Over the next century, global climate change is likely to have substantial consequences for the economy of the United States and the welfare of its citizens. As scientists work to narrow remaining uncertainties about the magnitude and timing of future warming, it is becoming increasingly important that we improve our understanding of the likely implications for human and natural systems.
In this report, a team of authors led by Dale Jorgenson of Harvard University developed an integrated assessment of the potential impacts of climate change on the U.S. market economy through the year 2100. The analysis combines information about likely climate impacts in specific market sectors with a sophisticated computable general equilibrium model of the U.S. economy to estimate effects on national measures of productivity, investment, consumption and leisure. To account for uncertainties— both in the trajectory of future climate change and in the ability of different sectors to adapt—a variety of scenarios were modeled to characterize a range of possible outcomes.
The results indicate that climate change could impose considerable, lasting costs or produce smaller, temporary benefits for the U.S. market economy in coming decades. Importantly, potential costs under pessimistic assumptions are larger and persist longer than potential benefits achieved under optimistic assumptions. Because of “threshold effects” in key sectors like agriculture, initial benefits from a moderate amount of warming begin to diminish and eventually reverse as temperatures continue to rise toward the end of the century and beyond. These findings suggest that near-term action to limit the pace and scale of future climate change would be warranted not only because the potential damages outweigh potential benefits (which are transient in any case), but because early intervention would reduce the long-term damage under either set of assumptions, and reduce the need for more costly measures if pessimistic scenarios materialize.
This study makes an important contribution to our current understanding of the potential impacts of climate change, but it represents at best a partial assessment of the full range of those impacts. Certain market sectors (e.g., tourism) and a variety of indirect effects (e.g., climate change induced healthcare expenditures) could not be included because of a lack of data. Even more significantly, the analysis does not account for critical non-market impacts such as changes in species distributions, reductions in biodiversity or loss of ecosystem goods and services. These types of effects are described in a companion Pew Center report—A Synthesis of Potential Impacts of Climate Change on the United States—but remain extremely difficult to value in economic terms. Their inclusion in a more complete evaluation of both market and non-market impacts would almost certainly offset any temporary market benefits and add to the negative impacts, thereby underscoring the case for mitigative action.
The Pew Center and the authors are grateful to Henry Jacoby and Billy Pizer for helpful comments on previous drafts of this report.