Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
Speaking at the United Nations, 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said that if humanity really understands the science of climate change and still fails to act, we’re “evil.” This is because climate change means “people are dying.” Helpfully, she also told us what we must do to act correctly: In a bit more than eight years, we will have exhausted our remaining allowance for carbon emissions, so we must shut down everything running on fossil fuels by 2028.
While this claim is not uncommon, it is fundamentally misguided. Yes, global warming is real and human-caused, but her vision of climate change as the end of the world is unsupported. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by the 2070s, the total effects of climate change, including on ecosystems, will be equivalent to a reduction in average income of 0.2 to 2 per cent. By then, each person on the planet will be 300 to 500 per-cent richer.
We don’t emit CO2 with malign intent. Indeed, it is a byproduct of giving humanity access to unprecedented amounts of energy.
Just a century ago, life was back-breaking. Plentiful energy made better lives possible, without having to spend hours collecting firewood, polluting your household with smoke, achieving heat, cold, transportation, light, food and opportunities. Life expectancy doubled. Plentiful energy, mostly from fossil fuels, has lifted more than a billion people out of poverty in just the past 25 years.
That is not evil – it is quite the opposite.
Ms. Thunberg believes that climate change means people are dying, but the fact is that weather-related disasters just a century ago killed half a million people each year. Today, despite rising temperatures but because of less poverty and more resilience, droughts, floods, hurricanes and extreme temperatures kill just 20,000 people each year – a reduction of 95 per cent. That is a morally commendable achievement.
Ending global fossil-fuel use by 2028 is a flawed plan because green energy is simply not in a place in its development where it can take over what fossil fuels leave behind. A hard by-hook-or-crook transition would cause a real, global catastrophe, sending most of us back into back-breaking poverty. That’s why developing countries, especially, want more fossil-fuel power, not less; they want to lift more people into comfortable lives.
What we need is low-CO₂ energy that can outcompete fossil fuels – which would make everyone, including China and India, switch. This means dramatically increasing global investment into green research and development, something that we have conspicuously failed to do these past decades, exactly because activists have consistently demanded solutions before they are ready.
Finally, Ms. Thunberg tells us that if we don’t cut off fossil fuels by 2028, the young generation will never forgive us. This, however, is reflective of a blinkered first-world view. When the United Nations asked 10 million people around the world what they prioritize, they highlighted five issues: health, education, jobs, corruption and nutrition. In sum, they care about their kids not dying from easily curable diseases, getting a decent education, not starving to death.
Climate came last of 16 choices. That’s not because it is unimportant, but because for most of humanity, other issues are much more pressing.
The problem is that climate is increasingly trumping all other issues. A third of all development aid, for instance, is now spent addressing climate, in direct defiance of the priorities of the world’s poor.
While we should address climate through higher investments in green-energy R&D, it seems truer to say that most of the world’s young will never forgive us if we prioritized climate above our duty to tackle poverty, health, education and nutrition.
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