A Different Climate Change Apocalypse Than the One You Were Envisioning

Let’s say you are convinced that climate change is a huge threat and will have catastrophic consequences for humankind in the foreseeable future. How exactly do you envision that catastrophe playing out?

Most people I speak with, and most accounts I’ve read and seen, lean toward the apocalyptic. But what are the mechanisms by which disaster strikes? Where does it occur? Who is most likely to suffer?

According to a fascinating new working paper (abstract here; download available here) by Melissa Dell, Benjamin F. Jones, and Benjamin A. Olken, the answer to that last question may be an easy one: poor countries.

This answer may not surprise you very much, but Dell, Jones, and Olken have done a good job of showing the relationship between climate and the economy, and their paper may substantially inform the way that people — especially in the U.S. and other rich countries — consider the possible effects of climate change.

Here is the excellent first sentence of their paper:

Climate change may — or may not — be a central issue for the world economy.

Just in case it is, here is what they decided to do: take the historical temperature and precipitation data for every country in the world from 1950 to 2003 and combine it with the data for economic growth to see the overall effect that earlier climate change has had on economies.

The world has gotten a bit warmer and a bit drier over the past 50 years. The presumption is that it will get even warmer and drier over the next 50 years, so if economic changes from the past can be understood, perhaps future economic changes can be estimated. Here is the gist of their findings:

Our main results show large, negative effects of higher temperatures on growth, but only in poor countries. … In rich countries, changes in temperature have no discernible effect on growth.

What does this mean? Among other things, it may mean that many Americans — who are by definition rich — are worried about the wrong thing. Instead of thinking about weather apocalypses, they should instead be thinking about border invasions: the huddled masses from the poorest countries who will be seeking refuge as their own economies collapse. This would be Darwinism on the most epic scale imaginable — but instead of the finch with the shorter beak becoming extinct, it’ll be the poorest millions, or perhaps billions.

That, of course, is assuming the Earth keeps getting warmer and that warmer temperatures in fact disproportionately punish poor countries as Dell, Jones, and Olken suggest. (In an e-mail reply, they also raise an important caveat: “There are potentially other factors, such as sea level rise, which are outside the scope of our historical analysis.”) But in light of their compelling overview, it’s worth revisiting some other scholars’ work on the effects of climate change. For instance:

  • Twenty-nine of 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced some kind of civil war during the 1980’s or 1990’s. The economists Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergenti discovered that one of the most reliable predictors of civil war is lack of rain. If you have a largely agricultural economy, when the rain goes so does the agriculture, which makes political and economic breakdown much more likely.

In a rich country like the U.S., meanwhile, consider these findings from a pair of papers by Olivier Deschênes and Michael Greenstone:

  • In the first paper, they use long-run climatological models — year-by-year temperature and precipitation predictions from 2070 to 2099 — to examine the future of agriculture in the U.S., and find that the expected rises would actually increase annual agricultural production — and therefore profits — by about 4 percent. Some states would be winners and other states losers but overall, climate change would be good for U.S. agriculture.
  • In the second paper, Deschênes and Greenstone look at what a temperature increase means for mortality in the U.S., and find that the predicted climate change “will lead to an increase in the overall U.S. annual mortality rate ranging from 0.5 percent to 1.7 percent by the end of the 21st century.”

    Sounds bad, yes? Think again: “These overall estimates are statistically indistinguishable from zero, although there is evidence of statistically significant increases in mortality rates for some subpopulations, particularly infants.”

In other words: the likeliest victims are, once again, the poorest people. Which means that if the relatively rich people who are currently most vocal about climate change are also the people who stand in the least danger, there may come a point where they realize that their concern is not so much an act of self-preservation as an act of altruism. Considering how impure much of our altruism is, that could be the most dangerous news of all.

[Note: Here’s a discussion about this subject from the public-radio show The Takeaway.]


Theres a reason people call it climate change and not global warming. Alot of the damage will be due to natural disasters, these dorks didn't look at that, they only looked at changes in temperature and precipitation.

Also, what does economic growth even mean? If a whole town got wiped out by a tornado, then everyone worked their asses off over the next year to rebuild, would all that extra money spent getting back to zero be counted towards economic growth?

Heres another one, maybe one year is a little hotter than the last. As usual, productivity increases that year, but all of the gains are spent on air conditioning and awnings. Do the inflation measures take this into account, or do they only look at the cost of awnings rather than the increased need for them.


I just wanted to point out that scientists were definitely not predicting global cooling in the 60's and 70's. Of the 71 published papers in peer reviewed journals, only 7 were predicting global cooling. 44 predicted warming.

Don't confuse public discourse with actual scientific research.



Preventing climate change is a very hard sell in Canada. Poll Canadian farmers in southern Ontario and I would bet that crop yields have increased over the last decade. Warmer winters. Who wouldn't want -15C over -20C? Well I wouldn't for one as I see what it is doing to winter tourism and outdoor activities.

Larger air conditioning bills? Oh well, smaller heating bills.

I think we as Canadians are being very self-centered and our PM's right wing views on climate change are in line with those of most Canadians.

Climate change could be positive for Canada's economy but does that mean we should not do our part to prevent it?


Stephen @ 32,

I disagree. It's not a zero-sum game. I live in North Carolina, a state that many manufacturers pulled capital out of and redeployed to places like Mexico and China. Now, that's commonly thought to be shipping jobs to China, but that's really not exactly what happened. Manufacturers pulled the lowest skilled jobs out of here, built new factories in Mexico, and continued along in business. The people who had those jobs here in North Carolina, on average, had about an 8th grade education. In other words, they were no better educated than the Mexican workers and the Mexican workers would do the same job for a lot less. Had the American workers educated themselves better, they would have either not lost the jobs in the first place, or more likely, they would have had alternatives when the factory shut down.

The popular misconception is that NC lost jobs in the last 5-10 years. The opposite is true; net-net, NC has added jobs versus where it was 5-10 years ago and they are higher-skilled, higher value jobs. I don't want to turn this into a commercial for NC, but we now have thousands of biotech, software and other "clean industry" jobs that weren't here before. We didn't take those jobs from anywhere else, (hence, not zero-sum)but we sent our low value jobs away and grew new ones. We absolutely have pockets of ignorance, people who are still waiting for the textile mill to reopen, but many have taken advantage of programs to get re-educated and gone on to excellent jobs that pay better than what they were making before.

As to your "poorest nation" concern, in the end it is up to the people of that nation to improve their lot in life. It's kind of in our distant past now, but at some point Americans looked around and decided that an agrarian lifestyle wasn't the only way to go and wasn't even the best way to go. We figured out that if we made enough money by other means that we could buy the food we need (more than we need) and it wouldn't matter if the crops came in that year or not. The crops are always coming in somewhere, just buy those crops. Freakonomics ensued!



this study is seriously flawed as it misinterprets the actual hypothesised impact of global warming. Which is, as mentioend above, an average worldwide increase of a few degrees. Whereas the major impacts will be

major flooding of a lot opf coastal cities. (New York, London being two major ones.)

Disruption of the Gulf Stream, resultign in a decrease in average temperature across UK, Northern Europe and Northern North America.

Increase in sea temperatures, - likely to kill off a large proportion of fish/sealife...


See--cleaner, better jobs in NC: http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/stories/2008/07/07/daily9.html?f=et85&ana=du_B


The simple truth is that we rely on poor countries for so many of the goods and services that make us 'rich'. When their economies suffer, and their nations fail, we will suffer the consequences, perhaps not immediately, but we will suffer.


To 4 and 13,

"Increasing everyone's wealth" ignores how the money supply really works. Suppose the minimum wage went to $100 an hour right now. We'd all make over 200,000 a year!

Now ignoring production costs, let's focus on something simple like "land". If you said "Well now I make (4 to 10) times as much as I used to, I'll go buy me that farm in the countryside I always wanted", you would not be suprised to see that the price skyrocketed to nearly the same proportion of the money you had.

There are a limited number of resources in the world. EVERYBODY can't have an abundance of them (wealth is defined as "an abundance"). That does not mean its ok to exploit and hold back other countries (even if at the end of the day people would secretly prefer it - ask a former manufacturing industry worker), but it is IMPOSSIBLE to have ALL countries having an abundance.

Much like in professional sports. You cannot have 100% of the teams having a winning record. Someone always has to lose for someone else to win.

There are things that can be done for the poorest nations, but no matter what is done, there will always be "a poorest nation", as someone has to finish last.



"Let’s say you are convinced that climate change is a huge threat and will have catastrophic consequences for humankind in the foreseeable future. How exactly do you envision that catastrophe playing out?"

Easy, the wrong-headed anti-carbon policies in the richer countries (the ones that can afford it) will sacrifice huge portions of their economies for no real return.


The more I hear people harping about supposed immigration problems in the United States, the more I want to smack them upside the head and point them towards Europe, where the immigrants are much more violent to the natives.

We don't have a "problem" except in how we treat immigrants, which is usually inhuman by any reasonable standard. It's a target group for Nativism to go all out and whine, complain and make noise despite the fact that immigrants in the United States are far less likely to commit crimes and pay taxes.

Seriously- the right wing bias of Dubner's topic choices is alarming in terms of ideology. I think I'll switch the channel before this place turns into Little Green Footballs.

Mike M

It seems like one of the things that's often overlooked is that global warming isn't a uniform increase in temperature, but rather a total redistribution of climate patterns that's net positive. Right now, the poorest countries are also the ones that are in the highest-temperature zones, whereas the rich ones are in the colder northern climates (side thought:geographic coincidence or environmental pressures?). Perhaps the largest tragedy of global warming is that for all the arable land lost to drought in the equatorial regions, relatively developed countries like Canada and Russia will gain huge new temperate zones, but in the Southern Hemisphere, the new, permafrost-melting temperatures will occur almost entirely over water, just because Earth's landmass (and GDP) happen to be heavily concentrated north of the Tropic of Cancer

Steven H

One has to wonder though if in a country like the United States which has a wide variation in income whether poor areas would suffer more than rich areas and cause the same sort of internal strife. For example, whether or not Hurricane Katrina was caused by global warming, it is clear not only were the poor more likely to die, they also turned out to be more likely to migrate and not come back. Much the same thing happened during the Great Depression. There was one incident during Katrina where a town on the west side of the river refused to let anyone from New Orleans enter, believing that their own resources would soon become overwhelmed. Would other places react to mass migration in the same way?


"Wait, so it's not going to affect us? We can go back to not caring! Now where'd we put the keys to the Hummer?"

-- Americans

Miriam Weinstein, San Anselmo

Great scholarship. By starting in 1950, the authors can conveniently eliminate the Dustbowl period and it's dislocations from US history. And since I assume they don't live in California, they can ignore the effects of the 1700 forest fires that were having - on the air, people's health, the costs.... although I don't equate that with no food and water - still, it's early regarding what will be coming down the pike.


Re: decreasing water supplies

More of the world's fresh water supplies are getting trapped in containers like toilet bowls and trash in landfills, plus more than 6 billion human bodies, not to mention every other living thing--plant or animal, plus many available supplies are becoming too polluted to consume. And as global temperatures rise, the amount of water that the atmosphere can hold (relative humidity) increases before rain will fall. As the water cycle gets disrupted and less precipitation falls on land, downstream flow will put more water into the oceans, and in combination with the water from shrinking glaciers* and land subsidence resulting from drying soils, we can expect to see rises in sea level in spite of a decrease in available drinking water supplies.

(*Glaciers on land--those over water probably don't add much to sea levels, since they are analogous to ice in a glass)



Reid Bryson and Verner Suomi were both meteorology professors at the University of Wisconsin. Bryson was the one who talked about the coming ice age and Suomi talked about global warming. At the time I thought Bryson had the stronger case but that was long before there were any ice cores. Bryson had a terrific talk about the history of climate I can't recall a talk on a scientific subject that was better.

At that time all of the climate data sets had serious problems and it has taken a long time to track down the problems and fix them. The general circulation models Suomi was using at that time were very crude. Bryson thought that cooling caused by reflection of sunlight from stratospheric dust would be the dominant mechanism and Suomi thought heating by absorption by CO2 was. Current models include both mechanisms.

People are already dead because of disruptions in climate on local scale and more will die for the same reason. We have also had some weather related deaths in North America but I don't think we can be confident that they were caused by climate change.




Eve (@83) (and several others here) might have a point if the globe was warming and that was due to CO2. But it isn't and it isn't. (I know Eve doesn't mention CO2 but her links do)

CO2 is climbing globally, has been for years and there doesn't seem to be much doubt about that...

but inconveniently, the world isn't getting hotter.

Here's a partisan view from wattsupwiththat.wordpress.com,

but google it as well.


The world just doesn't seem to be getting hotter in the last 11 years while CO2 goes up. If you don't like 1998 delete it. Same story. I'm afraid it seems to be natural variability and nothing to do with humans.

And no, I'm not a single-issue carpetbagger attracted by the thread's title like Eve seems to be, I read this blog every day and have since it was on this site.

Oh and Cornish Pasties are delicious (other thread). Cornish coal miners used to eat them plain, but I like them with ketchup (although we call that stuff tomato sauce here in Australia).

Thanks for listening - don't shout at me; go look at information for yourself. Think critically.



Eric Crampton

Wasn't this Robert Kaplan's argument 15 years ago in "The Coming Anarchy"?



Therefore, instead of focusing on policies that try to stop global warming (none of which , so far, are expected to succeed), we should focus on policies to make poor countries richer so they do not suffer too much due to global warming.

Dale S.

This just validates what Bjorn Lomborg has been discussing for years - that the best way to help the world's poor to adapt to global warming is by allowing them to grow rich!: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Dtbn9zBfJSs