We are not going to drown, starve or die of thirst because of climate change. Rather, the most immediate danger lies in exaggerating the threats and rendering an entire generation incapacitated by fear.
By Ross Clark, The Times, March 31, 2023
Who are the greatest victims of climate change? People flooded out of their homes? Subsistence farmers affected by drought? I would suggest an alternative group: the 56 per cent of 16 to 24-year-olds who, according to a 2021 poll, think humanity is doomed by a changing climate.
You can see it in tearful schoolchildren boycotting lessons, in Just Stop Oil activists earnestly telling us that billions of people are going to starve, in those who say they will never have children because, in the words of one 27-year-old woman quoted in The Guardian, “I feel I can’t in all conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try and survive what may be apocalyptic conditions.”
Having been a child for the second half of the Cold War I know all about growing up with the threat of doom hanging over us. But I don’t recall my contemporaries traumatized by the prospect of nuclear war. We indulged in black humour, and some went on Committee for Nuclear Disarmament marches and shouted things, but I never saw anyone reduced to a gibbering wreck, as some seem to be over climate change.
The young who feel doomed are not direct victims of climate change, of course, but the hysteria surrounding it. They have been fed daily predictions of doom by people they feel they can trust.
Who can blame them after listening, for example, to the British climate security secretary, Grant Shapps, who yesterday launched the government’s latest net-zero plans by asserting that “polluting sources of energy are destroying our planet”; or to the UN secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, as he launched the “synthesis report” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last week: “The climate time bomb is ticking,” he said. “Humanity is on thin ice and that ice is melting fast.” Language that until recently was only uttered by activists has become commonplace among political leaders.
What had provoked Guterres’s catastrophizing? The IPCC synthesis report contained no new science—the scientific report was published 18 months ago. This was the edited highlights, skewed towards the bad news. That bad news was then hyped by Guterres and further exaggerated in some of the reporting. One headline claiming “scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate change” turned out to have come from a Greenpeace spokesman.
IPCC facts don’t support scary claims
It is difficult to reconcile Guterres’s remarks with the content of the IPCC scientific report. This declares that it was “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land” and that rapid changes in climate have occurred as a result; but in no way does it support the assertion that we are heading for what is now commonly called an “unlivable Earth.” It is a measured document, reviewing mountains of climate research, acknowledging where evidence is strong or weak, and revealing that while some climatic trends are harmful to human societies, others are benign or even helpful.
You would never guess, for example, from listening to Guterres nor from the reporting every time a storm strikes the U.S. that the IPCC scientific report concluded there has been no increasing trend in the number of hurricanes making landfall in America since 1900, although they cause more damage now because the coastline is more developed. The same is true of tornadoes such as the one that flattened parts of Mississippi last week: no increasing trend.
Neither, from the regular prophecies of agricultural Armageddon, would you guess that the IPCC failed to detect an increasing trend in the frequency or severity of meteorological drought, except for a few regions in Africa and South America.
The synthesis report asserts that “climate change has reduced food security” — yet goes on to concede that agricultural production continues to increase. The UN’s food and agriculture organization data shows, for example, that wheat yields are up 9.8 per cent and maize yields up 11.9 per cent in the past decade. Among common crops only cassava is down, by 8.5 per cent in a decade—but yields are up 47 per cent over six decades.
The IPCC’s synthesis report flags an increase in global mortality from heatwaves. You have to dig deeper to find the whole truth. A widely quoted figure claims that five million people a year are dying from extreme temperatures. It comes from a respectable source: a study by Monash University, Australia, in 2021.
Yet what tends to get missed out is that 90 per cent of those deaths were from extreme low temperatures. This is true even in Africa. Moreover, while the incidence of deaths from high temperatures shows a slight increase as the world warms, deaths from extreme low temperatures are falling at a faster rate. So, for the moment at least, climate change is leading to an overall fall in temperature-related deaths.
Sea-level rise is engineering challenge, not existential threat
There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about climate change. From Britain’s point of view, sea levels are rising at around 3 mm a year. Extreme rainfall events are increasing, though this does not always translate into greater flood risk.
The most comprehensive study on flood trends quoted by the IPCC looked at more than 3,500 rivers around the world and measured changes in their maximum annual flow between 1961 and 2005, a time of warming temperatures. It found that maximum flow, and therefore flood risk, had increased in just 7.1 per cent of them, and decreased in 11.9 per cent of them.
Yet even if sea levels do rise by the half a metre expected by the IPCC this century and flood risk increases in some areas, that hardly amounts to an existential threat to humanity—more an engineering challenge.
Guterres, along with some political leaders and some prominent scientists, appears to be playing the same game as Matt Hancock did with Covid, when he said in a WhatsApp message he wanted to “frighten the pants” off the public. Perhaps he thinks that apocalyptic tones will nudge us all into action.
But as we found with Covid, weaponizing fear can be counter-productive. If you frighten people into thinking the world is going to end, whatever we do, what incentive does anyone have to tackle climate change? If you think you are doomed, you might as well do what some did on the Titanic: carry on carousing and go down in style.
The reality, though, is that we are not doomed. We should reduce, and as much as technology allows us, try to eliminate carbon emissions. But we are not going to drown, starve or die of thirst because of climate change. Rather, the most immediate danger lies in exaggerating the threats and rendering an entire generation incapacitated by fear.
Ross Clark’s latest book is Not Zero: How an Irrational Target Will Impoverish You, Help China (and Won’t Even Save the Planet).