May 18, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Trillions on the line with El Niño

Illustration of a tornado made of money.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The global economy loses trillions in the persisting downturn following an El Niño event, according to a new study.

Why it matters: A rapidly developing El Niño could result in a worldwide economic loss of upwards of $3 trillion through the end of the decade — costing some nations more than others.

The big picture: According to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science, the El Niño predicted for 2023 alone could result in more than $3 trillion of lost income by 2029.

How it works: The study looked at total GDP per capita growth in countries around the world, comparing reductions in GDP per capita following El Niño events and tallying up how much smaller the world economy was following an event than it would have been otherwise.

Context: A naturally occurring climate cycle that boosts global warming, El Niños are known to alter worldwide weather patterns.

What they found: Looking back, the 1982-83 and 1997-98 El Niño events caused the U.S. GDP to be roughly 3% lower in 1988 and 2003 than it would have been otherwise.

  • By contrast, the GDPs of coastal tropical nations — the paper cites Peru and Indonesia as examples — were lower by more than 10% over the same period.

What they're saying: Lead author Christopher Callahan, a Dartmouth Ph.D. candidate whose research focuses on the economic impacts of climate change, tells Axios the study is the first to evaluate the long-term "legacy" of an El Niño.

  • "We know that [El Niño] shapes food availability, fisheries, wildfires, extreme rainfall, all of these different extreme components of the climate system, and that these can have pretty substantial economic effects, especially in the tropics," says Callahan.
  • He notes that their findings point to a likelihood of a "major economic toll" relative to the coming El Niño, which will be hardest felt in tropical regions, where depression of economic growth can persist for up to a decade or more.

Yes, but: GDP only captures "a small portion of the consequences," according to Amir Jina, a climate researcher at the University of Chicago who is unaffiliated with the paper.

  • The findings reveal not just "how vulnerable we are right now," but also "how vulnerable we might be in future" as the climate gets more variable and extremes are more likely, says Jina in an email.

Of note: Research limitations include a small sample size — the paper's authors say there have been roughly a dozen El Niños in the late historical record with good observations — and uncertainty concerning what climate change will mean for El Niños in the future.

The bottom line: "The fact that these events are somewhat expected — in that they happen every few years, and have been forecastable since the 1980s — and yet we still see costs, is an extraordinary thing," says Jina.

  • "And yet we still haven't managed to fully remove the losses it might cause."
Go deeper