“No more columns on climate change.” Too many times, I’ve said that to myself in the past year. But every month seemingly brings a new twist of weirdness or distortion that needs to be addressed.
Meanwhile, the media is tapping it for all its worth. August established a record number of stories on climate change or global warming. Take just the five major newspapers in the U.S. (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York times, USA Today and Los Angeles Times), they combined to publish 751 stories during the month.
Quantity is one thing; substance is an entirely different matter. The hysteria also seems to be escalating. Therefore, some balanced discernment amidst all this conversation is refreshing.
No one does that better than Dr. Bjorn Lomborg (author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center). He recently made some important observations in an interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. For instance, Lomborg highlights what he calls the “CNN Effect,” in which we’re watching weather events as they unfold making it all seem very dramatic. But the data portrays something very different:
“…it tells us that in the 1920s, on average, every year-and-a-half a million people died from climate related events (like droughts, floods, storms, wildfire and extreme temperatures). Today, despite the fact the word has quadrupled in population since then, the number is down to about 20,000 per year… This has very little to do with climate but everything to do with higher living standards… we’ve become much, much more resilient to weather.”
Of course, that doesn’t address the darker, more apocalyptic concerns about climate change. For example, Australian scientist Will Steffen is proclaiming a rapid downward trajectory for the earth’s carrying capacity. His forecast has it sustaining only one-billion people (meaning the remaining 6 billion plus people will die off). Here again, Lomborg provides some useful guidance when dealing with the most draconian projections:
“ …in reality, a lot of people seem to be saying, 'I really, really, really worry about this far out thing that could happen, like extinction of some sort. And therefore, I'm going to pursue very costly but incredibly ineffective policies.' That just simply seems contradictory to me. If you actually worry about the really far out tail events, you should be focusing on policies that could actually help you with those events.”
To that end, Lomborg notes that a lot of policies we’re seemingly trying to pursue are very expensive and have zero chance of producing meaningful reversal:
“… even if we stopped using fossil fuels, you would only really see the divergence in about half a century, in temperature outcomes… The system has a huge amount of inertia in it. So, there's a lot of sort of trend in temperatures built into the system. And in any realistic outcome, we are simply not going to make a difference before the end of the century.”
This brings us to Lomborg’s key point: we’re spending a lot of time and effort discussing policies that really won’t make things better – all the while making people worse off (and hence more prone to the effects of climate change). In other words, the marginal economic cost of most policies being discussed far outweigh the marginal climate benefit. He pointed out in a recent column (“A Climate of Burning Money”) that:
“… the Paris treaty is likely to cost between $1 trillion and $2 trillion (U.S.) a year … Not surprisingly, research shows that will increase poverty. Its effects are not evenly felt; increasing electricity prices hurts the poor the most … The U.N. body organizing the Paris Agreement finds that if all its promises were fulfilled (which they are not on track to achieve), it would cut about 60 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalents, whereas about 6,000 billion mt are needed to get to the promised 2C target.
Why is all this important? Animal agriculture is often the top target when it comes to climate change remedies. The stop-eating-meat-to-cool-the-planet crowd often likes to cite the following factoid: livestock takes up nearly 80% of global agricultural land yet produces less than 20% of the world’s supply of calories (or something to that effect). Therefore, they proclaim eating meat represents an inordinate cost regarding the climate.
That argument needs to be snubbed on two counts. First, most of that land is non-arable – it’s not suitable for any other purpose than grazing livestock. And that brings about the second point. Even if we depopulated the world of cattle, some other animal would take their place on that land – that is, we’d simply trade one ruminant for another. It’s a false solution.
So, despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, removing meat from our diets isn’t really going to help cool the planet. But perhaps more important, global efforts to make us all vegetarians are most punitive toward those people in poor and developing countries – it will make them worse off, not better. And after all, they’re the ones most susceptible to impact of climate change.
All that really brings us back to the issue of the need for some objectivity and reason in all this conversation. Most significant, let’s put an end to futile, virtue-seeking solutions (i.e. stop eating meat) and concentrate our efforts on economic growth. Reducing global poverty provides all sorts of benefits, including broader opportunities to mitigate the potential threat of climate change. That’s what really matters, and then maybe we can stop writing about it.