The scenes are apocalyptic. Smoke-filled skies over a large part of the planet, along with record-breaking floods. Record-breaking heat and a slow, but inexorable rise in sea level.
We’re referring, of course to global climate change, or in the politically correct vernacular of the day, the “climate emergency.” And to the measures advanced to deal with it.
The recently published Sixth Assessment Report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a case in point. UN Secretary General António Guterres characterized the report’s conclusions, as “a code red for humanity… greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”
The Report postulates various ruinous impacts, including in a worst-case scenario, as much as a one-meter increase in sea level by 2100. That might not sound like much, but it would be catastrophic to coastal cities that contain approximately 30% of the world’s population. Imagine how much more severe Hurricane Sandy, which inundated New York City in 2012, would have been if sea levels were one meter higher. As it was, nearly 90,000 buildings were flooded. Much of the city’s critical infrastructure also was flooded – hospitals, power facilities, subways, and wastewater treatment plants.
The question, of course, is what we must do to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change, and how quickly we need to do it. In the 2015 Paris Accord, 196 countries, including the United States, agreed to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions 45% by 2030 and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The goal was to limit global average temperature growth to 1.5°C (2.7°F) by 2050.
Organizations like the UK-based Extinction Rebellion have an even more ambitious goal. It demands that governments achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025 … four years from now.
What would the net-zero economy of 2025 look like? To begin with, there would be no vehicles (although electric cars and trucks might be okay if they’re charged with renewable energy). No air travel or shipping, although wind or solar-powered planes and ships might be acceptable. Very little international trade in physical goods, since most physical products are transported in fossil-fuel consuming planes or ships. No heating or cooling of our homes or offices with fossil fuels. No manufacturing of any product requiring fossil fuel use. No new construction. And presumably, these requirements would be enforced by a swarm of armed bureaucrats fanning out across the globe.
The result would be a total collapse of the global economy. Some of us would survive if we had the skills our great-grandparents had, but even they used fossil fuels – primarily wood and to a lesser extent coal – to heat their homes. Without those skills, which have largely been lost, the solutions organizations like Extinction Rebellion demand would, ironically, lead to billions of human deaths.
We need to step back the breathless coverage of climate change disaster scenarios and acknowledge that our planet’s climate has been changing for billions of years. Earth formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago. At its hottest, our world was a ball of molten gas incapable of supporting life. At its coolest, most recently around 635 million years ago, it was literally a ball of ice.
Thus, it’s counter-productive for anyone to claim that climate change is a hoax. What’s more, it seems indisputable that climate change is, in part, human-caused. The software models that include human inputs such as greenhouse gas emissions match historical weather observations much better than models that don’t include it. We can debate how accurate these models are, but it’s impossible to rationally claim human activities aren’t affecting the climate.
At the same time, it’s indisputable that one reason why climate change is so disruptive is that more humans than ever before live in locations exposed to extreme weather. California, now ravaged by wildfires, is a prime example. Its population has almost quadrupled since 1950, with millions of residents living in areas at high risk for wildfires.
At the same time, there’s been an enormous buildup of combustible fuels in forests. The US Forest Service estimates that 58 million of the 193 million acres that it administers need thinning and prescribed burning to lower wildfire risk.
Then there’s the IPCC Report itself. Its most pessimistic scenario suggests that global sea levels will rise by up to one meter by 2100. That would indeed be catastrophic. But the report itself suggests this scenario is unlikely. And that’s a huge break with the IPCC’s most recent report from 2013, where it was identified as our most probable future.
Climate scientist Roger Pielke Jr. says that what Secretary General Guterres should have announced with the release of the most recent IPCC report was, “Great News! The Extreme Scenario that IPCC Saw as Most Likely in 2013 is Now Judged Low Likelihood.” Yet, discussion of the low likelihood, apocalyptic scenario occupies the lion’s share of the report.
However, the report also concludes that the frequency or intensity of many types of extreme weather – in particular storms –hasn’t increased over a long-term time scale. Nor is there any indication of decreased rainfall – although its distribution has shifted, leading to droughts in some parts of the world. In addition, “the frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation have likely increased at the global scale.”
Since climate change is real, it only makes sense to adopt policies to help prepare ourselves for it. In the United States, one would be to end the federal flood insurance program, which incentivizes property owners to build in coastal regions and other areas prone to flooding. Another would be to eliminate the subsidies Uncle Sam pays to the fossil fuel industry, amounting to $20 billion or more annually. Cutting the red tape necessary for entrepreneurs to launch renewable energy projects should also be a priority. So should thinning out trees in national forests to reduce wildfire risk.
As for energy technologies that don’t release greenhouse gases, it’s hard to beat nuclear power. The latest generation of nuclear reactors are 1/100 the size of current models and can be installed in clusters close to factories and cities, rather than miles away. Because they’re so small, they’re much easier to encase securely. They also can’t melt down. And unlike wind and solar, nuclear power plants aren’t dependent on the weather to produce power.
The last thing we need to do is panic and unleash an army of bureaucrats intent on forcing us into a net-zero future on a timetable set by politicians. Climate change is not the end of the world. If we act prudently, we will muddle through.