Climate-change fear is causing life-changing anxiety at a time when the world’s major problems are actually being solved
By Bjorn Lomborg, National Post, Sept. 15, 2022
It’s easy to believe life on Earth is getting ever worse. The media constantly highlight one catastrophe after another and make terrifying predictions. With the never-ending torrent of doom and gloom about climate change and the environment, it’s understandable why many people — especially the young — genuinely believe the world is about to end. But the fact is that though problems remain the world is getting better. We just rarely hear about it.
We are incessantly told about disasters, whether it is the latest heat wave, flood, wildfire or storm. Yet the data overwhelmingly show that over the past century people have become much, much safer from all these weather events. In the 1920s, around half a million people were killed by weather disasters, whereas in the last decade the death toll averaged around 18,000. This year, like both 2020 and 2021, is tracking below that. Why? Because when people get richer, they get more resilient.
Weather-fixated television news would make us think disasters are all getting worse. They’re not. Around 1900, about 4.5 per cent of the land area of the world burned every year. Over the last century, this declined to about 3.2 per cent In the last two decades, satellites show even further decline: in 2021 just 2.5 per cent burned. This has happened mostly because richer societies prevent fires. Models show that by the end of the century, despite climate change, human adaptation will mean even less burning.
And despite what you may have heard about record-breaking costs from weather disasters — mainly because wealthier populations build more expensive houses along coastlines — damage costs are actually declining, not increasing, as a per cent of GDP.
Great Barrier Reef is thriving; so are polar bears
But it’s not only weather disasters that are getting less damaging despite dire predictions. A decade ago, environmentalists loudly declared that Australia’s magnificent Great Barrier Reef was nearly dead, killed by bleaching caused by climate change. The Guardian newspaper even published an obituary. This year, scientists revealed that two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef shows the highest coral cover seen since records began in 1985. The good-news report got a fraction of the attention the bad news did.
Not long ago, environmentalists constantly used pictures of polar bears to highlight the dangers of climate change. Polar bears even featured in Al Gore’s terrifying movie An Inconvenient Truth. But the reality is that polar bear numbers have been increasing — from somewhere between five and ten thousand polar bears in the 1960s up to around 26,000 today. We don’t hear this news, however. Instead, campaigners just quietly stopped using polar bears in their activism.
There are so many badnews stories that we seldom stop to consider that on the most important indicators, life is getting much better. Human life expectancy has doubled over the past century, from 36 years in 1920 to more than 72 years today. A hundred years ago, three-quarters of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than one-tenth does. The deadliest environmental problem, air pollution, was four times more likely to kill you in 1920 than it is today, mostly because a century ago people in poverty cooked and heated with dung and wood.
Despite Covid-related setbacks, humanity has become better and better off. Yet doom-mongers will keep telling you the end is nigh. This is great for their fundraising but the costs to society are sky-high: we make poor, expensive policy choices and our kids are scared witless.
We also end up ignoring much bigger problems. Consider all the attention devoted to heat waves. In the United States and many other parts of the world heat deaths are actually declining, because access to air conditioning helps much more than rising temperatures hurt. Almost everywhere, however, cold quietly kills many more people than heat does. In the U.S., about 20,000 people die from heat every year, but 170,000 die from cold — something we rarely focus on. Moreover, cold deaths are rising in the U.S. and our incessant focus on climate change is exacerbating this trend because politicians have introduced green laws that make energy more expensive, meaning fewer people can afford to keep warm. Lacking perspective means we don’t focus first on where we can help most.
On a broader scale, global warming prompts celebrities and politicians to fly around the world in private jets lecturing the rest of us, while we spend less on problems like hunger, infectious diseases and a lack of basic schooling. When did politicians and movie stars ever meet for an important cause like de-worming children?
We shouldn’t ignore climate, but we need a more balanced approach
We need balance in our news, but that doesn’t mean ignoring global warming: it is a real problem humanity has caused. We just need perspective. To know what to expect from a warming planet, we can look at the damage estimates from the economic models used by the Biden and Obama administrations, which reveal that the entire, global cost of climate change — not just to economies, but in every sense — will be equivalent to less than a four per cent hit to global GDP by the end of the century.
Humanity is getting more prosperous every day. The United Nations estimates that without global warming the average person in 2100 would be 450 per cent better off than today. Global warming means people will only be 434 per cent richer instead. That is not a disaster.
Climate change fear is causing life-changing anxiety. You might be hearing nothing but bad news but you aren’t hearing the full story.
Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.