Data on the economic toll of heat waves underscore the need to prioritize climate justice.

A few days ago, I wrote about how the increasing damage from powerful hurricanes is on track to being more than the U.S. economy can absorb. Unfortunately, it’s not just hurricanes, and it’s not jut the U.S. Since the 1990s, the global economy has lost 16 trillion dollars due to the various effects of heat waves:

Geography professor Justin Mankin and doctoral candidate Christopher Callahan, Guarini ’23, combined newly available, in-depth economic data for regions worldwide with the average temperature for the hottest five-day period—a commonly used measurement of heat intensity—for each region in each year. They found that from 1992 to 2013, heat waves statistically coincided with variations in economic growth and that an estimated $16 trillion was lost to the effects of high temperatures on human health, productivity, and agricultural output.

The findings stress the immediate need for policies and technologies that protect people during the hottest days of the year, particularly in the tropics and the Global South where the world’s warmest and most economically vulnerable nations are located, the researchers report.

“Accelerating adaptation measures within the hottest period of each year would deliver economic benefits now,” says Callahan, who is the study’s first author. “The amount of money spent on adaptation measures should not be assessed just on the price tag of those measures, but relative to the cost of doing nothing. Our research identifies a substantial price tag to not doing anything.”

The study, “Globally Unequal Effect of Extreme Heat on Economic Growth,” is the among the first to specifically examine how heat waves affect economic output, says Mankin, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of geography. “No one has shown an independent fingerprint for extreme heat and the intensity of that heat’s impact on economic growth. The true costs of climate change are far higher than we’ve calculated so far.”

Dishonest actors sometimes point to deaths due to cold as a reason why we shouldn’t be worrying about climate change, but that argument ignores several factors. The first, of course, is that we are at the beginning of this warming event. While we can see a great deal of measurable change already, the sheer scale of what is happening makes it hard to remember that it’s actively getting worse. The second is that a lot of those deaths are due to the same economic system that has destabilized our climate. Lack of shelter, lack of adequate heat, and lack of adequate medical care all combine to make people far more vulnerable to all sorts of weather conditions, and the sad reality is that someone can die of hypothermia in pretty “warm” conditions.

Beyond that, there’s also the simple fact that we are a species that evolved on a cold planet. Our history has been hundreds of thousands of years of ice ages, and warmer inter-glacial periods, like the one we’ve been in for the last few millennia. We have many more tools for keeping ourselves warm than we have for cooling off. Deaths due to cold, would be pretty easy and cheap to prevent, but as a society we don’t value life very much.

And, of course, the statistics for cold deaths tend to focus on fairly wealthy countries that have harsh winters, and that choose to maintain a certain level of poverty, “for the economy. The growing problem of heatwaves is not only global, but is predictably hitting poorer countries harder:

“Our work shows that no place is well adapted to our current climate,” Mankin says. “The regions with the lowest incomes globally are the ones that suffer most from these extreme heat events. As climate change increases the magnitude of extreme heat, it’s a fair expectation that those costs will continue to accumulate.”


The study results underscore issues of climate justice and inequality, Mankin says. The economic costs of extreme heat—as well as the expense of adaptation—have been and will be disproportionately borne by the world’s poorest nations in the tropics and the Global South. Most of these countries have contributed the least to climate change.

The researchers found that while economic losses due to extreme heat events averaged 1.5% of gross domestic product per capita for the world’s wealthiest regions, low-income regions suffered a loss of 6.7% of GDP per capita.

Furthermore, the study revealed that to a certain point, wealthy subnational regions in Europe and North America—which are among the world’s biggest carbon emitters—could theoretically benefit economically by having periods of warmer days. The economies of other principal emitters such as China and India would be harmed by a greater intensity of extreme heat events given their regional baseline temperatures, the researchers found.

“We have a situation where the people causing global warming and changes in extreme heat have more resources to be resilient to those changes, and, in some rare cases, could benefit from it,” Mankin says. “It’s a massive international wealth transfer from the poorest countries in the world to the richest countries in the world through climate change—and that transfer needs to be reversed.”

 That last sentence could easily describe much of the last couple centuries of global politics and economics. It also follows what seems like an increasingly open hatred of anyone who’s struggling, and a belief that such people should be punished for their misfortune. It feels like a very superstitious, Calvinistic perspective – that those at the bottom are suffering because they deserve to be suffering, and therefor we should punish them for the sins they must have committed to be so cursed by God/The Free Market. That’s where we see people waving away a housing-first approach to homelessness, because of vague assertions about drug use or the preferences of people without adequate shelter, in my opinion. While it may not be unique to United States, it feels like a very USian outlook on life, and the flip side to the prosperity gospel that infuses that country’s culture.

And after a certain point, it’s hard not to see this as white supremacist eugenics at work in the climate denial movement, especially when you look at the other political projects funded by fossil fuel corporations and their owners.

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  1. StevoR says

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