Over the past decade, the global elite’s obsession with climate change has taken away from the many other major problems facing the planet—shown most dramatically by the invasion of Ukraine. Western European leaders should have spent the past decade diversifying energy sources and expanding shale gas instead of shutting down nuclear plants and becoming scarily reliant on Russia. But the war there is far from the only thing they have managed to ignore.
The biggest task facing humanity today remains lifting most of the world out of abject poverty. This can only happen by providing poor countries with comprehensive, reliable energy sources. That is how the rich world became prosperous and it is how China lifted almost a billion out of poverty. Yet, while the world’s rich countries are overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels, the elite worked hard to make those energy sources both more expensive and less available for the world’s poorest.
Right now, we are still recovering from the worst pandemic in a century. Inflation, supply shortages, and possibly even recession looms over the global economy. Autocracies are reasserting themselves while food crises are already being experienced by the most vulnerable. Tuberculosis, malaria, and malnutrition—each effectively handled in the rich world—still claim millions of lives each year across poor countries.
Yet major donors and development organizations have become increasingly focused on climate solutions instead. One month after Ukraine was invaded, the head of the United Nations—an organization focused on ensuring world peace—was instead warning about “climate catastrophe,” and the “mutually assured destruction” that fossil fuel ‘addiction’ could cause.
It would be an exaggeration to say that while real threats were mounting, the world’s rich were tinkering with solar panels and banning plastic straws. But only a small exaggeration.
So, how have the elites managed to get things so wrong? One reason is that for years, the media have portrayed climate change impacts as horrendous. Today, almost every natural disaster routinely gets blamed on the climate crisis, with every new hurricane held up as another exhibit of man’s folly. Yet, hurricanes killed many more people in the past. A major scientific paper from last month documents “decreasing trends” in global hurricane frequency and strength. The data show that last year the world experienced fewer hurricanes than ever before in the satellite era, and their combined strength was one of the lowest.
The real impact of climate change is much more nuanced. The UN climate panel of scientists finds a warmer world will mean fewer (good) but stronger (worse) hurricanes. In total, that will increase damages (bad), but because the world will also get richer and more resilient, relative damages will keep declining, just slightly more slowly. This is a problem that we must not ignore. But it is far from a catastrophe. Global climate damage in percent of GDP keeps declining and climate disaster deaths have dropped 99 percent in a century.
For the best sense of what to really expect from a warming planet, we should turn to the damage estimates from the models used by President Joe Biden’s administration, and President Obama’s before that to set climate policy. This research reveals that the entire global cost of climate change—not just to economies, but in every sense—will be equivalent to less than a 4 percent hit to GDP by the end of the century.
Remember, by the UN’s own estimates the average person in 2100 will be 450 percent richer than today. Global warming means he will ‘only’ be 434 percent as rich. That is a problem, but—contrary to the histrionics—far from catastrophic.
For wealthy countries, the narrow focus on climate objectives undermines future prosperity. The world already spends more than half a trillion dollars annually on climate policies while rich-world government spending on innovation in areas such as healthcare, space, defense, agriculture, and science has been declining as a percentage of GDP over recent decades. That investment underpins our future growth. Together with a stagnant or declining education performance, rich world income has almost stalled this century. Compare this to China, where innovation spending is up 50 percent, education is rapidly improving, and average incomes have increased five-fold since 2000.
Alarmingly, despite the extraordinary focus, we are failing even to solve climate change itself. Last year saw the largest CO₂ emissions ever.
Earlier this year, the world’s elite gathered for the World Economic Forum and were asked to name “the most severe risks on a global scale over the next ten years.” They absurdly chose “climate action failure”—right before Russia started bombing Chernobyl and Kyiv.
The world has many challenges, not just the ones that get the most media attention. Climate should be tackled more effectively by funding R&D in green energy sources, so they eventually outcompete fossil fuels. We need to confront authoritarian expansionism in Ukraine and elsewhere. And to ensure long-term prosperity, the world needs more and cheaper energy, better education, and more innovation. We need our perspective back to overcome the elitist hyperbole on climate change.