Last month, I published a book, “Apocalypse Never,” which debunks popular environmental myths. Among them: that humans are causing a sixth mass extinction and that climate change is making natural disasters worse.
While I expected my book to be controversial, I didn’t expect CNN’s top climate reporter to compare it to an advertisement for cigarettes. Or to have an environmental journalist with nearly half a million followers on Twitter accuse me of promoting “white supremacy.”
I’m hardly a climate denier. In fact, I have been a climate activist for 20 years and an environmental activist for more than 30. Governments, including the US Congress, regularly ask me to offer my testimony as an energy expert. And this year, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asked me to serve as an expert reviewer of its next major report.
I decided to speak out last year, after it became clear to me that alarmism was harming mental health. A major survey of 30,000 people around the world found that nearly half believed climate change would make humanity extinct. Mental-health professionals now routinely find themselves addressing adolescent anxiety over climate. In January, pollsters found that one in five UK children reported having nightmares about it
And yet the IPCC doesn’t predict billions or even millions of deaths from climate change. That’s in part because economic development and preparedness mitigate natural disasters, diseases and other environmental impacts of climate change. And scientists expect our ability to mitigate harms to expand and improve long into the future.
There has been a 92 percent decline in the per-decade death toll from natural disasters since its peak in the 1920s. In that decade, 5.4 million people died from natural disasters. In the 2010s, just 0.4 million did. The decline occurred during a period when the global population nearly quadrupled and temperatures rose more than 1 degree centigrade over pre-industrial levels.
Would deaths have been even lower had temperatures not risen that 1 degree? Maybe, but we will never know. Huge reductions in deaths outweighed any increase in deaths from more forceful disasters. Could future temperature increases reverse the trend of declining mortality?
Perhaps, but the IPCC doesn’t predict that happening. That’s partly because — again — we are so much better at protecting people from natural disasters, climate-fueled or not.
Climate alarmists steadfastly ignore our capacity to adapt. To take just one example, France in 2006 had 4,000 fewer deaths from a heat wave than anticipated thanks to improved health care, an early-warning system and greater public consciousness in response to a deadly heat wave three years earlier.
Even poor, climate-vulnerable nations like Bangladesh saw deaths decline massively thanks to low-cost weather surveillance and warning systems and storm shelters.
Some have said that climate change will make epidemics like COVID-19 more frequent or more severe, but the main factors behind the novel-coronavirus pandemic had nothing to do with climate and everything to do with the failure of the Chinese regime to protect public health.
It’s why the IPCC names “poverty alleviation, public health interventions such as the provision of water and sanitation and early-warning and response system for disasters and epidemics” — not emissions reductions — as the keys to lowering disease risk in the future.
So why do some alarmists claim that climate change is making disasters worse? In part, it’s so they can use the world’s most visual and dramatic events, from Hurricane Sandy to California’s forest fires, to make the issue more salient with voters.
If it were acknowledged that Hurricane Sandy’s damage owed overwhelmingly to New York failure to modernize its flood-control systems or that California’s forest fires were due to the buildup of wood fuel after decades of fire suppression, alarmist journalists, scientists and activists would be deprived of the visually powerful events and “news hooks” they need to scare people, raise money and advocate climate policies.
Climate alarmism isn’t just about money. It’s also about power. Elites have used climate alarmism to justify efforts to control food and energy policies in their home nations and around the world for more than three decades.
In just the last decade, climate alarmists have successfully redirected funding from the World Bank and similar institutions away from economic development and toward charitable endeavors, such as solar panels for villagers, which can’t power growth.
Contrary to the claims of CNN’s top environment reporter, using energy that emits carbon dioxide isn’t like smoking cigarettes. People need to consume significant amounts of energy in order to enjoy decent standards of living. Nobody needs to smoke cigarettes.
In the end, climate alarmism is powerful because it has emerged as the alternative religion for supposedly secular people, providing many of the same psychological benefits as traditional faith.
Climate alarmism gives them a purpose: to save the world from climate change. It offers them a story that casts them as heroes. And it provides a way for them to find meaning in their lives — while retaining the illusion that they are people of science and reason, not superstition and fantasy.
There is nothing wrong with religious faith and often a great deal right about it. Religions have long provided people with the meaning, purpose and consolations they need to weather life’s many challenges. Religions can be a guide to positive, pro-social and ethical behavior.
The trouble with the new environmental religion is that it has become increasingly destructive. It leads its adherents to demonize their opponents. And it spreads anxiety and depression without meeting the deeper spiritual needs.
Happily, real-world events, starting with the coronavirus pandemic, are undermining the notion that climate change is an “emergency” or “crisis.” After all, it was a disease that brought civilization to a halt, not climate-fueled natural disasters. And while COVID-19 has killed more than half a million people and counting, alarmist scientists struggle to explain how climate change will make diseases and disasters worse.
Meanwhile, emissions are declining in much of the world. In Europe, emissions in 2018 were 23 percent below 1990 levels. In the United States, emissions fell 15 percent from 2005 to 2016. And emissions are likely to peak and start to decline in developing nations, including China and India, within the next decade.
As a result, most experts believe that global temperatures are unlikely to rise more than 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. No amount of warming is ideal, since it will change conditions for both people and wildlife. But 3 degrees isn’t catastrophic for, much less an existential threat to, human societies and economies.
For pointing out these basic facts, I have been smeared, bizarrely, as a racist. Yet readers will discover that, far from being a defense of white supremacy, “Apocalypse Never” exposes European and North American environmentalists for promoting discriminatory anti-development policies toward poor African, Asian and Latin-American nations.
The activists and their media allies censor news articles. But eventually, the public will get to review the evidence and realize that the censors are wrong.
It is my hope that, after the public reckoning, everyone, particularly anxious adolescents, will go from seeing climate change as the end of the world to viewing it as a highly manageable problem.
Michael Shellenberger is the author of “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All.”