The following is excerpted, with permission, from Michael Shellenberger’s new book, Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All, (HarperCollins 2020), 432 pages.
The end is nigh
If you scanned the websites of two of the world’s most-read newspapers on October 7th, 2018, you might have feared the end of the world was near. A headline in the New York Times said: “Major Climate Report Describes a Strong Risk of Crisis as Early as 2040.” Just below the bold headline was a photograph of a six-year-old boy playing with a dead animal’s bones. Said another headline in the Washington Post on the very same day: “The World Has Just Over a Decade to Get Climate Change Under Control, U.N. Scientists Say.”
Those stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets around the world were based on a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is a United Nations body of 195 scientists and other members from around the globe responsible for assessing science related to climate change.
Two more IPCC reports would follow in 2019, both of which warned of similarly dire consequences: worsening natural disasters, sea-level rise, desertification, and land degradation. Moderate warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius would cause “long-lasting or irreversible” harm, they said, and climate change might devastate food production and landscapes. The New York Times reported that planetary warming threatens to worsen resource scarcity, and “floods, drought, storms and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt, and over time shrink, the global food supply.”
A NASA scientist predicted simultaneous collapses of food systems on multiple continents at once. “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing,” she told the New York Times. “All of these things are happening at the same time.”
An IPCC report on climate change and land in August 2019, prepared by more than a hundred experts from 52 countries, warned that “the window to address the threat is closing rapidly,” and that “soil is being lost between ten and one hundred times faster than it is forming.”
Farmers will not be able to grow enough food to support the human population, scientists warned. “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate eight billion people or maybe even half of that,” an agronomist said.
“We can adapt to this problem up to a point,” said Princeton University’s Michael Oppenheimer, an IPCC contributor. “But that point is determined by how strongly we mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions.” If emissions rise through 2050, then sea level rise will likely exceed 2 feet 9 inches by 2100, at which point “the job will be too big… It will be an unmanageable problem.”
Too much warming could trigger a series of irreversible tipping points, experts said. For example, sea-level rise could be slowing the circulation of water in the Atlantic Ocean, which could change surface temperatures. Arctic permafrost covering an area nearly the size of Australia could thaw and release 1,400 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. The glacier on the continent of Antarctica could collapse into the ocean. If that happens, sea level could rise thirteen feet.
Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are changing the chemistry of oceans in ways that scientists warn could harm marine life and even cause mass extinctions. A 2016 study published in Nature found that higher carbon dioxide levels were making coral reef fish species oblivious to predators.
Many blamed climate change for wildfires that ravaged California. The death toll from fires skyrocketed from just one death from wildfires in 2013 to one hundred deaths in 2018. Of the 20 most destructive fires in California’s history, half have occurred since 2015. Today, California’s fire season stretches two to three months longer than it was fifty years ago. Climate change is increasing droughts and making trees vulnerable to disease and infestation.
“The reason these wildfires have worsened is because of climate change,” said Leonardo DiCaprio. “This is what climate change looks like,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “It’s the end of California as we know it,” concluded a columnist for the New York Times.
In Australia, more than 135 bushfires burned in early 2020, claiming the lives of 34 people, killing an estimated one billion animals, and damaging or completely destroying nearly three thousand homes.
David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, warned that with a two-degree increase, “the ice sheets will begin their collapse, 400 million more people will suffer from water scarcity, major cities in the equatorial band of the planet will become unlivable, and even in the northern latitudes heat waves will kill thousands each summer.”
“What we’re playing for now is to see if we can limit climate change to the point where we don’t wipe out civilizations,” said environmental writer and climate activist Bill McKibben. “And at the moment we’re headed in a direction where that won’t happen.”
Said one IPCC contributor, “In some parts of the world, national borders will become irrelevant… You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000, one million people, but not 10 million.”
“Around the year 2030, in 10 years, 250 days, and 10 hours, we will be in a position where we set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control that will most likely lead to the end of our civilisation as we know it,” said student climate activist Greta Thunberg, in 2019. “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”
In early 2019, newly elected twenty-nine-year-old congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sat down for an interview with a correspondent for the Atlantic. AOC, as she is known, made the case for a Green New Deal, one that would address poverty and social inequality in addition to climate change. AOC pushed back against critics who claimed it would be too expensive. “The world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t address climate change,” she said, “and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?”
The next day, a reporter for the news website Axios called several climate scientists to get their reactions to AOC’s claim that the world was going to end in 12 years. “All the time-limited frames are bullshit,” said Gavin Schmidt, a NASA climate scientist. “Nothing special happens when the ‘carbon budget’ runs out or we pass whatever temperature target you care about, instead the costs of emissions steadily rise.”
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.
While global sea levels rose 7.5 inches (0.19 meters) between 1901 and 2010, the IPCC estimates sea levels will rise as much as 2.2 feet (0.66 meters) by 2100 in its medium scenario, and by 2.7 feet (0.83 meters) in its high-end scenario. Even if these predictions prove to be significant underestimates, the slow pace of sea level rise will likely allow societies ample time for adaptation.
We have good examples of successful adaptation to sea level rise. The Netherlands, for instance, became a wealthy nation despite having one-third of its landmass below sea level, including areas a full seven meters below sea level, as a result of the gradual sinking of its landscapes.
And today, our capability for modifying environments is far greater than ever before. Dutch experts today are already working with the government of Bangladesh to prepare for rising sea levels.
What about fires? Dr. Jon Keeley, a US Geological Survey scientist in California who has researched the topic for 40 years, told me, “We’ve looked at the history of climate and fire throughout the whole state, and through much of the state, particularly the western half of the state, we don’t see any relationship between past climates and the amount of area burned in any given year.”
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.”
In early 2020, scientists challenged the notion that rising carbon dioxide levels in the ocean were making coral reef fish species oblivious to predators. The seven scientists who published their study in the journal Nature had, three years earlier, raised questions about the marine biologist who had made such claims in the journal Science in 2016. After an investigation, James Cook University in Australia concluded that the biologist had fabricated her data.
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.
Food production, the FAO finds, will depend more on access to tractors, irrigation, and fertilizer than on climate change, just as it did in the last century. The FAO projects that even farmers in the poorest regions today, like sub-Saharan Africa, may see 40 percent crop yield increases from technological improvements alone.
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 apocalypse now
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.
Within minutes of crossing from the neighboring country of Rwanda into the Congolese city of Goma, I was taken aback by the extreme poverty and chaos: children as young as two years old perched on the handlebars of motorcycles flying past us on roads pockmarked with giant potholes; tin-roofed shanties as homes; people crammed like prisoners into tiny buses with bars over the windows; trash everywhere; giant mounds of cooled lava on the sides of the road, reminders of the volcanic anger just beneath the Earth’s surface.
In the 1990s and again in the early 2000s, Congo was the epicenter of the Great African War, the deadliest conflict since World War II, which involved nine African countries and resulted in the deaths of three to five million people, mostly because of disease and starvation. Another two million people were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands of people, women, and men, adults, and children, were raped, sometimes more than once, by different armed groups.
During our time in the Congo, armed militias roaming the countryside had been killing villagers, including children, with machetes. Some blamed Al-Shabaab terrorists coming in from Uganda, but nobody took credit for the attacks. The violence appeared unconnected to any military or strategic objective. The national military, police, and United Nations Peacekeeping Forces, about 6,000 soldiers, were either unable or unwilling to do anything about the terrorist attacks.
“Do not travel,” the United States Department of State said, bluntly, of the Congo on its website. “Violent crime, such as armed robbery, armed home invasion, and assault, while rare compared to petty crime, is not uncommon, and local police lack the resources to respond effectively to serious crime. Assailants may pose as police or security agents.”
One reason I felt safe traveling to the eastern Congo and bringing my wife, Helen, was that the actor Ben Affleck had visited several times and even started a charity there to support economic development. If the eastern Congo was safe enough for a Hollywood celebrity, I reasoned, it would be safe enough for Helen and me.
To make sure, I hired Affleck’s guide, translator, and “fixer,” Caleb Kabanda, a Congolese man with a reputation for keeping his clients safe. We spoke on the telephone before I arrived. I told Caleb I wanted to study the relationship between energy scarcity and conservation. Referring to the North Kivu province capital of Goma, the sixth most populated city in the Congo, Caleb asked, “Can you imagine a city of nearly two million people relying on wood for energy? It’s crazy!”
Ninety-eight percent of people in eastern Congo rely on wood and charcoal as their primary energy for cooking. In the Congo as a whole, nine out of 10 of its nearly 92 million people do, while just one out of five has any access to electricity. The entire country relies on just 1,500 megawatts of electricity, which is about as much as a city of one million requires in developed nations.
The main road Caleb and I used to travel from Goma to the communities around Virunga Park had recently been paved, but there was little else in the way of infrastructure. Most roads were dirt roads. When it rained, both the paved and unpaved roads and the surrounding homes were flooded because there was no flood control system. I was reminded of how much we take for granted in developed nations. We practically forget that the gutters, canals, and culverts, which capture and divert water away from our homes, even exist.
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.
There are many reasons why the Congo is so dysfunctional. It is massive—it is the second largest African nation in area, behind only Algeria—and difficult to govern as a single country. It was colonized by the Belgians, who fled the country in the early 1960s without establishing strong government institutions, like an independent judiciary and a military.
Is it overpopulated? The population of Eastern Congo has doubled since the 1950s and 1960s. But the main factor is technological: the same area could produce much more food and support many more people if there were roads, fertilizers, and tractors.
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.
For the last 20 years, the Rwandan government has been taking minerals from its neighbor and exporting them as its own. To protect and obscure its activities, Rwanda has financed and overseen the low-intensity conflict in Eastern Congo, according to experts.
There were free elections in 2006 and optimism around the new president, Joseph Kabila, but he proved as corrupt as past leaders. After being re-elected in 2011, he stayed in power until 2018, when he installed a candidate who won just 19 percent of the vote as compared to the opposition candidate, who won 59 percent. As such, Kabila and his allies in the legislature appear to be governing behind the scenes.
Billions won’t die
On BBC Two’s Newsnight, in October 2019, the journalist Emma Barnett asked Extinction Rebellion’s sympathetic and empathic spokesperson, Sarah Lunnon, how her organization could justify disrupting life in London the way it had.
“To be the cause of that happening is really very, very upsetting,” said Lunnon, touching her heart, “and it makes me feel really bad to know that I’m disrupting people’s lives. And it makes me really cross and angry that the lack of action over 30 years has meant that the only way I can get the climate on the agenda is to take actions such as this; if we don’t act and protest in this way nobody takes any notice.”
Barnett turned to the man sitting next to Lunnon, Myles Allen, a climate scientist and IPCC report author.
“The name Extinction Rebellion is inherently pointing towards ‘we’re going to be extinct,’” said Barnett. “Roger Hallam, one of the three founders [of Extinction Rebellion], said in August… ‘Slaughter, death and starvation of six billion people this century.’ There’s no science to back that up, is there?”
Said Allen, “There’s a lot of science that backs up the very considerable risks we run if we carry on on a path to—”
“—but not six billion people. There’s no science that calculates it to that level, is there?” asked Barnett.
Extinction Rebellion’s Lunnon didn’t let him answer.
“There are a number of scientists who’ve said if we get to four degrees of warming, which is where we’re heading at the moment, they cannot see how the earth can support not one billion people, a half a billion people,” she said. “That’s six and a half billion people dying!”
Barnett appeared annoyed, and interrupted. “Sorry,” she said, turning back to Myles. “So you’re going to stand by, scientifically, a projection that says within this century we’ll have the slaughter, death, and starvation of six billion people? It’s just good for us to know.”
“No,” he said. “Because what we can do as scientists is tell you about the risks we face. The easy risks to predict, to be honest, are the ones that I do, how the climate system reacts to rising greenhouse gases. The harder risks are how people are going to respond to losing the weather they knew as kids… So I imagine what they’re talking about there is the risk of the human response to climate change as much as the risk of climate change itself.”
“But I suppose the point is,” pressed Barnett, “if there’s no science that says that, do you understand why some people who are sympathetic to your cause also feel like you have fear-mongered? For instance, [Extinction Rebellion co-founder] Roger Hallam has also said our kids will be dead in 10 to 15 years.”
“We are losing the weather we know!” Lunnon interrupted. “All of our agriculture and our food is based on weather that has been around for the last 10,000 years! If we don’t have predictable weather, we don’t have predictable food sources. We run the risk of multiple losses of harvest in the world’s global breadbasket. That’s no food!”
“Roger Hallam did say,” replied Barnett, “our kids would be dead in 10 or 15 years.”
“There’s a distinct possibility that we lose not only our food supplies but our energy supplies,” said Lunnon. “In California, at the moment, millions of people do not have electricity.”
In late November 2019, I interviewed Lunnon. We talked for an hour, and we exchanged emails where she clarified her views.
“I’m not saying billions of people are going to die,” Lunnon told me. “It’s not Sarah Lunnon saying billions of people are going to die. The science is saying we’re headed to 4 degrees warming and people like Kevin Ander- son of Tyndall Center and Johan Rockström from the Potsdam Institute are saying that such a temperature rise is incompatible with civilized life. Johan said he could not see how an Earth at 4 degrees (Celsius) warming could support a billion or even half-billion people.”
Lunnon was referring to an article published in the Guardian in May 2019, which quoted Rockström saying, “It’s difficult to see how we could accommodate a billion people or even half of that” at a four-degree temperature rise. I pointed out that there is nothing in any of the IPCC reports that has ever suggested anything like what she is attributing to Anderson and Rockström.
And why should we rely on the speculations of two scientists over the IPCC? “It’s not about choosing science,” said Lunnon, “it’s about looking at the risk we’re facing. And the IPCC report lays out the different trajectories from where we are and some of them are very, very bleak.”
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.
A small part of big conflicts
In 2006, a 37-year-old political science professor from the University of Colorado in Boulder organized a workshop for 32 of the world’s leading experts to discuss whether human-caused climate change was making natural disasters worse, more frequent, or more costly. The professor, Roger Pielke, Jr., cohosted the workshop with a colleague, Peter Höppe, who at the time ran the Geo Risk division of Munich Reinsurance, which provides insurance to insurance companies and has a strong financial interest in knowing whether global warming will make natural disasters worse.
If there is a stereotype of an environmental sciences professor from Boulder, Colorado, Pielke fits it well. He wears hiking boots and plaid shirts. He is an avid hiker, skier, and soccer player. He is liberal, secular, and a Democrat. “I have written a book calling for a carbon tax,” Pielke says. “I have publicly supported President Obama’s proposed EPA carbon regulations, and I have just published another book strongly defending the scientific assessment of the IPCC with respect to disasters and climate change.”
The group met in Hohenkammer, Germany, outside of Munich. Pielke wasn’t optimistic that the group would achieve consensus because the group included both environmental activists and climate skeptics. “But much to our surprise and delight,” says Pielke, “all 32 people at the workshop—experts from academia, the private sector, and advocacy groups—reached a consensus on 20 statements on disasters and climate change.
The experts agreed in their unanimous Hohenkammer Statement that climate change is real and humans are contributing to it significantly. But they also agreed that more people and property in harm’s way explained the rising cost of natural disasters, not worsening disasters.
When teaching his students, Pielke illustrates this point with a picture of Miami Beach in 1926 and in 2006. In 1926, Miami Beach had a single high-rise building vulnerable to hurricanes. By 2006, it had dozens of high-rise buildings in danger of having their windows blown out and flooded. Pielke shows the climbing, inflation-adjusted cost of hurricanes in the United States rising from near-zero in 1900 to more than $130 billion in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
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.”
Pielke stresses that climate change may be contributing to some extreme weather events. “For instance,” he notes, “some recent research is suggestive that regional warming in the western United States can be associated with increasing forest fires.”
But climate change so far has not resulted in increases in the frequency or intensity of many types of extreme weather. The IPCC “concluded that there’s little evidence of a spike in the frequency or intensity of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes,” explains Pielke. “There have been more heatwaves and intense precipitation, but these phenomena are not significant drivers of disaster costs.”
What most determines how vulnerable various nations are to flooding depends centrally on whether they have modern water and flood control systems, like my home city of Berkeley, California, or not, like the Congo.
When a hurricane hits Florida, it might kill no one, but when that same storm hits Haiti, thousands can die instantly through drowning and subsequently in disease epidemics like cholera. The difference is that Florida is in a wealthy nation with hardened buildings and roads, advanced weather forecasting, and emergency management. Haiti, by contrast, is a poor nation that lacks modern infrastructure and systems.
“Consider that since 1940 in the United States 3,322 people have died in 118 hurricanes that made landfall,” Pielke wrote. But when the “Boxing Day Tsunami struck Southeast Asia in 2004, more than 225,000 people died.”
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.
What about the claim IPCC contributor Michael Oppenheimer made that a 2-foot, 9-inch sea level rise would be “an unmanageable problem?” To understand his reasoning, I interviewed him by phone.
“There was a mistake in the article by the reporter,” he told me. “He had 2 feet, 9 inches. The actual number, which is based on the sea level rise amount in [IPCC Representative Concentration Pathway] 8.5 for its [Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate] report is 1.1 meters, which is 3 feet, 7 inches.”
I asked Oppenheimer why places like Bangladesh couldn’t do what the Netherlands did. “The Netherlands spent a lot of time not improving its dikes due to two world wars and a depression,” Oppenheimer said, “and didn’t start modernizing them until the disastrous 1953 flood.”
The 1953 flood killed more than 2,500 people and motivated the Netherlands to rebuild its dikes and canals. “Most of humanity will not be able to avail itself of that luxury,” said Oppenheimer. “So in most places, they will accommodate flooding by raising structures or floodable structures. Or you retreat.”
In 2012, said Oppenheimer, “People moved out of New York after Hurricane Sandy. I wouldn’t call that unmanageable. Temporarily unmanageable. Meaning we wouldn’t be able to maintain societal function around the world if sea-level rise approaches those close to four feet. Bangladeshis might be leaving the coast and trying to get into India.”
But millions of small farmers, like the ones on Bangladesh’s low-lying coasts, move to cities every year, I pointed out. Doesn’t the word “unmanageable” suggest a permanent societal breakdown?
“When you have people making decisions they are essentially compelled to make,” he said, “that’s what I’m referring to as ‘an unmanageable situation.’ The kind of situation that leads to economic disruption, disruption of livelihoods, disruption of your ability to control your destiny, and people dying. You can argue that they get manageable. You recover from disasters. But the people who died didn’t recover.”
In other words, the problems from sea level rise that Oppenheimer calls “unmanageable” are situations like the ones that already occur, from which societies recover, and to which they adapt.
Development > climate
The Congo’s underdevelopment is in part a consequence of having one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Once, we were stopped by a police officer. I was in the back of the car and Caleb was in the front with the driver. As the police officer peered into the car, Caleb turned his head slightly toward the man and scowled. The officer checked the driver’s papers and then waved us on.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“He was trying to find something wrong so he could ask for a bribe,” Caleb explained. “But I gave him my special stare.”
Caleb confessed that he, like many other Congolese, loved watching the American TV series 24 (2001 to 2010) about a CIA agent who battles terrorists. “Everybody in Congo loves Jack Bauer!” Caleb said, referring to the CIA agent played by the Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland. I asked Caleb if people in the Congo love Sutherland as much as they love Ben Affleck, who was not only more famous than Sutherland but also was trying to help the Congo. Caleb paused for a moment to contemplate the question. “Not here!” he said. “Jack Bauer is more famous in the Congo. If Kiefer Sutherland came to the Congo and gave a press conference demanding that all the armed groups give up in 24 hours, all the fighting would come to a halt immediately!” Caleb laughed with delight at the thought of it.
We drove around the countryside and interviewed people at random. Caleb used his charm to reassure local villagers who were understandably suspicious about a foreigner asking them questions about their lives. Many people we interviewed were upset about baboons and elephants from nearby Virunga National Park, a protected area for wildlife, raiding their crops. Given the widespread hunger and poverty, losing your crops to wild animals is devastating. I was told that one woman was so upset about losing her crops to an elephant that she died of a heart attack the next day. And I was told that a chimpanzee had recently killed a two-year-old boy.
One man asked me to request Virunga Park officials install electric fences to keep animals out of their fields. Several people complained that when they approached park managers about the nuisance, they were told to capture the offending animals and bring them to the park, a request the villagers said was impossible and insulting.
A few weeks before I arrived, a group of young people organized a march to Virunga National Park headquarters to protest inaction on crop-raiding. In response, the park hired some of the youths to shoo away baboons.
Near the entrance to Virunga National Park, Caleb and I interviewed people from a local community. A crowd of about 20 or 20 people gathered around us, and many of them expressed outrage about the crop-raiding. “Can’t you kill the baboons that are eating your crops?” I asked. Many people in the crowd let out a collective groan and said no, that they would go to prison, even though the animal was on their land and outside the park boundary.
There was a young mother with an infant on her breast in the crowd. I introduced myself and asked her name. It was Mamy Bernadette Semutaga. She went by Bernadette. She was 25 years old. Her baby girl’s name was Bibiche Sebiraro. She was Bernadette’s seventh child.
Bernadette told us that baboons had eaten her sweet potatoes the night before. I asked her if she would take us to her plot of land so we could see for ourselves what had happened. She agreed. We talked in the car on the way there.
I asked Bernadette what her favorite memory was as a child. “When I was 14 years old I visited my cousins in Goma and they bought new clothes for me,” she said. “And when it was time to go back to my village, they paid for the ticket for me and gave me money to buy bread and cabbage to take home. I returned home very happy.”
Much of the rest of Bernadette’s life has been difficult. “I got married when I was 15 years old,” she said. “When I met my husband, he was an orphan. He had nothing. We’ve been always living with difficulties. I have never lived in happiness.”
When we reached her small plot of land, Bernadette pointed to holes in the ground where sweet potatoes had been. I asked if I could take a photo. She said that was fine. In the photograph, she is frowning, but also looks proud. At least she had a plot of land to call her own.
Once we drove her back to the village, Caleb gave her some money, as a small token of our thanks, and to make up for the sweet potatoes.
We should be concerned about the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations, without question. There is nothing automatic about adaptation. And it’s true that Bernadette is more vulnerable to climate change than Helen and I are.
But she is also more vulnerable to the weather and natural disasters today. Bernadette must farm to survive. She must spend several hours a day chopping wood, hauling wood, building fires, fanning smoky fires, and cooking over them. Wild animals eat her crops. She and her family lack basic medical care and her children often go hungry and get sick. Heavily armed militias roam the countryside robbing, raping, kidnapping, and murdering. Understandably, then, climate change is not on her list of things to worry about.
As such, it’s misleading for environmental activists to invoke people like Bernadette, and the risks she faces from climate change, without acknowledging that economic development is overwhelmingly what will determine her standard of living, and the future of her children and grandchildren, not how much the climate changes.
What will determine whether or not Bernadette’s home is flooded is whether the Congo builds a hydroelectric, irrigation, and rainwater system, not the specific change in precipitation patterns. What will determine whether Bernadette’s home is secure or insecure is whether she has money to make it secure. And the only way she’ll have money to make it secure is through economic growth and a higher income.
Economic development outweighs climate change in the rich world, too. Consider the case of California, the fifth-largest economy in the world.
California suffers from two major kinds of fires. First, there are wind-driven fires on coastal shrubland, or chaparral, where most of the houses are built. Think Malibu and Oakland. Nineteen of the state’s 20 most deadly and costly fires have taken place in chaparral. The second type is forest fires in places like the Sierra Nevada where there are far fewer people.
Mountain and coastal ecosystems have opposite problems. There are too many fires in the shrublands and too few prescribed burns in the Sierras. Keeley refers to the Sierra fires as “fuel-dominated” and the shrubland fires as “wind-dominated.” The only solution to fires in the shrubland is to prevent them and/or harden homes and buildings to them.
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.
What about the Sierra? “If you look at the period from 1910 to 1960,” said Keeley, “precipitation is the climate parameter most tied to fires. But since 1960, precipitation has been replaced by temperature, so in the last fifty years, spring and summer temperatures will explain 50 percent of the variation from one year to the next. So temperature is important.”
But isn’t that also the period when the wood fuel was allowed to accumulate, I asked, due to suppression of forest fires? “Exactly,” said Keeley. “Fuel is one of the confounding factors. It’s the problem in some of the reports done by climatologists who understand climate but don’t necessarily understand the subtleties related to fires.”
Would we be having such hot fires in the Sierra, I asked, had we not allowed wood fuel to build up over the last century? “That’s a very good question,” said Keeley. “Maybe you wouldn’t.” He said it was something he might look at. “We have some selected watersheds in the Sierra Nevadas where there have been regular fires. Maybe the next paper we’ll pull out the watersheds that have not had fuel accumulation and look at the climate fire relationship and see if it changes.”
Fires in Australia are similar. Greater fire damage in Australia is, as in California, due in part to greater development in fire-prone areas, and in part to the accumulation of wood fuel. One scientist estimates that there is ten times more wood fuel in Australia’s forests today that when Europeans arrived. The main reason is that the government of Australia, as in California, refused to do controlled burns, for both environmental and human health reasons. As such, the fires would have occurred even had Australia’s climate not warmed.
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.
In July 2019, one of Lauren Jeffrey’s science teachers made an offhand comment about how climate change could be apocalyptic. Jeffrey was 17 years old and attended high school in Milton Keynes, a city of 230,000 people about 50 miles north-west of London.
“I did research on it and spent two months feeling quite anxious,” she told me. “I would hear young people around me talk about it and they were convinced that the world was going to end and they were going to die.”
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.
“I found a lot of blogs and videos talking about how we’re going extinct at various dates, 2030, 2035, from societal collapse,” said Jeffrey. “That’s when I started to get quite worried. I tried to forget it at first but it kept popping up in my mind.
“One of my friends was convinced there would be a collapse of society in 2030 and ‘near term human extinction’ in 2050,” said Jeffrey. “She concluded that we’ve got 10 years left to live.”
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.
Some journalists pushed back against the group’s alarmism. The BBC’s Andrew Neil interviewed a visibly uncomfortable Extinction Rebellion spokesperson in her mid-30s named Zion Lights. “One of your founders, Roger Hallam, said in April, ‘Our children are going to die in the next ten to 20 years,’ ” Neil says to Lights in the video. “What’s the scientific basis for these claims?”
“These claims have been disputed, admittedly,” Lights says. “There are some scientists who are agreeing and some who are saying that they’re simply not true. But the overall issue is that these deaths are going to happen.”
“But most scientists don’t agree with this,” says 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 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.”
“Perhaps not in 20 years,” acknowledges Lights.
“I’ve seen young girls on television, part of your demonstration… crying because they think they’re going to die in five or six years’ time, crying because they don’t think they’ll ever see adulthood,” says Neil. “And yet there’s no scientific basis for the claims that your organization is making.”
“I’m not saying that because I’m alarming children,” replies Lights. “They’re learning about the consequences.”
Happily, not all of Britain’s schoolchildren trusted Extinction Rebellion to honestly and accurately explain the consequences. “I did research and found there was a lot of misinformation on the denial side of things and also on the doomsayer side of things,” Lauren Jeffrey told me.
In October and November 2019, she posted seven videos to YouTube and joined Twitter to promote them. “As important as your cause is,” said Jeffrey in one of the videos, an open letter to Extinction Rebellion, “your persistent exaggeration of the facts has the potential to do more harm than good to the scientific credibility of your cause as well as to the psychological well-being of my generation.”
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.
One of the main questions I received, including from a BBC reporter, was whether some alarmism was justified in order to achieve changes to policy. The question implied that the news media aren’t already exaggerating.
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.
In early 2019, Roger Pielke reviewed the apocalyptic climate tract, The Uninhabitable Earth, for the Financial Times. In his review, Pielke described a filtering mechanism that results in journalists, like the one who wrote the book, getting the science so wrong.
“The scientific community produces carefully caveated scenarios of the future, ranging from the unrealistically optimistic to the highly pessimistic,” Pielke wrote. By contrast, “Media coverage tends to emphasize the most pessimistic scenarios and in the process somehow converts them from worst-case scenarios to our most likely futures.”
The author of The Uninhabitable Earth, like other activist journalists, simply exaggerated the exaggerations. He “assembled the best of this already selective science to paint a picture containing ‘enough horror to induce a panic attack in even the most optimistic.’”
What about so-called tipping points, like the rapid, accelerating, and simultaneous loss of Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, the drying out of and die-back of the Amazon, and a change of the Atlantic Ocean circulation? The high level of uncertainty on each, and a complexity that is greater than the sum of its parts, make many tipping point scenarios unscientific. That’s not to say that a catastrophic tipping point scenario is impossible, only that there is no scientific evidence that one would be more probable or catastrophic than other potentially catastrophic scenarios, including an asteroid impact, super-volcanoes, or an unusually deadly influenza virus.
Consider the other threats humankind has recently been forced to cope with. In July 2019, NASA announced it had been caught by surprise when a “city-killer” asteroid passed by—just one-fifth of the distance between Earth and the Moon. In December 2019, a volcano unexpectedly erupted in New Zealand, killing 21 people. And in early 2020, governments around the world scrambled to cope with an unusually deadly flu-like virus that experts say may kill millions of people.
Have governments sufficiently invested to detect and prevent asteroids, super-volcanoes, and deadly flus? Perhaps, or perhaps not. While nations take reasonable actions to detect and avoid such disasters they generally don’t take radical actions for the simple reason that doing so would make societies poorer and less capable of confronting all major challenges, including asteroids, super-volcanoes, and disease epidemics.
“Richer countries are more resilient,” climate scientist Emanuel said, “so let’s focus on making people richer and more resilient.”
The risk of triggering tipping points increases at higher planetary temperatures, and thus our goal should be to reduce emissions and keep temperatures as low as possible without undermining economic development. Said Emanuel, “We’ve got to come up with some kind of middle ground. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between growth and lifting people out of poverty and doing something for the climate.”
The new good news is that carbon emissions have been declining in developed nations for more than a decade. In Europe, emissions in 2018 were 23 percent below 1990 levels. In the U.S., emissions fell 15 percent from 2005 to 2016.
The U.S. and Britain have seen their carbon emissions from electricity, specifically, decline by an astonishing 27 percent in the U.S. and 63 percent in the U.K., between 2007 and 2018.
Most energy experts believe emissions in developing nations will peak and decline, just as they did in developed nations, once they achieve a similar level of prosperity.
As a result, global temperatures today appear much more likely to peak at between two to three degrees centigrade over preindustrial levels, not four, where the risks, including from tipping points, are significantly lower. The International Energy Agency (IEA) now forecasts carbon emissions in 2040 to be lower than in almost all of the IPCC scenarios.
Can we credit thirty years of climate alarmism for these reductions in emissions? We can’t. Total emissions from energy in Europe’s largest countries, Germany, Britain, and France, peaked in the 1970s, thanks mostly to the switch from coal to natural gas and nuclear — technologies that McKibben, Thunberg, AOC, and many climate activists adamantly oppose.
Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment,” and president of Environmental Progress, an independent research and policy organization. He is the author of Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. Follow him on Twitter @ShellenbergerMD.