Just in time for summer, when every heat wave and forest fire will be sold as evidence of a “climate crisis” and “extreme weather event,” we have a new panic-mongering article on climate change in New York Magazine that has climate activists energized. The article The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells could better be titled “crack open a beer, because the Earth is toast.”
Yes, climate change is real, partly man-made, and poses a variety of risks. Depending on how strongly you think the climate is affected by greenhouse gases, where you live and how well off you are, you could have anything from light concern to serious worry for future generations.
But rational reactions to climate change – actions that might actually increase society’s resilience to climate variability – are undermined by the endless parade of doom-mongers who exaggerate the risk to the point of absurdity and who insist on completely restructuring society to deal with it.
The Uninhabitable Earth has been widely read, despite the fact that the article has been discredited as extremist hyperbole – and not simply by the usual people you’d expect (like me), but by 17 establishment climate scientists including the anything-but-skeptical Michael Mann. The article is basically the worst of worst-case scenarios.
But rather than galvanizing action, this kind of fear mongering generally turns people off. Insisting that worst-case scenarios are the most likely ones and that the only answer is to upend modern technological civilization leads to the average person just throwing up their hands and saying “give me a break.”
People tend to be skeptical of Armageddon for several reasons.
By the time someone is 25, they’ve probably seen half a dozen doomsday scenarios proposed that didn’t come to pass. Population is growing too fast, we’re all going to starve! The Mayan calendar ends in 2012 and the Earth will be destroyed. Computers will cease to function after the year 2000 and the world’s technology will shut down, killing millions.
If you listen to Paul Ehrlich, Al Gore and Stephen Hawking, we should all be dead a dozen times over by now. Most of us aren’t.
These claims might make bumper stickers great again but won’t (and haven’t for the last 30 years of hysteria) compel the general public to action. The average person just wants a comfortable life. They’re not going to believe that doing the things that make for that comfortable life (such as buying a car, buying a house, having a child, having pets, getting health care, educating children, etc.) will ultimately doom humanity to roasting to death in a global conflagration.
So as I was recently asked on CBC’s On the Money: “If the right message on climate change is not ‘OMG we’re all going to die!’ what should it be?”
We can manage the risks of climate change using conventional policies, engineering, and research and development. We don’t face imminent catastrophe and even conventional climate models don’t predict serious adverse effects for many decades. Nor do we need to utterly upend human civilization to deal with the risk.
Instead, let’s do the small and doable stuff first, such as facilitating the natural gas revolution and investing more in the fundamental research and development we need to develop superior energy solutions.
Doomsayers with radical agendas don’t like this rational response to the real risks of climate change because they won’t let go of the idea that they can remake humanity by scaring people to death. The last thing they want is to see people taking rational actions such as raising seawalls and coastal highways; fully pricing water to drive diverse sourcing and stability; raising insurance rates in flood- and drought-prone areas; and building more resilient societies by making them wealthier and healthier.
Climate alarmists such as Naomi Klein have always dismissed actions like this as being not only insufficient but dangerous. They might give people the idea that they can keep their high-tech, consumer-oriented lifestyle without cremating the planet.
And besides, Armageddon makes for better action movies.
Kenneth P. Green is senior director of the Centre for Natural Resource Studies at the Fraser Institute, a Canadian-based think-tank.
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