Climate Change Is Probably a Drag on Growth, but It’s Unclear How Much

It’s been hot out there. Like water-main-breaking, train-slowing, corn-scorching, road-buckling hot — not to mention heat’s effects on human bodies, making it harder to work in construction and harvest crops.

All of that must be playing into the gross domestic product reading for the second quarter, right?

The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that it’s very hard to track that impact in real time, but economists are working on doing it better.

For more than a decade, researchers have constructed forecasts of climate change’s likely economic impact. A 2018 paper found, for example, that the annual growth rate of state-level economic output declined 0.15 to 0.25 percentage points for every degree the average temperature crept higher in the summer — which could take up to a third off economic growth over the next century. And that’s just in the United States.

Those estimates, however, benefit from long-term data sets that allow analysts to compare the effects of temperature and extreme weather events over time. They also tend to project further into the future, which generally yields more eye-popping outcomes, and is more relevant for evaluating the effects of policy interventions meant to curb emissions.

“As a profession, we’ve been really focused on future economic impacts from climate change, because we’ve been focused on how you should be taxing carbon emissions,” said Derek Lemoine, an associate professor of economics at the University of Arizona. “We’ve been less focused on what climate change is doing already, partly because we didn’t realize it would happen this quickly.”

But Dr. Lemoine is working on doing exactly that, with the goal of estimating how climate change is affecting the economy at nearly the same time that statistics like G.D.P. are being compiled.

Other researchers are working on developing measures of economic growth that integrate not just production of goods and services — which themselves can accelerate climate change — but environmental and social elements as well.

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