Griffiths and Cray Meld Insight on Climate Change and Income Inequality in Eisenhower Institute Lecture
By Phoebe Doscher, Assistant News Editor
Dr. Charles Griffiths ‘86 and Mr. Charlie Cray presented on Tuesday, Apr. 16 as part of an Eisenhower Institute event on the imminent threat of climate change and its disproportionately negative impact on communities with low incomes. Griffiths, a Senior Economist for the Environmental Protection Agency and Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University and Cray, a senior research specialist at Greenpeace USA, split the presentation based on their respective specialties, but were both in agreement about the harsh detriment of climate change on the world.
Griffiths centered his portion of the presentation around the charge question: “How does climate change affect minority and low-income groups in the U.S.?” He tracked impacts from multiple approaches, including the effects of climate on disease and climate policy, overall tracking income distribution in the U.S. to prove the point.
The economist found no clear pattern of income distribution based on climate change; poorer areas are not universally found to be at a higher risk of the effects of climate change. He did, however, track the minority population and find a cluster of these groups in central and northern parts of the country; he contended that we still cannot simply question the impact, due to some heterogeneity at the country level.
Griffiths referred to a comprehensive paper that tracks the distribution of environmental damages and evaluates exposure between the rich and poor, determining which are more or less exposed. Researchers found marginal damages at the conclusion of their study.
Two more important categories that Griffiths considered were damage function and vulnerability. He defined damage function as the level of exposure to environmental conditions and a vector of socioeconomic attributes that affect exposure, and defined vulnerability as the propensity to generate harm. Vulnerability, he noted, depends on a number of factors including baseline health, avoidance behavior, and defensive instruments.
Griffiths then made reference to heterogeneity on marginal damages by quantifying the exposure from a graphical standpoint, creating a non-linear damage function.
He noted the cross-sectional patterns in climate exposure, primarily tracking heat exposure in hotter or drier areas on on poorer populations. He cited the history of tropical cyclones and tornadoes in mid-latitude, middle-income areas due to the temperature and pressure gradient. He claimed that future rates of high temperatures and rainfall are generally distributed evenly on an international level although the poor are more likely to be exposed to temperature extremes.
Then, Griffiths mentioned the heterogeneous marginal damages from climate change, including factors like access to technology. He cited the nonlinear damage function again, where factors such as crop yields, mortality, energy demand, and labor supply get increasingly worse overtime.
He estimated the economic damage from climate change in the U.S. and representative concentration pathways, including CO2 emission trajectories that come with increased temperature overtime.
Griffiths gave examples of dose response functions in elements such as projected mortality, energy expenditures, high-risk labor, property crime, violent crime, coastal flooding, and finally total direct damage. He noted the expected future damages– both increases and decreases–around the country.
Griffiths then handed the presentation over to Cray, who continued the conversation by discussing climate change and income inequality from the point of view as an activist with an anecdotal lens.
Cray recalled living in Chicago in 1995 during a deadly heat wave. He remembers high rates of asthma in the community, especially urban minority groups who lived near coal-fired power plants and suffered firsthand from the pollution.
He transitioned into discussion of deadly, extreme weather events that are increasingly becoming more intense as a result of climate change. He noted that no one is exempt from the consequences of climate change, especially as it shifts into the areas of politics, economics, and overall lifestyle. Cray mentioned the best way to find a solution to these multifaceted consequences: “We need a stronger understanding of synergistic impacts to deal with things more rationally.”
Cray also discussed the increase in violence and tension as a result of cognitive deficit caused by climate change. Some areas that are directly affected by climate change may be more susceptible to terrorism; in fact, a drought in Syria in 2006 was a contributing factor to the Civil War and migration.
In the same realm of migration, Cray made reference to the expected double in number of already 70 million migrants around the world by the year 2050 due to climate change. The United States has recently seen the harsh toll of a climate change-caused natural disaster in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; the territory is still in debt and suffers from debilitated energy systems.
Cray brought the conversation back to the local level by examining the unequal impacts of those who live on either end of the the Mariner East Pipeline in Pennsylvania. He mentioned that climate change will become a profitable business for insurance companies. Those who are less protected will suffer without proper aid to rebuild their communities and protect themselves from public health problems caused by untreated mold or contaminated water.
Throughout the presentation, Cray reinforced the claim that there is no debate behind the seriousness of climate change and the importance of timely remediation. He asserted that the Green New Deal confirmed the reality of climate change, and now we all must do our parts to save the Earth.
“Climate deniers are no longer standing on that ever-thinning shard of ice that is called climate denial,” Cray said, “We are standing on solid ground to tell generations to get out of the way while we [millennials] lead.”