While climate change is affecting the entire globe, its negative impacts will not be felt uniformly, and a recent study shows that in states where voters are less likely to believe in the phenomenon, they are bound to feel some of its most harmful effects.
Brookings analyzed the data from county-based assessments by the Climate Impact Lab, which offers “the most detailed calculations available on the economic costs of future climate change through the end of the century in the United States.”
Behind the data lies a collaboration of more than 20 climate scientists, economists, computation experts, researchers, analysts, and students from several institutions, including the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Chicago, Rhodium Group, and Rutgers University.
The Brookings analysis showed that red states — which are most likely to write off climate change — will likely experience an outsized share of environmental and economic harm as climate change effects become more extreme.
Two patterns within the data became clear:
One is that climate change (and its economic impacts) are widespread. The other, which will be vital to understanding political geography, is that those impacts are highly uneven in their distribution. Most of that variation reflects variation in the single largest determinant of overall climate harm: mortality, which the Climate Impact Lab team quantifies using the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard “Value of a Statistical Life (VSL)” measure. When people die that harms the economy, and VSL is a statistical measure of that harm—not a number that declares the value of any particular life.
According to the map, climate change could actually bestow net economic benefits by the years 2080-2099 (as measured by county income change as a share of 2012 income) on the Pacific Northwest, parts of the Interior West, the upper Midwest, and New England, even as it creates stark losses in the Southwest, Southeast, and Florida. As the smaller maps suggest, while increases in agricultural yields will significantly benefit the nation’s Northwest, climate-caused deaths will hurt the Southwest as coastal storms and sea-level issues batter the Southeast, Florida, and the Gulf Coast. These patterns suggest that many red-voting states in the “brown barricade” are likely disproportionately exposed to climate change’s negative impacts.
These states tend to be home to more supporters of President Trump, along with other conservative politicians who deny the reality of climate change and its effects.
Many of the states with the most to lose from climate change voted heavily for Donald Trump in 2016, thereby electing a president who has disavowed his own government’s National Climate Assessment—the most careful government evaluation of climate risks ever done—and has systematically moved to dismantle former-President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and regulatory initiatives to reduce carbon emissions.
The alignment is sharp: 9 of the 10 states contending with the highest losses of county income voted for President Trump in 2016, including, in order, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama. Fifteen of the 16 highest-harm states were also red.
Brookings suggests that this imbalance in how the effects of climate change play out could lead to a political reckoning in the future, whereby voters in red states begin to see that they are not served well by politicians pushing a rejection of the science — in short, they will be less able to deny what they see happening in their everyday lives.