Recently, environmental journalist Bill McKibben suggested climate-driven fires in Australia had made koalas “functionally extinct.” The group Extinction Rebellion said “Billions will die” and “Life on Earth is dying.” Vice claimed the “collapse of civilization may have already begun.”
Apocalyptic statements like these are having an effect on young people. In September, a group of British psychologists said children are increasingly suffering from anxiety from the frightening discourse around climate change. An XR co-founder said a genocide like the Holocaust was “happening again, on a far greater scale, and in plain sight” from climate change.
For many of us, who have spent a lifetime fighting for cleaner air and water, fighting sprawl, advocates of open space and intelligent communities, find that many in the climate change advocacy are not being entirely honest about climate change is worrisome.
This doomsday scenario keeps us from focusing on actual problems we have the ability to fix.
No credible scientific body has ever said climate change threatens the collapse of civilization much less the extinction of the human species. “‘Our children are going to die in the next 10 to 20 years.’ What’s the scientific basis for these claims?” BBC’s Andrew Neil asked a visibly uncomfortable climate change spokesperson last month.
“But most scientists don’t agree with this,” said Neil. “I looked through IPCC reports and see no reference to billions of people going to die, or children in 20 years. How would they die?”
What we are seeing is climate activists grossly misrepresenting the science in order to raise more money, and create headlines. “There is robust evidence of disasters displacing people worldwide,” notes IPCC, “but limited evidence that climate change or sea-level rise is the direct cause”
Economic development has made us less vulnerable to changes in the climate, which is why there was a 99.7% decline in the death toll from natural disasters since its peak in 1931.
In 1931, 3.7 million people died from natural disasters. In 2018, just 11,000 did. And that decline occurred over a period when the global population quadrupled.
What about sea level rise? IPCC estimates sea level could rise two feet (0.6 meters) by 2100. Somehow that doesn’t seem unmanageable.
One-third of the Netherlands is below sea level, and some areas are seven meters below sea level. They adapted to living below sea level 400 years ago. Technology has improved a bit since then.
What about claims of crop failure, famine, and mass death? Humans today produce enough food for 10 billion people, or 25% more than we need, and scientific bodies predict increases in that share, not declines.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) forecasts crop yields increasing 30% by 2050. And the poorest parts of the world, like sub-Saharan Africa, are expected to see increases of 80 to 90%.
Even if climate change were to negatively impact crop yields, still, wheat yields increased 100 to 300% around the world since the 1960s, while a study of 30 models found that yields would decline by 6% for every one degree Celsius increase in temperature.
Rates of future yield growth depend far more on whether poor nations get access to tractors, irrigation, and fertilizer than on climate change, says FAO.
All of this helps explain why IPCC anticipates climate change will have a modest impact on economic growth. By 2100, IPCC projects the global economy will be 300 to 500% larger than it is today. Both IPCC and the Nobel-winning Yale economist, William Nordhaus, predict that warming of 2.5°C and 4°C would reduce gross domestic product (GDP) by 2% and 5% over that same period.
However, this does not mean we should go on a pollution rampage. As designers and engineers, coming up with cleaner and more efficient means of energy production should still be a priority. We still share the planet with other creatures, and we need to be aware of what we do to the habitat. Creating the most power, with the smallest physical footprint should be the main goal. Priority should be given to reinvesting in small nuclear instead of trashing the landscape with ineffective passive tech like solar and wind.
And exaggerating the risk, and suggesting climate change is more important than things like habitat destruction, are counterproductive.
For example, Australia’s fires are not driving koalas extinct, as Bill McKibben suggested. The main scientific body that tracks the species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, labels the koala “vulnerable,” which is one level less threatened than “endangered,” two levels less than “critically endangered,” and three less than “extinct” in the wild.
Koalas face far bigger threats such as the destruction of habitat, disease, bushfires, and invasive species.
The climate could change dramatically — and we could still save koalas. Conversely, the climate could change only modestly — and koalas could still go extinct.
Too much focus on just climate distracts our attention from other threats to endangered species and opportunities for protecting them, like protecting and expanding their habitat.
Australian climate scientist Tom Wigley notes, “It really does bother me because it’s wrong…All these young people have been misinformed. And partly it’s Greta Thunberg’s fault. Not deliberately. But she’s wrong.”
Climate activists, in their zeal to go zero-carbon, are placing demands that poor nations be denied the cheap sources of energy they need to develop.
“If you want to minimize carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in 2070 you might want to accelerate the burning of coal in India today…It doesn’t sound like it makes sense. Coal is terrible for carbon. But it’s by burning a lot of coal that they make themselves wealthier, and by making themselves wealthier they have fewer children, and you don’t have as many people burning carbon, you might be better off in 2070.” — MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel.