If you live in the South, climate change could kill your economy


Union County, Florida is 250 square miles, nestled in the middle of the state's pan—not the handle—about an hour southwest of Jacksonville and nearly as far from the state's southern border. Residents depend on four things for their county's survival: farming, trucking, timber, and the state's department of corrections. It is the country's third congressional district, the state's smallest county, and the place in Florida that will take the hardest economic hit from climate change, according to a new study released today in the journal Nature.

The study takes six factors—temperature, rainfall, the effect of carbon dioxide on agriculture, mortality, crime, and labor and energy demand—and models them out to see how climate change will affect the American economy on the county level. They estimate that each 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature will reduce the country's gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.2 percent. But that cost won't be borne equally. Areas in New England and the Pacific Northwest might actually experience a slight economic gain, while places in the American South are likely to experience significant economic damage. Climate impacts could diminish Union County's income, for example, by 27 percent—as heat-related deaths and crime take a bite out of any increased agriculture.

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Climate change impact in Tangier, Virginia
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Climate change impact in Tangier, Virginia
A waterman sets out to set crab traps as the sun rises in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A grave stone rests on the beach where a cemetery once stood but has been washed away due to erosion in an area called Canaan in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge sets out to check his crab traps during the early morning in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge feeds his cats as he checks on his soft shell crabs at his shanty during the early morning in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Waterman Tabby Crockett (L) sells his peeler crabs to Mayor and waterman James Eskridge in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge's tattoo of the Jesus fish adorns his arm as he points out areas that have been completely eroded away in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
An abandoned outboard boat motor sits against the man-made sea wall that was engineered by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 to prevent erosion in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The sun rises while a waterman passes crab shanties as he sets out for the day in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge checks on his soft shell crabs at his shanty during the early morning in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A cross stands at the mouth of the harbor reading 'Jesus is Life' in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Erosion eats away at the tip of the Uppards in an area called Canaan in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A grave stone rests on the beach where a cemetery once stood but has been washed away due to erosion in an area called Canaan in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Four-year-old Parker Shores walks down the middle of the street with his action figure toys in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Teenage boys play baseball on a dirt lot in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge checks on his soft shell crabs at his shanty during the early morning in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Danny Parks mans the fuel docks in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A waterman returns to the harbor with crab traps in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
An area in the Uppards called Canaan where erosion has taken away what was once a settlement area with homes in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Army Corps of Engineers scientist Dave Schulte sits on the side of a boat as he rides out to check on current erosion to the Uppards in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge (L) speaks with waterman Rudy Parks (R) from the crab shanties in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mayor and waterman James Eskridge stands on the peir speaking with his son William Eskridge in the early morning before setting out for a day of crabbing in Tangier, Virginia, May 16, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Supports jet out of the water where crab shanties used to stand on a patch of land now surrounded by water in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A boat line and the shell of a crab sit on the pier in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
William Eskridge pulls just caught crabs from a bucket in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Crab trap buoys hang from a fence in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A crane flies away with a crab in its mouth in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The water of the Chesapeake Bay crashes against the man-made sea wall that was engineered by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1999 to prevent erosion in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Waterman Bruce Gordy (R) talks with fellow waterman Allen Crockett (L), Frank Pruitt (2L), Robert Crockett (3L), Mayor James Eskridge (C) and Richard Pruitt (2R) during a meeting called 'The Situation Room' to discuss ongoing local concerns in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Benjamin Eskridge (L) carries a crab trap as he helps his grandfather Allen Crocket (R) prepare for the next day of crabbing in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
An abandoned crab trap rest on the beach surf in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The sun sets on a cross reading 'Christ is Life' on a waterway in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
A submerged boats rests under a bridge in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
William Eskridge pulls just caught crabs from a bucket and his grandchildren look over his shoulder in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Waterman Richard Pruitt looks on a during a meeting called 'The Situation Room' held with other senior local waterman in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Swamp grass and standing water take over the front yard of a home in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The sun sets over houses on the West Ridge neighborhood in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The sun sets in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
The sun sets on a guard rail where love letters have been scribed on a bridge in Tangier, Virginia, May 15, 2017, where climate change and rising sea levels threaten the inhabitants of the slowly sinking island. Now measuring 1.2 square miles, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its landmass since 1850. If nothing is done to stop the erosion, it may disappear completely in the next 40 years. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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"The current suite of computer models that are used actually treat the entire United States as a single unit, as though all the impacts that are going to be received are going to be received, on average, the same to everyone," study author James Rising, an environmental modeler in the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley, told PopSci.

map

County-level annual damages in median scenario for climate during 2080-2099 under business-as-usual emissions trajectory (RCP8.5). Negative damages indicate economic benefits.

Global Policy Lab

But the new study provides a more granular look at the impacts—zooming all the way in to see the county level effects—so that local governments can better plan and adjust as the climate changes.

The business world, especially the insurance industry, is growing increasingly worried about how global warming will change their ability to predict risks; not just in regard to flooding, as is frequently considered, but also for things like crop insurance. If an insurance company can't predict risks, they can't provide insurance, and the economic system we've created begins to fall apart.

"There are a couple of aspects of this study that I think are important advances," says Benjamin Preston, Director of the Infrastructure Resilience and Environmental Policy Program at the Rand Institute, who was not involved with the new study. "It's not often that we see these kind of estimates in climate impacts on that sort of resolution, at the county level. I thought that was a particularly important contribution this paper is making in moving the science forward."

maps

County-level annual damages in median scenario for climate during 2080-2099 under a business-as-usual emissions trajectory (RCP8.5). Negative damages indicate benefits. From left to right, top to bottom: percent change in yields, averaged for maize, wheat, soybeans, and cotton; changes in all-cause mortality rates, across all age groups; change in electricity demand; change in labor supply of full-time equivalent workers for low risk jobs where workers are minimally exposed to outdoor temperature; same as previous except for high risk jobs where workers are heavily exposed to outdoor temperatures; change in damages from coastal storms and sea level rise; changes in violent crime rates; changes in property crime rates; median total direct economic damage across all sectors.

Global Policy Lab

One of the study's limitations is the fact that it only factors in some of the many potential impacts of climate change, but Rising acknowledges that shortcoming.

"We set a pretty high standard for what kinds of results and science we would incorporate into the analysis," says Rising. "We only included response functions, which describe how people or sectors respond to weather, that had been previously published and that had a response that we could say was causal rather than correlation."

In other words, some impacts haven't been closely studied enough to assign a hard dollar amount.

"What's the value of biodiversity, the loss of biodiversity," says Preston. "That's something that's very difficult to quantify in economic terms, so it isn't included in the study. But it doesn't mean that we shouldn't keep those kinds of impacts in mind when we're thinking about the overall net consequences of climate change."

chart

Range of economic damages per year for groupings of U.S. counties, based on their income (29,000 simulations for each of 3,143 counties). The poorest 10% of counties are the leftmost box plot. The richest 10% are the rightmost box plot. Damages are fraction of county income. White lines are median estimates, boxes show the inner 66% of possible outcomes, outer whiskers are inner 90% of possible outcomes.

Global Policy Lab

One finding from the study presents an incredibly macabre form of actuarial teeter-totter: as the temperature warms, more people die. Northern states appear to fare better than southern, but that's just because the increase in deaths during the summer months there will be offset by a decrease in deaths during the winter months. And then, of course there's the crime.

"Whatever your baseline temperature is," says Rising, "for every additional Fahrenheit of temperature, people are more likely to commit violent crime, commit property crime, have arguments, yell at each other, and even have interstate and inter-group conflicts on country-wide scales."

All of these factors conspire to put the South disproportionately in harms way.

"The South is already hot. And it turns out that when you're hot and get hotter, things are going to be a lot worse for you than if you just have moderate temperature and you get somewhat warmer," says Rising. "And it's not possible to talk about that without pointing out that the South is a lot poorer, so an extra dollar that's lost from the South because any of these factors isn't the same as a dollar that might be gained in the North of the United States. It hurts people more. What we were able to see is that climate change is going to widen income inequality; it's going to make it more difficult for areas in the South to provide for their citizens' education and jobs and wellbeing across the board. "

If you live in a place that's relatively well-off, according to the analysis, you'll probably still be fine (financially, anyway). But poor communities will suffer.

All of this, however, comes with two caveats. The first, of course, is that the modeling is done with the assumption that we won't make efforts to mitigate climate change.

"I often get asked at parties if it's too late, as though if we don't do a certain amount by a certain time the world's going to explode," says Rising. "I think it's important to understand that there's a lot of opportunity to use numbers from our paper to decide on what kind of responses we want to make."

If we can keep warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), then the rising temperature is actually going to have a very small effect on GDP. But if we hit 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of warming, things start to look dire. Experts recently put out an article claiming that we have just three years to start curbing carbon emissions before it was too late to prevent a 2 degrees Celsius increase.

The second, of course, is that the paper doesn't take into account people's attempts to adapt—because, well, we don't really know how they'll go about doing that. Climate change could drive people to move out of hard-hit regions, or convince the snowbirds who tend to migrate South for retirement to stay put.

And that same, unpredictable reaction will play out in other places—in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example—that are just as warm and getting warmer, with even less income and institutional support.

Which is why, Rising says, he and his colleagues have formed a consortium called the Climate Impact Lab that will look at some of those global effects. One of the first things they're hoping to produce is an estimate of the impact of climate change on death rates across the whole globe—one that somehow accounts for people's ability to adapt.

That said, it's not hard to look at the map they've developed and say to oneself, "You know, Maine's looking really good right now."

"Yeah, that's a joke that I've been making with all my friends," says Rising. "Stay in Maine or Washington or Oregon and you're going to be fine, live anywhere else and you're going to have to deal with a lot. I think there's a big question of what kind of a world we're building if you have to make that kind of trade off."

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