The Catastrophe Question Backgrounder
The news is filled with warnings of an ongoing climate crisis.
Cities and governments in Canada and around the world have been issuing declarations of a Climate Emergency.
The UN Secretary General has called upon world leaders to “act now to save our planet.”
And closer to home, the Environment Commissioner of Ontario called climate change “arguably the most significant crisis humanity has ever faced.”
Bosh. Worse than the black plague that killed half of Europe’s population in the 1340’s? Worse, than the demographic catastrophe that followed the coming of European diseases to the Americas? Worse than either World War or the threat of nuclear annihilation? Worse than the Great Depression or the Fall of Rome?
I’m John Robson, and you’re watching a Climate Discussion Nexus backgrounder on the Catastrophe Question.
Now here’s a different perspective. Swedish climate scientist Dr. Lennart Bengtsson is one of the top experts in his field, having served as head of both the European Weather Centre and the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. He was recently asked to comment on the magnitude of 20th century climate change.
“The warming we have had over the last 100 years,” he said, “is so small that if we didn’t have meteorologists and climatologists to measure it we wouldn’t have noticed it at all.”
It’s too small to notice. And that’s important to keep in mind to maintain perspective. Yes, there’s lots of evidence that the world has warmed a bit since the 1800s. But compared to ordinary weather variability the changes have been tiny. They’re surely too small to cause catastrophe and they certainly have not already done so.
Now, we’re often told that this or that year is the “warmest year on record” as though it were self-evidently bad. And we’re also often told that the terrible effects of climate change are already taking a massive toll.
But what other records have we set recently?
The world is richer now than ever before.
The number of people living in poverty is at an all time low.
Global food production is at an all time high.
The air and water is cleaner, especially in wealthy countries.
And the number of people dying from extreme weather events is down by over 90 percent since 1900 even though global population has more than quadrupled.
Those are remarkable numbers. And the widespread availability of inexpensive, reliable and reasonably clean energy from fossil fuels was an essential ingredient for all of them.
And even if the gentle warming since 1900 was entirely due to fossil fuel use, which it certainly was not, it didn’t prevent any of these wonderful things from happening.
Ah, but what of the future, people say. Our carbon sins are about to catch up with us.
You might certainly start thinking so after all the apocalyptic rhetoric about climate change from government leaders and from journalists. Listening to them talk you could easily assume that the connection between warming and current or imminent catastrophe has been scientifically proven.
Except that’s not what the experts are saying. A few years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, asked a group of scientists and economists to assess the likely economic impacts of climate change over the next hundred years. So they looked at the projections of global warming and studied how people have adapted to climate variability in the past. And this was their overall conclusion: (p. 662)
For most economic sectors, the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers. Changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation, governance, and many other aspects of socioeconomic development will have an impact on the supply and demand of economic goods and services that is large relative to the impact of climate change.
In other words, the relative balance of importance between climate change and everything else will be about the same over the next hundred years as it was over the past hundred years. The sky is not falling, nor is it burning.
But one point the IPCC emphasized is that the actual impacts of climate change will depend strongly on how people adapt.
After all, humans already live and thrive in every climate on Earth, from the Arctic to the tropics, from the wilderness to cities.
We’re very adaptable creatures. What’s more, given the choice, we prefer warmth to cold. Think where people with money go on vacations. Except for adventure tourists or mountain climbers, they go somewhere warm.
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Another key point that the IPCC made was that wealth matters. Wealthy countries are able to adapt and be resilient in the face of weather variability and climate change, much more so than poor countries. That’s why climate change policies that reduce our prosperity make it harder, not easier, to deal with whatever climate variability might be coming our way.
Unfortunately, in the name of climate virtue signalling, some wealthy countries are now putting up roadblocks to the development of life-saving, adaptivity-enhancing wealth for people in poorer countries.
For instance, at a 2014 UN Climate Summit, Germany proudly announced that it would block financing for the development of coal-fired power generating stations in developing countries, even though modern coal plants, in developing countries as well as in advanced countries, are far cleaner and more efficient than the ones that put Germany and other western countries on the path to their current wealth.
The real crisis is that climate change policies are beginning to threaten our prosperity, and the ability of developing countries to lift their people out of poverty,
Meanwhile, the experts in the IPCC said that as long we are adaptable, even if the models are right and the world warms due to greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll be able to deal with it. For instance, if farmers adapt to a changing climate they’ll come out about even, and some crop yields could actually go up. Once again, climate change will matter less than economic and technological changes. Here is how they phrased it:
It is only about as likely as not that the net effect of climate and CO2 changes on global yields will be negative by 2050, but likely that such changes will occur later in the 21st century.
At the same time, it is likely that socioeconomic and technological trends, including changes in institutions and policies, will remain a relatively stronger driver of food security over the next few decades than climate change. (p. 513)
As for forestry, they were pretty blunt. (p. 676)
Including adaptation in forest management, climate change will accelerate tree growth. This will reduce prices to the benefit of consumers everywhere.
It’s not the calamity you’ve been led to believe. And that’s why the biggest threat to the advancements we’ve made over the past century and more isn’t climate change, it’s climate change policy.
So, shouldn’t we be debating whether the policies are worth it? Some world leaders think we shouldn’t even be allowed to ask. In a 2007 speech about climate change to the UN, former Norwegian President Gro Harlem Brundtland went so far as to say, “It is irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral to question the seriousness of the situation.”
No it’s not. Quite the contrary. It’s irresponsible, reckless and deeply immoral not to ask questions about policies that might do enormous harm for minimal benefit. If the questions are stupid, they should be easy to answer. And if you can’t answer them, hollering “Silence!” is no substitute. It’s not how open societies work. And I won’t be silenced.
Here’s the bottom line. Climate variability is a fact of life on this planet. Regardless of the extent to which our actions might add to it, we can’t wave a magic wand and make it stop. So our priority should be achieving economic resiliency and continuing to be adaptable and innovative, because from what we know today, climate change in the future almost certainly won’t be a catastrophe. It will more likely be a footnote, just as it was over the past century.
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For the Climate Discussion Nexus, I’m John Robson