Ignore the Fake Climate Debate
The deniers and alarmists may make headlines, but behind the scenes, an expert consensus is taking shape on how to respond to global warming.
By Ted Nordhaus Jan. 23, 2020 11:10 am ET wsj.com
Beyond the headlines and social media, where Greta Thunberg, Donald Trump and the online armies of climate “alarmists” and “deniers” do battle, there is a real climate debate bubbling along in scientific journals, conferences and, occasionally, even in the halls of Congress. It gets a lot less attention than the boisterous and fake debate that dominates our public discourse, but it is much more relevant to how the world might actually address the problem.
In the real climate debate, no one denies the relationship between human emissions of greenhouse gases and a warming climate. Instead, the disagreement comes down to different views of climate risk in the face of multiple, cascading uncertainties.
On one side of the debate are optimists, who believe that, with improving technology and greater affluence, our societies will prove quite adaptable to a changing climate. On the other side are pessimists, who are more concerned about the risks associated with rapid, large-scale and poorly understood transformations of the climate system.
But most pessimists do not believe that runaway climate change or a hothouse earth are plausible scenarios, much less that human extinction is imminent. And most optimists recognize a need for policies to address climate change, even if they don’t support the radical measures that Ms. Thunberg and others have demanded.
In the fake climate debate, both sides agree that economic growth and reduced emissions vary inversely; it’s a zero-sum game. In the real debate, the relationship is much more complicated. Long-term economic growth is associated with both rising per capita energy consumption and slower population growth. For this reason, as the world continues to get richer, higher per capita energy consumption is likely to be offset by a lower population.
A richer world will also likely be more technologically advanced, which means that energy consumption should be less carbon-intensive than it would be in a poorer, less technologically advanced future. In fact, a number of the high-emissions scenarios produced by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change involve futures in which the world is relatively poor and populous and less technologically advanced.
Affluent, developed societies are also much better equipped to respond to climate extremes and natural disasters. That’s why natural disasters kill and displace many more people in poor societies than in rich ones. It’s not just seawalls and flood channels that make us resilient; it’s air conditioning and refrigeration, modern transportation and communications networks, early warning systems, first responders and public health bureaucracies.
New research published in the journal Global Environmental Change finds that global economic growth over the last decade has reduced climate mortality by a factor of five, with the greatest benefits documented in the poorest nations. In low-lying Bangladesh, 300,000 people died in Cyclone Bhola in 1970, when 80% of the population lived in extreme poverty. In 2019, with less than 20% of the population living in extreme poverty, Cyclone Fani killed just five people.
Poor nations are most vulnerable to a changing climate. The fastest way to reduce that vulnerability is through economic development.
So while it is true that poor nations are most vulnerable to a changing climate, it is also true that the fastest way to reduce that vulnerability is through economic development, which requires infrastructure and industrialization. Those activities, in turn, require cement, steel, process heat and chemical inputs, all of which are impossible to produce today without fossil fuels.
For this and other reasons, the world is unlikely to cut emissions fast enough to stabilize global temperatures at less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, the long-standing international target, much less 1.5 degrees, as many activists now demand. But recent forecasts also suggest that many of the worst-case climate scenarios produced in the last decade, which assumed unbounded economic growth and fossil-fuel development, are also very unlikely.
There is still substantial uncertainty about how sensitive global temperatures will be to higher emissions over the long-term. But the best estimates now suggest that the world is on track for 3 degrees of warming by the end of this century, not 4 or 5 degrees as was once feared. That is due in part to slower economic growth in the wake of the global financial crisis, but also to decades of technology policy and energy-modernization efforts.
We have better and cleaner technologies available today because policy-makers in the U.S. and elsewhere set out to develop those technologies.
The energy intensity of the global economy continues to fall. Lower-carbon natural gas has displaced coal as the primary source of new fossil energy. The falling cost of wind and solar energy has begun to have an effect on the growth of fossil fuels. Even nuclear energy has made a modest comeback in Asia.
All of this suggests that continuing political, economic and technological modernization, not a radical remaking of society, is the key to both slowing climate change and adapting to it. And while the progress we’ve made has mostly not been due to climate policies that would cap, regulate or tax emissions, it has required government action.
We have better and cleaner technologies available today because policy-makers in the U.S. and elsewhere set out to develop those technologies, from hydraulic fracturing to solar panels to electric vehicles. Adaptive capacities around the world have also improved dramatically because policy-makers have invested in infrastructure, technology and economic development. And a decades-long commitment to expanded global trade and international development institutions has brought greater economic opportunities to many regions of the world that historically have been left behind.
Acknowledging that we have made progress should not deter continued investment in clean technology and climate adaptation. Rather, it should encourage us to redouble those efforts, especially because uncertainty still looms large in any assessment of climate risk. At the high end of current estimates of climate sensitivity, the world could still experience 4 or 5 degrees of warming in this century, even with significantly lower emissions.
Moreover, even if climate change does not threaten social or economic collapse, anyone who has lived through the California wildfires of recent years, or the bushfires that are currently encircling Sydney, Australia, can tell you that this is not a future most people would desire. And even if human societies end up adapting well to climate change, the planet’s biodiversity almost certainly will not.
Such conclusions are unlikely to satisfy the noisy participants in the fake climate debate. But the utopian dreams of those who wish to radically reorganize the world to stop climate change are not a plausible global future. Nor will denying the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming make the real risks of climate change go away. The world will tackle this problem the way that it tackles most other problems, partially and incrementally, by taking up the challenges that are right in front of us—adaptation, economic development, energy modernization, public health—and finding practical ways to address them.
—Mr. Nordhaus is the founder and executive director of the Breakthrough Institute and a co-author of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.”
I like reading all of these articles. and responses. sometimes I learn from the very things that are disagreeable... or at least I think about things I have not seen...considered or thought of. as with life... and our planet... we're all evolving... or whatever. :)
I am replying to the entire site. I made a post when I first joined (maybe 2011) and I believed the post to be real. I was attacked in the post by this person and It was truly unbelievable. I expressed my apology if the post was not "REAL", (I thought it was) I was merely concerned for everyone on the site. It was not political in my mind, but maybe "HE" thought it was. I am pretty sure the post was deleted after I gave my side of the story. I have since decided to go elsewhere to get news most of the time. I check in periodically because there is good information from many people. This site is like when I was in grade school or high school with the "hype" and BS that some constantly display. I am not mentioning any names but I am sure that most of you can take 1 wild guess who it was. I truly and really wanted to be a part of a this site and support Keith M.. (the owner).... but hey... we have "free speech"... and for that, I can't stand this one other person (a land man). That he constantly blabs, blahs, and has total disregard for others. (IMO) It's like the old saying, "it's my way or the highway" .. Anyway , I'm done.. maybe speak up after another 10 years!
peace out!... everyone else!
pray for things to brighten & heat up! :-)
Greg, there are a number of elements to the issue of job migration and IMO, EPA guidelines are far down the list or don't make it at all. The US Chamber and the Brookings Institute have an agenda which I recognize but do not agree with. The position they take is no surprise and consistently disregards the most important factors in favor of supporting a political agenda. The USA Today article is instructive of how business often chooses to avoid regulations by going overseas. Quite often that is to bolster their bottom line at the expense of the safety of their customers, employees and the public at large. Here is a more comprehensive and less bias source on the subject.
Thanks for the correction/back ground, aw.