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The gap between the wealthiest and poorest countries has been steadily declining over the past several decades, but that gap would have closed by an additional 25% if climate change hadn’t created a massive economic drag, according to a new study published in the science journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Past studies on the economic consequences of climate change have focused on the anticipated effects years down the line, or calculated the costs associated with extreme weather events. This study, on the other hand, looks at how temperature increases have already been reducing economic output.

And the brunt of this effect is being felt by the world’s poorest countries.

“Many of the [most affected countries] also have low per capita GDP, and have contributed relatively little to historical greenhouse gas emissions,” Noah Diffenbaugh, the lead author of the study and a climate scientist at Stanford University, told Global CItizen.

“There’s an asymmetry between the countries that emitted the largest fraction of the historical greenhouse gas emissions and the countries most vulnerable to climate change,” he added.

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The researchers looked at aggregate economic data between 1961 and 2010 and compared it to temperature changes over this period. They found that temperature increases associated with global warming caused marked declines in economic activity.

These effects have been most pronounced in countries around the equator, where climate change has caused deadly heat waves, unleashed supercharged storms, and made extreme droughts more likely.

India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would be an additional 30% higher had temperatures not risen from the accumulation of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, according to the report. That sort of drag is equivalent to the Great Depression in United States, the authors note.

Although India has made great strides in reducing poverty, more than 70 million people live on less than $1.90 per day, nearly half the population practices open defecation, and 240 million people lack access to electricity.

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Without climate change, the country would have likely made greater progress in reducing these inequities, the new study suggests.

Diffenbaugh said that rising temperatures reduce economic output in a number of ways.

As it becomes hotter, workers become less productive, staple crop yields decline, cognitive functioning decreases, and interpersonal conflict rises.

In recent years, devastating heat waves have all but stopped outdoor economic activity in countries as diverse as Pakistan and Japan.

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Diffenbaugh said that there are multiple benefits to transitioning to renewable energy for both poor and rich economies.

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First, replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy causes fewer greenhouse gas emissions to get released into the atmosphere, which in turn reduces the costs associated with climate change from natural disasters, heat waves, and so on.

Second, millions of people still lack access to electricity around the world. Renewable energy is a cheap and effective way to connect them to the global economy, which can greatly increase per capita GDP.

“Economic inequality is a persistent challenge globally and there’s been substantial progress in recent decades in terms of lifting people out of extreme poverty and narrowing the economic gap between the world’s richest and poorest countries,” Diffenbaugh said. “But there are still very large populating that continue to lack electricity, continue to lack clean water, continue to rely on biomass for cooking, which has huge health impacts, so despite the progress, global economic inequality is a major challenge.”


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