By Bjorn Lomborg
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) just released its latest climate report, and reactions from politicians and media pundits could not have been more predictable. Fitting the apocalyptic narrative many have spun lately, the environment editor of the Guardian summarized this scientific report as finding mankind “guilty as hell” of “climate crimes of humanity.” (Needless to say, the report says no such thing.)
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the findings a “code red for humanity” saying we can only avert catastrophe by acting in the next couple of months. Of course, the UN has a long history of claiming catastrophe is right around the corner: The first UN environment director claimed half a century ago that we had just ten years left, and the then-head of the IPCC insisted in 2007 that we had just five years left.
In contrast to the hyperventilating media, the report is actually serious and sensible (and very, very long). It doesn’t surprise, since it is a summary of already published studies, but it reconfirms that global warming is indeed real and a problem.
But it also highlights how much one-sided thinking takes place in the climate conversation. Since the heat dome in the U.S. and Canada in June, there has been a lot of writing about more heat deaths. And the IPCC confirms that climate change has increased heatwaves. However, the report equally firmly tells us that global warming means “the frequency and intensity of cold extremes have decreased” — though this is virtually unacknowledged in the media.
This matters, because globally, many more people die from cold than from heat. A new study in the highly respected journal Lancet shows that about half a million people die annually from heat, but 4.5 million people die from cold. As temperatures have increased over the past two decades, that has caused an extra 116,000 heat deaths each year. This fits the narrative, of course, and is what we have heard over and over again.
You don’t hear this, but so far climate change saves 166,000 lives each year. But it turns out that because global warming has also reduced cold waves, we now see 283,000 fewer cold deaths. You don’t hear this, but so far climate change saves 166,000 lives each year.
Likewise, we have heard a lot about flooding in Germany and elsewhere being caused by climate change. But the new UN report tells us it has “low confidence in the human influence on the changes in high river flows on the global scale” — and low confidence in attributing “changes in the probability or magnitude of flood events.” The report tells us that the evidence isn’t there to say floods are caused or driven by climate change.
It also mentions climate upsides like the fact that more CO₂ in the atmosphere has acted as a fertilizer and created a profound global greening of the planet. One NASA study found that over a period of 35 years, climate change has added an area of green equivalent to two times the size of Australia. But don’t expect to read about this in any of the breathless articles on climate impact.
The new UN report only deals with the physical impact of climate change but of course much of what really matters is how humans handle this. Often the real problem of rising sea levels is converted into a catastrophe by arguing that nobody will adapt and everyone will drown or be displaced. Remember when news reports told us that rising seas will displace an astonishing 187 million people, potentially “drowning” entire cities like Miami in 80 years?
In reality, humans adapt, as Holland has shown. That’s why many models show that adaptation will reduce the number of flooded people 12,000-fold. As in the past, rising prosperity will continue to reduce flood impacts and climate change will merely slow down this reduction slightly.
Ultimately, this is why the scare stories on climate impacts are vastly overblown and not supported by this new climate report. One of the clearest ways to see this is through climate economics.
Because of economic development, the UN estimates that the average person in the world will become 450 per cent as well-off by 2100 as they are today. But climate change will have a cost, in that adaptation and challenges become somewhat harder. Because of climate change, the average person in 2100 will “only” be 436 per cent as well off as today.
This is not the apocalypse but a problem to which we should find smart fixes.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.