In early May 2011, a couple dozen followers of the radio evangelist Harold Camping arrived in Washington, D.C. declaring that the end of the world would happen in a few weeks — May 21, 2011, to be exact. Camping, who had thousands of followers across the nation, had made his apocalyptic prediction based on a complicated mathematical calculation he claimed was derived from Scripture. So his faithful listeners sold many of their belongings and hit the road with signs warning of God’s impending judgment.
Of course, Camping was wrong, and was justifiably ridiculed by fellow Christians and secular media alike. He died two years later, humbled and embarrassed. But foolhardy millenarianism is not the only form of excessive alarmism worthy of our skepticism.
Take, for example, the (sometimes clinical) anxiety caused by climate change, which, like God’s judgment, is a real problem, but has also elicited all manner of absurd and counterproductive predictions and solutions. That has certainly been the case with American biologist Paul Ehrlich, who in his 1968 book The Population Bomb foretold that in the 1970s and 1980s mankind would suffer mass famine and starvation due to overpopulation. The opposite happened, as billions of people across the world were pulled out of poverty by global capitalist free trade.
Despite Ehrlich’s false prognostications, even more Americans are afraid of the impending ecological disasters than they were 50 years ago. Celebrities are declaring their refusal to bring children into the world because of the perils facing the environment. Surveys of children are finding increased levels of fear, anxiety, guilt, and depression among the world’s youth because of climate change, typified by the media attention heaped on young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.
In False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails To Fix the Planet, professor and best-selling Danish author Bjorn Lomborg offers a data-based analysis of climate anxiety as it is typically communicated to the masses via corporate media. Lomborg notes two problems with the tenor of this messaging.
The first is that in material terms, life is better now than at any point in history. The second is that many of the recommendations offered by climate activists and sympathetic governments will not do very much to curb the effects of climate change.
What Exactly Is to Be Done?
Let’s look briefly at the first. In 1900, for example, 30 percent of all deaths in the United States occurred in children younger than 5 years of age; in 1999, it was only 1.4 percent. Between 1990 and 2015, the percentage of the world practicing open defecation (yes, you read that right), dropped from 30 to 15 percent.
Literacy has dramatically increased, child labor and poverty have been dropping for decades, and since 1990, 1.2 million fewer people per year are dying from indoor air pollution. Also, contrary to Ehrlich’s predictions, agricultural yields and access to improved water sources has skyrocketed, and the global population keeps growing.
But yes, it’s true, the climate is changing, and in ways that harm the planet. The Keeling Curve shows the rise of CO2 levels to now over 400 ppm, and there has been a significant increase in global temperature in the last hundred years. Human hydrocarbon use is significantly adding to the Keeling Curve, and CO2 is contributing to radiative forcing (i.e., the greenhouse gas effect). These, if left unchecked, will indeed cause quite a bit of damage to humanity and nature especially those in more vulnerable locations, whether it be the hottest places on the planet, or communities at or near sea level.
The most salient question, however, is what exactly is to be done about this, especially given that much of the world’s prospects have benefited from more access to energy. Moreover, as Lomborg notes, the best available research indicates that the cost of climate change by the end of this century — if we do absolutely nothing — is about 3.6 percent of global GDP, which is not exactly bank-breaking.
Indeed, the pandemic is a valuable case study in addressing climate change, given that emissions plummeted in 2020. In one study, 49 researchers used 12 models to run 300 simulations of the emission reductions related to COVID-19 lockdowns, and “could not detect any associated impact on temperature or rainfall.” This means that even if we permanently limited our commuting to levels found across the developed world during the pandemic, the effect on the environment would be negligible.
It seems most dramatic steps politicians have taken to combat climate change amount to little more than tokenism. Canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, a key objective of the Biden administration, will result in offsetting nothing more than 11 days of the increase in emissions by China in 2020. America rejoining the Paris Agreement will reduce global temperature increases by the end of this century by an estimated maximum of 0.015°F. And if America doubles Obama’s Paris Agreement reductions by 2030, it is estimated to only reduce temperatures in 2100 by 0.07°F.
Similar economically transformative proposals by the European Union to reduce carbon emissions will postpone global warming by about two weeks by the end of the century. All of this, obviously, amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket, given climatologists warn we ultimately need to reduce global temperatures by 1-2°F.
More dramatic measures, of course, will result in significant costs to humans, including not only dramatic declines in our standard of living, but limiting, if not reversing, many of the positive global trends discussed above. Most people on the planet, even those on the liberal end of the spectrum, have expressed an unwillingness to bear those costs.
Lomborg offers five suggestions for a better, more realistic vision in confronting the very real challenge of climate change. The first is to evaluate climate policy according to the same method that we evaluate any other problem: costs and benefits.
The best research on costs and benefits regarding carbon dioxide, for example, suggests we should cut some, but not all CO2 emissions, perhaps through a carbon tax — incurring some cost (about 0.4 percent of total GDP), but securing fewer climate damages (worth about 0.8 percent of total GDP). Doing something far more dramatic regarding CO2 would incur severe economic costs and gain disproportionately minor benefits.
The second suggestion is to consider smarter solutions to climate change. Lomborg cites as an example models that show that each dollar invested in green energy research and development avoids $11 in climate damage. Strangely (and worryingly), the fraction of wealthy countries’ GDP going into R&D has halved since the 1980s. Part of the reason for this is that people overemphasize very visible demonstrations of “fighting climate change,” such as solar panels, over less sexy “guys in white lab coats” designing various things that are more energy-efficient.
Third, the world must adapt to changes. For example, as temperatures rise, some wheat varieties will likely produce less, and more wheat farming will necessarily be done closer to the north and south poles. Another example is investing in smarter disaster preparation and better building codes, as New York City has done since tropical storm Sandy in 2012.
Fourth, and perhaps more controversially, Lomborg urges more research in geoengineering, which mimics natural processes to very quickly reduce the earth’s temperature. For example, volcanic eruptions, which can emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, can reduce global temperatures, as they likely did in the “little ice age” in the medieval period. As many environmental experts warn, this is also very risky, and should be considered only as a backup policy if, for example, the West Antarctic ice sheet starts to melt very rapidly.
Finally, we should remind ourselves that climate change is one of many challenges we face. It is not the most important, and for many, it is one of the least important. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals interviewed 9.7 million people across the world, and found that climate change came out last among 16 options, with education, health, and jobs taking the top three slots.
Of course, people can be terribly wrong about what is the greatest threat to their wellbeing – consider the ridiculous ruckus over the Texas abortion law. They can also be wrong about the solutions. Lomborg, I would argue, is a bit too sanguine about free trade and contraception as net benefits for humanity, given the second- and third-order effects of both.
Nevertheless, whether you are agonizingly fearful of a climate change-induced disastrous future, or if the threat barely registers on your radar, Lomborg’s ultimate point is well taken. Governments and mass media need to think and act a bit more prudentially about this threat. Otherwise, we will, like Harold Camping and his acolytes, end up playing the fool.