A new study purporting to show future damages from man-made global warming has taken over the internet, and major news outlets claim it shows a climate-induced “wealth transfer” from poor to rich.
The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, takes the worst-case scenario for future global warming from greenhouse gas emissions to project increased death, crime and economic distress across most U.S. counties by the end of the century.
The media went wild, but not everyone has accepted the nifty climate map as gospel. Environmental economist Richard Tol said the study and accompanying graphic suffers from two major problems.
“There are two problems with this paper,” Tol told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The study — and accompanying graphic — conflates weather with climate, Tol said, and assesses the impacts of a worst-case global warming scenario on a past economy, not what it’s projected to be in 2080.
“And of course we have an economics paper published in a non-economics journal,” said Tol, who teaches economics at the university of Sussex.
For every one degree Celsius rise in global average temperature, the study predicts the U.S. will see a 1.2 percent drop in economic output, 9 percent decline in crop yields and a 5.3 percent rise in electricity demand.
The study also found violent crime would rise with temperatures as would hazards to outdoor laborers. Most of these impacts would hurt the South and Midwest, while the northern reaches would see some benefits to warmer temperatures, the study found.
“Poor counties in the U.S. will be harder hit, mainly because they are already hot,” co-author Marshall Burke of Stanford University told Axios, adding “that this would be the biggest transfer in U.S. history.”
“For instance, I think it’s correct that the differential growth in incomes between the poorest 20% of U.S. household and the richest 1% has been a lot bigger over the last 20 years than the effects they find here,” Burke said.
USA Today reported that “[r]unaway climate change will make the U.S. poorer and more unequal,” hurting the South the most.
“By 2100, the economic loss from warming temperatures will be on a par with the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009, with states in the south and lower mid-west to be most severely affected,” reported The Guardian.
There are two big problems with the study, according to Tol, even if you assume their climate models are right — and there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical.
“First, except for energy demand, these are impacts of weather variability rather than climate change,” Tol said. “The key difference is that weather shocks are unexpected, but climate change is not.”
“People would therefore adjust their behavior in response to climate change but not in response to weather shocks,” Tol said.
The study conflates the damages from weather, which is hard to prepare for. A hurricane can form and hit land relatively quickly, and will happen regardless of whether or not there’s man-made warming.
Climate change would be slow relative to the pace of the economy. If the climate continues unabated warming from now through 2099, people would, for example, plant different crops, Tol said.
“As another example, the impact estimates for sea level rise exclude new and higher dikes, etc.,” Tol said.
The study also assesses the future impact of global warming on what the U.S. economy was like from 1989 to 2001. People, even the poor, will likely be much richer in the next century than they are today.
“Second, they study the effect of future climate change on the economy of the recent past,” Tol said. “They find that the currently poor are more vulnerable, but the currently poor would be lot richer in the future when climate change hits them.”
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