Impact Of Climate Change On Low-Income Households In U.S. Pacific Northwest Investigated

December 31, 1996


WASHINGTON, DC -- Researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) are examining how different populations in the Willamette River watershed in the United States' Pacific Northwest might fare if climate change were to disrupt their livelihoods or their access to water.

Although the possible social and economic consequences of climate change have received considerable attention in research and policy communities, much of the work has been from a global or national perspective and focuses on the collective, society-wide impacts, since it is at this level that most climate change policy will be implemented. However, relatively little is currently known about the potential regional-scale effects of climate change on particular social groups in specific regions of the world.

"This investigation injects a new element into the debate about climate change -- the possibility that disadvantaged groups might shoulder a disproportionate share of whatever consequences might occur," says RFF's Kris Wernstedt, investigator of the project with David Austin and Robert Hersh. "This element raises important questions for politicians and other decisionmakers that are considering the fairness of possible policy responses to climate change as well as gauging the likely public support for policy options, although it is by no means certain that there will be any serious social or economic consequences of climate change."

Climate change involves a gradual rising of the Earth's surface temperature that is widely believed to be a result of human activity -- deforestation; the burning of fossil fuels such as gasoline, oil, coal and natural gas; and the emission of pollutants by cars, power plants, and factories -- that is changing the way the Earth absorbs and emits energy. This change results in climate and temperature changes which affect rainfall and sea levels and other natural processes.

Wernstedt, Austin and Hersh are exploring three main dimensions of vulnerability to the stresses of climate change: exposure, capacity to cope, and resilience. To study exposure, they are using a model of the river basin to simulate a range of scenarios for how river flows might change in the face of climate change; to understand coping capacity, they are using a geographic information system (GIS) to correlate indicators of that capacity, such as access to public water supply and level of education, with other dimensions of vulnerability and local socioeconomic characteristics; and, to investigate resilience, researchers are developing a regional econometric model to estimate the effects of precipitation and temperature on income and employment in the last several decades. They are also developing a matrix that shows the income flows from each sector of the regional economy to each household income group.

The project, expected to be completed by September 1998, is supported by a three-year grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. It is part of RFF's Climate Economics and Policy Program, which aims to increase understanding and knowledge of the complex issues that must be addressed to design appropriate domestic and international climate change policies that are reliable and efficient.

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Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit organization that conducts original policy analysis and environmental economics research. RFF aims to provide accurate, objective information to policy makers, legislators, public opinion leaders, environmentalists, and the public to help them make better decisions about the conservation and use of their natural resources and the environment.

Resources for the Future (RFF)

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