The world looks awfully bleak these days. A pandemic, war, the potential for famine on a colossal scale. Rampant inflation, expensive energy, a climate emergency, a world that seems divided like never before. Everywhere you look, it just seems like things are getting worse.
But are they really?
“If it bleeds, it leads,” so says the old media adage. Sadly, this is true; bad news really is more popular than good news. And we are saturated with it. It’s easy for a sense of nihilism to creep in; a sense of inevitability, that the world will not survive through the end of our lifetimes. Why have children in a world without a future? This isn’t just a philosophical question; birth rates have plummeted around the world. It’s worth asking the question: is the world really on the brink, or are we just being sold a story?
We have been sold a story – a lie. The world isn’t getting worse. It’s getting better. You are living in the most prosperous time in human history. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to share with you the astonishing plethora of good news all around us. First, let’s start with the big one: climate change.
Are We Headed for Environmental Armageddon?
Everywhere you look, you are being told that climate change is destroying the world, we’re killing all the animals, and billions of people are going to die. At least, that’s what environmental groups, like Extinction Rebellion, would have you believe.
I have been interested in the subject of global warming, now known as climate change, since I was a teenager, after reading Michael Crichton’s brilliant novel State of Fear (still worth a read, 22 years later). I don’t profess to be any sort of an expert on the subject. But I have done a lot of reading about it. I would also say that I, as a farmer, along with anyone who depends on the vagaries of nature for their next meal, have a deeper connection with day-to-day and long-term weather cycles than most. We live it. I’ve always carried, and continue to carry, a large degree of skepticism for anyone forecasting the end of the world, and that it’s different this time. In this line of work, droughts and floods come and go. Are they worse today? I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me of that.
First, despite my skepticism, I’m not going to deny that we have had and continue to have an impact on the environment and the climate. The greenhouse effect is real, and the world’s temperature does appear to have increased, somewhat, over the past several decades. What the media continues to get wrong, though, is the magnitude of that impact. Let me explain, as best as I am able, the research that many scientists, including research from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself, have done to show the reality of it. For better, more detailed explanations and analysis, go straight to the end of my post and read the books in the further reading section. Let’s get into it.
We’re seeing far more climate-related disasters, right? Well, not exactly. The death toll from natural disasters peaked at 5.4 million people a decade – in the 1920’s. It has declined 92 percent since then, in a period when human population quadrupled. We tend to forget about adaptation – just as the Netherlands adapted to being a country below sea level so magnificently that they became one of the top agri-food exporters on the planet, so too will people adapt to rising sea levels. It will be costly, but doable, even for the world’s poor. While heat waves may be increasing, cold snaps are still far, far deadlier than heat waves. For example, in India, scientific literature shows that extreme cold kills twice as many as extreme heat. So, while rising world temperatures will cause more heat-related fatalities, these will be at least offset by a reduction in cold-related deaths. And, increasing wealth around the world increases the average person’s ability to afford air conditioning, which will further lessen heat-related deaths. A potential problem? Yes. A world-ending catastrophe? No.
What about our impact on plant life? Well, global greening from increased CO2 and improved farming practices over the past thirty-five years has increased leaves on plants and trees equivalent in an area two times the size continental United States. Will this greening effect continue? Maybe not. But it certainly is a positive effect. It’s also worth noting that the link between climate change and drought is tenuous at best, according to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, there isn’t a strong case to be made that droughts are increasing at all. Will some areas experience more droughts in the future? Probably, but only if carbon emissions increase drastically from today. Again, not a catastrophe.
The very same story is at play for flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events: the evidence that these are increasing is weak and far fewer people die from these events today than ever before (99 percent fewer since the 1920’s). So why do we hear so much about it? Well, property damage is definitely worse, since so many people insist on building in flood plains and near the ocean. But, once adjusted for inflation and the growth in economic size for developed countries like the US, we discover that the increase in the number of catastrophic disasters is statistically insignificant.
One of the pathways towards improving the environment we seem to rarely recognize is economic prosperity. Wealthier people aren’t reliant on small-scale farming, where one bad storm can doom an entire family. They have enough resources to care about conserving nature. One of the best ways to create prosperity is to provide cheap, abundant, reliable energy, which includes coal, oil, or better yet, natural gas, which will simultaneously reduce emissions. Sadly, in many parts of the world, enormous numbers of human beings are still reliant on wood or animal dung for their heat. The indoor air emissions from this type of heat is atrocious and results in the early deaths of millions. Even switching these energy sources to the much-maligned coal would save many lives and reduce the impact on the environment, as well as reduce emissions. If our only goal is to fight climate change, one of the best ways is to help the poorest people in the world get out of poverty, as quickly as possible.
Climate change isn’t our only problem. In fact, it isn’t even our worst problem. We must remember that we live in a world of trade-offs, where spending our limited resources on one thing affects another. Spending trillions fighting climate change results in less money available for other things. And there are a lot of better places we could invest our hard-earned money than in trying to slightly reduce the risk of climate change, such as in free trade, expanded immunizations and contraception, reducing childhood malnutrition and poverty, and more. So, getting this right does matter.
It’s also worth recognizing that there may be other ways we might stop climate change without limiting our emissions. There is still so much we don’t understand about our climate. It may well be that innovations in geoengineering are able to entirely solve it. In fact, in a study undertaken for Copenhagen Consensus, researchers determined that every dollar spent on geoengineering could result in $2,000 of benefits.
Let’s take a longer view. If we project forward to the future, assuming climate change goes ahead as the IPCC estimates, what will the world look like? Well, the United Nations did this very exercise in 2017, where they projected five different “Socioeconomic Pathways” to 2100. I won’t get into all of them, but it’s worth mentioning that even in their worst-case scenario, they still see a world 170% richer than today by 2100. If we imagine an idealized world, where we all work together to stop climate change by doing all the things we’re supposed to do, while investing big in education and health care, we will live in a world 600% richer than today – even with temperatures 6 degrees warmer (yes, even with aggressive measures, climate change will not be stopped without collapsing the world’s economy).
What may be surprising is just how much richer we can be if we work towards a future they called “Fossil-fueled Development”. In this scenario, the world’s focus is strictly on growth, where strong, competitive markets are encouraged, large investments in health and education are made, and the world zeros in on technological development. Fossil fuel resources are aggressively utilized. Clearly, temperature increases in this scenario are higher than the others (8.4oF), but despite the costs of climate change consuming resources, we will be 1,040% richer than today.
Look, these are forecasts, not reality. Who knows what the future will bring. None of this tells us we should do nothing about emissions, just that we live in a world of trade-offs. The important point here is this: regardless of the road we choose, climate change is not an emergency, or a crisis, and it will not end the world for our children. The world of 2100 will be a better one than today – if we don’t get in our own way. We should not allow our governments to force wholesale societal changes, inflicting extreme pain on the world’s poor (along with everyone else) to decrease the rate of temperature increases by a tiny margin. Human beings have always innovated at their best when they are free to make their own choices.
We are faced with choices, not absolutes. Each and every one of us. It’s important to recognize that our future, in almost every conceivable scenario aside from outright nuclear war, is a positive one. We have good reason to be optimistic; in fact, it’s the most logical outlook to have. Climate change, along with our other environmental issues, is a solvable problem. We will figure it out and muddle through, as we always have, and our children and grandchildren will enjoy a world far richer than our own.
It’s time to start believing in a better future. Or, as my four-year-old son Grayson so eloquently put it the other day, “the sun will come up tomorrow”.
Well said, Grayson.
- False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, (2020), by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg.
- Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Activism Hurts Us All, (2020), by Michael Shellenberger.
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, (2018), by Steven Pinker.
- How Innovation Works, and Why it Flourishes in Freedom, (2020), by Matt Ridley.
- The Whole Story of Climate: What Science Reveals About the Nature of Endless Change, (2012), by Dr. E. Kirstin Peters.