U.S. Has Cost the World More Than $1.9 Trillion in Climate Damages Since 1990, Study Finds

A truck leaves a coal-fired power plant in Utah
A truck leaves the coal-fired Huntington Power Plant outside Huntington, Utah in 2016. Electricity production (25%) and transportation (27%) combined generate most of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA. George Frey / Getty Images
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Climate activists have long argued that countries that have contributed the most to the climate crisis owe something to countries that have released relatively few emissions yet still suffer the effects of rising temperatures.

Now, a first-of-its kind study from Dartmouth College backs this argument with hard data. The study, published in Climatic Change, calculates for the first time the financial damages that emissions released by certain nations have caused for others. 

“This research provides an answer to the question of whether there is a scientific basis for climate liability claims — the answer is yes,” first study author Christopher Callahan said in a Dartmouth College press release. “We have quantified each nation’s culpability for historical temperature-driven income changes in every other country.”

The researchers looked at both emissions and climate-related increases or decreases in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 143 nations between 1990 and 2014. Global heating causes economic damages by, for example, reducing harvests or productivity. 

When it comes to responsibility for climate damages, the U.S. leads, having cost other nations more than $1.9 trillion in economic losses related to the climate crisis, The Guardian reported. That’s 16.5 percent of the total economic losses calculated by the study. The U.S. is followed by China, which is responsible for $1.83 trillion in damages; Russia, at 986 billion; India; and Brazil. All told, the five countries have cost the world $6 trillion since 1990 — or around 11 percent of global GDP per year.

“It’s a huge number,” Callahan told The Guardian. “It’s not surprising that the U.S. and China are at the top of that list but the numbers really are very stark.” 

Those numbers emphasize the inequality inherent in the climate crisis, which campaigners and less developed countries have long pointed out. The leading 10 emitters — rounded out by Indonesia, Japan, Venezuela, Germany and Canada– are responsible for more than two-thirds of total losses, according to The Guardian and Dartmouth College. Further, some nations actually saw their GDPs increase because of climate change, but these tended to be wealthier, northern countries that stood to benefit from warmer temperatures or longer growing seasons. The countries that suffered the greatest losses, on the other hand, tended to be poorer, warmer countries in the Global South. 

“Irrespective of the accounting, warm counties have warmed and lost income because of it, while colder countries have warmed but enjoyed economic gains,” Dartmouth College assistant professor of geography and senior study author Justin Mankin said in the press release. “The responsibility for the warming rests primarily with a handful of major emitters, and this warming has resulted in the enrichment of a few wealthy countries at the expense of the poorest people in the world.”

The study comes a little less than a month after the Bonn climate talks concluded with no agreement on loss and damage — the money that poorer nations say wealthier nations owe them to help pay for the impacts of the climate crisis. This has been a sticking point in UN climate negotiations, with wealthier nations remaining resistant to pay. During the negotiations in Germany, they prevented the issue from being added to the agenda for the upcoming COP27 climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. That doesn’t mean the issue is settled. The Loss and Damage Youth Coalition has written an open letter to the COP27 Presidency urging action on the issue at the November talks.

“We have no choice left but to stand up and speak for climate and social justice for all,” the young people wrote. “We demand an end to the vicious cycle of loss and damage with high emitting countries drastically reducing their emissions to achieve the 1.5°C targets and providing reparations to the most affected with adequate climate finance, capacity building, knowledge, and technology transfer.”

Center for International Environmental Law chief executive Carroll Muffett told The Guardian that the new study could help inform this debate, calling it a “positive step.”

“[W]e can see the scale of harm is enormous,” Muffett said. “We are moving slowly towards some sort of accountability for this. As the evidence mounts and the record of U.S. obstructionism in the climate context is established, I don’t think it and other countries will be able to escape their liability in perpetuity.”

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