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Climate Change Already Causing $1.2 Trillion in Lost Economic Output, 4.5 Million Deaths Annually

Every time I write about climate change, it’s all I can do not to sigh and think about how doomed we are. Climate change represents one of the most impossible problems to solve purely for political reasons. It’s not a technological deficiency; even if it were, we can clear that hurdle. But this is an often imperceptible shift that occurs with the most force in the most uninhabited parts of the planet, which affects developing nations more than the developed ones, and whose greatest costs are borne far enough in the future for the current crop of politicians to safely ignore it. Not to mention the fact that solving it would eliminate the profits of some of the biggest corporations in the world. The very design of the problem resists consensus on solutions.

But rather than look at those future costs from climate change – another particularly grim one one released today – let’s recognize the damage being created right now. A new study from the DARA group, an NGO out of Spain, is getting headlines for their 2030 forecast, when they predict 100 million deaths from climate change. But what about their 2012 forecast?

Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP, according to a new study.

The impacts are being felt most keenly in developing countries, according to the research, where damage to agricultural production from extreme weather linked to climate change is contributing to deaths from malnutrition, poverty and their associated diseases.

Air pollution caused by the use of fossil fuels is also separately contributing to the deaths of at least 4.5m people a year, the report found.

This isn’t something we have to think about four or five election cycles in the future. This is the real cost today. 4.5 million deaths, $1.2 trillion in lost economic capacity, 1.6% drop in annual GDP. Yes, this gets worse as it goes on, but those reflect hard numbers about the enormous scope of the crisis today.

Again, the fact that the brunt of the crisis is felt in developing countries that the major powers can ignore until the damage comes to their shores is a major impediment to action. But I think it’s worth describing the direct nature of a crisis that hits us every single day. The summer droughts, the extreme weather patterns in the Gulf coast, the fact that every single state had a natural disaster declaration in 2011 all show that the United States has not been spared. And this will only grow worse.

A carbon tax would both provide a new source of revenue and create the certainty needed to move off a carbon-based economy and into other sources of energy. If we can manage to arrest the kudzu-like invasiveness of one biofuel crop, we could see a real emergence in the non-oil fuel space. And that’s just one example.

The key to a solution rests in the political will to act. And that means making the climate crisis real and specific. We have that data now.

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David Dayen

David Dayen