Higher crime rates and electric bills. Crops and laborers wilting in the sun. A new study says California’s economy is going to lose billions of dollars a year to climate change.
But hey, it will be a picnic compared to states like Florida and Texas.
The groundbreaking study, led by two UC Berkeley scientists, says global warming will punish some areas of the country more severely than others. California will suffer, but not as badly as the national average. The situation will be far worse in Gulf Coast states, which can expect to get ravaged by increasingly frequent hurricanes, and areas of the Deep South and Midwest, where agricultural yields will plummet.
The study, published in late June in the journal Science, concluded that climate change will also widen income gaps between poor and wealthy areas of the country. That’s because hotter parts of the country, where incomes already tend to be lower, will take the brunt of the impact from global warming.
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The same factors will play out in California. Coastal regions, where much of California’s wealth is concentrated, will be somewhat buffered because of the breezy ocean climate. The hot inland regions, the poorest areas of the state, will take more of a beating.
“Within the state of California, we have a mini-version of what we see across the county,” said study co-author Solomon Hsiang, associate professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. “The poor regions are getting really heavily hit and the coastal regions, which are wealthier, aren’t hit as hard.” The study is the first attempt at documenting the economic impacts of climate change on a county-by-county level.
All told, California can expect to lose 1 percent of its annual economic output for every 1-degree Celsius increase in average temperature, said co-author James Rising, also of UC Berkeley. While that’s slightly better than the 1.2 percent loss predicted for the U.S. economy, the 1 percent effect is still going to translate into a $26 billion annual hit to the state’s gross domestic product. A 1-degree Celsius increase is the equivalent of 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
Greater Sacramento doesn’t fare particularly well under the authors’ projections. Sacramento County and Yolo County’s economies will fall by about 4 percent a year for every 1-degree Celsius increase in temperatures, or about 4 times worse than the statewide average. The economies of Placer and El Dorado counties, which spill into the relatively cool air of the Sierra Nevada, will see declines closer in line with the rest of California.
Other Central Valley counties will do more poorly, with Fresno losing 6 percent of its annual economic impact, Merced 5.6 percent and Stanislaus 4.4 percent for every 1-degree Celsius rise in temperatures.
The actual economic effects are likely to be worse as the years go by. Temperatures are expected to increase by more than 1 degree during this century; a study by NASA, for example, says temperatures could climb 2 to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.
Hsiang and Rising acknowledged the study has flaws, some of which mask the true costs of climate change in California. They include a failure to calculate the economic impact of rising sea levels gradually inundating beaches and coastal communities.
Predictions about rising seas in California are dire; a just-released study by the Union of Concerned Scientists said the Bay Area can expect chronic flooding by 2035 in well-heeled communities such as Alameda, Redwood Shores and Corte Madera. Another recent study, released by the state Ocean Protection Council, said, “Hundreds of miles of roads and railways, harbors and airports, power plants and wastewater treatment facilities, in addition to thousands of businesses and homes, are at risk from future flooding, inundation, and coastal retreat.”
However, the authors of the Science article said the financial effect was difficult to assess compared to, say, the damage done by a devastating hurricane.
Despite its shortcomings, the study is resonating with economists. University of the Pacific economist Jeff Michael, who wasn’t involved in the study, said it makes sense that inland California will be more vulnerable than the coast to the effects of global warming.
“In general, I think there’s some truth to that, particularly when you think about heat and energy costs and agricultural effects,” Michael said. “They are going to be felt more in the inland areas.”
One of the biggest factors in the drain on economic vitality is energy expenditures. For example, Sacramento County residents and businesses will see energy bills jump 9.9 percent for every 1-degree Celsius increase in temperature. That’s one of the highest increases in the state.
Sacramento energy officials said the study might have overlooked the efforts being made to deal with rising temperatures. Among other things, SMUD offers rebates to customers who install heat-reflecting “cool roofs,” said Kathleen Avé, climate program manager at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.
Nonetheless, she said it’s clear that climate change will bring higher costs. “It certainly is something that we expect, that energy expenditures will increase,” she said.
Besides energy, the study looks at an array of societal impacts from global warming, including agricultural yields, labor productivity and even crime rates.
“There’s been a lot of studies that show that on hotter days, there’s more crime,” Rising said. “It’s sort of (people) going mad from the heat.”
The economic cost of death is measured, too: The authors conclude that mortality rates will climb in much of the country as more Americans die of heat stroke and other illnesses tied to increased average temperatures.
The news isn’t all bad. The study says northernmost regions of California actually will benefit economically, including rural outposts that traditionally struggle such as Alpine and Del Norte counties. The reason: Warming temperatures will help agriculture by lengthening the growing season, and reduce mortality rates by taking the edge off those harsh winters. Similar results are predicted for northern regions across the country, including much of Oregon and Washington state, and portions of the upper Midwest and New England.
For the most part, however, the study paints a fairly bleak picture of U.S. socioeconomic performance under the weight of global warming. The biggest loser will be Florida.
The Sunshine State will lose 6 percent of annual economic output for every 1-degree increase Celsius in temperatures, Rising said, more than anywhere else in the country. Some Florida counties will see their output fall 20 percent a year for every degree of climate change.
“There are a lot of unique aspects about Florida that make it extraordinarily vulnerable to climate change, like hurricanes, really high temperatures, an older population,” Hsiang said. “The entire Gulf Coast is very heavily impacted – Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi.”
The authors acknowledged the study has flaws, some of which underestimate the potential impacts of global warming on California.
For instance, while the study examines the damage to Gulf Coast states from hurricanes and other weather maladies, it overlooks the economic damage that higher sea levels will have on California’s coast by leaving beaches and urban areas under water permanently. The authors said it was harder to measure the gradual impacts from rising seas.
The authors also declined to calculate the economic impact from other issues that could do great harm in California, such as the potential for diminished water supplies and the increased risk from wildfires. Hsiang said the authors were leery about making predictions about subjects where uncertainties are too great.
In addition, the study appears to use misleading temperature data in some cases. Notably, the economy in heavily agricultural Kern County is expected to improve as the earth warms – the only Central Valley county to do so. A likely reason: The temperature data used in calculating Kern’s future comes from a weather station in the foothills high above the valley floor, making Kern appear cooler than it truly is.
The system used for calculating the economic impact on farming also is somewhat skewed. Attempting to assess the whole range of American agriculture, the authors focused on four crops – corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton – none of which are mainstays of California farming.
By ignoring fruit and vegetable crops widely grown in California, the study probably glosses over the true impact of climate change in the state’s farm country, Hsiang said.
“Even the Central Valley losses that we project are probably underestimates,” Hsiang said. “Many of the things the Central Valley depends on are vulnerable, and they were omitted from our study.”