As I watch the snow blow past my window, it’s hard not to scoff at the idea of a ‘climate emergency’. However, I’m probably in a minority. The idea that we are currently experiencing a dangerous deterioration in our weather has been pushed so hard, and for so long, that the man in the Clapham Uber is now thoroughly convinced.
Those of us who have the time and inclination to look at the evidence for such claims, on the other hand, realise that they are largely overblown. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, where I work, has just published a review of the impacts of climate change and it’s a valuable antidote to the relentless alarmism pushed by some academics. The paper is written by Indur Goklany, an American whose involvement in the climate field goes back 30 years when he was involved in the first United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) review of the world’s climate. So he knows what he is talking about, and the story he tells is one of almost unmitigated good news. There is a great deal of evidence that mankind is able to take the effects of climate change in its stride.
Take extreme weather for example. For 30 years, everyone from the Met Office to Al Gore has been telling us that global warming is going to make things much worse. But as Goklany shows, it just hasn’t happened; three decades of shirt-tearing, tears and wailing on the subject have changed things barely at all. In most areas, this should mostly be uncontroversial: the IPCC said in 2013 that it has ‘low confidence’ that droughts and hurricanes have become worse globally, and the best it can say of extreme rainfall is that it thinks there have been more areas with increases than decreases. On heatwaves it goes further, saying that it has ‘medium confidence’ of a global increase. But while we shouldn’t shy away from discussions over how to tackle these issues, it is not the impending catastrophe that some might make it out to be.
Goklany’s report isn’t just about refuting the bald claim that extreme weather has become worse across the board. It also deals with the broader suggestion that worsening weather will adversely affect human welfare. As he shows, mortality from extreme weather events is almost a thing of the past, having fallen by 99 per cent over the last century. Similarly, mankind now seems much better equipped to deal with the impact of weather and climate. Once you have adjusted for rising population and growing wealth, records of weather damage show, if anything, a long-term decline too.
When you look at the broader impacts of climate change, it’s the same story. Take sea-level rise, for example. While it’s possible to argue about how fast it’s happening, and the relative merits of satellites and tide gauges for measuring the rate, Goklany points to a recent study that showed that siltation and reclamation are giving us new land around our coasts faster than any sea-level rise is removing it. In other words, we are taking sea-level rise in our stride — perhaps unsurprising since we have been building sea defences for the last 7,000 years. Similarly, a few years back, we were regularly assailed by stories of the disappearance of coral atolls, but the excitement seems to have died away, no doubt prompted by a series of studies showing that most atolls are actually stable or getting bigger. Amusingly, just as global warming was previously said to cause the atolls to disappear, it is now said to be the cause of their growth. Whatever the truth, it’s surely hard for any reasonable person to portray growing atolls as an emergency.
And on it goes. Rates of death from climate-related disease — another favourite of the doom-mongers — haven’t just got better, they have collapsed, with astonishing falls in almost every category over the last 30 years. As an example, the death tolls from malaria and diarrhoea have both fallen by around a half. Of course, this is not a function of climate change; it’s all down to better medical care and the deployment of simple preventative measures such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets. The conclusion is hard to avoid: climate-related disease can be addressed with a little money and even less fuss. Like sea-level rise, it’s simply not an emergency.
Global warming doesn’t seem to have damaged crops either. The food supply continues to grow, with fossil-fuel-derived fertilisers and the beneficial effects of higher carbon dioxide levels delivering new record yields across the globe almost every year. This is not to say that it hasn’t got warmer, but simply that any deleterious effects have been swamped by the benefits of carbon dioxide and by the technological advances that mankind has deployed.
Fertilisers — both manmade and natural — have also had the beneficial side effect of reducing pressure on the natural world. Since the 1960s, the global population has more than doubled, but the area devoted to farmland has increased by only 8 per cent. Indeed, if it were not for environmentalists persuading governments that biofuels were a good idea, we might have seen countless thousands of hectares returned to nature already.
Of course, Dr Goklany’s pointing this out will make not the slightest difference to the scientists, whose livelihoods depend on keeping politicians firm in a belief that the world is about to end. It’s easy enough for them to come up with new measures that seem to be getting worse. ‘Rising crop yields? Pah, take a look at the fall in crop yield potential!’ they say. ‘Millions no longer dying from malaria? But look at the... erm... couple of thousand dying from dengue fever!’.
Or they can predict that things will get worse — or more often, much worse — in the future. Soils will degrade they say, new diseases will arise, and of course extreme weather will get worse too. They say we should play it safe, therefore, altering the world’s economies and industrial practices to alleviate carbon emissions, just in case they are a threat to global climate stability. But as we career headlong into our net-zero emissions future, there is every sign that the costs of what is proposed will not only reverse many of the gains we have made in the last half-century but make things far worse than if we simply adopted a policy of adapting to what the climate throws at us. As Goklany shows, we are good at adaptation; we have been at it for a long time.
And with the government stubbornly refusing to release an array of financial figures supporting their decarbonisation plans, there is a strong suggestion that they know the course they have started us down is unsupportable on any rational grounds. Their plans to ‘build back better’ are therefore likely to be a hammer blow to an economy that is already reeling from the pandemic. So if in a few year’s time you find you are worrying about paying the heating bill, or you can’t sell your house because you can’t afford the government-mandated insulation measures, you might like to cast your eye back over Dr Goklany’s paper and wonder why we set out on the course we did.