The recent UN climate summit in Glasgow was predictably branded as our “last chance” to tackle the “climate catastrophe” and “save humanity.” Like many others, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry warned that we have only nine years left to avert most of “catastrophic” global warming.
Almost every climate summit has been branded as the last chance. Setting artificial deadlines to get attention is one of the most common environmental tactics. We have continually been told for the past half-century that time has just about run out. This message is spectacularly wrong and leads to panic and poor policies.
Three years ago, Britain’s Prince Charles announced we had just 18 months left to fix climate change. This wasn’t his first attempt at deadline setting. Ten years earlier, he told an audience that he “had calculated that we have just 96 months left to save the world.”
In 2004, a major UK newspaper told us that without drastic action, climate change would destroy civilization by 2020. It stated major European cities would be sunk beneath rising seas, Britain would be plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate, and mega-droughts and famines would lead to widespread rioting and nuclear war.
In 1989, the head of the United Nations’ Environment Program declared we had just three years to “win — or lose — the climate struggle.” In 1982, the UN was predicting planetary “devastation as complete, as irreversible as any nuclear holocaust” by the year 2000. At the first UN environment summit in Stockholm in 1972, the organizer and later first UN Environment Program director warned that the world had just 10 years to avoid catastrophe.
In 1972, the world was also rocked by the first global environmental scare, the so-called “Limits to Growth” report. The authors predicted that most natural resources would run out within a few decades while pollution would overpower humanity. At the time, the future was described by Time magazine as a desolate world with few gaunt survivors tilling freeway center strips, hoping to raise a subsistence crop. Life magazine expected “urban dwellers will have to wear gas masks to survive air pollution” by the mid-1980s.
They were all wrong because they overlooked the greatest resource of all: human ingenuity. We don’t just use up resources; we innovate smarter ways of making resources more available. At the same time, technology solves many of the most persistent pollution problems, as did the catalytic converter. This is why air pollution in rich countries has been declining for decades.
Nonetheless, after 50 years of stunningly incorrect predictions, climate campaigners, journalists and politicians still hawk an immediate apocalypse to great acclaim by ignoring adaptation. Headlines that sea-level rise could drown 187 million people by the end of the century are foolish. They imagine that hundreds of millions of people will remain stationary while the waters lap over their calves, hips, chests, and mouths. More seriously, it absurdly assumes that no nation will build any sea defenses. In the real world, ever-wealthier nations will adapt and protect their citizens better, leading to less flooding, while surprisingly spending an ever-lower share of their GDP on flood and protection costs.
Likewise, when activists tell you that climate change will make children face twice as much fire, they rely on computer models that only include temperature and ignore humans. Real societies adapt and reduce fire because fires are costly. That is why global fire statistics show less burned area over the past 120 years and why a future with adaptation sees less, not more fire.
These unsubstantiated scares have real-world consequences. An academic study of young people worldwide found that most suffer from ‘eco-anxiety’. Two-thirds are scared and sad, while almost half say their worries impact their daily lives. It is irresponsible to scare youths when the UN Climate Panel finds that even if we do nothing to mitigate climate change, the impact by the end of the century will be a reduction of an average income increase from 450 percent to 438 percent. A problem, but hardly the end of the world.
Moreover, panic is a terrible policy advisor. Activist politicians in the rich world are tinkering around the edges of addressing climate change, showering subsidies over expensive vanity projects such as electric cars, solar, and wind, while the UN finds that it can’t identify an actual impact on emissions from the last decade of climate promulgations. Despite their grandiose statements of saving the world, 78 percent of rich countries’ energy still comes from fossil fuels. And as the Glasgow climate summit has shown (for the 26th time), developing nations – whose emissions over the rest of this century matter most – cannot afford to similarly spend trillions on ineffective climate policies as they help their populations escape poverty.
Fifty years of panic clearly haven’t solved climate change. We need a smarter approach that doesn’t scare everyone and focuses on realistic solutions such as adaptation and innovation. Adaptation won’t make all of the cost of climate change vanish, but it will reduce it dramatically. And by funding the innovation needed to eventually make clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, we can allow everyone – including developing countries – to sustainably go green.