Climate change: The poor get poorer

Hotter temperatures equal lower economic growth. Except not in rich countries.

Published June 8, 2009 10:51PM (EDT)

Fact for the day:

National income per-capita falls 8.5 percent on average per degree Celsius rise in temperature.

The assertion comes from research conducted by Melissa Dell, Benjamin Jones, and Benjamin Olken and summarized in a column at VoxEu. But here's the kicker, which is disguised by the word "average": The results only hold for poor countries. "In rich countries, changes in temperature had no discernible effect on growth."

The conclusion is depressing. Rich countries -- the nations responsible for generating the vast majority of the greenhouse gases that are raising temperatures worldwide -- will suffer the least, at least as measured in terms of economic growth rates. But poor countries will get hammered.

Unfortunately, poor countries don't have much of a constituency in the U.S. Congress, so their plight likely won't make much difference in domestic political calculations over what to do about climate change. Even worse, opponents of legislation aimed at restricting greenhouse gas emissions could conceivably be aided by this research. Higher temperatures won't hurt the U.S. economy, they might argue, but higher energy prices most definitely will.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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