‘The science’ doesn’t tell us what fighting climate change costs

Climate change is a problem but a civilization-endangering cure could be far worse than the disease

By BJORN LOM­BORG, National Post, May 31

We constantly hear that because climate change is real we should “follow the science” and end fossil fuel use. We hear it both from politicians who favour swift carbon cuts and from natural scientists themselves, as when the editor-in-chief of Nature insists “The science is clear — fossil fuels must go.”

The assertion is convenient for politicians because it allows them to avoid responsibility for the many costs and downsides of climate policy, painting these as inevitable results of diligently following the scientific evidence. But it is false. It confounds climate science with climate policy.

Careful climate science is clearly needed to shape thoughtful climate policy. It tells us what the physical impact will be of emitting more or less CO₂ . But climate policy, like any policy, should be the democratic outcome of a weighing of benefits and costs. Climate science tells us about some of the benefits of cutting emissions but it tells us nothing of the costs, which instead come from the much less hyped field of climate economics.

The story told by activist politicians and climate campaigners suggests there is nothing but benefit to ending fossil fuels — and a hellscape if nothing is done. But the reality is that life has improved dramatically in recent centuries largely because of the immense increase in available energy that has come mostly from fossil fuels. Life spans have more than doubled, hunger has dramatically declined and incomes have increased ten-fold.

Impact of ‘climate change’ wildly exaggerated

Although the impact of climate change is likely negative it is typically enormously exaggerated. We constantly hear about extreme weather such as droughts, storms, floods and fires —although even the UN Climate Panel finds that, for most of these things, evidence of their worsening cannot yet be documented.

But much more importantly, a richer world is much more resilient and hence much less affected by extreme weather. The data show that climate-related deaths from droughts, storms, floods and fires have declined by more than 97 per cent over the last century — from nearly 500,000 a year 100 years ago to fewer than 15,000 in the 2020s.

At the same time, the costs of the climate campaigners’ calls to “just stop” oil, gas and coal are massively downplayed. The world currently gets almost fourfifths of all its energy from fossil fuels. If we quickly ended our use of them, billions of people would die.

Four billion people — half the world’s population — depend on food grown with synthetic fertilizer produced almost entirely by natural gas. If we ended fossil fuels quickly, we would have no way to feed these people. Add the billions who depend on fossil fuel for wintertime heating and for steel, cement, plastics and transport, and it is little wonder that one recent estimate shows that abruptly ending fossil fuels would lead to six billion people dying in less than a year.

These vast downsides are not considered within climate science, which understandably focuses on carbon emissions and climate models. But they need to be an integral part of the debate about climate policy.

Most politicians advocate a slightly less rushed end to fossil fuels, phasing them out by 2050. The short-term death toll would be much lower but the downsides are still immense.

Net Zero by 2050 will cost $27-trillion per year—¼ of world’s GDP

The latest peer-reviewed climate-economic research shows that efficiently reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will cost a staggering US$27 trillion per year on average over this century. That is one-quarter of the world’s current GDP — per year. The same research shows that the benefits will be just a small fraction of that cost: the policy is prohibitively expensive and brings little benefit.

A good analogy is to consider the more than one-million global traffic deaths annually. Like climate change, traffic is a man-made problem. Like climate change, it is something we could entirely solve. If scientists were to look only at how to avoid the million traffic deaths, one solution would be to reduce speed limits everywhere to three miles per hour and enforce that strictly. This would almost entirely eliminate traffic deaths. Of course, it would also almost entirely eliminate our economies and productive lives.

We would laugh if politicians said we should “follow the science” and stop traffic deaths by reducing road speeds to three mph. We should take the same sensible approach to climate policy that we take to traffic policy.

We need to focus on R&D, not radical emission cuts

We should focus on short-term adaptation to build resilience and longterm investment in R&D to develop green energy. Innovation must drive the price of reliable green energy down below that of fossil fuels, eventually making sure everyone can switch to low-carbon alternatives.

When politicians tell us they are “following the science,” they use the claim to shut down open discussion of the enormous costs of their policies. “The science” informs us about the problem but is not the arbiter of solutions. Democracies are. Sudden, dramatic cuts in fossil fuel consumption will have huge downsides their backers would rather ignore. Climate change is a problem but a civilization-endangering cure could be far worse than the disease.

Bjorn Lom­borg is pres­i­dent of the Copenhagen Con­sen­sus, vis­it­ing fel­low at Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Hoover In­sti­tu­tion and au­thor of False Alarm and Best Things First.

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