Climate Change Could Cost The World Trillions More Than We Thought

All is not lost, researchers warn, but we need to act swiftly.
The marshy tundra around Newtok, Alaska, which has seen some of its permafrost thaw due to rising global temperatures.
The marshy tundra around Newtok, Alaska, which has seen some of its permafrost thaw due to rising global temperatures.
Andrew Burton via Getty Images

The gross domestic product of the United States was nearly $17.5 trillion in 2014. That's enough money to buy all the planet's gold two times over.

Now consider this: If the world's permafrost thaws, as a new study warns, humanity could be saddled with a bill that adds more than $43 trillion to the already massive climate-related debt the world will rack up in the next two centuries.


You can do the math yourself, but that's more than two-and-a-half times America's GDP and an economic death sentence "beyond conception," says Kevin Schaefer, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center and one of the authors of the report.

The report, published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change, looks at a previously underexamined contributor to global climate change: the permafrost, or the region of permanently frozen ground that occurs in the world's coldest places.

Schaefer and co-author Chris Hope, a public policy expert at the University of Cambridge, find that unchecked global warming could thaw this band of ground and cause 10,000 years' worth of trapped organic matter to decompose. This decomposition could easily double the amount of greenhouse gases currently in the atmosphere, Schaefer said.

"This frozen carbon is like broccoli in your freezer: If you thaw it out and put it in your fridge it'll eventually decay and go bad," he said.

That decay and the resulting methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will exacerbate climate change at a cost of $43 trillion by 2200, the authors estimate. The costs associated with climate change range from the relatively small, such as the additional expense of more air conditioning, to the much more dramatic, like the loss of agricultural crops to drought and the destruction of cities from rising sea levels.

Schaefer and Hope estimate that without the permafrost thaw, the cost of climate change will be $326 trillion by 2200. The extra $43 trillion would constitute a 13 percent increase -- a substantial amount, especially given that no one really considered the frozen ground as a carbon sink until about 10 years ago.

"There is almost nothing in the literature on this,” Hope told The Washington Post.

But all is not lost. Schaefer pointed to his co-author's area of expertise, public policy, and said policy change could still spur humans to slow down climate change to the best of their ability.

In December, hundreds of foreign leaders and scientists will convene in Paris for the U.N. climate summit and attempt to hash out a global strategy to address rising seas, warming temperatures and the unchecked release of greenhouse gases around the globe. Many worry the talks may be the "last chance" for action if the planet is to remain below the agreed-upon warming ceiling of 2 degrees Celsius.

The latest research on permafrost adds to a growing slate of troubling headlines, including the warmest summer on record and the potential for massive sea level rise. But Schaefer says there's still time, should we choose to act.

"Let's be clear, the longer we wait, the harder it's going to be," he said. "It's like a gigantic, slow-moving ocean liner that you're trying to steer with a canoe paddle -- it's got a huge initiative and once you turn [the permafrosts] on, they last for hundreds of years."

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