These were the words spoken by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to the US Congress last month. At face value, they are eminently reasonable. There is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth’s climate is changing, and that this is, to a very large extent, an anthropogenic phenomenon. The 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report concluded that we must make rapid changes in the next decade, with a target of halving global carbon emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2045. If we are going to achieve these lofty goals and thus prevent the worst of the potential harm, it is indeed essential that we unite behind the science to produce sensible plans. So why do those who ostensibly care the most –green activists – egregiously misrepresent it?
Consider the demand by UK activist group Extinction Rebellion that we achieve net zero carbon by 2025, in contrast to the IPCC’s 2045 target, which scientific models predict will be sufficient to limit the worst of the damage to ecosystems. Similarly, the IPCC’s claim that we need to make progress towards this target within the next 12 years is often misquoted as a 12-year deadline to completely eschew fossil fuels, such as by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This misrepresentation may seem benign, since sooner is better, but this extreme and unnecessary goal obfuscates the importance of carefully balanced trade-offs between environmental and economic concerns. Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty fell from 36% to 10% – progress inextricably linked to continual economic growth (which was dismissed as “a fairy-tale” by Thunberg). And over the last century, despite the global population quadrupling and extreme weather events becoming more common due to climate change, associated fatalities fell from 500,000 to 20,000 per year. This is due to the defences which a strong economy and technological progress make possible. If we trash our economies to meet a false deadline, we will unleash unnecessary suffering, and leave ourselves defenceless against the worst impacts of our changing climate.
Severity is exaggerated, too. Talks of “extinction” and an “existential threat” are common, and a prominent claim during the recent Global Climate Strike was that people alive today will have their lives shortened by climate change. Protestors in London recently attempted to spray the Treasury with blood, to imply climate change is equivalent to mass murder. This message is getting through: a recent poll showed that 38% of Americans believe that climate change will wipe out humanity, rising to 48% globally. Aside from the effects of such scaremongering on our collective mental health, especially terrified children who are increasingly being diagnosed with “climate grief”, this belief has the disadvantage of being wrong. No model predicts human extinction, despite serious consequences such as reduced agricultural output; flood mitigation and migration in parts of the world due to rising sea levels; pressure on ecosystems including species loss; and potential extreme weather events. Some impacts can be mitigated, while others will inevitably do harm – either the loss of natural wonders, or severe pressure on our political and economic systems. But even worst-case projections where we fail to keep warming below 2 degrees come nowhere close to an apocalypse, and visions of cataclysm or civilisational collapse are nowhere to be found within the IPCC’s sober 594 page report.
The misrepresentation of urgency and severity is nothing compared to the outright hostility towards scientific solutions exhibited by many green activists. This goes beyond historical Green opposition to the nuclear energy, which is carbon-neutral and the safest form of energy generation yet discovered. Just two clicks from the Global Climate Strike homepage is a list of “Peoples’ Demands”, including rejection of so-called “false solutions”. On top of the predictable castigation of nuclear, these include: carbon capture and storage, biofuels, geoengineering and smart agriculture – exactly the powerful solutions we need, which stand up to sensible cost-benefit analysis. In their place, we are told we need to focus on “agro-ecology” – think farming meets intersectional feminism – and “food sovereignty”, which among other things demands “culturally appropriate food markets”. That’s uniting behind ideology, not science.
Activists may like to present themselves as disciples of science, but in factual tests, they show little better understanding of the actual science than those who disbelieve in anthropogenic climate change altogether, with beliefs determined more by ideology than knowledge. And while they try to present their demands as “listening to the science”, any analysis will also be informed by value judgements and ideology. The vision presented by alarmists is bleak and misanthropic: humans are a virus, destroying Earth with avarice. The appropriate response is to reduce the population, cut back living standards, and overthrow our economic system. It is no coincidence that many of those behind the recent climate activism are veteran socialist campaigners, for whom climate change is merely a convenient backdrop for their preferred reforms.
There is an alternative framework, advocated – among others – by the quantum physicist David Deutsch and psychologist Steven Pinker. Humans are not a virus – we are problem solving machines with infinite potential who use our scientific understanding to withstand a naturally hostile environment and have revolutionised living standards beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors – all while increasing in number! Climate change is not a greedy political choice, but is rather a result of basic chemistry that would almost certainly present a problem to any advanced civilisation as they begin to harness the wonders of electricity – and what was the alternative? Climate change warrants a firm response, but it is not an existential threat, and it will be solved not through Luddite rejection of progress, socialist revolution or self-flagellation. Rather, it will be solved by harnessing knowledge to master precisely those technologies derided as “false solutions” by the radicals. We will certainly need to unite behind the real science, but we will also need a conceptual framework – and I know which one I prefer.
Recommended further reading/listening:
- “Rebels without a cause?” – IEA podcast with Victoria Hewson, Darren Grimes and Dr Kristian Niemietz
- “The Thunberg phenomenon, Extinction Rebellion, and the denial of trade-offs” by Prof Philip Booth