Robin Hood in Reverse: How Hotter Planet Takes from Poor, Gives to Rich

Farmers in Zimbabwe prepare fields to grow corn. "A hotter world is a more unequal world, with the north benefiting and tropical economies declining," the Nature study authors say. "A cooler world leads to more equitable global growth, offering regions like Africa the chance to 'catch up'." (Photo: David White, Oxfam)

Robin Hood in Reverse: How Hotter Planet Takes from Poor, Gives to Rich

Global warming 'is essentially a massive transfer of value from the hot parts of the world to the cooler parts of the world,' says UC Berkeley researcher

Ever-increasing temperatures and unmitigated climate change will worsen global inequality and widen the north-south gap between rich and poor countries, according to a groundbreaking new study published this week in the journal Nature.

Published by researchers from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley, the findings use a novel metric to show that "climate change will reshape the global economy, causing a small number of cold countries to perform better and many temperate and hot countries to perform worse."

In a fact sheet (pdf), the authors state: "On net, we project that the global economy will do much worse because of climate change, with global average incomes 23% lower in 2100 with climate change relative to without it. In addition, because some of the cooler richer countries are expected to benefit from warming and poorer tropical countries are hurt, global inequality is projected to get much worse due to climate change."

The findings are especially troubling seen in the context of the latest figures from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which on Wednesday offered further confirmation that 2015 is on track to be the hottest year experienced in modern human history.

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The Nature study posits that global economic growth will drop off sharply after temperatures pass a critical heat threshold of 55deg Fahrenheit (13deg Celsius). As average annual temperatures in individual countries tick past that mark, wealthy nations will start to see a decline in economic output, a Stanford press release explains, while poorer ones, mostly in the tropics, will suffer even steeper losses because they are already past the temperature threshold.

"This is like taking from the poor and giving to the rich."
--Solomon Hsiang, UC Berkeley

"What climate change is doing is basically devaluing all the real estate south of the United States and making the whole planet less productive," study co-author Solomon Hsiang, an economist and public policy professor at the UC Berkeley, told the Associated Press. "Climate change is essentially a massive transfer of value from the hot parts of the world to the cooler parts of the world."

"This is like taking from the poor and giving to the rich," Hsiang added.

What's more, wealth doesn't necessarily insulate rich countries from the devastation of global warming. As the Stanford statement points out, a common assumption among researchers has been that wealth and technology protect rich countries from the economic impacts of climate change, because they use these resources to adapt to higher temperatures.

"Under this hypothesis, the impacts of future warming should lessen over time as more countries become richer," said study co-author Mitchell Burke, professor of Earth system science at Stanford's School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. "But we find limited evidence that this is the case."

Burke and his fellow researchers say their findings should inform upcoming UN-brokered climate talks in Paris. They caution against relying on adaptation as a solution or strategy to deal with the climate catastrophe, noting that "our results suggest that over the last 50 years we have not adapted much to the current climate that we are in, so we are not terribly optimistic about the next 50 years."

Instead, the team says that mitigation, and how to pay for it, should be at the forefront of discussions in Paris.

"Our research is important for COP21 because it suggests that these economic damages could be much larger than current estimates indicate," Burke said. "What that means for policy is that we should be willing to spend a lot more on mitigation than we would otherwise. The benefits of action on mitigation are much greater than we thought, because the costs of inaction are much greater than we thought."

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