Climate change will not cause our extinction. Life on Earth is better now than at any time – and will keep on getting better
Coronavirus might be dominating the news right now, but scare stories about climate change still abound and will undoubtedly return to centre stage once we finally get back to some kind of post-pandemic “normality.” Our ability to make a hash of dealing with the virus does not bode well for adopting sensible policies for coping with a warming world.
For example, this week, Bill Gates has written an article for his website titled “Covid-19 is awful. Climate change could be worse.” To be fair to Gates, at least his emphasis is on finding scientific and engineering solutions to our problems. As he points out, even with the lockdowns closing down large chunks of business activity and cutting travel to a fraction of former levels, greenhouse-gas emissions will probably be down by just eight per cent this year. We still need to eat, produce and transport goods, and heat our homes, after all.
That lesson won't be learned by the screaming harpies of the green movement, however. They will still demand that we somehow get down to “net zero” emissions in just a few years. The damage this would cause to human welfare is simply enormous.
So how might we respond to climate change without wrecking the economy and impoverishing billions of people? A new book provides some important suggestions. False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, by Bjorn Lomborg, looks at what climate change might cost us, according to the best evidence available, and how best to deal with it.
First things first: we are not facing armageddon. Lomborg, the Danish environmentalist who sprang to international prominence with his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, puts it bluntly: “We are not on the brink of imminent extinction. In fact, quite the opposite. The rhetoric of impending doom belies an absolutely essential point: life on earth is better now than at any time in history.” For example, “in 1900, the average life expectancy was 33 years; today, it is more than 71.” On every measure – nutrition, sanitation, education and much more – the people of the world are much better off than they were 100 years ago – and this improvement is highly likely to continue, particularly if we don't implement dumb and excessive green policies.
That doesn't mean that if the world gets markedly hotter that there won't be negative impacts. We don't need to take Lomborg's word for it. In 2014, the UN's climate-change panel, the IPCC, noted: “For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impact of other drivers [such as] changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance and many other aspects of socioeconomic development.”
Lomborg looks at a range of different scenarios devised by the IPCC to see where society might be headed by the end of the century. Even in the worst-case scenario – where countries simply stop cooperating with each other, ignore climate problems completely and focus on national security rather than education, technology and trade – per capita GDP is estimated to be 170 per cent of today's level.
If we go all out for economic growth, powered almost entirely by fossil fuels, but with a focus on rapid technological development, per capita GDP rises more than 1,000 percent by the end of the century. Even if we just muddle through with existing policies, economic output per person will be 450 percent higher in 2100.
In short, according to the very people that Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg demand that we listen to, the IPCC, not only will we avoid human extinction, but our descendants are likely to be considerably better off than we are today.
These rises in wealth will be much greater than the negative impacts of climate change. But Lomborg still thinks we should be tackling climate change anyway - just not in the ridiculously expensive and ineffective way that we are currently doing. The much-trumpeted Paris Agreement in 2015 is a hugely costly way of solving these problems (not that the signatories are even sticking to the weak commitments they made there). So, what's the best way forward?
Lomborg argues that we need a mix of innovation and fairly simple adaptation measures. We should invest much more heavily in new ways of powering the world that don't generate greenhouse gases. Obvious candidates are nuclear power and energy storage, which might finally make wind and solar power viable and cost-effective. We could develop technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, too. We should also consider geo-engineering solutions to cool the planet. Such investments may take decades to develop and disseminate, but they would cost much less than the crude (and largely failing) attempts to simply cut emissions we have today.
But his adaptation point is particularly important. We can cope with heat waves if people have greater access to air conditioning and we keep an eye on the most vulnerable people. We might have more serious floods in the future, but we should build the infrastructure to cope with every deluge, through flood protection measures and early-warning systems, rather than the small number of extra floods caused by climate change.
We know how to reduce the risk of wildfires, of the kind seen in recent years in California and Australia, through better forest management and stricter building codes. As for disease, climate campaigners have gone quiet on the claim that malaria will spread thanks to rising temperatures. That's because insecticide-impregnated bed nets and other fairly low-tech solutions have slashed the number of people contracting malaria in recent years.
With better crops and smarter use of irrigation, we have been able to keep increasing agricultural productivity. Fewer people than ever are suffering chronic malnutrition. Higher food production per unit of land means we don't need to constantly expand the area of the world's surface devoted to farming, so we can let it “return to nature.” We need to make those technologies more widely available.
Indeed, for Lomborg, economic development is the best way of tackling environmental problems. Poor people have to focus all their limited resources on just surviving. If people get richer, they can devote more time and attention to environmental problems. For example, forests may be in decline in some parts of the world, but richer countries are planting more and more trees, sharply slowing the net rate of global forest decline.
Marine pollution from plastic is a problem mostly in poorer countries that are in the process of development but have yet to implement good waste-management systems. Instead, the plastic waste gets dumped in rivers and ends up in the sea. As those countries get richer, they will have the resources to deal with waste.
We should stop terrifying children about climate change and worry much more about economic development. That will not only allow more and more people to lead long, productive and fulfilling lives but will enable us to take better care of our environment, too.
The eco-obsessions and misguided policies promoted by wealthy people in the developed world are thoroughly reactionary. They will hurt the poor everywhere and hold back the progress we have been making in freeing the world from want. Lomborg's book is not perfect, but it nonetheless makes a compelling case for why we need a radical change of policy in order to secure a better future for all.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.