Friday, September 16, 2016
Economic Growth and Sustainability
Extreme weather certainly throws a ringer into key short-term macroeconomic statistics. It can add or subtract Recent After two crazy winters in Boston, where I live, it would be hard to convince people that weather doesn’t matter. Last year, the city experienced the The US as a whole did not have a winter as extreme as New England’s in the first part of 2015, and the effects of the weather on the country’s overall economy were subdued. True, New York City had some significant snowfalls; but no one would have paid much attention had the mayor been more competent in getting the streets plowed. Eastern Canada suffered much more, with severe winter weather playing a role (along with lower commodity prices) in the country’s mini-recession in the first half of the year. This year’s winter is the polar opposite of last year’s. It was 68º Fahrenheit (20º Celsius) at Boston’s Logan Airport the day before Christmas, and the first speck of snow didn’t come until just before New Year’s Day. Trees and plants, sensing spring, started to blossom; birds were just as confused. Last winter Boston was something of an anomaly. This year, thanks in part to El Niño, weird weather is the new normal. From Russia to Switzerland, temperatures have been elevated by 4-5º Celsius, and the weather patterns look set to remain highly unusual in 2016. The effect on developing countries is of particular concern, because many are already reeling from the negative impact of China’s slowdown on commodity prices, and because drought conditions could lead to severe crop shortfalls. The last severe El Niño, in 1997-1998, which some called the “El Niño of the Century,” represented a The economic effects of El Niño events are almost as complex as the underlying weather phenomenon itself and therefore are difficult to predict. When we look back on 2016, however, it is quite possible that El Niño will be regarded as one of the major drivers of economic performance in many key countries, with Zimbabwe and South Africa facing drought and food crises, and Indonesia struggling with forest fires. In the American Midwest, there has lately been massive flooding. There is a long history of weather having a profound impact on civil strife as well. Economist Emily Oster has argued that the biggest spikes in witch burnings in the Middle Ages, in which hundreds of thousands (mostly women) were killed, came during periods of economic deprivation and apparently On a more mundane level (but highly consequential economically), the warm weather in the US may very well cloud the job numbers the Federal Reserve uses in deciding when to raise interest rates. It is true that employment data are already seasonally adjusted to allow for normal weather differences in temperate zones; construction is always higher during spring than winter. But standard seasonal adjustments do not account for major weather deviations.