Global Warming, Its Effect on the Economy and You

Hurricane Harvey

 Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Global warming is the increase in average temperatures of the world's atmosphere and oceans. How much has it warmed? Since the 1880s, the earth’s average temperature has risen 2.1 Fahrenheit. That's 1.2 degrees Celsius. And it's accelerating. Over the last 45 years, the temperature rose 0.17 C, or 0.3 F, per decade. That's twice as fast as the average 0.07 C per decade increase that occurred since 1880. 

Warming is occurring at a faster rate than at any other time in the Earth's history. The warmest 30-year period in the Northern Hemisphere over the last 1,400 years was between 1983 and 2012. Each of the past 16 years was among the warmest on record. 

Almost three-fourths of Americans believe global warming is real. Almost 65% say it's affecting U.S. weather. Around 45% think it poses a severe threat in their lifetime. More than one in five are very worried about global warming. Another 54% of Americans believe humans cause global warming. Only a third think it's from natural causes. 

Global warming cost the U.S. government more than $350 billion between 2007 and 2017. Hurricanes in the past 16 years cost the economy $700 billion. It will cost $112 billion per year in the future, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Part of this includes damage to crops from insects. North American and European wheat, corn, and rice crops will lose up to 25% for each 1 C increase.

In the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, nations agreed to keep temperatures from reaching an increase of 2 C. They would prefer to keep the increase below 1.5 C. The Climate Clock shows that, at current rates, we will reach that in 15 years.

Impact of Current 1.2 C Warming

The 1.2 C increase has created extreme weather patterns. In July 2018, heat waves set new temperature records all over the world. Death Valley had the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. The average temperature was 108 F. Caribou, Maine, reported that July was its warmest month ever. So did 22 counties and cities in China. Several towns reached new highs, including Los Angeles at 111 F, Amsterdam at 94.6 F, and London at 95 F. Climate scientists were shocked by the severity and number of these extreme events.

A shorter winter means that many pests, such as the pine bark beetle, are not dying off in the winter. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 100,000 beetle-infested trees fall daily. This level of damage has never before been seen in U.S. recorded history.

Warmer summers mean more frequent and destructive wildfires. The dead trees have increased the intensity of these fires. It destroys timber and is dangerous to people, property, and wildlife. 

Global warming has expanded the dry western Plains region 140 miles eastward. The "100th meridian" runs north to south through Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. It separates the humid East from the dry West. It's now at the 98th meridian. As a result, farmers who are used to growing corn will have to switch to hardier wheat. Droughts in the Midwest killed off corn crops, raising the price of beef. The California drought increased wildfires and increased the cost of nuts and fruits.

Shorter winters mean that disease-carrying pests have a lower die-off rate. As a result, places that were once immune to West Nile virus, malaria, and even bubonic plague are seeing breakouts. The Centers for Disease Control found that, over the past 12 years, mosquito, flea, and tick-borne illnesses have tripled. More than 640,000 cases were seen. Lyme disease has spread to all 50 states. Maine has seen a 20-fold increase.

A longer growing season is not always good for crops. Early springs are often accompanied by seasonal frost. It kills buds and destroys the plant's productivity for the season. Even though the temperatures are warmer for longer, levels of sunshine don't change. Those levels are more important to thriving plants than is the temperature. Many plants need the longer winter to rest and restore their vitality. They need cooling fall temperatures to signal them to go into dormancy. Without that, they are exposed to cold temperatures when they do arrive.


The World Health Organization estimates climate change contributes to 150,000 deaths each year. It climbs to 12.6 million deaths if you add the impact of pollution and extreme weather. By 2030, that number will double.

Heat-related deaths are one of the worst weather-related outcomes, killing 650 Americans each year. Global warming is hardest for city dwellers due to the urban heat island effect. Concrete and asphalt have made daytime temperatures 5 F hotter and nighttime temperatures 22 degrees hotter.

More frequent and stronger natural disasters create more infectious diseases. The World Health Organization reported higher rates of hepatitis C, SARS, and hantavirus. Sufferers came in contact with contaminated water from flooding sewage systems during floods.

Fifty million asthma and allergy sufferers are already paying for increased health care costs. Higher levels of greenhouse gases encourage plants to produce more pollen. It's creating "super pollen" that's larger and more allergenic. Longer summers have lengthened the allergy season. In some sections of the country, the pollen season increased by 25 days between 1995 and 2015. Scientists predict that pollen counts will double by 2040. As a result, Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson estimated that 1,000 people die from air pollution for every 1 C rise in global temperatures.


Temperatures haven't risen evenly. Those in colder zones are rising even faster. In the past 60 years, Alaska has warmed by 1.7 C. That's twice as fast as the rest of the United States. As a result, the amount of sea ice in winter fell to a record low in 2016. In February 2017, temperatures at the North Pole rose 45 degrees above normal. The Bering Strait was ice-free. The absence of sea ice contributes to further warming as the dark water absorbs the sun's radiation. This "Arctic Amplification" accelerates global warming elsewhere.

In Antarctica, glaciers have been losing their mass at an "unusually rapid" rate. Satellite pictures taken between 1992 and 1996 showed that the Pine Island Glacier lost thickness at a rate of 1.6 meters per year. That’s 42 times faster than 3.8 centimeters annual loss over the last 4,700 years. A 2018 NASA study confirmed that the continent lost a net 183 gigatons of ice in 2015. That's 36 gigatons more than it lost in 2008. Each year Antarctica loses ice at a faster clip. That has led to rising sea levels and flooding of coastal cities.

The warming Arctic increases the frequency of blizzards in the northeast United States and Europe. When the Arctic suddenly warms, it splits the polar vortex. That's a zone of cold air that circle the Arctic at high altitudes. When it splits, that cold Arctic air descends upon New England and Europe. Warmer ocean temperatures, also caused by global warming, adds moisture to the air. The result is a bomb cyclone that dumps massive amounts of snow.

As the oceans warm, they hold less oxygen. Fish avoid some sections of the ocean because they are suffocating. These "dead zones" have expanded by 4.5 million square kilometers since the 1950s. As a result, many popular species of fish stay near the oxygen-rich surface. 

Oceans are also absorbing carbon dioxide, making them more acidic.

Impact of a 2 C Warming

Even if the world stopped emitting gases immediately, temperatures would hit the 2 C goal by 2100. There is already enough greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to make that happen. If the world continues emits greenhouse gases at the current rate, temperatures will reach the 2 C goal in 2037.

When that happens, almost 40% of the world’s population would be pummeled by extreme heat waves. More than 400 million people would suffer from severe urban drought. Another 80 million people would be flooded from rising sea levels. The United Nations estimates there will be 200 million climate refugees.

At that temperature, 98% of coral reefs would die off. That alone would cost the global economy $1 trillion each year. The reefs support the livelihoods of 500 million people in 50 nations. It also supports many other marine species. Without coral reefs, most of them would go extinct.

Temperature increases would not be spread evenly. The Arctic would warm by 6 C. The U.S. Southwest would warm by 5.5 C, creating near-permanent "superdroughts."

The colder areas of the U.S. farm belt would benefit from a longer growing season. Parts of Alaska, Scandinavia, Canada, and Russia could become open to new development. Already, the growing season in Greenland is two weeks longer than in the 1970s. Washington D.C. has an earlier tourist season, as the cherry trees have started blossoming a week earlier than 20 years ago.

In Canada, longer growing seasons already allow farmers to grow crops such as corn that they never could before. For example, an acre of farmland in Alberta, Canada, sold five times what it did 10 years ago. Temperatures in the province have warmed by 3.6 degrees F since1950, making the growing season two weeks longer. If the same thing happens in Russia, it could alter the balance of power.

A 2 C rise could trigger a permanent "hothouse Earth" condition. Droughts, deforestation, and warming oceans would release natural sources of greenhouse gases. Past that tipping point, the earth would continue warming on its own.

On the other hand, thawing of the Arctic permafrost would accelerate. Around 85% of the ground in Alaska is permanently frozen year-round. When it thaws, the waterlogged ground becomes soft and collapses. Ironically, that makes it more expensive to drill for oil in Alaska's North Slope. The equipment, buildings, and pipelines are designed to operate on the frozen ground. When it thaws, things don't work well.

Thawing the permafrost also releases centuries of frozen greenhouse gases. That would cause a chain reaction of increased heating and thawing that would be unstoppable. The thawing ground would also release twice as much toxic mercury as the rest of all soils, atmosphere, and ocean combined. Research in Siberia discovered that, even now, some of the permafrost doesn't refreeze in the winter.

The Arctic would be ice-free during the summer by 2035. Shippers would benefit from new northern channels that create a shorter route. Russia plans to use the faster Arctic route to export liquefied natural gas from northwestern Siberia to China. A trial trip took 19 days, half the time of the conventional route through the Suez Canal. President Putin forecast that Russia plans to ship 80 million tons along that route by 2025.

But warmer oceans could shift the North Atlantic current away from Europe. Most of Europe is north of the U.S. state of Maine. Without the warm waters of the current, Europe would become as cold as Newfoundland.

Impact of 2.5 C and 3 C Increase

In 1975, Professor William Nordhaus first warned about the economic impact of global warming. He predicted that doubling carbon dioxide would increase temperatures by 2 C. Temperatures above that level risk hitting a tipping point. A large portion of the polar ice caps would melt, increasing sea levels. This would create a feedback loop that could raise temperature 5 C in the long-term. Instead of heeding Professor Nordhaus's warning, man has allowed temperature increases to accelerate. 

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%, then global gross domestic product would fall 15%.

Despite the Paris agreement, most nations aren't doing enough to reduce temperatures by the 2 C target. If they don't improve, scientists predict temperatures will rise to 3 C. If that happens, global GDP would fall 25%.

If nothing is done, temperatures will rise by 4 C by 2100. Global GDP would decline by more than 30% from 2010 levels. That's worse than the Great Depression, where global trade fell 25%. The only difference is that it would be permanent.

Impact of a 4 C Increase

In 2014, the World Bank warned that temperatures will increase by 4 C if nothing is done. At that temperature, all the ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica would melt. Sea levels would rise 33 feet.

In 2017, the U.S. National Climate Assessment echoed the World Bank's warning. Average temperatures would increase up to 10 F by 2100. The Arctic would see an average temperature increase of 18 F. That would increase sea levels by 8 feet, flooding every major coastal city. Once sea levels rise 10 feet, it would flood 12.3 million people.

Seas would continue to rise by one foot per decade. That's too fast to allow humans to build anew.

The hot temperatures would dry out the land. As a result, California and the Great Plains would experience a new, permanent Dust Bowl. Some areas would experience 131-degree heat waves. Wildfires would burn 64 times as much as it did in 2018.

The United Nations warned of the worst famine since 1945. It estimates 20 million people will starve to death or die of dehydration. It reported that one in every nine people are already facing hunger. That figure is climbing due to global warming. Drought is killing crops and drying up water sources. This is creating a global security threat, particularly in North Africa. People are migrating to survive. Disengaged youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalization.

The damage would exceed $600 trillion, double the total wealth of everyone on the planet. That would shrink the global economy by 20% from what it is today.

What Happened the Last Time the Earth Was This Warm

The last time the planet was this warm was 11,000 years ago. The warming was caused by shifts in the earth's orbit. It soon led to the Little Ice Age.

This time, rising temperatures are caused by the greenhouse effect. The amount of greenhouses gases already in the atmosphere means that temperatures will continue to get warmer. Experts warn it's enough to drive temperatures to 5 C up to 8 C warmer.

The closest comparison is the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum. It was the era between the end of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals. Over 5,000 years, between 4 trillion to 7 trillion tons of carbon was released. The difference is that humans have released the same levels of carbon over hundreds, not thousands, of years.

As the planet warmed, it triggered a chain reaction. It released reservoirs of solid methane buried in seafloor sediments. Wildfires released more carbon dioxide. It increased global temperatures by at least 41 F. Large animals went extinct and smaller ones thrived. For example, the horse survived because it evolved into a smaller version of itself. It went from the size of a large dog to a small house cat. It took more than 150,000 years for the carbon dioxide levels to recede to more normal levels.

The asteroid that killed the dinosaurs also triggered global warming. Its impact vaporized limestone and incinerated forests. So much carbon dioxide was released that it took 100,000 years for the Earth's climate to return to normal.

What You Can Do

If you want to support efforts to reduce global warming, there are some simple steps you can take today. Cut your heating bill by living in a small house and ensuring it has good insulation. Buy Energy Star home appliances. Eat less meat. Purchase more local products to cut down on emissions from shipping. Turn off lights and unplug appliances when not in use. 

The way you drive and maintain your car can significantly improve mileage. Keep the tires inflated, change the air filter, accelerate slowly after a stop, and drive under 60 miles per hour. That will reduce your emission of greenhouse gases. The April 9, 2007, article in the economist, "Mean Machine," offers more great tips for being an environmentally aware car owner.

You 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 footprint. These credits fund green initiatives throughout the world. You can select the specific project that interests you. You can also plant trees. Donations to Eden Reforestation plants trees in Madagascar. That gives the people income, rehabilitates the habitat, and save lemurs and other species from extinction.

If you want to get more ambitious, you can sue the government. On April 9, 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the government must create a plan to combat climate change. The plan must also address deforestation in the Amazon. The Supreme Court referred to the Amazon as an “entity subject of rights.” It gives the river the same rights as a human being. An international human rights organization, Dejusticia, was responsible for the lawsuit creating the ruling.

How Global Warming Helped Trump Win

An article in "Der Spiegel," a German newspaper, predicted how global warming could impact U.S. elections. In 2007, the Nobel Committee awarded Al Gore a Peace Prize to send a signal to U.S. policymakers. It warned the United States to live within its means. 

The article said, "But the Gore factor is having its most powerful effect in a sphere beyond partisan politics, penetrating deep into the insecure American middle class. Its way of life – and this is the real message behind the Nobel Committee's decision – is no longer sustainable."

The newspaper predicted that there would be more green party candidates as a result. At first, it seemed to work. In 2007, the Department of Energy invested $1 billion to spur the biofuels industry to reduce greenhouse gases. Over 100 biofuel factories produced 6.4 billion gallons of ethanol using 18 million acres of corn. This was 20% of total U.S. corn production, which drove corn prices to a record $4 per bushel. Since most of the production of corn feeds livestock, food prices increased by 4%.

But 10 years later, America's "insecure middle class" rebelled against the "Gore factor." In 2016, it elected Donald Trump to the presidency.

On June 1, 2017, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. His 2018 budget slashed funding for climate change research. It cut the Environmental Protection Agency's budget by 31%. He ordered the EPA administrator to reverse standards on tailpipe emissions. 

Trump and some other Republicans believe sustainable practices will hinder economic growth. But even conservative Newt Gingrich disagreed in his book "A Contract with the Earth." He argued that environmental sustainability and economic prosperity are far from mutually exclusive. He said, "if environmental quality declines enough, the economy won’t be able to function at all.” We are dangerously close to finding out how that happens.