Global warming's outrageous price tag: Why rising temps will cost the U.S. billions

A new report highlights the massive economic risks of climate change

Published June 24, 2014 2:10PM (EDT)

     (Anton Oparin/Shutterstock)
(Anton Oparin/Shutterstock)

Rising heat will be matched only by rising sea levels in threat posed to the U.S. economy if climate change continues on pace, a new report warns.

The report, "Risky Business," was published by former hedge fund manager and climate activist Tom Steyer, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson -- three men who don't share political leanings, but who do have certain other things in common. That's why we might want to listen to them, suggests Gary Yohe, an economics and environmental studies professor at Wesleyan University and vice chairman of the National Climate Assessment, who was asked to review the report: "These are people who have managed risk all their lives and have made an enormous amount of money doing so."

Put together with the help of the economic research firm Rhodium Group and the catastrophe-modeling company Risk Management Solutions, what they came up with is by no means comprehensive. But the report makes a strong argument that, with a failure to reduce emissions, business as usual in the U.S. will at best cost billions, and at worse become impossible. Here's why:

A lot of our assets are going to end up underwater: 

Between $66 billion and $106 billion in coastal property could be overtaken by rising sea levels as soon as mid-century, the report finds. By the end of the century, there's a 1-in-20 chance that $701 billion will be drowned, while damage from coastal storms could grow by $42 billion:

Rising temps are going to leave us sluggish:

One of the most important trends to understand is that climate change will shift extremes, so that they become the "new normal." Heat's the most obvious example of that -- as demonstrated by the increase in days over 95 degrees Fahrenheit experienced over a lifetime:

The average American by the end of the century could see anywhere from 45 to 96 days in the 95 degree-plus range -- over three times what we've averaged for the past 30 years. Outdoor workers -- those responsible for construction, utility maintenance, landscaping and agriculture -- could be over 3 percent less productive in that heat.

The report's authors are optimistic about agriculture, which they say has a strong potential to adapt to the changing climate. Warming will actually be good for agriculture in Northern regions, but without adaptation, those gains would be totally offset by losses in the Midwest and South. As a whole, production can decline by 14 percent by mid-century, and up to 42 percent by 2100. Meanwhile, the report doesn't even get into the additional costs levied by droughts and wildfires -- though we know from experience that they can drain billions.

AC's no longer going to be optional:

"Over the longer-term, during portions of the year, extreme heat could surpass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning," the report warns. Even with a reduced demand for heating in the Northern states, the cost of electricity is expected to rise as an effect of higher demand at peak hours, costing Americans an extra $12 billion per year. The cost of going without AC? Severe illness, or potentially death (more on that below).

Here are the changes in cost and demand for power anticipated by mid-century (2040-2059):

While the outdoors could end up being off-limits:

"As temperatures rise, toward the end of the century, less than an hour of activity outdoors in the shade could cause a moderately fit individual to suffer heat stroke," climatologist Robert Kopp of Rutgers University, the lead scientific author of the report, told the Associated Press. "That's something that doesn't exist anywhere in the world today."

Couple that with increased humidity, and we have a serious problem on our hands. Al Sommer, dean emeritus of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and another one of the report's authors, sums it up: "If it's humid you can't sweat, and if you can't sweat you can't maintain core body temperature in the heat, and you die."

These maps, beyond illustrating the long-term dangers of extreme temperature gains, also makes a great case for why doing anything possible to reduce emissions -- even if that doesn't end up being everything possible -- matters:

By Lindsay Abrams

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Climate Change Extreme Weather Heat Waves Sea Level Rise U.s. Economy