In the shadow of this summer’s coronavirus conflicts, the warring climate fronts keep sieging. The very same media outlets that are doing a tremendous job of exaggerating the coronavirus threat are keen to push a terrifying narrative that climate change constitutes a societal decline of civilizational proportions. The societal decline, which we urgently need to do something about.
Three major books released this summer by well-known climate writers push back against this narrative:
- Bjørn Lomborg’s False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet
- Michael Shellenberger’s Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All
- Christopher Barnard and Kai Weiss’ edited book Green Market Revolution: How Market Environmentalism Can Protect Nature and Save the World (“GMR”)
These are not “climate deniers,” though writers for both The Guardian and the New York Times tried hard to brand them as such. All authors accept that climate change is real, man-made, and presents a net harm to the world. Many of them support proposals like carbon taxes and increased R&D for batteries and renewable energy – others even favor governments building infrastructure or financially assisting those most negatively affected by a harsher climate.
Rather than fulfilling the stereotype of climate deniers, these writers are serious, concerned and self-proscribed environmentalists wanting to preserve nature – but not at the expense of human flourishing or without qualification. But accepting that climate change presents a challenge to humans doesn’t answer the most important questions: How much? How does a changing climate impact human life? And what can we do about it?
The Storytelling of Apocalypse Never
Shellenberger’s mostly calm storytelling draws on lengthy personal interviews with scientists and activists as well as presenting a human face of climate change. Many threats of nature that climate change exacerbates, argues Shellenberger, are common human problems of economic nature – of incomes, access to health, safety from civil wars and from the elements. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the world’s poorest are the most vulnerable to climate change; conversely, getting them out of poverty is one of their best protections, relieving also non-climate change needs.
Apocalypse Never is less combative than False Alarm, but a bit more so than GMR, and more concerned with stories. Shellenberger gives room for alarmist scientists and activists to extensively state their cases before he demolishes them with heavily cited research results. He characterizes the book as defending “mainstream science from those who deny it on the political Right and Left,” driven by “a hunger to separate facts from science fiction.”
Take the activist quip that “billions are going to die.” Interviewing climate activists leads Shellenberger to Johan Rockström, a professor at University of Potsdam and previously of the esteemed Stockholm Resilience Centre. First off, the Guardian reporter who had quoted Rockström apparently misunderstood him as saying that at 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures – an increasingly unlikely outcome – food production and freshwater supplies could only support half a billion people (one-sixteenth of the world). Actually, what Rockström had said was that food production supporting perhaps four billion (one-half) would be unimaginable at 4 degrees’ warming. What’s a few billion people among friends?
Second, the IPCC – the UN panel of hundreds of international climate researchers whose reports make media headlines and which Shellenberger frequently quotes – reports nothing that even remotely supports Rockström’s claims. He readily admits this, when Shellenberger asks if anybody had studied food production at 4 degrees warming: Rockström responds that it hasn’t been done. Embarrassingly, it turns out that two of his colleagues at the Potsdam Institute had, concluding that even above 4 degrees higher global temperature, food production could be increased – and that “fertilizer, irrigation, and mechanization mattered more than climate change.” FAO, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, similarly reports that in the most dire scenarios, world food production still increases markedly.
What we have is a rogue scientist making projections about things he hasn’t studied. Then his unfounded hypothetical is enlarged and aggravated by an activist journalist whose climate megaphone scared British children into having nightmares over climate change.
Over the course of the book, this peeling-like strategy of argument repeats again and again: a scientist is asked for a hypothetical or an educated guess to a leading question; an alarmist journalist omits crucial nuance, and blasts the front page with “the world is ending;” activists take the headline as evidence of precisely how dire the world is, justifying all kinds of campaigns and lobbying and interruptions to civilized life. School children are scared to their bones – all because a careless scientist’s words trickled through a hyper-alarmist world devoid of fact-checking.
It’s shocking that we ever fell for something so recklessly untrue.
But what about the forest fires in California, Australia? What about the Amazon? What about the turtles and our plastic waste?
For those topics too, Shellenberger unearths poorly communicated science. Over and over, so frequently and eerily that Shellenberger makes it his mission to debunk falsehoods and bring nuance back to the climate debate: we have so far not detected climate change-fueled fires in Australia or California as there is no relation between climate and area burned. What has happened is that more people, with more property, have moved further into harm’s way. Accounting for more people, more stuff, more power lines, and more humans accidentally setting off fires, there is no increase in forest fire damage stemming from change damage.
Deforestation is not running rampant through the world, and global greening and reforestation in rich countries has probably pushed the world to net zero deforestation already.
There is much less plastic in the oceans than we thought; it biodegrades in ten to fifty years instead of the thousands of years I was told in school; and most of it emerges from a handful of poor countries’ bad waste management systems. That’s not because they’re evil or capitalism forces them too, but because they’re poor and have more important things to worry about.
Sixth Mass Extinction? Nope, we’re nowhere close. Mass Extinctions occur on geologic timescales, not human ones, and they are orders of magnitudes higher than anything going on today. Previous Mass Extinctions eradicated between 70% and 95% of all species on the planet over a million years or so –several times longer than Homo Sapiens have even existed. If all the species on the IUCN’s Red List would go extinct, and we’d keep up that pace for a few hundred or thousand years, then maybe we’d qualify for this abhorred club of Five.
Shellenberger’s three hundred pages of arguments and stories, plus another hundred of referenced research, leads him to a simple Nietzschean truth. Completely detached from scientific results, environmentalism has become “the dominant secular religion of the educated, upper-middle class elite.” It’s a “new Judeo-Christian religion, one that has replaced God with nature.”
In that one stroke, the actions of indignant activists and true believers suddenly make sense. “How dare you,” is the right message, entirely regardless of what the science really says.
A Textbook Example of Cost-Benefit Analyses
Where Shellenberger’s claim to fame lies in his sincere environmentalism, Bjørn Lomborg has profiled himself as a common-sense policy guy. One that helps make the world a better place, inch by inch, by assisting governments and communities in getting as much bang as possible for their always limited bucks. In recent years, he and colleagues have laid out cheap, well-targeted, and evidence-based solutions for various problems – be they UN’s Sustainable Development Goals or the many unique challenges of Bangladesh, a country Lomborg’s think tank has worked with extensively.
It was only a matter of time before he would once again aim his particular skill set at the climate change issue. Underlying False Alarm is a very easy message: not every human disaster is climate change, and many of the disasters made worse by climate change can be solved by helping people solve more urgent problems. The emphasis on poverty eradication, economic growth, and access to cheap, reliable energy that we recognize from Shellenberger is prevalent here too.
Noticeably, Lomborg also puts climate change into perspective. Yes, it constitutes a negative impact on the world – but how much? And how does that compare to other trends operating in the world, such as better health, longer lives, and higher economic welfare? If, as Lomborg’s best estimates suggest, we will be something like 4.5 times better off in the year 2100, how much attention should we really pay to a threat that might reduce that future well-being to something like 4.34 times higher?
Clearly, we should do something to mitigate that relative loss, but not everything and the kitchen sink. Here’s Lomborg at his controversial best:
“Climate change plays a relatively small role in determining future well-being. It is clear that if we’re motivated only by trying to reduce the impact of rising temperatures, we’re literally ignoring the most important factors – such as education, health, technology, and access to plentiful energy.”
We must be clever, carefully weighing the potential benefits of climate policies against their costs – and more importantly their opportunity costs. There are many other crucially needed improvements to global human welfare than renewable energy, carbon taxes, or meatless Mondays.
Where Lomborg really shines is debunking such impractical virtue-signaling efforts and putting individual-level climate choices into perspective. He cites the late David MacKay, engineering professor at Cambridge and science advisor to the British government, saying “If we all do a little, we’ll only achieve a little,” and gives plenty of examples of where our high-flying values don’t align with our mundane actions.
Hypocrisy and negligible climate impact abounds: David Attenborough promised to unplug his phone charger (reducing an average Briton’s emissions by one-half of one-thousandth every year); Greta Thunberg sailed to New York in a renewably-powered boat even though her crew flew back-and-forth; British Prince Harry and Meghan Markle cruised around Europe in their private plane all while lambasting its inhabitants to take their climate responsibility.
These stories are pearls, and exactly the kind of insincere and infuriating behavior that makes nobody take environmentalists seriously. The worst of Lomborg’s examples, one that actually had me laughing uncontrollably much to the benefit of my neighbors, was the BBC’s “Ethical Man,” Justin Rowlatt. Working relentlessly for a year – avoiding meat, selling the car, insulating the house – Rowlatt documented how his family, at great effort, had cut emissions by an astonishing 20 percent. Amazing! How was he to celebrate? Fly the entire family to Buenos Aires for vacation, undermining all his climate efforts several times over.
The Good, the Bad, and the Overlap
The overlap with Shellenberger lies in using middle-of-the-road research to debunk outrageous climate change claims. Instead of just citing the counterevidence, Lomborg explains where exactly the relevant scientist’s claim went wrong. Often, it has to do with adaptation: most alarmist climate research ignores human change.
Strictly speaking, it’s rarely individual scientists’ fault as they compute a number of scenarios where “do-nothing” exists as a baseline. Obviously, those scenarios result in very damaging outcomes that catastrophe-prone media outlets portray as the official scientific position. Lomborg shows examples where Seattle inhabitants faced warmer temperatures, but the number of households owning an air conditioner wouldn’t rise. Instead, it’s like slowly rising sea levels went ignored by households and communities year after year until one day their houses are entirely submerged. Disaster ensured!
In the real world, people act. They respond; they adapt. That makes gradual climate damage much less of an issue. In one comprehensive study, adaptation costs rose somewhat from their level in the year 2000 but resulted in a 99.6% reduction in the number of people flooded. Climate change doesn’t have to be a concern if we pay for the simple things that protect against its worst excesses.
Like Shellenberger does with personal interviews in Congo and the Philippines, Lomborg persuasively shows that for most people climate change hardly even shows up as a concern. Health, education, incomes, jobs, safety and even quality ranks much higher than doing anything about the climate. To most people in the world, there are simply more important things to worry about.
I should note that Lomborg’s style is much more combative than Shellenberger’s, the occasional sarcasm uncalled for. The oft-repeated qualification, on every other page, that he does accept that climate change is real and damaging is tiresome – yet the New York Times still didn’t get the memo.
What’s a few trillions among friends?
Another reasonable criticism of Lomborg’s long-term projections is that they are too lenient on Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus’ economy-climate models. While Lomborg often uses many different models to compensate for optimism or pessimism inherent in any of them, in chapter 11 this prudence goes out the window.
With every year we extend our projections into the future, the results become more speculative and unreliable. For some reason, Lomborg moves away from discussing changes until the year 2050 or 2100 – conventional cutoff points in climate science. In reporting climate change costs and various degrees of policy measures through an idealized global carbon tax, Lomborg expands Nordhaus’s DICE models five hundred years into the future. And then adds up the policy costs.
I shouldn’t say “adds them up,” because it’s wholly unclear what Lombord is actually doing. He reports “net present values,” but describes them “as if we had to pay them today.” This is not what we mean by NPV in economics or finance, but rather a way to make an apples-to-apples comparison between values accruing at different points in time.
A much larger problem is that Lomborg’s numbers quickly cease to have any meaning. Over longer stretches of time, even small changes in interest rates greatly exaggerates outcomes. Over five hundred years, basis points quickly become trillions. $100 trillion there, $4,000 trillion there (for reference, the value of all that the world produced last year was something like $90 trillion).
A few chapters back, Lomborg was very vexed with the Paris Agreement. Its implementation would be unfathomably expensive, costing something like $1 trillion a year – perhaps even $2 trillion if politicians enacted suboptimal policies. Fast forward to this chapter, hundreds and thousands of trillions are thrown around like paper planes. One could be excused for thinking that the Paris Agreement’s meagre $1-2 trillion isn’t that big of a deal anymore.
A few pages later, it gets even worse as he professes that total world GDP “across the next five centuries will add up to $4,629 trillion” (emphasis added), which is even more puzzling. Simply adding up last world year’s GDP ($90 trillion) with the next 499 years – even at zero growth – gets us a number ten times that. If he meant to say the world GDP in the year 2520 will be $4,629 trillion, that works out to a meagre 0.79% growth per year – roughly in the ballpark of the yield on a U.S. 10-year bond, but much below long-term global growth.
If we calculate 3% growth until 2060, as the OECD projects, and 0.5% growth thereafter, we fall thousands of trillions short of Lomborg’s number. In the relevant footnote he states that the number represents a sum that “invested today, at realistic interest rates, would be able to exactly pay out the expected GDP each year over the next five hundred years.” What’s ‘realistic’ interest rates over five centuries? This phrasing also suggests that he’s talking about the world’s capital stock throwing off predictable return every year in five hundred years’ time. This section falls way short of Lomborg’s normal clarity.
Numbers from nowhere
A careless reader should not read much into any of these numbers – best to skip the entire chapter. My best advice is to never do 500-year projections, ever. Five hundred years ago, the first Europeans ventured into the Yucatán peninsula of present-day Mexico. To borrow a concept from the academic disputes that track the impact of those voyages, Lomborg is reporting “numbers from nowhere.”
Climate models already straddle the realm of (im)possibilities by plotting economic relations 30, 50, or 80 years into the future – in a climate whose changes and interactions we don’t fully grasp, and a world that 30, 50, and 80 years ago invented text messaging, landed on the moon, and made its first rudimentary computer, respectively. To believe that we could effortlessly illustrate economic damage over five hundred years is pure nonsense. It would be like the Spanish conquistadors Francisco Hernandéz and Hernán Cortés predicting the rise of smartphones in the 2010s – after nailing Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Enrichment, a world with 15 times the number that inhabited their world, and a few world wars in between. The domination of the world’s seas and trade changed about four or five times since then, passing to a nation that didn’t even exist when Hernandéz and Cortés roamed the Atlantic.
It strains the imagination to plot world economic growth and summing climate costs over a similar time frame. Best to not be attempted: Lomborg’s case would have been greatly improved had he abstained from such fanciful projections.
I attack these half-dozen pages not because the book’s argument relies on them, but because the author falls prey to exactly the kind of exaggerated and implausibly extrapolated results that he frequently attacks climate campaigners for spouting. That’s not serious, and not suitable for a book that prides itself on serious science with crucial context added back in.
Additionally, the exercise adds nothing to his argument but detracts from the virtues of calibrated and sensible science: ‘Numbers from nowhere’ is not a valid argument. Clarity is a virtue that Lomborg often possesses, but in this book occasionally forgets. That’s a pity. And I can’t help to wonder if more of Lomborg’s arguments rest on equally flimsy reasoning?
Green Market Revolution
While Shellenberger’s book is personal, illustrative, and imaginative and Lomborg’s is statistical, mostly balanced and policy relevant, GMR falls in neither category. It becomes little more than a collection of individually interesting articles, where condensed parts could have had better homes elsewhere – from think tank policy briefs to newspaper op-eds to the painting interview-styled reports of weekend magazines like The New Yorker or The Economist. What binds them together is unclear, aside from broadly discussing environmentalism and a fleeting commitment to decentralized solutions.
The breadth and myriad of voices might precisely be the point. Twenty-odd writers representing 15 different organizations and ideological persuasions makes it unsuitable to reject them as merely another fringe climate denier. On the very last page of these 170-odd pages, Barnard writes exactly that, pointing to the virtues of gathering many voices “to put forward a truly holistic and international framework for market environmentalism.”
The chapters he and Kai Weiss have gathered are short and, for the most part, thematically concentrated. My experience reading GMR was much like reading Lomborg: thrilled and excited for the most part – until I found that one tipping point, priming me to see more errors. For Lomborg, it was strange modelling and numbers from nowhere; in GMR it was text riddled with clutter and commas out of place. Some articles are powerful and memorable, others little more than drafts in need of editing.
Daniel Hannan’s opening chapter is grand, cogent and quotable – a great beginning to a collection of market-friendly environmental writing. Market environmentalists don’t see humans as a plight of nature, but rather how “modern capitalism is the best friend of a fragile habitat.”
From Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute, I learned that the common-sensical environmental solution for conservation – just buy the land you wish to protect! – is largely illegal in the U.S. The ‘diligent development requirement’ of a 1920 federal law prevents those holding drilling rights on public land from not using them.
Like Lomborg, Lesh writes that dynamics matter:
“Humans respond dynamically to scarcity. We are not stable and stuck. Innovation has enabled us to produce more using less to provide for the needs of a growing population.”
And in those three sentences he has summarized much of the pro-market case: climate change is not so bad of a threat when we take change, adaptation and feedback into consideration. As humans always have, we can innovate our way out of this too.
Many chapters don’t go far enough, and there is much overlap between frequent talking points: incentives, ownership, market prices, Julian Simon, and the precautionary principle. Separate chapters each with minimum time commitments may make for an excellent book for the nightstand – or for a spare minute at the dentist’s office. Great for the novice; tiresome and simplified for the rest.
The country chapters are somewhat confused. The U.K. chapter mostly discusses gene editing and the European Union, with a flimsy hope that Brexit might allow British to undo its earlier innovation mistakes. Surely, green belts in England – British planning policies that restrict urban home building – are important, but its relevance to climate change and environmentalism is fleeting at best. The Austria chapter, while well-written, comes in a completely different style and voice, with an emphasis on eco-tourism and local communities.
Other chapters give us textbook discussions of the tragedy of the commons. While correct, their renditions are also cursory and empty. The standard solutions to common-pool resource problems (property rights, social regulation, or government regulation) do not guarantee that fish or grasslands are preserved but determine how much should be left for the future. The beauty of the market system is that it regulates the meaning of “should” by using interest rates – none of that is discussed in GMR.
Take the superbly titled ‘Why Government Fails the Environment’ by PERC researchers Hannah Downey and Holly Fretwell. They write that government control over nature backfires as governments get “incentives for conservation wrong” and that “central planners have little information about resource value and grossly misallocate resources as a result.”
Ironically, this is precisely the charge laid against markets in the first place – that they don’t have enough information and incentives to internalize the externalities of their production. The debate over information is the entire conflict, which Downey and Fretwell botch by committing the reverse Nirvana fallacy. The reason governments have taken on the regulation of environmental externalities in the first place is that societies didn’t believe markets didn’t have enough information to satisfactorily internalize them. Saying that governments also have poor incentives and insufficient information gets us nowhere. What Downey and Fretwell need to show is that markets solve these information and incentive problems better than governments do – not just twisting around the behavioral asymmetry assumption that leads believers in government to think of market participants as crooked individuals and public servants as saints.
But the strangest omission in GMR is the mysterious lack of energy, that one thing that will make or break the environment. Apart from a handful of paragraphs – turning fossil fuels into a question of subsidies while celebrating wind power in Texas – how to power our societies is ignored in favor of GMOs, AI, Carbon taxes, and green bonds. That’s very odd.
The straightforward message of optimism still brightens these pages: private property and capitalist prosperity might be better guardians of nature than regulatory hurdles and apocalyptic convictions. My quibbles aside, the great value of GMR is that it transcends many circumstances and political opinions, includes many voices, and makes market environmentalism accessible to a wider public.
Most people are aware that climate change matters. It is a threat and it impacts our lives. Many, between one-third and one-half of respondents in Britain, the U.S. or France, even believe that climate change amounts to the end of the human race. The most vocal activists cry for us to take immediate action while fearing for the lives of their kids – kids that they no longer want to bring into this vile world of environmental destruction.
With the carefully assembled scientific artillery gathered in Lomborg, Shellenberger, and Barnard and Weiss’ books, these untruths are no longer acceptable. They are unfit for civilized society. Most campaign slogans are not true, and what activists sputter is most certainly not what “the” science says.
Climate change is bad, but not disastrous. What is disastrous are the many self-harming (or no good) solutions proposed to solve it. Those should be quickly discarded. There are much better ways to deal with issues related to climate change than the ineffective, counterproductive, and self-harm suggestions coming out of the Greenpeaces, AOCs, or Thunbergs of the world.
Environmentalism as we know it is over. Fearmongering and claims of imminent disaster are well past due, to be treated on par with astrology. We need to cancel environmentalism – and replace it with a scientifically sound and carefully deliberated environmental humanism. A humanism where damages and harm to the planet matters, but so do human life, wealth, and well-being.
Shellenberger calls for “environmental humanism;” the writers in Green Market Revolution favors “market environmentalism;” and Lomborg wants sensible policies that get us the most bang for our environmental buck. They all put growth and global economic well-being into proper perspective, regarding a single-minded focus on fossil fuel emissions as a damaging regress.
There is a way to be concerned about the environment in the 2020s: Messrs. Shellenberger, Lomborg, Barnard, and Weiss have shown us how.