Economists: Unhinged GDP Growth Could Bring About A Collapse Bigger Than the Great Depression

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Economists: Unhinged GDP Growth Could Bring About A Collapse Bigger Than the Great Depression

This is a story about climate change, but I wanted to write a title like this to demonstrate how, when we say “climate change,” we’re not just talking about the ecological facts of the planet. This crisis affects everything—including the thing that America’s democratic choices prove it values most in this world—our precious $19 trillion per year economy. This isn’t climate activists saying this, but economists. Unhinged GDP growth without any thinking as to the secondary effects of that growth has the likely potential to utterly destroy the economy. Per Kate Aronoff in The Intercept:

For decades, scientists have warned of the pending crisis for the planet and humanity in the event of runaway climate change. But a new paper from prominent economists frames the situation in language that people might actually understand: Not addressing climate change, they conclude, will lead inevitably to “worldwide economic collapse.”

If you are part of the half of Americans who wrongly believe that climate change won’t affect you, does this change your mind a bit? This is an impending crisis that will make the 2008 collapse look like a papercut. The latest IPCC report has effectively served as mankind’s final warning that unless we do something unprecedented in human history in the next 12 years, we WILL lock in irreversible planetary change that is incredibly hostile to all life in 20 years.

The IPCC estimated that if we choose this post-apocalyptic path, it will cost the global economy $54 trillion.

Global GDP last year was $75 trillion.

U.S. GDP last year was $19 trillion.


Proving my headline out: the Great Depression of the 1930s destroyed 45% of U.S. GDP.

$54 trillion is 284% of U.S. GDP.

And 72% of global GDP.

Or put another way: $54 trillion is 10% of the total wealth currently existing on planet Earth.

If you think that the “certain planetary destruction” coming out of science is just hyperbole, how about certain economic destruction? That can happen without certain planetary destruction. For example, it’s indisputable that America is presently experiencing more consistently large hurricanes than we are used to. That’s climate change. Clean-up, repairing/rebuilding infrastructure and caring for those affected by hurricanes costs tons of money. Last year was the most expensive hurricane season in American history, and it cost us $306 billion. We spent the equivalent of 1.6% of last year’s GDP just on hurricane season.

This is insane. We know that the planet is changing and those people who we have tasked to study it say that it will get exponentially worse unless we completely transition our economy away from fossil fuels, yet we can’t even be convinced to do the bare minimum, let alone to take up the courage of what is required of us (although that may be changing, 50% of Americans now say that climate change should be THE priority for policymakers, and 72% say it should be more of one).

So here’s a reality check we all must accept: It will cost the world 2.8 United States’ economies if we do nothing on climate change, and the Green New Deal (that also has the benefit of creating jobs and completely modernizing our energy economy) will cost significantly less than 2.8 United States’ economies. The math is unimpeachable on this topic, and if it were in any other area much friendlier to capitalism, the decision to avoid the massive future costs of this reality and invest in a different path now would have already been made. We must remake our entire society into a 21st century post-fossil fuel model (not just America—the world—whether we successfully combat this existential threat will ultimately depend on China and India), beginning now, lest we lose the planet and our beloved economy with it.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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