The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Climate change is not an ‘existential threat’

President Biden speaks during a news conference at the COP26 U.N. climate summit on Nov. 2 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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At the Glasgow climate conference, President Biden declared climate change an “existential threat to human existence as we know it.” No, it’s not. Climate change is not a meteor hurtling toward Earth to destroy humanity. Rather, it is a chronic, manageable condition humanity can live with.

So argues Bjorn Lomborg, author of the book “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.” “Fundamentally, we’ve got to stop the alarmists,” he tells me. A recent poll found almost half of young Americans believe “humanity is doomed” because of climate change. This is not true. “Climate change is a problem, but not the end of the world,” Lomborg says. In fact, “things are a lot better than you think.”

For example, he points to estimates that climate change will increase deaths from malnutrition. (The World Health Organization, for example, predicts 95,000 more deaths due to child malnutrition by 2030.) That is true, he says. But it is also true that malnutrition has plummeted over the past three decades, and is expected to continue plummeting in the next three. “In 1990, 7 million children died from malnutrition,” Lomborg says. “Today we’re down to about 2.7 million children dying from malnutrition. And in 2050 … we’ll be down to about 600,000.” Why? Dramatic reductions in global poverty. “It’s really not rocket science,” he tells me. “If you’re poor, you’re much more likely to be malnourished and also die from malnourishment. If you get people out of poverty, they don’t die from malnutrition anymore.”

Climate change doesn’t reverse this progress against deaths from malnutrition, Lomborg argues, “it makes progress go slightly less fast.” But if the Glasgow climate conference leads to the adoption of much stronger climate measures, he says, that will slow development. A global carbon tax, for example, could increase the number of people in poverty around the world by as much as 80 million, causing far more malnutrition deaths than climate change.

Or take deaths from climate-related disasters. In the 1920s, Lomborg wrote in an August op-ed, natural disasters killed almost half a million people per year on average. But “in the last full decade, the 2010s, only 18,000 people died every year” — a reduction of 96 percent even as the global population quadrupled. In 2021, he says, the number of disaster deaths will be just about 6,000. That’s because better infrastructure does more to save lives than cutting emissions. The key to preventing disaster-related deaths is to help more people afford to live in sturdy homes instead of under corrugated roofs.

What about temperature-related deaths? It is true, Lomborg says, that we are seeing more heat waves today, but we are also seeing fewer cold waves. According a recent study in the Lancet, over the past two decades, there were 490,000 heat-related deaths worldwide, compared to 4.6 million cold-related deaths. While about 116,000 more people died from heat last year because of climate change, roughly 283,000 fewer people died from cold — which, he calculates, means global warming saved about 166,000 thousands of lives.

What about rising sea levels? Lomborg points to a Post editorial that warns rising oceans could “make 187 million people homeless” by 2100. That is true only if you assume that humanity does nothing during the next 79 years to adapt. “What they forget ,” he says, “is we have very good technologies to make sure that people are protected. 110 million people are right now living below sea level” in places like Holland. Adaptation, he says, will reduce the number of flooded people 12,000-fold. “The actual number of people [displaced] when you take into account adaptation is probably in the tens of thousands, not in the hundreds of millions.”

Even if we do nothing to reduce emissions, the world will not end. Lomborg points out that, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , “the impact of climate change is equivalent to 2.6 percent of GDP by the end of the century. Instead of being 450 percent as rich in 2100, we’ll ‘only’ be 434 percent as rich.” By contrast, he says, a Nature study finds that even if we fall short of Biden’s plan for net-zero American carbon emissions by 2050, and reduce emissions by 95 percent, we would end up losing 11.9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product — or $11,300 per person per year — to avert a 2.6 percent loss in global GDP.

The way to address climate change is to unleash the free market to increase prosperity and innovation. But climate alarmists are using false claims of doom to scare people into adopting policies that will have the opposite effect — destroying economic growth and increasing global poverty. That makes no sense. The first step to rational solutions is to push back on the panic and recognize that Biden is wrong — climate change does not threaten human existence.