This post is to celebrate an extended extract with permission, from Michael Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, (HarperCollins 2020), 432 pages. It is published at Quillette Why I Believe Climate Change Is Not the End of the World A few excerpts from the article in italics with my bolds.
Summary in My Words:
There is no crisis requiring these climate policies.
If there were a crisis, these policies will not help.
Implementing these policies will create a social and economic crisis.
The End is Nigh, They Say
Andrea Dutton, a paleoclimate researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, said, “For some reason, the media latched onto the 12 years (2030), presumably because they thought that it helped to get across the message of how quickly we are approaching this and hence how urgently we need action. Unfortunately, this has led to a complete mischaracterization of what the report said.”
What the IPCC had actually written in its 2018 report and press release was that in order to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times, carbon emissions needed to decline 45 percent by 2030. The IPCC did not say the world would end, nor that civilization would collapse, if temperatures rose above 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Scientists had a similarly negative reaction to the extreme claims made by Extinction Rebellion. Stanford University atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, one of the first scientists to raise the alarm about ocean acidification, stressed that “while many species are threatened with extinction, climate change does not threaten human extinction.” MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel told me, “I don’t have much patience for the apocalypse criers. I don’t think it’s helpful to describe it as an apocalypse.”
An AOC spokesperson told Axios, “We can quibble about the phraseology, whether it’s existential or cataclysmic.” But, he added, “We’re seeing lots of [climate change–related] problems that are already impacting lives.”
But if that’s the case, the impact is dwarfed by the 92 percent decline in the decadal death toll from natural disasters since its peak in the 1920s. In that decade, 5.4 million people died from natural disasters. In the 2010s, just 0.4 million did. Moreover, that decline occurred during a period when the global population nearly quadrupled.
In fact, both rich and poor societies have become far less vulnerable to extreme weather events in recent decades. In 2019, the journal Global Environmental Change published a major study that found death rates and economic damage dropped by 80 to 90 percent during the last four decades, from the 1980s to the present.
In 2017, Keeley and a team of scientists modeled 37 different regions across the United States and found that “humans may not only influence fire regimes but their presence can actually override, or swamp out, the effects of climate.” Keeley’s team found that the only statistically significant factors for the frequency and severity of fires on an annual basis were population and proximity to development.
As for the Amazon, the New York Times reported, correctly, that “[the 2019] fires were not caused by climate change.”
When it comes to food production, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) concludes that crop yields will increase significantly, under a wide range of climate change scenarios. Humans today produce enough food for ten billion people, a 25 percent surplus, and experts believe we will produce even more despite climate change.
In its fourth assessment report, the IPCC projected that by 2100, the global economy would be three to six times larger than it is today, and that the costs of adapting to a high (4 degrees Celsius) temperature rise would reduce gross domestic product (GDP) just 4.5 percent.
Does any of that really sound like the end of the world?
The Congo Doesn’t Show us the End of the World
Anyone interested in seeing the end of the world up close and in person could do little worse than to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo in central Africa. The Congo has a way of putting first-world prophecies of climate apocalypse into perspective. I traveled there in December 2014 to study the impact of widespread wood fuel use on people and wildlife, particularly on the fabled mountain gorillas.
Is climate change playing a role in Congo’s ongoing instability? If it is, it’s outweighed by other factors. Climate change, noted a large team of researchers in 2019, “has affected organized armed conflict within countries. However, other drivers, such as low socioeconomic development and low capabilities of the state, are judged to be substantially more influential.”
There is only a barely functioning government in the Congo. When it comes to security and development, people are mostly on their own. Depending on the season, farmers suffer too much rain or not enough. Recently, there has been flooding once every two or three years. Floods regularly destroy homes and farms.
Researchers with the Peace Research Institute Oslo note, “Demographic and environmental variables have a very moderate effect on the risk of civil conflict.” The IPCC agrees. “There is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide, but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause.”
Lack of infrastructure plus scarcity of clean water brings disease. As a result, Congo suffers some of the highest rates of cholera, malaria, yellow fever, and other preventable diseases in the world.
“Lower levels of GDP are the most important predictor of armed conflict,” write the Oslo researchers, who add, “Our results show that resource scarcity affects the risk of conflict less in low-income states than in wealthier states.”
If resources determined a nation’s fate, then resource-scarce Japan would be poor and at war while the Congo would be rich and at peace. Congo is astonishingly rich when it comes to its lands, minerals, forests, oil, and gas.
The Congo is a victim of geography, colonialism, and terrible post-colonial governments. Its economy grew from $7.4 billion in 2001 to $38 billion in 2017, but the annual per capita income of $561 is one of the lowest in the world, leading many to conclude that much of the money that should flow to the people is being stolen.
Billions Will Die, They Say
To get to the bottom of the “billions will die” claim, I interviewed Rockström by phone. He said the Guardian reporter had misunderstood him. What he had actually said, he told me, was this: “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate eight billion people or even half of that,” not “a billion people.” Rockström said he had not seen the misquote until I emailed him and that he had requested a correction, which the Guardian made in late November 2019. Even so, Rockström was predicting four billion deaths.
“I don’t see scientific evidence that a four degree Celsius planet can host eight billion people,” he said. “This is, in my assessment, a scientifically justified statement, as we don’t have evidence that we can provide freshwater or feed or shelter today’s world population of eight billion in a four degree world. My expert judgment, furthermore, is that it may even be doubtful if we can host half of that, meaning four billion.”
But is there IPCC science showing that food production would actually decline? “As far as I know they don’t say anything about the potential population that can be fed at different degrees of warming,” he said.
Has anyone done a study of food production at four degrees? I asked. “That’s a good question. I must admit I have not seen a study,” said Rockström, who is an agronomist. “It seems like such an interesting and important question.”
In fact, scientists have done that study, and two of them were Rockström’s colleagues at the Potsdam Institute. It found that food production could increase even at four to five degrees Celsius warming above preindustrial levels. And, again, technical improvements, such as fertilizer, irrigation, and mechanization, mattered more than climate change.
The report also found, intriguingly, that climate change policies were more likely to hurt food production and worsen rural poverty than climate change itself.
The “climate policies” the authors refer to are ones that would make energy more expensive and result in more bioenergy use (the burning of biofuels and biomass), which in turn would increase land scarcity and drive up food costs. The IPCC comes to the same conclusion.
Similarly, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization concludes that food production will rise 30 percent by 2050 except if a scenario it calls Sustainable Practices is adopted, in which case it would rise 20 percent. Technological change significantly outweighs climate change in every single one of FAO’s scenarios.
Storms Will Destroy Us, They Say
Pielke then shows normalized hurricane losses for the same period. Normalized means that Pielke and his coauthors adjusted the damage data to account for the massive development of America’s coastlines, like Miami’s, since 1900. Once this is done there is no trend of rising costs.
The lack of rising normalized costs matches the historical record of US hurricane landfalls, which gave Pielke and his colleagues confidence in their results. Their results show a few big spikes in hurricane losses, including one rising to an inflation-adjusted and development-normalized $200 billion for the year 1926, when four hurricanes made landfall in the United States, exceeding the $145 billion of damage occurring in 2005. While Florida experienced eighteen major hurricanes between 1900 and 1959, it experienced just eleven from 1960 to 2018.
Is the United States unique? It’s not. “Scholars have done similar analyses of normalized tropical cyclone losses in Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, China, and the Andhra Pradesh region in India,” Pielke notes. “In each case they have found no trend in normalized losses.”
And it’s not just hurricanes. “There is scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the US or globally,” he wrote later. “In fact we are in an era of good fortune when it comes to extreme weather.”
The IPCC says the same thing. “Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change,” notes a special IPCC report on extreme weather, “but a role for climate change has not been excluded.”
Anyone who believes climate change could kill billions of people and cause civilizations to collapse might be surprised to discover that none of the IPCC reports contain a single apocalyptic scenario. Nowhere does the IPCC describe developed nations like the United States becoming a “climate hell” resembling the Congo. Our flood-control, electricity, and road systems will keep working even under the most dire potential levels of warming.
The Earth is Burning, They Say
Before Europeans arrived in the United States, fires burned up woody biomass in forests every 10 to 20 years, preventing the accumulation of wood fuel, and fires burned the shrublands every 50 to 120 years. But during the last 100 years, the United States Forest Service (USFS) and other agencies extinguished most fires, resulting in the accumulation of wood fuel.
Keeley published a paper in 2018 finding that all ignition sources of fires had declined in California except for electric power lines. “Since the year 2000 there’ve been a half-million acres burned due to powerline-ignited fires, which is five times more than we saw in the previous 20 years,” he said. “Some people would say, ‘Well, that’s associated with climate change.’ But there’s no relationship between climate and these big fire events.
What then is driving the increase in fires? “If you recognize that 100 percent of these [shrubland] fires are started by people, and you add six million people [since 2000], that’s a good explanation for why we’re getting more and more of these fires,” said Keeley.
The news media depicted the 2019–2020 fire season as the worst in Australia’s history but it wasn’t. It ranked fifth in terms of area burned, with about half of the burned acreage as 2002, the fourth-place year, and about a sixth of the burned acreage of the worst season in 1974–1975. The 2019–2020 fires ranked sixth in fatalities, about half as many as the fifth-place year, 1926, and a fifth as many fatalities as the worst fire on record in 2009. While the 2019–2020 fires are second in the number of houses destroyed, they razed about 50 percent less than the worst year, the 1938–39 fire season. The only metric by which this fire season appears to be the worst ever is in the number of non-home buildings damaged.
Climate alarmism, animus among environmental journalists toward the current Australian government, and smoke that was unusually visible to densely populated areas, appear to be the reasons for exaggerated media coverage.
The bottom line is that other human activities have a greater impact on the frequency and severity of forest fires than the emission of greenhouse gases. And that’s great news, because it gives Australia, California, and Brazil far greater control over their future than the apocalyptic news media suggested.
We’re All Going to Die, They Say
Studies find that climate alarmism is contributing to rising anxiety and depression, particularly among children. In 2017, the American Psychological Association diagnosed rising eco-anxiety and called it “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” In September 2019, British psychologists warned of the impact on children of apocalyptic discussions of climate change. In 2020, a large national survey found that one out of five British children was having nightmares about climate change.
“There is no doubt in my mind that they are being emotionally impacted,” one expert said.
Extinction Rebellion activists stoked those fears. Extinction Rebellion activists gave frightening and apocalyptic talks to schoolchildren across Britain. In one August talk, an Extinction Rebellion activist climbed atop a desk in the front of a classroom to give a terrifying talk to children, some of whom appear no older than 10 years old.
“But most scientists don’t agree with this,” says the BBC’s Andrew Neil. “I looked through [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent reports] and see no reference to billions of people going to die, or children going to die in under 20 years… How would they die?”
Responds XR ‘s Zion Lights, “Mass migration around the world is already taking place due to prolonged drought in countries, particularly in South Asia. There are wildfires in Indonesia, the Amazon rainforest, also Siberia, the Arctic.”
“These are really important problems,” Neil says, “and they can cause fatalities. But they don’t cause billions of deaths. They don’t mean that our young people will all be dead in 20 years.”
Apocalypse Coming if We Don’t Change Our Ways, Media Say
In November and December 2019, I published two long articles criticizing climate alarmism and covering material similar to what I’ve written above. I did so in part because I wanted to give scientists and activists, including those whom I criticized, a chance to respond or correct any errors I might have made in my reporting before publishing this book. Both articles were widely read, and I made sure the scientists and activists I mentioned saw my article. Not a single person requested a correction. Instead, I received many emails from scientists and activists alike, thanking me for clarifying the science.
But consider a June Associated Press article. It was headlined, “UN Predicts Disaster if Global Warming Not Checked.” It was one of many apocalyptic articles that summer about climate change.
In the article, a “senior UN environmental official” claims that if global warming isn’t reversed by 2030, then rising sea levels could wipe “entire nations… off the face of the Earth.”
Crop failures coupled with coastal flooding, he said, could provoke “an exodus of ‘eco-refugees,’ ” whose movements could wreak political chaos the world over. Unabated, the ice caps will melt away, the rainforests will burn, and the world will warm to unbearable temperatures.
Governments “have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effects before it goes beyond human control,” said the UN official.
Did the Associated Press publish that apocalyptic warning from the United Nations in June 2019? No, June 1989. And, the cataclysmic events the UN official predicted were for the year 2000, not 2030.