Climate change has already started reshaping the economy and it's only going to get worse

Climate change has already started reshaping the economy and it's only going to get worse
Roberto Cedomio prepares his bed at a cooling shelter run by the Salvation Army at the Seattle Center during a heat wave hitting the Pacific Northwest, Sunday, June 27, 2021, in Seattle. AP Photo/John Froschauer
  • Summer 2021 is a climate crisis, from the Florida condo collapse to the Northwest heat dome to NYC's tropical storm.
  • Experts say people are becoming more aware of the climate crisis as a force, but not its wide-ranging effects.
  • Meanwhile, a potential infrastructure package with pared-down climate measures looms on the horizon.

The toll of the climate crisis on daily life has become increasingly clear. Just ask President Joe Biden.

"Interesting to me - I didn't raise it - but how many of the survivors and how many of the families talked about the impact of global warming," Biden told reporters after meeting with the families of victims in the Surfside, Florida condo collapse.

The tragedy in Southern Florida that killed at least 18 people and left as many as 145 missing wasn't the only sudden catastrophe with climate at its root this summer. Just days earlier, temperatures reached record-breaking highs in the Pacific Northwest amid a deadly "heat dome" that local medical officials eventually declared a "mass casualty event." Then, New York City's streets and subways flooded during a tropical storm that recalled Hurricane Sandy's devastation not too long ago.

The climate crisis - long a far-off warning or even political talking point - is suddenly a deadly reality. And it's starting to have what one expert called local effects, meaning it's really changing the way people live, hitting the food they eat, places they live, and especially their health. Climate change is an economic issue, now more than ever.

"People are talking about it as if it's now something we should be considering when talking about the risks that we face as a society - risks to infrastructure, risks to human life," Amir Jina, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, told Insider.


Going outside will look different. UCLA environmental law professor Sean Hecht said the climate crisis changes "the parameters that have defined our built environment."

The climate crisis is already in your backyard, or your local store

In the Pacific Northwest, some grocery stores stopped selling perishables, and restaurants and other businesses temporarily shuttered due to the heat. Globally, a UN report finds that the world's food supply will be gravely impacted by the climate crisis without intervention, and that extreme weather could disrupt food supply chains.

"We are going to be seeing roads that aren't placed in places that make sense," Hecht said. Communities might not be equipped for less beach or snow, and farmers may need to adjust the crops they're planting. For instance, California's booming $6 billion almond industry was hit hard by a historic drought this year, The Wall Street Journal reported, with many farmers forced to simply raze trees they can no longer water.

"When the world changes around [climate change], these basic legal and then really human expectations start to not match the physical environment. And that creates a lot of conflict," Hecht said.

That was apparent for the New Yorkers wading through several feet of water to finish their commutes. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a video of the flooding and said it makes the case for her Green New Deal, which hasn't yet become law: 'The Green New Deal, which is a blueprint to create millions of good jobs rebuilding infrastructure to stem climate change & protect vulnerable communities, is unrealistic. 'Instead we will do the adult thing, which is take orders from fossil fuel execs &make (sic) you swim to work.'"


The economic impacts have already started, and they'll be unequal

While these extreme weather events illustrate the larger-scale impact of the climate crisis, the smaller-scale impact will hit your wallet soon.

On a macro scale, climate change cost the US economy $500 billion over the previous half-decade, according to a Fed official, and potentially over $1.775 trillion since 1980, according to the NOAA. Research by Tatyana Deryugina in the American Economic Journal found that the economic costs of hurricanes may be greater than previously thought - since the distribution of measures like unemployment insurance goes up.

On the individual level, Jina said the costs add up, too. "There's a set of risks involved in anywhere we choose to live or any economic activity we choose to engage in that we need to start thinking about a little bit more," he said.

And, of course, the costs aren't felt equally. As Hecht said, whenever there's disruption, people with more resources can better afford to address the disruption.

Climate change has already started reshaping the economy and it's only going to get worse
Sarah O'Sell transports her new air conditioning unit to her nearby apartment on a dolly in Seattle on Friday, June 25, 2021. O'Sell snagged one of the few AC units available at the Junction True Value Hardware as Pacific Northwest residents brace for an unprecedented heat wave that has temperatures forecasted in triple-digits Manuel Valdes/AP

Hecht says research "very consistently" shows that disruptions are harder on communities with fewer resources, which creates inequity by class, something that "also is correlated in large part with race." Research from Jina and other members of the Climate Lab finds that the poorest counties will take the largest income hit from the crisis.


As Healthline reports, the climate crisis disproportionately impacts people of color, such as comorbidities linked to racism exacerbated by rising temperatures, to being redlined into areas more likely to be impacted.

Infrastructure spending is (maybe) on the horizon

Meanwhile, climate measures - or lack thereof - have come to the forefront in President Biden's infrastructure proposals.

The bipartisan deal that the president struck with a group of senators omits some of his original climate proposals, and pares down spending on others. Democrats have already sent a list of climate demands for inclusion in a reconciliation bill, including equity for low-income communities and communities of color impacted by pollution, along with a carbon-free grid.

Climate change has already started reshaping the economy and it's only going to get worse
Climate change protesters disrupt candidate Joe Biden during a campaign event on October 9, 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The federal government can be instrumental when it comes to addressing how we produce and consume energy, the experts said. Actually creating that infrastructure is one important step.

Biden has floated his infrastructure deal as one way to both generate jobs and address the impact of climate change, Insider's Ayelet Sheffey reported.


"We gotta make lemonades out of lemons here," Biden has said. "We have a chance to do something that not only deals with the problem today, but allows us to be in a position to move forward - and create real good jobs, by the way, generate economic growth."

Even though Biden has proposed spending up to $4 trillion on rebuilding infrastructure, not all of that is focused on climate initiatives. Meanwhile, although Ocasio-Cortez did not initially put a price tag on the Green New Deal, she later clarified its cost would be much higher. "It's not a fun number to say, I'm not excited to say we need to spend $10 trillion on climate, but ... it's just the fact of the scenario," she said in 2019.

"Let's make sure that when we build a house or rezone an area, that it's not just going to be repeatedly flooded every single year - where the potential insurance costs or the reconstruction costs are going to completely dwarf the construction costs," Jina said. "That just makes simple economic sense."

A big part of addressing the situation is in more "mundane" aspects, like updating building codes, Jina said.