September 15, 2020 – In the hotter world of climate change, it won’t just be the glaciers that melt: national and regional economies, big business, government and even the multinationals will all pay a lethal price.

If the planet becomes 4°C warmer by 2100, then many regions could see a 10% fall in economic output. They’d be the lucky ones. In the tropics, the economic losses could be double that.

There are of course ways to limit losses and save lives. US researchers believe that if a quarter of all motorists in the US switched to electric vehicles, the nation could save $17bn a year in the costs of climate change and air pollution. If three fourths of drivers switched to cars fuelled by renewable electricity, savings could tip $70bn.

Both studies are specimens of the kind of economic reasoning – always arguable and often intensely-argued – that necessarily must make “what-if” calculations about the notional costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and the notional value of human lives blighted by heat-related illnesses and air pollution a lifetime from now.

But both are just the latest in a long line of calculations that demonstrate, repeatedly, that the costs to the next generation of doing nothing about climate change far outweigh the costs now of shifting from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

The latest exploration of the price of doing nothing is published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

German scientists report that they looked, in detail, at the possible consequences of a 4°C warning, not on national economies but on 1500 states, provinces, departments and other political subdivisions within 77 nations around the globe.

Their finding – that more intense global heating could cost all of them 10% of their output and those in the warmer regions more than 20% – is, they say, conservative.

That is because their calculations do not take into account the potential catastrophic damage from extreme weather events and sea level rise – both of which could be substantial.

“Climate damages hit our businesses and our jobs, not just polar bears and coral reefs,” said Leonie Wenz, of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Tangible value

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture. They affect our harvests and they mean extra stress, and thus costs for our infrastructure.”

But, according to a study in the journal GeoHealth, even the purchase of a new car could soften the impact: providing the car is electric and the power for its batteries is delivered by wind or solar energy.

If electric vehicles replaced 25% of all cars on US roads, the country could save $17bn a year in the notional costs of climate change and health damage – asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and premature death – from choking exhausts. Triple that, and the savings would reach $70bn.

“The social cost of carbon and value of statistical life are much studied and much debated metrics,” said Daniel Horton, of Northwestern University in Illinois, one of the authors.

“But they are used regularly to make policy decisions. It helps to put a tangible value on the consequences of emitting largely intangible gases into the public sphere that is our shared atmosphere.” –

Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.