U.S. is second biggest loser from climate change economically, bombshell study finds

Study blows up "total myth" that climate action benefits other countries more.

The 47-year old Cheswick coal-fired power plant in Springdale, PA, October 26, 2017. CREDIT: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.
The 47-year old Cheswick coal-fired power plant in Springdale, PA, October 26, 2017. CREDIT: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

One of the biggest myths about global warming pushed by the President Trump is that climate action benefits other countries much more than us.

But a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change makes clear that, in fact, the reverse is true: There is only one country in the world, India, that benefits more than the United States when carbon pollution is reduced.

The study, “Country-level social cost of carbon,” takes the novel approach of calculating the social cost of carbon (SCC) — “the measure of the economic harm from carbon dioxide emissions” — for each individual country.

This country-level SCC is an estimate of the marginal damage expected to occur in a given country as a consequence of one more metric ton of emissions of carbon dioxide, CO2 — the primary human-generated greenhouse gas — being released anywhere in the world.


The study found that India suffered the most from additional carbon pollution followed by the United States — and thus have the most to gain economically from climate action, whether at home or internationally.

“Our analysis demonstrates that the argument that the primary beneficiaries of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions would be other countries is a total myth,” said lead-author Prof. Kate Ricke of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the University of California San Diego (UCSD) in a news release. “We consistently find, through hundreds of uncertainty scenarios, that the U.S. always has one of the highest country-level SCCs.”

“The US is one of the biggest losers,” she added, “even when compared to other large economies.” 

The researchers explain that “Estimating the economic damages associated with a given level of warming is a notoriously challenging problem for which there is no perfect state-of-the-art solution.”


So they chose to convert “country-level temperature and precipitation changes into country-level damages using empirical macroeconomic” data and analysis.

The main finding is that the country that suffers the most for more carbon pollution is India, with a country-level SCC of $86 per ton of CO2, and the U.S. is next at $48. Saudi Arabia was third at $47, followed by Brazil and China at $24. The overwhelming majority of countries were below $10.

Prof. Ricke explained to ThinkProgress in an interview that these findings mean that every time this country — or any country in the world — reduces CO2 emission by a ton of CO2, the U.S. benefits more than any other country besides India.

So while we are the second biggest loser from climate change, we are the second biggest winner from climate action.

The study’s conclusions directly contradict the unjustifiable and indeed self-destructive estimate by President Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last year that carbon pollution has effectively no significant impact on the U.S. or its economy.


In 2017, the EPA estimated that the social cost of carbon in 2020 would only be between $1 and $6 — as part of their effort to repeal President Obama’s climate rules for new power plants. That was vastly lower than the $42 to $45 estimate the Obama EPA had made for the SCC.

The Washington Post explained at the time the reason for the disparity between the Trump and Obama SCC estimates: “The wildly divergent numbers arise in significant part because the agency is now calculating the cost of carbon only within the United States, rather than around the globe — a key change that could be of major consequence.”

But the new analysis in Nature directly contradicts the Trump administration’s claim that calculating the SCC just for the U.S. leads to a much lower estimate.

Indeed, as Ricke explained, we should expect a country-specific calculation of damages from carbon pollution to be quite high for the United States: “It makes a lot of sense because the larger your economy is, the more you have to lose.”

The study notes that if the U.S. actually used this new SCC as a basis for action, it could lead to policies “which are consistent with 1.5 -2°C temperature pathways” — the temperature target unanimously embraced by more than 190 nations at the Paris climate conference in December 2015.

Tragically, instead, the Trump administration has made up a ridiculously low social cost of carbon estimate and become the only major country to reject Paris. The result will make us one of the very biggest losers.