What if global warming isn't an existential threat to the planet after all? What if many of its impacts are more or less manageable? Wouldn't that be a relief?
Well, no. Not if you're Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, or any number of environmental activists who need prophecies of doom to raise money. Not if you're a climate scientist who depends on a steady stream of research funding to stay in business. Not if you're a politician who likes to bash the other side for its appalling lack of action.
But that's what the UN's own panel on climate change suggests. Compared to its last report in 2007, the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released last week is notably more subdued. Gone are the melting Himalayan glaciers, the monster hurricanes, the millions of climate refugees fleeing floods and drought. It says no species have yet been extinguished by climate change. And, it says, there's a lot we can do to adapt.
You won't have caught this nuance in media reports, which relied on a far more dramatic 49-page summary. Worst Is Yet To Come, said a headline in the New York Times. The CBC, for instance, used the report as an excuse to bash the Harper government for not restricting coal exports.
Almost all reporting about climate change is binary: There are warmers and deniers, and few in between. But the real fight isn't like that at all, observes climate critic Matt Ridley. It's between warmers and lukewarmers – people who believe climate change is an urgent, existential threat and those who think it's not that big a deal.
Unfortunately, the warmers have done their best to lump the lukewarmers in with the deniers. When Richard Tol, a Dutch professor of the economics of climate change, withdrew from the IPCC writing team because he thought the tone was too alarmist, he was denounced and ostracized. His belief is that by the end of the century, the overall effects of climate change will be damaging – but that warming will also have some positive effects that shouldn't be ignored. "The idea that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind is laughable," he wrote in the Financial Times.
"I don't think anybody really knows what's happening," James Lovelock, the eminent environmental scientist, told the British Broadcasting Corp. last week. "They just guess." He told the Guardian that environmentalism "has become a religion," and doesn't pay enough attention to the facts.
Much of the public seems to agree. The number of Americans who think the news media are exaggerating global warming has grown to 42 per cent, according to Gallup – and the fear-based approach has clearly backfired, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute wrote recently in The New York Times. If anything, it increases people's skepticism about the problem. It's not hard to figure out why. Cry "wolf" too often, and people start to tune you out.
For what it's worth, this is not an argument for doing nothing. It would be good to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Energy companies should be held to high environmental standards. Yet no matter what we do, the world is not about to give up fossil fuels, and cheap, reliable substitutes are a long way down the road.
Personally, I wish we'd spend more time on real catastrophes today than on hypothetical ones half a century from now. Perhaps the worst environmental problem in the world is indoor air pollution from cooking fires, which kills 4.3 million people a year prematurely – mostly women and children. Maybe we could do something about that.
I can't predict what the temperature will be 50 years from now, and neither can anybody else. What I will predict is that historians will look back and marvel that we got so hysterical about global warming. The planet is resilient. And people are, too.