"If we continue on the current path, it may result in the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in the country's history"
By Alex Whiting
LONDON, June 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States economy will suffer if climate change continues unabated, with poorer and warmer parts of the country paying the heaviest price, researchers said on Thursday.
Every 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperatures will cost the United States as a whole about 1.2 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, researchers said in the journal Science.
But the economic damage will be unequally spread. Colder and richer areas in the north may benefit from improved health and agriculture and lower energy costs, researchers said. But the poorest third of counties in the nation could sustain damages costing as much as a fifth of their income.
"Unmitigated climate change will be very expensive for huge regions of the United States," said Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy 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," he said.
The team of economists and climate scientists calculated how agriculture, crime, health, energy demand, labour and coastal communities will be affected by higher temperatures, changing rainfall, rising seas and intensifying hurricanes.
For example, if emissions continue at their current rate, the Midwest could by the end of the century see agricultural losses similar to those suffered during the Dustbowl period of the 1930s, said study co-author Amir Jina of the University of Chicago.
At that time, a wave of dust storms crippled agriculture over a vast area of the Great Plains and led to an exodus of people, many to California.
The Gulf Coast, too, is likely to be badly hit by rising sea level, destructive hurricanes and extreme heat, the researchers said.
"In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit," said Robert Kopp, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.
"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," he added.
Previous research has found that violent crime rises and productivity falls when people experience higher than usual temperatures, Kopp told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The researchers used 116 climate projections developed by scientists around the world to price the impacts of climate change by means similar to those used by the insurance industry or investors to compare risks and rewards.
"We are making decisions today about the kinds of lives we and our children want to lead," said James Rising, a postdoctoral fellow at University of California, Berkeley.
Risk analysis - done with the aid of computers - is allowing researchers to "see the economic hole we're digging for ourselves," he said. (Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, Editing by Laurie Goering.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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