U.S. economy can't outgrow future natural disasters, study finds

Photo (c) Leonard Zhukovsky - Fotolia

Addressing global warming may be the only way, researchers suggest

The recent flooding in Louisiana serves as a stark reminder of the many natural disasters that the U.S. has suffered through in recent years. With all the wanton destruction our communities continue to face, it’s natural to wonder how funding for relief efforts can manage to keep up.

Researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) say that, unfortunately, maybe they can’t. Their recent study shows that U.S. economic growth will eventually be unable to keep up with the damages caused by ever-growing hurricanes and tropical storms.

“So far, historical losses due to tropical cyclones have been found to increase less than linearly with a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). However, if you analyze losses with respect to per capita income and population growth separately, this reveals a different picture,” says Tobias Geiger.

“Our analysis for the United States shows that high income does not protect against hurricane losses. As the number and intensity of tropical cyclones is projected to increase under unchecked global warming, by the end of the century average hurricane losses with respect to national GDP could triple.”

Bigger natural disasters

PIK researchers came to their conclusions after analyzing a multitude of storm factors and areas that are likely to be most-affected by future storms, focusing primarily on the Eastern United States. Additionally, they looked at economic factors, such as average per capital income, to see how it stacked up with future potential damages.

The work done was not only applied to one standard, either. Researchers ran thousands of simulations, adjusting factors like global warming levels and potential hurricane tracks to see how conditions could change until the year 2100.

However, despite varying conditions and circumstances, the researchers found that projected U.S. economic growth is simply unable to consistently keep up with storm damages. This paints a potentially bleak picture of how the U.S. will be able to respond to future natural disasters.

Address global warming

In order to reverse this frightening trend, the researchers believe that U.S. policymakers will need to step up and address global warming concerns. They stress that continuing to try and economically overpower the impact of these storms won’t work forever.

“Some people hope that a growing economy will be able to compensate for the damages caused by climate change – that we can outgrow climate change economically instead of mitigating it. But what if damages grow faster than our economy, what if climate impacts hit faster than we are able to adapt?” asks Anders Levermann.

“We find that this is the case with hurricane damages in the United States, the hope in economic growth as an answer to climate change is ill-founded. While adaptation to unavoidable impacts of global warming is important, climate mitigation remains of vital relevance to prevent or damp still avoidable consequences,”

The full study has been published in Environmental Research Letters.

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