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Earth Day: Stanford scientists see link between global warming and income inequality

Rising temperatures have helped create financial disparities between poorer, warmer countries and richer, cooler ones. Read More...

Global warming may be making income inequality worse across the world.

This Earth Day, Stanford University researchers said gradual temperature increases over almost five decades have helped created financial disparities between poorer, typically warm countries and richer, typically cooler countries.

Without climate change, the divide between nations with the largest economic output per person and nations with the smallest output per person would be 25% smaller, says the new study.

Instead, climate change has been a drag on growth for many poorer countries and enriched many wealthy countries.

“Countries that are very warm tended to exhibit slower economic growth whereas on the cooler end of the range, cool countries have tended to experience faster economic growth,” climate scientist and study co-author Noah Diffenbaugh, a Stanford University professor and senior fellow, told MarketWatch.

“The historical data clearly show that crops are more productive, people are healthier and we are more productive at work when temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold,” said Marshall Burke, an assistant professor at the university’s Department of Earth System Science and another author on the study.

“This means that in cold countries, a little bit of warming can help. The opposite is true in places that are already hot,” he said in a statement. Research has shown how hot temperatures can cut into crop yields, labor productivity and even the ability to think straight.

The Stanford study, published in the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lists the countries that, at a cumulative level, researchers estimate missed out on the most wealth over time because of global warming.

The estimated impacts are:

• Sudan, a country with a 36% smaller economy than it would have been without global warming from 1961 to 2010

• India, with a calculated 31% smaller economy

• Nigeria, with a 29% smaller economy

The study also noted there were beneficiaries too:

• Norway, with a 34% larger economy because of global warming from 1961 to 2010

• Canada, with a 32% increase

• Sweden, with a 25% increase

”We are not arguing global warming created global economic inequality,” Diffenbaugh, the lead author, noted, adding that global economic inequality has declined over the past several decades.

But gaps could have been smaller without climate change, he said.

As for countries like United States, China and Japan, Diffenbaugh said the research did not find “substantial influence” from temperature change because of where the three happen to sit on the globe.

“A few of the largest economies are near the perfect temperature for economic output,” said his colleague, Burke. “Global warming hasn’t pushed them off the top of the hill, and in many cases, it has pushed them toward it. But a large amount of warming in the future will push them further and further from the temperature optimum.”

The researchers said they used climate models to determine how much individual countries have warmed, and what their economic output would have been in the absence of global warming.

American issues

Last November, 13 federal agencies said America’s economy could be seriously jeopardized by climate change’s warm temperatures and extreme weather without serious changes and adaptations. The report was released on Black Friday, causing critics to say it was a bad news dump during a national shopping spree.

Research released in February said temperature rises in America could come quick. For example, average New York City temperatures in 60 years could resemble Arkansas right now, according to the study.

Whatever climate change’s influence on the national economy, America is already grappling with its own income inequality problems. By one study’s count, America’s super rich haven’t held as much of the nation’s wealth since 1929, just before Wall Street’s crash brought on the Great Depression.

The new Stanford study says that globally, the missed-out economic output was akin to what the United States suffered through during the Great Depression.

Burke said, “It’s a huge loss compared to where these countries would have been otherwise.”

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