People must hear both sides of the climate story

  • APRIL 01, 2014 12:00AM


THE media’s response to the latest instalment of the UN Climate Panel report will inevitably dwell on the negative effects of global warming — how it will reduce agricultural yields, increase heatwaves and drown communities.

Those stories will be correct, if only in a limited sense of that word. So while reading them, it is worth stepping back and realising that they provide just a partial version of the global warming story.

Yes, global warming is real, it is partly man-made and it’s a long-term problem we must address.

But describing it in one-sided, vaguely apocalyptic terms won’t help us find solutions. For example, a previous edition of the UN Climate Panel summary told us rising sea levels, which are indeed happening, would deliver “potential damages to infrastructure in coastal areas …” projected to cost “tens of billions of dollars for individual countries, for example Egypt, Poland, and Vietnam”.

Yet while laying out the possibility, they neglect to tell us that these losses will not occur.
Why not? The summary ignored the role of adaptation. For Egypt, the $35 billion estimate came from simply allowing 30 per cent of Egypt’s second biggest city, Alexandria, to be inundated over a 100 years, without the government taking action.

That isn’t realistic.
For Poland, $28-46 billion equally came from allowing cities and farmland to be flooded by an extreme 100cm rise in sea level. The Polish analysis, however, showed that even full protection against the extreme flooding would cost much lower than $6.1 billion and with a lower sea level increase of 30cm, the full protection cost would total $2.3 billion.Will Poland spend $2-6 billion to avoid $28-46 billion in damages? Of course they will.

They will adapt just as we have done for most of humanity’s history. This does not mean there are no problems — sea level rise will cause problems, but at $2-6 billion, not $48 billion.

Other events are further exaggerated. We’re told we can expect more heatwaves and that is true as temperatures will rise.
But again, it is only one side of the story. As temperatures rise, there will also be fewer cold spells and hence fewer people dying from the cold.

Since in almost all regions of the planet, cold kills many more people than heat, it is likely that overall fewer people will die because of temperatures.
A study by Professor William Keatinge of the University of London confirms that notion.It showed heat-related deaths in the UK caused by global warming will increase by 2000 while cold-related deaths will decrease by 20,000. And a global study suggests that this phenomenon will be international: by 2050, there will be almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths a year, but nearly 1.8 million fewer cold-related deaths.

Warmer temperatures will save 1.4 million lives a year and the trend will hold true until at least 2200.
A one-sided conversation leaves everyone less informed. Economists have tried to counter this when they look at all the impacts of global warming, both negatives and positives.

For instance, more heat will damage crop growth in many warmer climates, but it means better agricultural production in cold countries.

And, CO2 is a fertiliser — commercial greenhouses pump in extra CO2 to grow bigger tomatoes. So overall, we can expect agriculture to gain from global warming in the short and medium term. Economists see a total net benefit from warming through to the year 2075.
But eventually global warming will turn negative and that is why we still must act to fix it.

The best solution is to ramp up funding for research and development of effective green technology.
Today’s renewables — solar and wind — don’t fit this bill. Despite more than 20 years of government subsidies, these two sources produce 0.3 per cent from wind and just 0.04 per cent from solar.

And they’re expensive and unreliable.
If we can develop technologies to provide green energy more cheaply than fossil fuels, everyone will adopt them — and we no longer need to convince people by narrating unrealistic and one-sided scare stories.

Dr Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre