Chicago. “The emissions coming out of our cars and power plants are reshaping the American economy. Here in the Midwest, we may see agricultural losses similar to the Dustbowl of the 1930s.”
Based on the data, the team estimates that for each 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperatures, the U.S. economy loses about 0.7 percent of its gross domestic product – the total value of goods produced and services provided in a given nation each year – with each degree of warming costing more.
Co-author James Rising, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, credited the team’s findings to recent developments within big data and computing.
“We are making decisions today about the kinds of lives we and our children want to lead.” Rising said. “Had the computing revolution come twenty years later, we wouldn’t be able to see the economic hole we’re digging for ourselves.”
Photograph: Hsiang, Kopp, Jina, Rising, et al