How might climate change fuel inequality?
When a government report raises the possibility of a 10 percent hit to G.D.P. as a result of a warming climate, it can be easy to picture everyone’s incomes being reduced by a tenth.
In reality there is likely to be enormous variance in the economic impact, depending on where people live and what kind of jobs they have.
Low-lying, flood-prone areas are at particularly high risk of becoming unlivable — or at least uninsurable. Certain industries in certain places will be dealt a huge blow, or cease to exist; many ski slopes will turn out to be too warm for regular snow, and the map of global agriculture will shift.
Adaptation will probably be easier for the affluent than for the poor. Those who can afford to move to an area with more favorable impacts from a warmer climate presumably will.
So the economic implications of climate change include huge shifts in geography, demographics and technology, with each affecting the other.
“To look at things in terms of G.D.P. doesn’t really capture what this means to people’s lives,” said William Nordhaus, a Yale economist who pioneered the models on which modern climate economics is based and who won a Nobel for that work. “If you just look at an average of all the things we experience, some in the marketplace and some not in the marketplace, it’s insufficient. The impact is going to be highly diverse.”
Can we adapt to a warmer climate?
Despite all these risks, it’s important to remember that humanity tends to be remarkably adaptable. A century ago, most people lived without an automobile, a refrigerator, or the possibility of traveling by airplane. A couple of decades before that, almost no one had indoor plumbing.
Changes in how people live, and the technology they use, could both mitigate the impact of climate change and ensure that the costs are less about a pure economic loss and more about rewiring the way civilization works.
Most capital investments last only a decade or two to begin with; people are constantly rebuilding roads, buildings and other infrastructure. And a warmer climate could, if it plays out slowly enough, merely shift where that reinvestment happens.
But a big risk is that the change happens too quickly. Adaptation that might be manageable over a generation could be impossible — and cause mass suffering or death — if it happens over a few years.
Imagine major staple food crops being wiped out for a few consecutive years by drought or other extreme weather. Or a large coastal city wiped out in a single extreme storm.
“Whether it’s jobs, consumption patterns or residential patterns, if things are changing so fast that we can’t adapt to them, that will be very, very costly,” Mr. Nordhaus said. “We know we can adapt to slow changes. Rapid changes are the ones that would be most damaging and painful.”
It’s clear that climate change and its ripple effects are likely to be a defining challenge of the 21st-century economy. But there are wide ranges of possible results that vary based on countless assumptions. We should also recognize that the economic backdrop of society is always changing. Projecting what that will mean for ordinary people is not simply a matter of dollars.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to communicate it and it’s not easy to process,” Joseph Aldy, who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Public Policy, said of the connection between climate change and the economy. “It’s really hard to convey something that is long term and gradual until it’s not.”