How alarmist rhetoric warps climate policy

By Bjorn Lomborg

August 26, 2017

Promoting his climate change film An Inconvenient Sequel, former US vice-president Al Gore likes to say that the nightly news has become “a nature hike through the Book of Revelations”.

He’s not the only one touting an apocalypse. In a much-shared story, New York magazine warned that famine, economic collapse and “a sun that cooks us” will happen as soon as the end of this century, as “parts of the Earth will likely become uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable”.

Climate change is not the biggest challenge in our future.

Even astrophysicist Stephen Hawking recently declared that US withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty “could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees (Celsius), and raining sulfuric acid”.

This is silly. Even the worst case scenarios from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change show 5C-6C temperature increases, about 50 times less than Hawking fears.

The cost of weather damage is rising, but it’s because we’re richer. Since 1990, global weather damage adjusted for gross domestic product has declined. And because we’re richer and can afford better infrastructure, fewer people are dying. In the 1930s, droughts, floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures globally killed almost 500,000 people every year. Today they kill fewer than 25,000 people. Despite the population trebling, we have seen a 95 per cent reduction in climate deaths.

The IPCC estimates that, by the 2070s, climate change may cost the world somewhere between 0.2 per cent to 2 per cent of GDP. That’s a problem, but by no means the end of the world. The IPCC finds that for most economic sectors, “the impact of climate change will be small relative to the impacts of other drivers” such as changes in population, age, income, technology, relative prices, lifestyle, regulation and governance.

Just pause and reflect on that. The UN organisation tasked with preparing for the risks of global warming warns that demographic changes and most other challenges are going to have a much bigger impact than climate change.

Global warming is an issue and one that we need to tackle, but the unglamorous truth is that it is by no means the biggest factor in our future wellbeing.

The reason for the over-the-top rhetoric is that climate policies are much more expensive than almost anyone is willing to go along with.

The Paris Agreement, supported by Gore and others, states that we should try to limit temperature increases to 1.5C. The evidence shows us this would require stopping all fossil fuel use in just four years. Humanity, which meets about 81 per cent of its energy needs with fossil fuels, would come to a standstill. People would starve: half the world’s population relies on food produced with nitrogen fertiliser, almost entirely processed with fossil fuels.

This extreme scenario is not going to happen. Study after study shows that most people are somewhat concerned about climate but only moderately interested in paying for a solution. In the US, the average annual willingness to pay is $US180 ($228) a household or $US70 a person. In China, it is $US30 a person a year. These are likely exaggerations, since people give a much bigger number when the question is hypothetical. Compared with the figure people say they would be willing to spend to offset CO2 emissions from flights each year, real-life travellers spend much less than 1 per cent.

The Paris Agreement will cost each American $US500 a year, each European $US600 and each Chinese person $US170. Despite rhetoric about keeping temperatures below 1.5C, these promises together will achieve almost nothing. By the UN’s own estimate, the Paris Agreement will reduce emissions by less than 1 per cent of what would be needed to keep temperature rises under 2C (a less ambitious target than 1.5C) yet will cost $US1 trillion to $2 trillion a year by 2030, mostly in reduced GDP growth. The treaty will deliver far less than most people expect, yet will cost much more than most people are willing to pay.

Achieving significant cuts would be much more expensive. For the EU to fulfil its promise of cutting emissions by 80 per cent in 2050 (the most ambitious climate policy in the world), the average of the best peer-reviewed models show that the cost would run to at least $US3 trillion a year, and more likely double that — meaning $US6000 for each EU citizen a year.

This helps explain why campaigners resort to painting ever-more catastrophic scenarios. Alarming predictions push us to devote more attention to climate policies — and, in the process, to spend more tax dollars on solar subsidies instead of healthcare, pension reform, libraries or education. People in the rich world — especially the poor, unemployed and elderly — are left paying for climate policies that will do little to fix the problem while leaving fewer resources for other issues.

The world’s poor are given an even worse deal. They are most vulnerable to climate change, but they are also the most vulnerable to a long list of health and development challenges that often go overlooked. Focusing just on climate means international concern and development spending is directed towards this rather than more pedestrian concerns such as tuberculosis, one of the leading causes of death in the world, where we could save 1.4 million lives every year for just $US8 billion. One-quarter of development now goes to “climate aid” — things such as ineffective off-grid solar panels. This is incredibly ineffective and not what the world’s poorest want: a UN global poll of nearly 10 million people finds climate to be the lowest policy priority, far behind education, food security and health.

Fostering a sense of panic doesn’t just distract us from other issues; it also means we don’t tackle climate change well. Economic studies show the right way forward is not subsidising inefficient solar panels, the mainstay of today’s climate spending, but to increase investment in green energy research and development to push down the cost below fossil fuels.

Over-the-top, alarmist rhetoric has a real cost. It encourages us to engage in phenomenally expensive and unhelpful climate policies while ignoring the smaller, cheaper and more realistic ways to respond to this and the challenges that will be much more pressing.

Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School.

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