Climate Activists Need to Dial Back on the Panic

Instead of enacting phenomenally expensive policies, we need to come up with low-cost solutions to global warming that all nations can embrace

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

Visitors look at the Hongyashan water reservoir on the outskirts of Minqin town, Gansu province, China, on Sept. 20, 2013

On Friday, the U.N. climate panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), produced its first overview in six years. It wasn’t about panic and catastrophe, which unfortunately has dominated our climate debate, leading to expensive but ineffective policies.

The IPCC is now extremely certain that more than half of the past six decades’ temperature rise was caused by man. But it does not support the scary scenarios of temperature rises of 9°F or more bandied about by activists — the likely rise over the 21st century is about 1.8°F to 6.7°F. Similarly it makes short shrift of alarmist claims that sea levels will rise 3 ft. to 6 ft. In reality, the IPCC estimates the rise by the end of the century at 1.5 ft. to 2 ft.

(MORE: What the Climate Report Concedes)

Moreover, little or no temperature rise in the past 15 to 20 years reinforces this moderate message. Since 1980, the average of all the current climate models have overestimated the actual temperature rise by 71% to 159%. This does not mean that there is not some global warming, but it makes the worst scenarios ever more implausible.

Yet, our climate conversation has been dominated by fear and end-of-the-world thinking. While panic is a great way to raise awareness and to win votes, it is a terrible way to ground smart policies.

Remember Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, which was all the rage just seven years ago? His most shown clip vividly illustrated how a sea-level rise of 20 ft. would inundate Florida, along with Beijing and Bangladesh. Yes, it was terrifying. But it had no basis in reality.

Sea-level rise of 1.5 ft. to 2 ft. poses a quite more manageable challenge. For scale, sea levels rose about 1 ft. over the past 150 years. Our forefathers, poorer and less technologically adept than us, handled this challenge quite deftly, and there was no catastrophe — in fact, it is unlikely even to be mentioned in a list of problems of the 20th century.

We need to get back to reality. Yes, global warming is happening. In the long run, it has an overall negative impact. But actually — and surprisingly for many — economic models generally find that moderate global warming is a net global benefit. Worldwide and in almost all regions, many more people die from cold than heat. With increasing temperatures, avoided cold deaths will vastly outweigh extra heat deaths. By midcentury, researchers estimate 400,000 more heat deaths but 1.8 million fewer cold deaths.

(MORE: Can Climate Skeptics Save the Planet?)

Likewise, CO2 fertilizes crops and will increase production more in temperate countries than it will slow down crop increases in tropical countries. It will reduce heating costs more than it will increase cooling costs.

A new study by climate economist Richard Tol that is featured in my forthcoming book, How Much Have Global Problems Cost the World?: A Scorecard From 1900 to 2050, shows that since 1900, global warming has been an increasing net benefit for humanity and will peak around 2025 with an annual benefit of about 1.5% of GDP. Only toward the end of the century will global warming turn to a net loss — so while we need to do something, it must be cost-effective.

The problem is that we have been enacting policies that are phenomenally expensive but do little good. Take the world’s most significant climate policy, the so-called EU 20/20. The average of the top economic-energy models show that this policy costs $250 billion annually, mostly in reduced growth. Over the 21st century it will cost about $20 trillion in total. Yet, on a standard climate model, by the end of the century, it reduces the temperature rise by a trivial 0.1°F. For every dollar spent, it avoids 3¢ of global-warming damages.

Perhaps tellingly, the IPCC report got much less attention outside a worried Europe. The U.S. media was entirely consumed with the government’s looming debt-ceiling crisis. Meanwhile, much of the developing world understandably has more important priorities. We need to fix global warming, but we need to find smarter strategies to do so. Economists including three Nobel laureates in the Copenhagen Consensus for Climate found that the smartest, long-term solution would be not to subsidize today’s hugely inefficient green technologies but to focus on innovating to push down the costs of future generations of wind, solar and the many other, amazing possibilities. If future green technology becomes cheaper than fossil fuels, everyone would switch, not just subsidized, well-meaning Westerners.

The moderate new IPCC report ought to make our debate more constructive. Instead of being scared silly, we need to realize that global warming is one of many challenges to tackle during the 21st century and start fixing it now with low-cost, realistic innovation.

VIDEO: Climate Change Most Likely Caused by Humans

23 comments
opedanderson
opedanderson

Questioning global warming is not that same as denying it. 

mememine69
mememine69

The climate change consensus of them only agreeing on nothing beyond that it “could be” an inevitable crisis and NEVER agreeing or saying it will be a crisis makes 30 years of needless CO2 panic Liberalism' s Iraq War without a real enemy. Science has never agreed it will be so can you remaining climate blame believers stop saying it will be please?

Be a real progressive and get up to date:

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

mememine69
mememine69

All science has to do to silence us deniers and former believers is change their "maybe" consensus to a; "WILL be an inevitable crisis". What has to happen now after 30 years of "could be" warnings for science to agree it WILL be a crisis?

robdelaet
robdelaet

Dear Bjørn, we are not just dealing with global warming, we are dealing with increased extreme weather events, exhaustion of natural resources including water, a population growth of 200k a day, mass decrease in bio diversity, food production that is completely dependent on fossile fuels, unrest in the belt from egypt to pakistan reinforced by the stresses of drought and water problems and an financial economic system that will collapse if it does not grow? I think panic might be a very good reaction to the situation that requires to be fought on a war footing! kind regards, Rob de Laet

HisProphet
HisProphet

It'd be nice if this was correctly labeled as "op-ed" - I hate reading other people's opinions and biased interpretation of fact.  What a waste of time.

CameronL.Spitzer
CameronL.Spitzer

That's a great stack of talking points you've got there, Bjorn, straight from the same public relations firms that told us the science about tobacco was all wrong.  People who know something about how science works and how climate science has developed won't be fooled.  The anti-science PR campaign is counting on us being a small minority.  Each of Bjorn's talking points is completely debunked at skeptical science dot org.

GuyHolder
GuyHolder

Ever increasing human CO2 emissions have resulted in over 15 years of no warming. The models have proven unreliable. However, the situation is more urgent and climate "scientists" are more sure now than they were 6 years ago?

This is what I see reading between the lines, "We better hope we see some real warming soon or the jig is up".

jamesf161
jamesf161

Bjorn, you are but an economist. Stay with the affairs of trade. Damage to ecosystems, terrain and potential for feedback loops shall be evaluated by scientists. They shall devise solutions. You shall oversee their effective implementation. You will not determine the threat, or the solutions. You minimise cost. It is not your time yet. Wait and plan, do not speak on matters you do not have knowledge of.

jim_pettit
jim_pettit

Why do you suppose it is that, when citing the "three Nobel Laureate" economists in the Copenhagen Consensus for Climate, Lomborg failed to note that he himself both founded and now runs that organization? I'm not sure what it's labeled as now, but back when I went to journalism school, failing to fully disclose in an articles one's ties to an organization germane to that article of which one is a member (or, you know, the head) was called "a lie".

oakland57
oakland57

You can downplay the effects of global warming with all the statistics you like, but look at the extreme weather around the world being caused by a 1 degree rise in temperature.  You do not factor in that the tar sand will quadruple production to supply the US and Asia with the filthy bitumen.   You do not factor that the oceans are 80% full of plastic garbage, or the amount of toxins that corporations dump into our water ways with impunity, or the huge Chinese tankers that dump garbage and oil into our water.  The list of destruction to our planet if immeasurable. 

Yes, there's no reason to panic if we act now.  Exxon made $45 Billion profit last year.  Do you think the're in a hurry to clean up their act, or find a cleaner alternative? 

sleddawg63
sleddawg63

Thank you!  Finally someone gets it.  The rush to 'green' industry has been littered with misconceived, knee-jerk reactions.  Ethanol anyone?

I live in a city that has the biggest industrial solar array in Canada.   A tour of the grounds was a disheartening experience.  A terribly inefficient technology using up 500 acres of prime farm land.  Could have built greenhouses to reduce transportation carbon and saved the environment to a greater degree.

Until green energy generation is available to the average middle class home owner then it will be nothing but an inefficient cash grab.  Besides, roof-top solar panels don't take up valuable farm land...something we will desperately need long before the ice caps melt.


paromita87
paromita87

@robdelaet  

You forgot to mention, millions of  well fed, lazy, indulgent key board warriors, using resources at 40 times the rate at which others are, that too on debt or better still by printing money . Think about it as you grab the next beer from the refrigerator. Problems are easy to define ...so where do the solutions exists? Will you stop consuming the resources at a plundering rate or you want to get rid of the heathens?

opedanderson
opedanderson

@HisProphet You are describing basically everything that is written, so Im wondering what it is exactly that you read?

psienide
psienide

 Funny how the top of the webpage has "OPINION" labeled in red, and at the bottom of the article is disclaimer stating it is an opinion piece. Then again I don't expect you to pay attention to details - nor do I care if you make yourself look like an ass.

psienide
psienide

@CameronL.Spitzer Ahh, let us all employ logical fallacies(poisoning the well) to appear intelligent. Bravo. Bjorn's main point is that the alarmism sponsored by the IPCC has been, as it should be, turned down a notch. Comprehend reading much?

CameronL.Spitzer
CameronL.Spitzer

@GuyHolder Take a look at the graph of global average surface temperatures over the last hundred years.  It's not a monotonic ramp, it's a staircase.  That's because decade-long natural variations have about the same slope as the underlying warming.  There are three flat spots in the 20th century as long as the one we're in now.  But the actual warming is still accelerating.  Bjorn is counting on you being too dumb to find that graph.

psienide
psienide

@jamesf161 Wow - you must not have read the entire second half of the article, which highlights the economics behind warming and the proposed measures to fix it. Again, the folks commenting here have a major issue with basic reading comprehension.

CameronL.Spitzer
CameronL.Spitzer

@jim_pettit   The coal industry's anti-science public relations campaign is counting on you being too dumb to figure out that Bjorn is one of their flacks.

RandyCoots
RandyCoots

@oakland57 You're mixing up pollution and improper waste management with global warming. These are two very different subjects.

 Yes, both need to be addressed, but I guarantee you, plastic garbage bags in the ocean are not causing global warming.

psienide
psienide

@CameronL.Spitzer @GuyHolder Wait - didn't you just say decade-long natural variations have about the same slope as the underlying warming???

I guess you're counting on GuyHolder being too dumb to really understand what you said?