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Study: As Climate Crisis Has Worsened, So Has Global Economic Inequality

April 29, 2019

In a new study out by Stanford researchers reviewing half a century of data, researchers found that as rich countries get richer, they also have more temperate climates and face less of the brunt of climate impacts

In a new study out by Stanford researchers reviewing half a century of data, researchers found that as rich countries get richer, they also have more temperate climates and face less of the brunt of climate impacts


Study: As Climate Crisis Has Worsened, So Has Global Economic Inequality

Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS This is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network from Toronto, Canada. The rich get richer and the poor— well, they get climate change impacts. That in a nutshell is the conclusion of a new study by researchers at Stanford University. Entitled Global Warming has Increased Global Economic Inequality, it points to half a century of country-by-country global temperature data, overlaid with G.D.P. data for those same countries. The countries with the highest G.D.P., the study concludes, have more temperate climates and have in turn experienced less severe climate impacts, while consuming the bulk of the world’s fossil fuel resources. The opposite is true of countries with lower G.D.P. It’s increasingly understood that climate change will impact working class people of color around the world, first and foremost. That, even though they did the least to cause the climate crisis. But the new study enshrines the notion and backs it up with decades of fresh data. Here to discuss that data is none other than the report’s lead author, Noah Diffenbaugh. He is the Kara J. Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University. His research focuses on how climate change could impact agriculture, water resources, and human health. Among other accolades, he has served as a lead author for the Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and he joins us today from Stanford, California. Thank you for coming on to The Real News, Professor Diffenbaugh.

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH My pleasure.

DIMITRI LASCARIS So your article, Professor, was co-written with Stanford Professor Marshall Burke. In simple terms, what did you two determine to be the big picture takeaways from the research you did? What does it add to the body of knowledge on these interwoven topics of global climate change impacts?

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH Well what we found is that global warming has already happened, historically. That’s about one degree Celsius of global warming to date. But that global warming has overall, reduced the per capita G.D.P. in a large swath of countries in the tropics and subtropics. These countries are warm or hot and that’s the primary reason that they’ve experienced these negative impacts from global warming. But they also, in many cases, have low per capita G.D.P., in many cases have large populations, and in most cases have contributed relatively little to the historical greenhouse gas emissions that have cause global warming. So overall, the net effect is that we find robust results to indicate that global warming has already reduced incomes in many poor countries and that even though inequality between the richest and poorest countries has decreased overall over the last half-century or so, global warming has slowed the rate of that progress.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Now in your study you talk about the parabola effect taking place in terms of temperatures in countries around the world and their G.D.P. For those who have not taken a geometry class for a while, what do you mean in this context by the parabola effect?

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH Well so my co-author, Marshall Burke, has led work over the last several years to understand and isolate how temperature fluctuations in different countries around the world affect their growth in G.D.P., their economic growth year-by-year. And so controlling for other factors, looking country-by-country, what they find is that overall colder countries, such as Norway, have experienced a bit faster economic growth in years that are warmer than normal for Norway. And on the other end of the temperature range, hot countries like India have experienced a bit slower economic growth in the years that are warmer than normal for India. And so overall, there is a hill-shaped function where cooler countries have tended to benefit historically in warm years. Warmer countries have tended to have a drag on their economic growth in warm years. And then in the middle, there’s a mathematical optimum in this relationship. The largest economies in the world— the U.S., China, and Japan— are right near that temperature optimum.

DIMITRI LASCARIS In the short-lived sci-fi show, Incorporated, a dystopian society which chronicled the combination of corporate power and climate impacts from the vantage point of the year 2074, a huge chunk of the world’s population flocks to Milwaukee, Wisconsin as climate refugees. Your paper does not get into the refugee discussion, but do you think the data drawn out within your research explains an impetus for why a nice, cold place like Milwaukee could prove an attractive destination a few generations from now? You specifically mentioned the case of Norway in your prior answer, and I know that you deal with Norway is a key case study in your paper. What do you envision is going to happen in terms of these colder climate countries becoming more attractive to increasingly desperate climate refugees?

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH Well so there is empirical research using a similar framework to what we’ve used by other researchers asking that question about migration, this work by Wolfram Schlenker, a Professor at Columbia University. In that work, they’ve analyzed historical records of asylum claims in Europe and have linked back where the asylum claims at the destination country were, which country those migrants were leaving, and then what were the climate conditions in those countries that the migrants left. And they have found a robust increase in that migration during hot years in the country of departure, controlling for other factors. So they’ve used a very similar econometric framework, as what we’ve used in this paper, but specifically asked the question that you’re asking in terms of whether or not there is a contribution of climate shocks, climate conditions, to migration. Their results suggest that there has been historically, at least for European asylum claims.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Lastly, what do you hope your study achieves in the broader discourse about climate change solutions, in areas like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Why did you choose to release the paper on an open source basis?

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH So those are two questions. In terms of the policy relevance, there are a couple of results that are relevant for ongoing policy discussions. As you mentioned earlier, it has been discussed for many, many years by many, many people— researchers, policymakers, treaty negotiators within the U.N. climate treaty framework. It’s been observed for a long time that the populations in countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, in general, have contributed relatively little to the total global greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming. What’s new about our paper is that we provide country-by-country estimates of the impact of that historical global warming on the economic outcomes at the aggregate level for each country. So I think that prior to our paper, if someone was making that statement about the asymmetry between vulnerability to climate change and responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions, they would’ve been hard pressed to provide quantitative figures, quantitative numbers of what the magnitude of that disparity has been, and our paper provides that quantification.

DIMITRI LASCARIS And I realize I did ask two questions. The latter being, why did you choose to release the paper on an open source basis?

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH Our research is relevant for the scientific community. It’s relevant for policymakers. Overall, my research program has been funded. I’ve been a principal investigator for more than 15 years, both at a public university, Purdue University, and now at Stanford at a private university. At both of those universities as principal investigator, I have received federal funding to support my research program. I certainly consider my responsibility to make the results of my research program accessible to the public.

DIMITRI LASCARIS Well we’ve been speaking to Professor Noah Diffenbaugh from Stanford University about a new study regarding the relationship between global inequality and climate change impacts. Thank you very much for joining us today, Professor.

DR. NOAH DIFFENBAUGH It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

DIMITRI LASCARIS And this is Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News Network.