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Researchers Analyze Economic Impact Of Climate Change In The U.S.


Climate scientists agree that the 21st century will be warmer. That warming will likely bring economic pain to the U.S., though economists aren't sure how much. Now, a research team says they can at least tell which parts of the country are likely to suffer the most. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on their new study.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The team started with history. How have heat waves and drought affected the economy in the past? Then they applied that metric to various warming scenarios for the future, county by county. They found that if warming continues at recent rates it could shave several percentage points off the country's gross domestic product by century's end. But lead researcher Solomon Hsiang says that's not really the bottom line.

SOLOMON HSIANG: I think the takeaway message that is most striking is that the effects of climate change on the U.S. are not the same everywhere. Where you are in the country really matters.

JOYCE: Colder places like New England might see an economic upturn - lower heating bills, for example. But hot places like the South and Midwest could see huge damage to their local economies - enormous electric bills or dying crops. Maybe that's not so surprising. But Hsiang, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, takes it a step further. Climate change will redistribute wealth away from hard-hit regions and mostly toward the North and West. Exactly how much is hard to predict. Hsiang acknowledges that his numbers are uncertain. But he says that's actually part of the message.

HSIANG: When you start changing the climate, it starts affecting all these aspects of the economy. And it makes the future world harder to predict.

JOYCE: Things like new technologies to help people adapt, for example. With so many uncertainties, why do this kind of exercise? Economist Billy Pizer at Duke University says research like this at least brings a distant threat into focus.

BILLY PIZER: It's important to figure out - are we talking about something the size of a bread box or the size of an elephant, you know, or the size of a mouse? And I think getting those sorts of magnitudes right is really important. And I think that that's what this paper does.

JOYCE: And it continues a 10-year effort to determine something called the social cost of carbon, carbon dioxide being the major greenhouse gas. What's a ton of carbon pollution going to do to the economy? And should polluters pay that cost now? The Trump administration says it's not interested in the cost of carbon or moving away from carbon-based fuels. Economist Chris Field at Stanford University says, yes, that would be expensive. But he compares it to the space program in the 1960s.

CHRIS FIELD: It cost a lot. But it also unleashed a huge amount of creativity and innovation and really launched the United States on the trajectory to being ready for the 21st century.

JOYCE: The research appears in the journal Science. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, Chris Field is referred to as an economist. He is a climate scientist] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Joyce is a correspondent on the science desk at NPR. His stories can be heard on all of NPR's news programs, including NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.