America’s economic inequality could widen if global temperatures rise due to climate change, but there’s a silver lining for the Pacific Northwest: It would fall on the favorable end of the spectrum.
At least that’s the assessment in a study published this week in the journal Science. The University of Washington’s resident expert on weather and climate, atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass, says the picture isn’t that clear-cut.
The main theme of the Science study is that as the climate changes, the economic impact won’t be the same across the U.S.
Southern states and the lower Midwest are expected to feel a higher negative impact, while there could be a positive impact on northern regions such as the Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes and New England.
The most significant factor is a projection that southern regions will face more episodes of extreme heat, while temperatures in the country’s colder northern regions will become milder.
That projection is in line with a study published by a different research group earlier this year, which suggested that Seattle would experience more mild-temperature days in the years ahead.
For the Science study, researchers and economists examined statistics on the population and economy of U.S. counties, using data from 2012. They dove into the projected effects of climate change on agriculture, health and energy demand on a county-by-county basis.
Solomon Hsiang, lead researcher and associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said the analysis showed that richer counties could expect to enjoy better health and lower electric bills as the climate changes. But rising temperatures would have a detrimental effect on the poorest third of the nation’s counties.
“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,” he said.
Mass doubts that climate change will make life all that more attractive in Seattle.
“The precipitation isn’t going to be less,” he told GeekWire. “All our models show the precipitation will be the same.”
Because it’ll still be dark and cloudy in the winter, he doesn’t think masses of people will migrate to Seattle due to changing climate – as they have due to the region’s tech boom.
Mass also noted that urban heat islands, where heat is trapped in a city’s concrete and released at night, isn’t as big of an issue in Seattle, because Puget Sound helps to keep the city cool.
An argument could be made that a rise in temperatures might bring at least some benefits for low-income people in Washington state, Mass said.
He noted that ice on the roadways is a leading killer in the state. “Poor people tend to have poorer vehicles and longer commutes, so if it warms up, deaths could be reduced,” he said. Mass also speculated that homeless people would burn less wood trying to keep warm, reducing a major source of pollution in Washington state.
But the Science study describes a grimmer outlook for other regions of the country, including America’s breadbasket.
Amir Jina, a University of Chicago researcher and co-author of the Science study, said that if temperatures rise, the nation’s predominantly agricultural regions could dry up. “In the Midwest, we may see agricultural losses similar to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s,” he said in a news release.
Robert Kopp, a Rutgers University-New Brunswick professor who also contributed to the study, said that coastal cities such as those along the Gulf of Mexico could be affected by much more than poor agriculture.
“Its exposure to sea-level rise, made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes, poses a major risk to its communities,” he said. “Increasingly extreme heat will drive up violent crime, slow down workers, amp up air conditioning costs and threaten people’s lives.”
Even if climate change gives Washington state a leg up in the nation’s economy, Mass said Seattleites should nevertheless be motivated to do something about climate change, because negative effects in other regions of the world will also have an impact on the Northwest economy.
“This is a high-tech part of the country,” he said. “This whole global warming thing is an opportunity for us to take carbon out of the atmosphere and use the technology more efficiently.”
The study does note that more data will need to be gathered in order to fine-tune projections about economic impacts. Moreover, new technologies could come along, either to reduce carbon emissions or help regions adjust to warmer temperatures.
“We should expect that populations will adapt to climate change in numerous ways,” the study said. “Some actions, such as use of air conditioning, likely limit the impact of climatic exposure, whereas other actions, such as social conflict, likely exacerbate impacts.”
In addition to Hsiang, Jina and Kopp, the authors of the Science study, “Estimating Economic Damage From Climate Change in the United States,” include James Rising, Michael Delgado, Shashank Mohan, D. J. Rasmussen, Robert Muir-Wood, Paul Wilson, Michael Oppenheimer, Kate Larsen and Trevor Houser.