Overheating about global warming can backfire

Bjørn Lomborg
Yes, global warming is a problem, but it is nowhere near a catastrophe.
Bjørn Lomborg

Across the rich world, school students have walked out of classrooms and taken to the streets to call for action against climate change.

They are inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who blasts the media and political leaders for ignoring global warming and wants us to “panic.”

Although the students’ passion is admirable, their focus is misguided. It is little wonder that kids are scared when grown-ups paint such a horrific picture of global warming.

For starters, leading politicians and much of the media have prioritized climate change over other issues facing the planet.

Just last month, The New York Times ran a front-page commentary on the issue with the headline “Time to Panic.” And some prominent politicians, as well as many activists, have taken the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to suggest the world will come to an end in just 12 years.

And in 2007, The Washington Post reported that “for many children and young adults, global warming is the atomic bomb of today.”

When the language stops being scary, it gets ramped up again. Environmental campaigner George Monbiot, for example, has suggested that the term “climate change” is no longer adequate and should be replaced by “catastrophic climate breakdown.”

Reality would sell far fewer newspapers.

Yes, global warming is a problem, but it is nowhere near a catastrophe.

The IPCC estimates that the total impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to an average loss of income of 0.2-2 percent — similar to one recession over the next half-century.

The panel also says that climate change will have a “small” economic impact compared to changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, and governance.

And while media showcase the terrifying impacts of every hurricane, the IPCC finds that “globally, there is low confidence in attribution of changes in (hurricanes) to human influence.”

What’s more, the number of hurricanes that make landfall in the United States has decreased, as has the number of strong hurricanes. Adjusted for population and wealth, hurricane costs show “no trend,” according to a new study published in Nature.

Tell-tale numbers

Another Nature study shows that although climate change will increase hurricane damage, greater wealth will make us even more resilient.

Today, hurricanes cost the world 0.04 percent of GDP, but in 2100, even with global warming, they will cost half as much, or 0.02 percent of GDP.

And, contrary to breathless media reports, the relative global cost of all extreme weather since 1990 has been declining, not increasing.

Meanwhile, decades of fearmongering have gotten us almost nowhere. What they have done is prompt grand political gestures, such as the unrealistic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions that almost every country has promised.

In total, these cuts will cost US$1-2 trillion per year.

But the sum total of all these promises is less than 1 percent of what is needed, and recent analysis shows that very few countries are actually meeting their commitments.

In this regard, the young protesters have a point: The world is failing to solve climate change. But the policy being pushed will also fail, because green energy still isn’t ready.

Solar and wind currently provide less than 1 percent of the world’s energy, and already require subsidies of US$129 billion per year. The world must invest more in green-energy research and development eventually to bring the prices of renewables below those of fossil fuels, so that everyone will switch.

And although media reports describe the youth climate protests as “global,” they have taken place almost exclusively in wealthy countries that have overcome more pressing issues of survival.

A truly global poll shows that climate change is people’s lowest priority, far behind health, education, and jobs. We need a calmer approach that addresses climate change without scaring us needlessly and that pays heed to the many other challenges facing the planet.

Bjørn Lomborg, a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School, is Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019. www.project-syndicate.org

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