Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This piece is adapted from his new book, False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.
It wasn’t that long ago when much of the global elite had conclusively decided that climate change was our world’s top priority. Then came a massive sideswiping by a global pandemic, of which we have only seen the first wave, along with an equally massive global recession. It serves as a timely reminder that an alarmism that cultivates one fear over others serves society poorly.
In the “BC” era – Before Coronavirus – the World Health Organization famously called climate change the “greatest threat to global health in the 21st century.” Even as coronavirus tentacles were already spreading, the glitterati gathered in Davos this January and declared climate accounted for all the long-term biggest risks to the world.
The media happily recounted a steady stream of catastrophic climate scenarios. Campaigners found climate dystopias excellent for fundraising. Politicians in search of votes promised to save us from climate harm with ever-stricter emission regulations.
Not surprisingly, these persistent scare stories have convinced many that the climatic end-of-the-world is nigh. One survey of 28 countries shows that almost half of all people believe climate change will likely lead to the extinction of the human race.
Global warming is a real challenge and a problem we need to tackle. But the alarmism makes it difficult for us to think smartly about climate solutions and it diverts our attention away from the many other important global issues.
Even before the coronavirus, this panic was vastly exaggerated. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself points out that, if we try to measure all the negative economic effects from climate change, it would be equivalent to reducing the average person’s income in the 2070s by just 0.2 per cent to 2 per cent. And this is from a base whereby the UN expects the average person in the 2070s to have an income 363 per cent higher than today’s income (accounting for inflation). So even the worst outcome of global warming will mean that we will be “only” 356 per cent richer than today. That is a problem, but not the end of the world.
Take the very real problem of sea level rise. This is often portrayed in near-apocalyptic terms. We recently have been treated to widespread reports that oceans could end up rising much more than what the UN climate panel tells us, displacing an astonishing 187 million people. Bloomberg News declared that coastal cities such as Miami may “drown in 80 years.”
In reality, the 187 million number assumes that, for the next 80 years, nobody in the world will do anything to deal with the rising waters. In real life, of course, countries adapt. The very study that gave the 187 million number also shows that with adaptation, such as protection with dikes or seawalls, the number of people who have to move by the end of the century is just 305,000. The number that made it around the world was exaggerated 600 times. For context, 305,000 people moving over the next 80 years is less than half the number of people that move out of California each year.
Moreover, the exclusive focus on climate change neglects that the world faces many other large challenges that we can engage in so much more effectively. Indeed, this is also what the vast majority of the world’s poor tell us to focus on. When the UN asked almost 10 million people what they regarded as the world’s top priorities, the vast majority – especially from the world’s poor – emphasized better education, health care, jobs, government and nutrition. Climate ranked 16th out of 16 priorities – right after phone and internet access.
There is an amazing array of effective solutions to many of the world’s ills. Nutrition is one of the world’s top priorities and for good reason. Effective nutrition in the first two years of a child’s life helps develop the brain, improves the educational impact and results in dramatically better-skilled adults. While nutrition only costs US$100 per child, it boosts the average child’s lifetime income by US$4,500 in today’s money. Essentially, it delivers a 45-to-1 return on investment.
The same can be said for many health interventions. While we obviously need to continue to address the coronavirus pandemic, let’s remember that the world’s leading infectious-disease killer is still tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is often overlooked, but it mostly kills adults in their prime and leaves children without parents. Yet, for only US$6-billion a year, the world could save nearly 1.6 million people from dying annually. When my think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, provided an analysis for philanthropist Bill Gates, he called the money he devoted to such disease prevention the “best investment I’ve ever made.”
Of course, we still need to address climate. Research shows the most effective way is to dramatically increase investment in green research and development. This could reduce the price of green energy below the costs of fossil fuels and make everyone switch. Because this would also be much cheaper than our current, ineffective policies that cost us hundreds of billions of dollars each year in subsidies for the current generation of ineffective renewables, our budgets would be able to tackle a much wider range of the world’s top issues.
When false climate alarm makes us insist on invoking climate at every turn, we end up helping the world only a little at a very high cost. We can – and must – do more, better and faster.
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