Why Southern States Will Suffer More Under Climate Change


Climate change will cause staggering effects across the US, changing everything from the beer we drink to the sharks we fight. But one of the most visible, and direct effects will be in the wallet, and southern states are going to take a disproportionate hit over the twenty-first century, according to new research.

Why? The study doesn’t mince words. While everyone will take a hit, in the form of an economic downturn, southern states are going to take it on the chin, seeing their economies take a hit as high as 20% by 2080:

The combined value of market and nonmarket damage across analyzed sectors—agriculture, crime, coastal storms, energy, human mortality, and labor—increases quadratically in global mean temperature, costing roughly 1.2% of gross domestic product per +1°C on average. Importantly, risk is distributed unequally across locations, generating a large transfer of value northward and westward that increases economic inequality. By the late 21st century, the poorest third of counties are projected to experience damages between 2 and 20% of county income (90% chance) under business-as-usual emissions.

So, why is the South going to be the prime sufferers of climate change? There are a few reasons, ranging from simple geography to self-reinforcing problems.

– The South starts at a disadvantage, weather-wise, for the simple reason that the closer to the tropics you are, the hotter things generally get. So as the global temperature rises, you feel it more in the hotter areas. While every coastal state is going to feel the effects of more hurricanes, coastal flooding, and so on, the states further north will essentially get mild winters and mildly unpleasant summers. Southern states will get nothing but sweltering heat.

– There’s also a basic economic disadvantage. A lot of Southern states tend to be towards the high end of poverty rates, so there’s already less to work with, in terms of a tax base and economy. As things get worse, that will exacerbate problems.

– Moving onto why, the simple answer is: Heat kills. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events may be more visible and more dramatic, but a heat wave is the one most likely to kill you, and that’s the biggest economic factor. Chicago’s 1995 heat wave killed over 700 people in just five days, and Chicago averages 73 degrees in a given July. Miami averages 90 degrees. Arizona’s recent wave of 120-degree heat grounded jets and started melting things. By the way, that Chicago heat wave we mentioned peaked early at 104 degrees and steadily dropped from there. Take a moment to imagine sustained weeks of 120 degree heat.

– People will leave. By far the biggest economic impact estimated is that anybody who can pick up stakes and get out will, moving to cooler states in search of work or even just relief. And as populations drop, it causes tax problems. Massachusetts is already dealing with this problem in its more rural counties which are seeing property taxes spiral up as people leave and don’t come back. But even with tax increases, they still can’t afford to keep schools open or roads fixed, making people less likely to move in and driving still more people away, propagating the whole spiral.

– As tax bases decline, the money needed to fix flood damage, promote land recovery, and even fix basic infrastructure just won’t be there. That will limit economic opportunities, and it’s already a national problem. But as Southern states see their tax bases collapse, it’ll become more and more of a problem.

There are, of course, a lot of moving parts here. And to be fair, this is the relatively worst case scenario, which assumes that in the intervening decades, we won’t do something about this. There’s reason to be hopeful, there, from rapidly expanding green energy to cities, which emit the majority of greenhouse gases, committing to the Paris Accords. And a lot can happen in sixty years, especially with technologies like metal-organic frameworks, that can pluck water vapor and carbon dioxide out of the air and turn them into fuel or potable water. But we shouldn’t count on the future to save our necks. The future builds on the foundation of the past, and we should be mindful of the bricks we lay, or don’t, at this very moment.

(via The New York Times)