“False Alarm: How Climate Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” is the new book by the Danish political scientist and author, Bjørn Lomborg.
In it, Lomborg hones in on the subject which is rapidly becoming the most consequential area of political and social debate: climate change.
The risks posed by climate change, he argues, are exaggerated. Furthermore, the policy measures which governments around the world have embraced – like subsidising solar and wind power – are failing miserably.
Most importantly of all, a continuation of this fear-driven approach will result in serious costs to the world’s population over the next century, particularly poorer people in developing countries who cannot enter the middle-class without access to the affordable and reliable energy which comes from fossil fuels.
In spite of the obvious trade-off, it has almost become an axiom that climate change is an existential threat to mankind, and that all measures which could be taken to cut emissions should be taken, regardless of the financial or practical cost.
Just a few years ago, for instance, calls for a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the next decade would have been dismissed as being completely unachievable.
Yet now, that target is part of a Programme for Government which Ireland has happily signed up to.
These policy changes could not have occurred if a large segment of the population were not deeply worried.
A narrative this dominant inevitably seeps through to most of society. This is shown in polls cited by Lomborg which show that significant percentages of the world’s population – including four in ten Americans – believe global warming will lead to mankind’s extinction.
Here, as he has done in previous books such as “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” Lomborg calmly examines the facts and argues that this extreme pessimism is unfounded, given the undeniable progress which humankind has made.
Since 1900, average life expectancy has more than doubled, from 33 to 71. Rates of absolute poverty and illiteracy have shrunk and child labour has become rarer.
On the whole, people are living longer, healthier, more prosperous and more peaceful lives than ever before, and there is a very good chance that this progress will continue, with UN researchers estimating that by 2100 average incomes will be at 450 percent of today’s levels.
This much is hard to dispute given the abundance of data available, but interestingly Lomborg also asserts that the health of the planet is actually improving in ways which benefit us substantially.
“Higher agricultural yields and changing attitudes to the environment have meant rich countries are increasingly preserving forests and reforesting. And since 1990, 2.6 billion more people gained access to improved water sources, bringing the global total to 91 percent,” Lomborg notes. “Many of these improvements have come about because we have gotten richer, both as individuals and as nations.”
This is a core point in his overall argument. While many self-described environmentalists and socialists (these days, the two groups are scarcely distinguishable) claim that economic prosperity threatens the planet, Lomborg takes the opposite viewpoint.
Not only does greater wealth improve the quality of life, enhanced affluence also allows us to focus more attention on protecting the world around us.
To be clear, Lomborg is not a “climate change denier.”
A committed environmentalist, he refrains from eating meat, and welcomes the recent tendency to avoid giving the oxygen of publicity to those who dispute the science about rising temperatures.
Lomborg believes that climate change will have a negative impact overall, and insists it needs to be tackled.
However, he takes aim at those who have exaggerated the damage which has been occurring.
In the wake of any extreme weather events, politicians and campaigners are quick to point to the enormous economic toll as a reason to support measures such as new taxes, the closure of high-emitting industries, anti-car policies or dramatic changes to farming practices.
This, to Lomborg, is a false alarm.
True, the costs related to increased flooding or forest fires have increased, and rare events such as hurricanes or tropical storms can also pose enormous challenges.
But this increased cost comes at a time when we are much better able to afford to repair what nature has wrought, and where our improved material conditions mean we are far less likely to be physically harmed.
As Lomborg observes, deaths from climate-related disasters have dropped dramatically over the last century, at a time when carbon emissions and temperatures were going up. In the 1920s, such disasters killed almost 500,000 people annually, but now claim fewer than 20,000 lives annually, in spite of the world’s population having increased fourfold over the last century.
Higher incomes make for better and more secure housing, and as the developing world continues to make economic advances, the numbers dying needlessly due to natural disasters will likely fall even further.
While increased economic damage over the next century is very likely, there is an explanation for this too. As the world’s population has increased, so too has the number of houses and the amount of infrastructure in place.
The same sized flood or storm today will cause more financial damage than it would have a century ago, but recent economic growth means we are better able to afford this.
One of the areas where alarmist media coverage has been most evident is the issue of rising sea levels.
Prominent media outlets frequently point to a future where many large cities are submerged below water, as if this was going to happen suddenly, and as if humans were powerless to take defensive action.
Here again, Lomborg draws attention to what should be obvious.
Significant portions of the world are already at or below sea level and thriving regardless. The Netherlands and large areas of Vietnam, for instance, have long safeguarded low-lying areas by investing in dikes, dams and other flood protection measures.
As sea levels rise, a large amount of additional investment will be needed elsewhere in the next century, but again, this is far from being beyond the means of developed – and even developing – countries.
The greatest value of Lomborg’s analysis lies in his examination of the costs and benefits of existing policy approaches.
Given the consistent failure of solar and wind power to deliver results, he is deeply sceptical about large-scale investment in those areas, but he does have a number of policy recommendations, including the dedication of far more resources to efforts to adapt to a warming planet; a universal but modest carbon tax; and a dramatic increase in R&D spending on new technologies.
Above all else, Lomborg’s message is that we need to view the problem differently. Climate change, he writes, “is not like a huge asteroid hurtling towards Earth, where we need to stop everything else and mobilise the entire global economy to ward off the end of the world. It is instead a long-term chronic condition like diabetes – a problem that needs attention and focus, but one that we can live with.”
In this new reality, where every facet of government policy is likely to be impacted by how we respond to our planet’s changing climate, remaining out of this debate is no longer an option.
As such, it is well-worth taking the time to hear the views of a true humanist, a man who is confident that we have the ability not just to adapt and survive, but to prosper and improve as well.
James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including… More by James Bradshaw
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