PodcastsMay 29, 2018

Climate Winners and Losers

This episode of the Climate One podcast features Lab co-director Solomon Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford's Katharine Mach. In the 50-minute conversation with host Greg Dalton, Sol and Katharine discuss how violent crime, conflict, and migration trends are impacted by temperatures. “The idea that temperature affects our judgment and our willingness to engage in violence, that’s something that we’ve studied a lot in our research," Sol says. Sol also discusses how public health systems and local economies are affected by warming and natural disasters.

Do you live somewhere that might actually benefit from climate change? Rising temperatures and seas will produce losers and winners. Some parts of the world will see more moderate weather and economic gains, while others are already seeing sagging property prices and economic losses. But higher temperatures are more than just an economic issue.

“Many people think oh it’s just the temperature, but actually temperature affects everything,” says Solomon Hsiang, Chancellor’s Associate Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He co-authored a 2017 paper in the journal Science that outlines the impacts of a warmer world on human health and migration, violent crime, food production and wealth distribution.

“This idea that the temperature affects our judgment and our ability and willingness to engage in violence, that’s something that we studied a lot in our research,” says, Hsiang adding that one of the most robust statistical regularities they’ve found is that “hot days, hot weeks, hot months are associated with higher rates of violent crime, all types of crime: sexual assault, regular assault, murder.”

Hot days are also associated with reduced incomes. Hsiang and his colleagues have followed actual U.S. counties over time and found that if the diurnal average is above 85 Fahrenheit, “people earn roughly $20 less at the end of the year… The analogy is every time it’s a hot day I take 20 bucks and I just throw it away.”

So who does come out ahead? Hsiang explains that warmer temperatures could be beneficial to those who suffer illness due to extreme cold. “We do spend a lot of resources trying to cope with the cold,” he notes, “and so there are many parts of the world where if you get a little bit warmer, or if you get a little bit more rainfall, a little less rainfall you actually can take those resources that you were spending on, you know, shoveling your driveway or paying someone to plow it.  And you can invest those in something much more productive.”

But would any of these benefits inevitably offset by the social costs? “Risk in a changing climate is not just about the climate – that human side of the picture is unbelievably important,” says Katherine Mach, a Senior Research Scientist at Stanford University.  “The huge inequities among countries of the world and the way that impacts that are happening in terms of impacts for food security or water insecurity or extremes, will mean different things when you’re in a low income country context without the state support capacity there on the ground or the level of economic development to keep things chugging ahead.”

Mach sees a similar potential for disparate outcomes in food production. “There have been some interesting ways where we already see early winners, or at least people with good foresight in terms of wine moving North,” she notes, but wonders whether “we [will] create winners and losers in terms of the big companies able to shift their supply chains readily at the same time that people on the ground in small communities in Africa or small rural communities in the Southeast in the U.S. for example, can’t as readily make those types of rather dramatic fast adjustments.”

Mach does see winners emerging in the responses of many communities to temperature rise. “All of these risks are tied to everything we care about,” she argues. “Oftentimes there were real win-win entry points where yes it’s about developing and making people well off economically. Yes, it’s about directing our attention to the climate dimension of that and we get wins across them in ways that our investments can mean more in total.”

Read full transcript via Climate One.