Climate Change Facts and Effect on the Economy

What Has Climate Change Cost Us? What's Being Done?

Hurricane Sandy

 Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Climate change is the Earth’s response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These greenhouse gases trap infrared heat from the sun. That has raised the earth’s average temperature at least 1.2 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century.

Climate change is nothing new in the Earth's history. But previous changes occurred much more slowly. Slight changes in the earth’s orbit created those warming and cooling periods. Scientists agree that humans are causing this bout of climate change.

Income inequality is tied to climate change. A recent study found that the planet's wealthiest one billion people emit 60 percent of greenhouse gases. The poorest three billion produce only 5 percent.


The increase in global warming has created other problems. The oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In response, they’ve become 30 percent more acid since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They’ve also become warmer. The top 2,300 feet are 0.3 degrees warmer since 1969, causing them to expand. When ocean water expands, sea levels rise.

In 2017, the Arctic had 448,000 square miles less sea ice than normal. The ice is melting more than usual in the summer, but not regaining its mass in the winter. A 2018 study found the Arctic Ocean has lost 95 percent of it oldest, thickest ice. That ice is the glue that keeps the Arctic frozen in the summer.

Less ice means less white snow to reflect the sun's rays. That speeds up the melting process. Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be no Arctic ice in the summer. The dark ocean that replaces it will absorb even more heat.

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the region. The differential between the two causes the jet stream. As it weakens, it brings cold air south and pumps warm air north. That's what causes blizzard-like conditions along the U.S. East Coast.

The resulting onslaught of fresh water is shifting the global circulation of the oceans. Typically, surface waters traveling toward the poles become colder. As they chill, they become denser and sink. Once the hit the ocean floor, they roll back toward the equator. The cycle is called convection.

Melting glacial ice puts fresh water into the equation. It is less dense than salty water. As a result, it doesn't sink as it should. It stays on the ocean's surface, slowing the "ocean conveyor belt." 

The "Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation" is the conveyor belt that brings tropic water to the shores of Great Britain and northern Europe. As it slows, that area cools, since it's at the same latitude as Newfoundland in North America. This Gulf Stream conveyor belt has slowed 15 percent since 2008. It's now the weakest in the last 1,600 years. As a result, the ocean cools south of Greenland and warms along U.S. Atlantic coast. When Greenland stays cooler in the summer, it allows warm air from the south into Europe.

It helped cause the 2015 European heat wave.

A similar event is happening near the Antarctic. Freshwater from melting glaciers blocks cold salt water from sinking to the ocean's floor. As a result, warm water is melting the ice shelves from underneath. It's triggering a feedback loop that will melt the glaciers even faster. The Antarctic ice caps are melting by 1.6 meters per year. Before 1992, they were only melting at a rate of 3.8 centimeters a year.

Between 60 and 90 percent of the world’s fresh water is frozen in the ice sheets of Antarctica. If it all melted, it would increase sea levels by 200 feet.

So far, melting polar ice sheets have increased sea levels 8.9 inches in the last 100 years. Glaciers and snow cover are also shrinking. That heats up the atmosphere even more since snow reflects heat back into space. Higher temperatures have created more damaging and frequent natural disasters.

In 2018, a new development is worrying scientists. Dark algae are spreading across the world's ice. As temperatures warm, it creates the perfect environment for these blooms. Dark algae absorb more sun, melting the ice even faster than previously thought.

Economic Impact

In May 2018, Stanford University scientists calculated how much global warming would cost the global economy. If the world's nations adhered to the Paris Climate Agreement, and temperatures only rose 2.5 percent, then the global gross domestic product would fall 15 percent. If temperatures rose to 3 degrees Celsius, global GDP would fall 25 percent. If nothing is done, temperatures will rise by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100. Global GDP would decline by more than 30 percent from 2010 levels. That's worse than the Great Depression, where global trade fell 25 percent.

The only difference is that it would be permanent.

The World Employment and Social Outlook 2018 estimated that climate change threatens 1.2 billion jobs. The industries most at risk are agriculture, fisheries, and forestry. Maine is already seeing a decline in its lobster catches. Natural disasters have already cost 23 million working life years since 2000. On the other hand, efforts to stop climate change would create 24 million new jobs by 2030.

As America experiences more extremely hot days, food prices are rising. That's because corn and soybean yields in the United States plummet precipitously when temperatures rise above 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Those crops feed cattle and other meat sources. It's created spikes in beef, milk, and poultry prices. Worker productivity declines sharply, particularly for outdoor jobs. That further increases the cost of food.

A 2019 study found that global warming has pushed global fish yields down 4% since 1920. In the North Atlantic and Sea of Japan, that decline is 35%. That affects the 3 billion people who rely on seafood for their primary source of protein and the $100 billion fishing industry. It especially affects the United States, which imports 90% of its seafood.

Climate change is causing mass migration around the world. Immigrants are leaving flooded coastlines, drought-stricken farmlands, and areas of extreme natural disasters. Since 2008, extreme weather has displaced 22.5 million people according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. By 2050, climate change will force 700 million people to emigrate. 

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that climate change is a “direct threat” to U.S. national security. Extreme weather and rising sea levels caused by global warming endanger 128 military bases. A 2018 Pentagon survey revealed that U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. has experienced storm surge flooding and hurricane damage. The Cape Lisburne Long Range Radar Station in Alaska has lost a seawall from extreme weather. In response, Congress asked DoD to identify the 10 most vulnerable sites and recommend solution strategies.


Climate change creates unpredictable and violent storms, drought, and floods. That's according to John P. Holdren, Director of Woods Hole Research Center, and other experts. A 2017 poll showed that 55 percent of Americans believe that climate change made hurricanes worse. That's up from the 39 percent who said so 10 years ago. As a result, 48 percent reported being afraid of climate change. Here are examples that prove their point. These natural disasters have also taken a toll on the economy in the last seven years.


Scientists Agree That Man Caused It

On November 3, 2017, the Trump administration released a report that blamed climate change on human activity. It predicted that the ocean could rise another eight feet by 2100. Most scientific and government organizations agree that a manmade increase in greenhouse gases cause global warming. 

These gases include carbon dioxide, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons. They have accumulated in the earth's atmosphere over the last 150 years. They prevent the sun's radiation from going back into space. The heat builds up as it does in a greenhouse. Ninety percent of it is absorbed by the Earth's oceans. 

Current levels are at 370 parts per million volume, up from 280 ppmv 100 years ago. Emissions have increased 4 percent since 1990. But 2015 levels dropped slightly from the prior year. Power plants began switching from coal to natural gas and a warmer winter reduced demand for heating oil.

Modern processes that burn fossil fuels release the gases. They include deforestation, factory farming, and industrial procedures like aluminum smelting. The biggest cause is the burning of oil in all its forms. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. sources in 2015 were:

Source Fuel Percent
Electricity Generation Coal, Natural Gas 29%
Transportation Oil, Gasoline 27%
Industry Oil, Chemicals 21%
Commercial and Residential Heating Oil 12%
Agriculture Livestock 9%
Forestry Absorbs CO2 offset 11 %

Timeline of Mankind's Attempts to Stop it

The United Nations said that to reverse the impact, the world's average temperature must be limited to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. As of February 2016, the average temperature has already surpassed 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The global community is trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They are introducing measures to increase the use of clean energy, including electric vehicles. 

1992. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was formed.

December 11, 1997. The United Nations adopted the Kyoto Protocol. The European Community and 37 industrialized countries promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2012. The first commitment was to 5 percent below 1990 levels. The second commitment period was from 2013 to 2020. They agreed to reduce emissions by 18 percent below 1990 levels. The United States never ratified it. 

2008. The International Energy Administration called for countries to spend $45 trillion in the next 50 years to prevent global warming from slowing economic growth. To put this into perspective, the economic output of the entire world is only $65 billion a year. 

The measures included building 32 nuclear power plants each year and reducing greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2050. This would cost the world $100 billion to $200 billion a year for the next 10 years after 2008, and rise to $1 trillion to $2 trillion after that. 

December 7, 2009. The Environmental Protection Agency found that concentrations of greenhouse gases threatened the public health. Based on this study, the EPA finalized emission standards for cars in 2010 and trucks in 2011.

December 18, 2009. The UN Climate Summit produced the Copenhagen Accord. Countries pledged to limit global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial level. President Obama badgered China's President Hu Jintao to sign the agreement. The European Union, other developed nations, and many developing nations also agreed to the limit. 

In addition, the developed countries agreed to pay $100 billion a year by 2020 to assist poor countries affected the most by climate change. That includes relocating communities hit by floods and droughts and protecting water supplies. The countries agree to provide $30 billion over the next three years.

Obama had hoped developed countries would agree to reduce their emissions to 80 percent lower than 1990 levels by 2050. All other countries, including China, would reduce emissions by 50 percent. China blocked that agreement. 

Some countries refused to sign the agreement because the United States refused to cut more than 4 percent of its emissions by 2020. That foot-dragging signaled to many that Obama was not any more committed than the Bush administration

In 2010, China promised it would reach four climate goals by 2020.

  1. Reduce CO2 emissions by 40 percent below 2005 levels. (97 percent achieved in 2017.)
  2. Increase renewable energy consumption from 9.4 percent to 15 percent. (60 percent achieved.)
  3. Increase forest stock by 1.3 billion cubic meters. (Exceeded as of 2017.)
  4. Increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares relative to 2005. (60 percent achieved.)

August 3, 2015. President Obama released the Clean Power Plan. It established state targets to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels. The goal is to do so by 2030. The Trump administration seeks to replace the plan with one that focuses only on emissions from coal plants.

December 18, 2015. The Paris Climate Accord was signed by 195 countries. They pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. They also committed $3 billion in aid for poorer countries by 2020. These are most likely to suffer damage from rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.

The accord's goal is to keep global warming from worsening another 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Many experts consider that the tipping point. Beyond that, and the consequences of climate change become unstoppable.

The United States is responsible for 20 percent of the world's carbon emissions. It would be difficult for the other signatories to reach the accord's goal without U.S. participation. But they are trying. Sixty jurisdictions around the world have carbon taxes. China, Germany, Sweden, and Denmark are considering a tax on beef. Greenhouse gas emissions from livestock contribute 14.5 percent of the world's total.

Even if all countries follow the Accord, temperatures will continue to rise. The atmosphere is still reacting to the CO2 that's already been pumped into it. Greenhouse gases have been added so quickly that temperatures haven't caught up yet.

As a result, measures need to be stricter to reverse global warming. The Climate Impact Lab predict major cities will see many days above 95-degree Fahrenheit. By 2100, Washington DC will experience 29 extremely hot days each year. That's quadruple the average of seven it experienced from 1986 to 2005.

November 4, 2016. The Paris Agreement went into force as 55 members ratified the agreement. They make up 55 percent of global emissions.

June 1, 2017. President Trump announced the United States would withdraw from the Paris accord. Trump said he wanted to negotiate a better deal. Leaders from Germany, France, and Italy said the accord is non-negotiable. China and India joined the other leaders in stating they remain committed to the accord. Some have argued that America's withdrawal from a leadership position creates a vacuum that China will readily fill. The United States cannot legally exit until November 1, 2020. That means it will become an issue in the next presidential election.


Business leaders from Tesla, General Electric, and Goldman Sachs said this will give foreign competitors an edge in clean energy industries. That's because U.S. companies will lose government support and subsidies in these industries.

China is already taking the lead in electric vehicles. Almost half of the world's plug-in electric vehicles are sold in China. Its regulations and subsidies drive consumers away from gasoline-powered cars. China wants to reduce pollution. It also wants to reduce reliance on foreign oil. But more importantly, it wants to improve the country's automakers. China's car market is so large, it's forcing foreign carmakers to improve their electric vehicle production.

October 10, 2017. The Trump administration proposed to repeal the Clean Power Plan.

November 8, 2017. The European Union agreed to cut carbon-dioxide emissions by new vehicles by 30 percent between 2021 and 2030.

December 12, 2017. French President Emmanuel Macron convened 50 world leaders to the One Planet Summit. Trump was not invited because he withdrew from the accord. The summit focused on how to finance the global transition away from fossil fuels.

May 15, 2018. Alaska began crafting its own plan to stop climate change. Even though it is a major oil producer, it is feeling the effects of global warming. The permafrost is thawing, destabilizing roads, and buildings that sit on it. Protective sea ice is melting, allowing powerful waves to erode Alaskan shores. As a result, 31 coastal towns may need to relocate. 

The United States and China Are Almost Half the Problem

In reality, a global agreement doesn't have to occur. The five largest emitters account for 60 percent of the world's carbon emissions. China and the United States are the worst, at 30 percent and 15 percent, respectively.

India contributes 7 percent, Russia adds 5 percent, and Japan at 4 percent. If these top polluters could stop emissions and expand renewable technology, the other countries wouldn't really need to be involved. China is the world's current largest emitter of carbon dioxide. It's reached that level in the last several years. It's been building coal and other power plants to improve its residents' standard of living.

But on a per-person basis, the United States is the worst offender. In 2014, it emitted 16.2 metric tons of CO2 per person. Canada was next, at 15.1 metric tons. China was sixth, at only 7.5 metric tons emitted per person.

Current emission rates aren't even the problem. The United States has been emitting greenhouse gases longer than other countries. Since 1850, the United States has contributed 8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide. That's a third of total greenhouse gases. The good news is that its emissions are leveling off. The bad news is that about 20 percent of that will remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.

Corporations Are Cutting Back

The world's 1,000 biggest corporations contribute 12 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2017, 89 percent have plans to cut those emissions. But it's not enough to reach the U.N.'s target of 2 degrees Celsius. So far, 14 percent of the companies have goals that align with the target. Another 30 percent pledge do so in the next two years. Investment firms, such as HSBC Holdings and Goldman Sachs, have begun targeting more low-carbon businesses.

What We Can Do

Until there is stronger government leadership, we must create our own progress. Many everyday citizens and entrepreneurs are hard at work on innovative ways to address climate change.

Republican Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, argued for the importance of supporting entrepreneurial environmental solutions in his 2007 book "A Contract with the Earth." Pressure on the market forces that got the atmosphere into trouble is the best solution to clean it up.

Greenpeace suggests that we stop eating meat, dairy, and eggs. It's one of the best global warming solutions because the production of these food items creates 50 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. It also causes deforestation, as farmers clear-cut to grow the crops to feed animals. It pollutes rivers, leading to dead zones in the oceans.

We can also become carbon neutral. The United Nations program Climate Neutral Now allows you to offset all the carbon you've emitted by purchasing credits. It helps you calculate your specific carbon emission, or you can just use an average. These credits fund green initiatives throughout the world. You can select the specific project that interests you.