Eight More Effects of Climate Change: Some Surprising, Some Fatal

Climate change will take its toll across the economy, in some unexpected places, a panel of experts told members of Congress last week.
Unmitigated climate change has already cost the U.S. economy $1 trillion, said economist Marshall Burke, an assistant professor of earth system science at Stanford University, and that cost will rise to $5 trillion by 2050.
“For many people, climate impacts are most closely associated with rising seas and declining crop yields. These impacts are certainly important, but in fact are likely to only be a small part of the overall economic consequences in the U.S.,” Burke told members of the House Committee on Financial Services.
“Many other sectors and many other outcomes will be affected by a warming climate.”
According mostly to Burke, but also other experts who testified before the committee Sept. 11, those impacts include:
1 Lost Productivity
“Numerous studies using recent historical data on the US economy show that economic output falls in hot years as compared to cooler years,” Burke said, in part because of lost productivity.
“We have strong evidence that workers in all industries are less productive when it’s hot.”
2 Cognitive Decline
Worker productivity may decline in part because cognitive productivity declines.
“We also have clear evidence that our cognitive function declines when it’s hot: people perform office tasks less effectively, and kids learn less and score worse on standardized tests. These impacts will have economy-wide effects on economic performance,” Burke writes in his prepared remarks.
Speaking before the committee, he was more blunt:
“I think some of us recognize this intuitively. It actually shows up very clearly in the data. Hot temperatures literally make us dumber.”
3 Violent Crime
“Police chiefs in U.S. cities have recognized for decades that crime spikes during heat waves. The statistics bear this out very clearly: violent assault, sexual violence, and homicide all increase on days or months where temperatures are above normal.”
4 Suicide
“Hot temperatures also increase suicide risk, and in recent research we calculate that future warming could lead to tens of thousands of additional suicides in the US by mid-century.”
5 Civil Unrest
“Elsewhere in the world, we have documented large increases in civil conflict and organized crime as temperatures rise,” Burke said, citing his own work on Africa.
6 Immigration
“Colleagues from Columbia University have in turn shown that this conflict drives substantial international migration into wealthier countries,” Burke said, citing a paper titled, “Asylum applications respond to temperature fluctuations.”
7 Inequality
“Poorer people in this country, and poorer people around the world, tend to live in environments that are already hot. As these regions get even hotter, most economic impacts will be amplified,” Burke said. “A recent study in the U.S. also found that economic damages from climate change will be many times higher in poorer counties as compared to wealthier counties.”
8 Insurance Collapse
Despite these palpable global risks, and also because of them, two speakers suggested the federal government focus first on the insurance industry. And the insurance industry is likely to agree. In a recent survey, insurance executives ranked climate change the number one risk faced by their industry.
“There's a huge role for government in helping communities adapt and understanding what investments to make, and reforming the Flood Insurance Program would be a good place to start,” Burke said.
Claims to the National Flood Insurance program continue to outpace the premiums that are supposed to fund it, and the program owes the treasury about $20 billion.
That prompted committee chairwoman Maxine Waters to ask if insurance itself is at risk: “Will there be an elimination of the insurance industry because they cannot afford to calculate the risk anymore and offer insurance and premiums that will have to renovate and pay for the damage?” she asked.
Burke punted that question to Andy Karsner, a venture capitalist, Stanford energy scholar and former assistant secretary of energy.
“If we fail to act, the insurance industry certainly has a peril,” Karsner said, “but I don't see that the U.S. economy could do very well with a significant shock to the insurance industry, so the goal should be to enhance their capacities for risk management and set rules going forward that allow them to integrate state-of-the-art technology and predictability and new insurance product innovation.”
Watch the entire Sept. 11 hearing before the House Financial Service’s Committee’s Subcommittee on National Security, International Development, and Monetary Policy:

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