On the Economic Geography of Climate Change

By Giovanni Peri, Professor of Economics and Director, University of California, Davis. and Frédéric Robert-Nicoud, Professor of Economics, University of Geneva. Originally published at VoxEU.

Climate change is a defining challenge of our times. This column introduces a special issue of the Journal of Economic Geography on climate change, which provides foundations for well-informed policymaking by addressing two main themes of the economic geography of climate change. First, climate change yields heterogeneous effects across space. Second, a crucial aspect of human adaptation to climate change is geographic mobility. As a consequence, limitations to mobility will worsen the socioeconomic costs of climate change. Other margins of adjustment covered in the issue include fertility, specialisation, and trade.

The planet is likely to be at least 3°C warmer in 2100 than at the time of writing even if immediate and radical action is undertaken (Tollefson 2020). Climate change is thus a defining challenge of our times (the loss of biodiversity is just as pressing). The scenarios issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provide sophisticated modelling of the complex interactions between human activity and climate. Yet, their modelling of heterogeneous spatial effects and of the multiple margins affected by this phenomenon remains rather simplistic (Cruz and Rossi-Hansberg 2021a, 2021b). Addressing Oswald and Stern’s (2019) concern and following up recent efforts such as the special issue of the Economic Policy journal (Azmat et al. 2020), we have collected five papers in a new special issue of the Journal of Economic Geography (JoEG) that contribute to addressing these shortcomings and address important aspects of two main themes of the economic geography of climate change.1 First, climate change brings effects that are heterogeneous across space. In turn, some regions of the globe will lose more population and output per capita than others, and some may even be better off as a result. Several papers in this special issue document this heterogeneity at a fine spatial scale. For instance, Figure 1 reports the predicted change in temperature from a 1°C increase in the global temperature at a 1° x 1° resolution for the whole world in the year 2200.2 The resulting heterogeneity is striking. Second, humans (and other species) will have to adapt in order to live. Margins of actions to slow down climate change include making consumption habits and production processes less carbon- and methane-intensive. Several papers in this special issue emphasise adaptation via migration and geographic mobility. In particular, the papers emphasise how lack of mobility could contribute to worsening the socioeconomic costs of climate change.

Figure 1 Predicted change in temperature from a 1◦C increase in global temperature in year 2200

In the first paper in the special issue, Conte, Desmet, Nagy, and Rossi-Hansberg (2021a; see also Conte et al. 2021b) speak to both themes outlined above, and we organise this Vox column following their view. The authors introduce a quantitative dynamic spatial growth model featuring, as in the pioneering work of William Nordhaus (1993), the two-way relationships among economic activity, carbon emissions, and temperature. Importantly, the analysis allows for two sectors (agriculture and non-agriculture) which are heterogeneously sensitive to temperature, and for a very fine spatial disaggregation – the authors feed their model with data on population, temperature, and sectoral output at a 1° x 1° resolution for the whole world, and with increases in the carbon stock and global temperatures that follow the carbon-intensive IPCC scenario known as Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5. With the model thus calibrated, they let it run forward for 200 years to quantify the spatially heterogeneous effects of climate change on population, GDP per capita, and the production mix of agriculture and non-agriculture outputs. They also stress the roles of trade and migration in mitigating or amplifying the losses induced by climate changes for each 1° x 1° spatial unit.

Heterogeneous Spatial Effects of Climate Change

The initial scenario in Conte et al. (2021a) assumes that frictions to the mobility of populations and of goods are constant over time. Their model predicts that Scandinavia, Finland, Siberia, and northern Canada gain populations and see increases in income per capita, while North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, northern India, Brazil, and Central America lose on both counts. Figure 2, which reproduces Figure 6 in their paper, reports the effect of climate change on predicted population in 2200. Agriculture becomes spatially more concentrated and shifts towards Central Asia, China, and Canada. These scenarios imply substantial movement of populations within and across countries, especially if trade is costly. Therefore, impediments to mobility may produce substantially less efficient transitions.

Figure 2 Effect of climate change on predicted population in 2200 (log differences)

Notes: The figure displays the logarithm of predicted 2200 population relative to predicted population under no climate change. Regions in dark blue are predicted to more than double their population; regions in dark red are predicted to lose more than half of their population.

The paper by Castells-Quitana, Krause, and McDermott (2021) complements this work in two ways. First, it offers a retrospective regression analysis to quantify effects of past climate change on rural-urban migrations (see also Peri and Sasahara 2019a, 2019b), whereas Conte et al. (2021a) is mainly an exercise in forecasting. Second, it studies the relationship between the evolution of rainfalls and temperatures on the urbanisation rates of countries and on the structure of large cities over a long period of time (1950–2015). Importantly, they allow for heterogeneous effects among low-, middle-, and high-income countries and study the effects on the whole urban structure of countries, as well as urban size, density and form. They find that worsening climate conditions (higher temperatures and lower rainfall) are associated with higher urbanisation rates in countries with unfavourable climate initial conditions, and that these effects are especially strong in developing countries and affect the density and growth of cities of all dimensions, including the largest metropolitan areas.

Another important aspect, complementary to the economic effect of climate change, is its effect on local social tensions and conflicts. The paper by Bosetti, Cattaneo, and Peri (2021) analyses whether cross-border migration influenced the link between temperature increases and conflicts for 126 countries over the period 1960–2000. On one hand, increased temperatures and more frequent droughts affect the probability of local conflict, by increasing local scarcity of resources (e.g. Hsiang et al 2011). On the other hand, economic models of migration such as Conte et al. (2021a) show that mobility attenuates economic losses due to the drop in productivity caused by climate change. Bosetti et al. combine these two insights and document that the probability of civil conflict is positively correlated with temperature in poor countries, and that this correlation is especially strong in countries with low propensity to emigrate. Emigration works as an ‘escape valve’ in times of economic duress. Reducing population pressure in areas of developing countries experiencing losses in agricultural productivity seems to be an effective way to reduce the risk that those turn into local conflict.

Not much explored yet are the effects of climate changes on fertility. Addressing this issue is the paper by Grimm (2021), which studies the relationship between climate shocks and the demographic transition in the US for the period 1870–1930. The author documents a positive relationship between the variance in rainfall of an area and its fertility differentials between farm and non-farm households. In rural societies, child labour provides additional resources when climate change and uncertainty increase variation in agricultural productivity; rural families may thus increase fertility, while this mechanism does not operate in urban families.

Climate change leads to rising sea levels and to more frequent hurricanes and typhoons. Coastal areas are at particular risk.3 Using an approach conceptually close to the one in Conte et al. (2021a), Desmet et al. (2021) estimate the economic costs of coastal flooding. The paper by Indaco, Ortega, and Taspinar (2021) in the JoEG special issue complements that paper by documenting the effect of Hurricane Sandy on NYC business. The 2021 flooding led to a heterogeneous reduction in employment (about 4% on average) and wages (about 2% on average), with larger effects in Brooklyn and Queens than in Manhattan. These heterogeneous effects reflect heterogeneity in the severity of flooding and of industry composition.

Margins of Adaptation to Climate Change

Desmet et al. (2021) develop a model in the same family as Conte et al. (2021a) and estimate that the economic loss due to coastal flooding in 2200 increases from 0.11% of real income when the migration response is allowed to 4.5% when it is not. Three other papers in this special issue also focus on the role of migration as an adaptation mechanism to climate change.

Castells-Quitana et al. (2021) document emigration from rural areas to cities within country boundaries, and focus on mobility as a force affecting the urbanization consequences of climate change. Bosetti et al. (2021) analyse how cross-border migration influences the link between warming and conflicts for 126 countries over the period 1960-2000.4 Emigration attenuates the effect of rising temperatures on the probability of armed conflict while it does not increase probability of conflict in neighbouring (immigration) countries.

The margin of mobility is crucial also for businesses and employers. Indaco et al. (2021) show that business adapts to flood risk by relocating establishments and that some businesses may even benefit from floods. Firms in NYC reacted to Hurricane Sandy by closing and relocating establishments to neighbourhoods less exposed to flood risk. The ability of relocating depends on the sector of business, but in general mobility of firms is also a crucial margin to adjust to climate changes.

Conte et al. (2021a) also find that migration and trade are substitutes. High trade frictions are an impediment in the local adaptation of the production mix to climate change, as a move towards autarky prevents exploiting a region’s evolving comparative advantage. This encourages migration out of regions that are most adversely affected towards regions that are least affected by rising temperatures. Interestingly, such regions are concentrated in Europe, Japan, and in the US, where productivity is high. It follows that high trade costs do not lead to uniformly higher climate costs.

Recent work by Cruz and Rossi-Hansberg (2021a, 2021b), also complementary to Conte et al. (2021a), considers two other margins of climate-induced changes: amenities and fertility. While still underexplored, the fertility channel takes centre stage in the paper by Grimm (2021). Grimm analyses fertility differences between farm and non-farm households within counties over time to identify causal effects of rainfall and drought risks on the demographic transition. He finds that the fertility differential in areas with a high variance in rainfall was significantly higher than in areas with a low variance in rainfall. Interestingly, this effect disappeared when irrigation and agriculture machinery weakened the link between rainfall variance and yields.

Concluding Remarks

Ultimately, the complex set of consequences of climate change on the economy and society need to be analysed both considering comprehensive models that guide our understanding of channels, mechanisms and heterogeneity of the effects, as well as case studies and more targeted empirical analysis that zooms in on one or a few of those and provides details and causal connections. We have gathered some pioneering papers that do that and combine these two types of approaches in this special issue of the Journal of Economics Geography. We hope these papers will encourage research and more interactions between micro- and macroeconomists doing research on the consequences of climate change.

References available at the original.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Mantid

    If something is very complex, such as a pointilistic painting, it’s best to stand back a few feet to see the actual picture. These assessments have been too rosy year after year. From the article “The initial scenario in Conte et al. (2021a) assumes that frictions to the mobility of populations and of goods are constant over time.” Constant over time? I think it’s going to be more exponential. Temperature rise will be exponential yet the ability of various populations to move will not be. A single digit percentage point change in the economy will not remain single digits for long. The change will be in the double digits much sooner than 2200 – that mythical number that represents the can being kicked so that current populations of well off humans can enjoy the endless growth and limitless luxury that we deserve and are entitled to.

    1. Greg

      It looks like they’ve used as a key input the IPCC model outputs for GDP impacts, which Steve Keen has already thoroughly demolished for the ruinous wishful thinking based on insane assumptions that they are.

  2. Susan the other

    This seems to imply that a climate good for human agriculture will be the economic driver of corporation earth this century. It will also require modern technology and irrigation because uncertainty is a given. People will migrate to those climates to work and the rise in population it causes will actually bring added wealth to those economies. Uncertainty about the weather is as bad as drought. One interesting tidbit is that climate hardship is creating smaller families in undeveloped countries. The argument seems to be against self-sufficiency and autarky, which the authors seem to equate with both anti-immigration and trade protectionism rather than working for equal prosperity. Not sure I follow this. “Autarky prevents a country’s comparative advantage” – does this refer to the old concept of “natural advantage”, because with modern technology and a relatively stable climate all countries can certainly produce and trade to the level they require – for their own prosperity. I don’t see an argument here that some self sufficiency especially in agriculture is not a reasonable goal. With all the geographic “variability” not just between countries but also within each country, much of the “migration” required to maintain prosperity could be somewhat localized. This analysis doesn’t follow up on that possibility because it completely eliminates social systems from “economic geography”. Except through the nebulous clarity of “productivity.”

  3. voislav

    This kind of study is why economists should be forced to chant “I will not ignore the real world and excessively extrapolate data” 8 hours a day. For example, the study from which Figures 1 and 2 were taken uses around 15 years of real world data to build a model and says, hey, how about we extrapolate that a 400-year period and pretend that the result is not garbage. Yes, the figures show year 2200, but the model and the discussion in the paper are over 400 years. It has other serious issues. It predicts that the agricultural activity will move to northern Canada and Siberia because they’ll be warmer, while ignoring that the soil quality in those areas will make that difficult, because melted tundra doesn’t make for good agricultural soil.

    So we have a simplistic model that only takes into account temperature, while ignoring more important real world factors. It’s also based on 15 years of data and then extrapolated over 400-year period. I get people need to publish academic papers to get funding, but who is letting this garbage into publication? /end rant

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      ” Who is letting this garbage into publication?”

      Peer reviewers. Academically credentialed peer reviewers. Academically credentialed peer review gatekeepers.

    2. wilroncanada

      It’s an economic study, so it doesn’t have to actually say, “Assume hundreds of billions of acre-feet of topsoil have been transported.”

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Well . . . . Herman Daly would never assume such a thing. Nor would have Frederick Soddy. Nor would have Charles Walters Junior. Nor would have any of the Raw Materials Economists gathered around the National Organization for Raw Materials.

        But they have been denied recognition or even a mention by Mainstream Gatekeeper Economics. And that is a major problem with Mainstream Gatekeeper Economics.

        That may be part of what prompted David Brower, one time President of the Sierra Club, to say . . . ” Economics is a form of brain damage.”

        Or as Jay Hanson once put it . . .


  4. coboarts

    I grew up in the Geography Dept. at San Diego State, where my father taught. After bouncing back and forth for years I completed my BA there in resources and the environment. This is a good example of turning some really basic “common sense” ideas into academic mumbo jumbo. When Geography dropped the notion of natural determinism in favor of “no-such-thing we/Man can do anything anywhere,” and again as comparative advantage (a nation’s natural advantages) was swept away by competitive advantage (less pay and environmental rules) the gobbledygook got thicker and thicker. Geography as a field has important contributions to make, especially because it can cross academic silos, but this stuff – no.

  5. Jeremy Grimm

    Wow!!!!! I can hardly believe this ‘learned’ evaluation of the economic impacts of “climate change”® as filtered through the lens of geography. It starts off on a wrong foot: “The planet is likely to be at least 3°C warmer in 2100 than at the time of writing even if immediate and radical action is undertaken (Tollefson 2020).” I am not sure whether that is bold, foolish, or stupid. As a pessimist, I cannot disagree with Tollefson but I would think an economist might be more wary.

    A series of extracts from the post raise my incredulity to new levels:
    “…climate change brings effects that are heterogeneous across space.”
    “…lack of mobility could contribute to worsening the socioeconomic costs of climate change.”
    To quote from one of Bill Cosby’s comedy routines [he is a funny comedian whether cancelled® or not]: “If yah puta bullet in the furnace, … it-al esplode.”
    But one extract: “…worsening climate conditions … are associated with higher urbanization rates …”
    leaves me seriously questioning the authors of such nonsense. If worsening climate conditions increase urbanization rates … how do rising seas affect that calculation given that a large numbers of urban centers are located on and very near the coasts?

    Is it wrong to wonder how well emigration has served the ‘needs’ of populations fleeing warfare, famine, and disease, … so far? Will “climate change”® and blowing a kiss, suddenly make everything all better for emigration?

    If economists continue producing such wisdom [deprecation symbol — one needs to be invented and registered as a trademark — blogmark(?)] — I fear for them [actually I am not sure a deprecation symbol will save them]. They will not need a special line to reach the guillotines. They will never have a chance to get that close … I suppose their parts may grow flowers. But there may be few young girls to pick those flowers.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Thank you for thanking me. I just now wonder whether graphic design artists could come up with a recognizable caricature of Sinema’s face as simple as these symbols, simple and compelling and maybe injectable into the public mind. If they can, they could call it Sinemayuck.

          If they could do a morph-hybrid of the Sinema face and the Manchin face, green and nasty like Mister Yuck, they could call it Mister Sinemanchin Yuck. And make it the brand of all that is low and vile.

  6. Alex

    To be honest I don’t understand the first chart (Predicted change in temperature from a 1◦C increase in global temperature in year 2200). Is it the change compared to today?

    Also I wonder what will have happened with Libya by 2200 :)

  7. fred mckay

    A quick google will tell you there is 47 years of oil, 52 for gas left. Carbon use will be about zero by 2100.
    There will be a consequence to a zero carbon world. There is a limited cognitive feature to all the papers cited. Or call me wrong. But first do the google.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      The world won’t be zero carbon by 2100. It may be zero fossil fuel if indeed we dig up and burn all the fossil fuel remaining by 2100. But that won’t make the world zero carbon. The carbon will still be here. All of it. Every last bit. Up in the air all around us.

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