For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Urgency on Climate Change Is Long Overdue.”
As surely as temperatures rise during the summer, climate alarmism serves up more stories of life-threatening heat domes, apocalyptic fires and biblical floods, all blamed squarely on global warming. Yet, the data to prove this link is often cherry-picked, and the proposed policy responses could be more effective.
Heat waves are clearly made worse by global warming. But saturation-level media coverage of high temperatures in summertime fails to tell the bigger story: Temperature-driven deaths are overwhelmingly caused by cold.
Globally, a recent Lancet study found 4.5 million cold deaths, nine times more than global heat deaths. The study also finds that temperatures increasing half a degree Celsius in the first two decades of this century have caused an additional 116,000 heat deaths annually. But warmer temperatures now also avoid 283,000 cold deaths annually. Reporting only on the former leaves us badly informed.
Across the world, governments have promised to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions at a cost beyond $5.6 trillion annually. Scared populations will, of course, be more likely to clamor for the perceived safety of such policies. But these policies help tackle heat and cold deaths very poorly.
Even if all the world’s ambitious carbon-cutting promises were magically enacted, these policies would only slow future warming. Stronger heat waves would still kill more people, just slightly fewer than they would have. A sensible response would focus first on resilience, meaning more air conditioning and cooler cities through greenery and water features. After 2003’s heat waves, France’s rational reforms that included mandatory air conditioning in care homes reduced heat deaths 10-fold despite higher temperatures.
Avoiding both cold and heat deaths requires affordable energy access. In the United States, cheaper gas from fracking allowed millions with low budgets to keep warm, saving 12,500 lives yearly. Climate policy, which inevitably makes the most energy more expensive, achieves the opposite.
Along with temperature spikes, alarming images of forest fires share the front pages this summer. You’d quickly get the sense that the planet is on fire. The reality is that since NASA satellites started accurately recording fires across the planet’s entire surface two decades ago, there has been a strong downward trend. In the early 2000s, 3 percent of the world’s land area burned annually. Last year, fire burned 2.2 percent of the world’s land area, a record low. Yet, you would struggle to find that reported anywhere.
Fires have burned much more in the Americas this year than over the past decade. This has constantly been reported. But fires have burned much less in Africa and Europe compared to the last decade. Cumulatively to August 12, the Global Wildfire Information System shows that the world has actually burned less than the average over the previous decade.
While the media constantly focuses on Greece, which has burned much more, it omits to report that most of Europe has burned much less. Indeed, by August 12, Europe has cumulatively burned less than it has at the same time in any of the last 10 years. This has scarcely been reported.
The fire in Hawaii is deeply tragic. Yet, it is lazy and unhelpful for pundits to use the tragedy to incorrectly blame climate change. They claim it was tinder-box dry, but through most of the past 23 years, Maui County was drier than the week it burned. The drought is blamed on climate, but the most recent scientific study shows no climate signal.
Pointing wrongly to climate change is dangerous because cutting emissions is one of the least effective ways to help prevent future fires. Much faster, more effective and cheaper solutions include controlled fires to burn away vegetation fuels that could otherwise result in wildfire, improving zoning and enhanced forest management.
Floods are similarly routinely ascribed to global warming. However, the United Nations Climate Panel’s latest report has “low confidence in general statements to attribute changes in flood events to anthropogenic climate change.” The experts emphasize that neither river nor coastal floods are statistically detectable from the background noise of natural climate variability. Indeed, the U.N. panel finds that such floods won’t be statistically detectable by the end of the century, even under an extreme scenario.
In the United States, flood damage cost 0.5 percent of gross domestic product in the early 1900s. Now, it costs only one-tenth of that because greater resiliency and development vastly outweigh any residual climate signal.
While climate alarmism reaches new heights of scariness — with the U.N. secretary general’s “global boiling” claims entering ridiculous territory — the reality is more prosaic. Global warming will cause costs equivalent to one or two recessions over the rest of this century. That makes it a real problem, not an end-of-the-world catastrophe that justifies the costliest policies.
The commonsense response would be recognizing that both climate change and carbon-cutting policies incur costs. We should carefully negotiate a middle pathway where we aim for effective approaches that do the most to reduce damages at a reasonable cost.
To do better on climate, we must resist the misleading, alarmist climate narrative. Panic is a terrible adviser.