What will a planet plagued by escalating climate change look like? No one really knows. But speaking at EmTech MIT 2016, Solomon Hsiang, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, presented results based on his recent analysis of economic and climate data that begin to more clearly define what the world might look like as it gets hotter.
It’s not a pretty picture. Rising temperatures will dramatically damage agricultural yields and human health, and will significantly reduce overall economic growth. In fact, Hsiang said, data suggests global GDP will be reduced by 23 percent by the end of the century if climate change progresses largely unabated, compared to a world without global warming.
That decrease in economic output will hit the poorest 60 percent of the population disproportionately hard, said Hsiang. In doing so, it will surely exacerbate inequality, as many rich regions of the world that have lower average annual temperatures, such as northern Europe, benefit from the changes. Hotter areas around the tropics, including large parts of south Asia and Africa, already tend to be poorer and will suffer.
One of the insights from his research, Hsiang said, is that “temperature is immensely influential” on many different aspects of our lives. Extreme hot temperatures, it turns out, have a strong negative impact on everything from manufacturing productivity to infant mortality to individual and group violence. “We will need to adapt,” he said. But “adaption is hard because it is expensive.” Thus, he suggested, we will need innovation and new technologies in many different sectors to bring down the costs.
Still, Hsiang said he remains optimistic. Recent increases in computational power and availability of vast amounts of data means it is possible for the first time to begin to understand the specific economic and social changes ahead as climate change becomes more severe. And that information, he said, could allow us to minimize the damages and “decide what type of world we want to live in.”