The Right Climate For Optimism

19 December 2019
The Right Climate For Optimism - Featured image

This article from the Summer 2019 edition of the IPA Review is by IPA Research Fellow and co-host of the Young IPA Podcast, Peter Gregory.

Doom and gloom are rife among young people over the state of the environment. Tragically, we have seen children present with depression and anxiety over fears the world is ending. Young couples have announced they won’t have children because it’s bad for the environment. Indeed, one columnist wrote on the ABC’s Triple J Hack website recently that he broke up with his girlfriend because “she wanted to keep living her life as normal, and I wanted to freak out”. I’d suggest the young woman dodged a bullet. But despite the tidal wave of negativity, there are sound reasons to be optimistic about the future of the environment and humanity.

The first cause for optimism is the fact so many claims of environmental catastrophe are overblown. A prime example is the Amazon fires this year, about which French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted “Our house is burning. Literally.” Macron called the fires an “international crisis” and was joined by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio. And yet the severity of the fires was actually below average for the last 15 years, and the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has reduced by about 70 per cent since 2004. Macron also was one of many to use outdated photos, featuring a photo from 1989 in his tweet. Far from driving deforestation, according to satellite data from NASA, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 35 years has caused increased greening: an increase in foliage on trees and other plants equivalent in area to two times the continental United States.

Then there are the depressing forecasts of Pacific Islands disappearing beneath the waves as a result of sea level rises induced by climate change. The ABC reports some of these islands are actually growing in size.

In 2018 the likes of The New York Times and CNN widely reported the UN predicted climate change would cut the US economy’s size by 10 per cent by 2100: a hefty price in anyone’s books. Coverage failed to mention the UN also estimated the US economy would be 300 per cent larger than today: another clear example of the reality being far more optimistic than the zeitgeist suggests.

One of the most infamous cases of deception is the claim that climate change is killing polar bears. A 2017 video of an emaciated and dying polar bear shared by National Geographic had an incredible estimated audience of 2.5 billion. The video started with the subtitle: “This is what climate change looks like”. I wonder how many of those viewers know that since the 1950s, polar bear numbers have increased around 400 per cent? Or how many know of the work of Canadian zoologist, Dr Susan Crockford? According to her 2017 State of the Polar Bear Report, polar bear numbers have improved to between 22,000 and 31,000, the highest since becoming protected under international treaty in 1973 and despite a 38 per cent decrease in summer sea ice since 1979, indicating summer sea ice is not critical to the polar bear’s survival as biologists claimed.

One of the lesson of Peter Ridd’s sacking by James Cook University is that catastrophism seems to be an ideology that suits institutions in search of research funds, and they would prefer not to have it challenged. So I should not have been surprised when just recently Susan Crockford met a similar fate, told by the University of Victoria in British Columbia that her services were no longer required.

Of course, not every claim of environmental damage is false and there are environmental issues we should address, but there is a clear pattern of exaggeration around environmental issues. This contributes to unwarranted pessimism about the climate and the future. But the real reason for optimism is the ability of human innovation, creativity and technology to overcome issues we may face in the future. A clear example of this is improvements in withstanding natural disasters. Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg notes that deaths from climate-related events (floods, droughts, storms, wildfire and extreme temperatures) have reduced by 99 per cent since the 1920s despite a massive increase in population since then. Likewise, damages due to all forms of extreme weather as a share of global GDP has declined over the last three decades—a period identified by many as the warmest on instrumental record. This is due to more durable buildings, more sophisticated emergency and rescue services, improved warning systems and greater resources to direct towards natural disasters as a result of economic growth. There is every reason to think this trend will continue.

A stellar example is the Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s led by American agronomist Norman Borlaug. In The Population Bomb(1968), Paul R. Ehrlich predicted mass starvation due to over-population. Indeed, that era’s ‘scientific consensus’ was that food production would soon not be able to meet the demands of an ever-growing population– at a time when the population was only three billion. The Green Revolution developed highyielding cereal grains, expanded irrigation, developed more sophisticated management techniques and promoted new seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. Borlaug is credited with saving a billion people from starvation.

Indeed, climate activists should take a leaf out of Boyan Slat’s book. Slat is a 25-year-old Dutch entrepreneur (and university dropout) who plans globally deploying his solar-powered device—that he calls the ‘interceptor’—into 1,000 rivers he says are responsible for 80 per cent of the plastic flowing into the world’s oceans. Bill Gates has invested in a Canadian business that has started extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it to carbon-neutral synthetic diesel and petrol. The list goes on. The efforts of thinkers, creators and entrepreneurs all over the world working on a myriad of environmental issues should be a source of great optimism.

Furthermore, far from being the enemy of the environment, economic wealth generally enables countries to look after the environment better. Becoming wealthier enables countries to direct more resources towards the environment, implement stricter environmental regulations, and create economic opportunities for people that are less environmentally damaging. As the world becomes wealthier—particularly poorer countries—it is likely some environmental problems we see now will begin to disappear.

A further cause for optimism is the growing support for nuclear power among ordinary people, politicians and even environmental activists known as ecomodernists. On October 20, ‘Stand up for Nuclear’ rallies were held in 33 cities around the world. Instigated by the Liberal Democrats, the Victorian government is holding an inquiry into nuclear prohibition. Even Jeremy Corbyn’s UK Labour Party committed in its election manifesto to build a nuclear power station.

Nuclear is a very low emissions energy source that, according to the IPCC, produces a quarter of the carbon pollution of solar farms. In addition, the organisation Environmental Progress argues solar power requires 450 times more land than nuclear. And, of course, it has huge capacity to provide the electricity needed to satisfy the world’s future energy demand and lift people out of poverty. It creates vastly more electricity than renewable energy and creates vastly lower emissions than fossil fuels.

Given these many causes for optimism, sensible contributors to the climate debate must reclaim the concept of climate justice. Climate protesters relentlessly demand climate justice, yet the measures they propose to fight climate change are frequently more damaging than the claimed future impact of climate change. Is it just, for example, for activists to eternally delay the construction of mines including Adani’s Carmichael project when a significant portion of the coal extracted will be exported to countries such as Bangladesh and India, where hundreds of millions of people don’t have access to electricity? The Australian recently featured a story about Neha Varthe, an 18-year-old woman in Mumbai whose community was hooked up to the electricity grid by Adani at no cost six months ago, connecting it with a mix of coal-fired and renewable power. Access to electricity has transformed the community, with Ms Varthe saying “Now we can study at night… We have a fridge. And we are safe at night.”

I would pay good money to hear an Australian climate protester tell Ms Varthe how Adani’s provision of coal-fired electricity to her community is a breach of climate justice. Or explain to a family among the 300 million Indians without electricity—a family forced to choose between taking their sick child to hospital or feed their other children, because people without electricity cannot do both— how their entirely preventable abject poverty is climate justice in action.

In July the Bangladesh High Commissioner to Australia, Mohammad Sufiur Rahman, said “there is enormous opportunity for export of Australian coal and LNG (liquefied natural gas) to Bangladesh, given Bangladesh’s sustained energy demand”. Bangladesh has a number of coal-fired power stations coming online over the next five years as a result of impressive growth in the developing nation. Bangladesh is a country where the World Bank says 13.8 per cent of people live in extreme poverty. That is about 22 million people. Denying them the right to maximise their growth in the name of climate justice seems unbelievably cruel.

Of course, climate change activists will argue poor countries in general, and Bangladesh in particular as a low-lying nation susceptible to flooding, are and will be susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change. The logic is that the short-term pain experienced now is necessary to avoid greater pain in the future. However, again and again, climate activists have this the wrong way around, and it is the short-term pain that outweighs the predicted long-term impacts of climate change. A good example is a recent study from scientists at Climate Central published in Nature Communications. It found that past estimates of rising sea levels had underestimated the problem and that by 2050 a further 40 million people will be living below the high-tide mark.

Predictably The New York Times published a map of southern Vietnam and stated “more than 20 million people in Vietnam … live on land that will be inundated”. The New York Times did not mention 110 million people around the world already live beneath the high tide mark—including in the Netherlands, London and millions in the very region in Vietnam they were talking about. Almost all of these people are protected by dykes and infrastructure that provides flood protection. And almost all of the extra 40 million people predicted to be below the high tide mark by 2050 will also be protected by similar human made infrastructure. So to put a halt to Australian coal mining tomorrow, for example, on the back of claims about rising sea levels in places such as Vietnam and Bangladesh clearly comes at an incredibly cruel short-term cost for many to mitigate a long-term problem that human beings have already solved. There is absolutely nothing just about that.

Further examples include a study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis that found climate change could put an extra 24 million people at risk of hunger, yet a global carbon tax—another policy promoted as being integral to achieving climate justice— would increase food prices and put 78 million people at risk of hunger.

Likewise, a decade ago biofuels were an enormously popular measure to reduce fossil fuel use. Yet the replacement of food crops with ethanol pushed 30 million people into poverty and 30 million more into hunger, according to Bjorn Lomborg.

True climate justice is allowing communities in places such as Bangladesh the same opportunities for development we have had in the West, enabling them to handle the negative impacts of climate change when and if they arise.

Put it this way: some researchers believe global temperatures in 1850 were 1 degree cooler than they are today. At that time, 87 per cent of people lived in extreme poverty, according to the Oxford University-based Our World in Data project. That figure recently dipped below 10 per cent of the global population for the first time in human history. Do climate activists think we would be better off not having had all the fossil fuel backed development of the last 170 years due to the (highly disputed) accompanying environmental damage? That is the calculation they are making for Bangladeshis and others in the developing world at present in demanding, for example, the immediate cessation of fossil fuel mining.

But the perversion of climate justice is not restricted to the developing world. A recent study from the universities of Columbia and Nagoya analysed the Japanese government’s decision to temporarily close the nation’s nuclear industry following the 2011 tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daichi nuclear reactor. This caused electricity prices to increase by as much as 38 per cent. The researchers concluded that 4,500 people died as a result of this increase, while no deaths have been attributable to radiation exposure from the Fukushima accident.

A similar phenomenon may be happening in Australia. New South Wales Health data showed the number of people presenting to NSW emergency departments in 2018 was 34 per cent higher than 10 years ago—vastly outstripping the rate of population growth. During that period, power prices increased 117 per cent, in large part due to the government policies of shoehorning renewable electricity into the energy mix.

A Monash University study by Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah found three-quarters of those presenting to Alfred Health with hypothermia were on a pension. According to Dr AnandaRajah, one of the major factors causing these hospitalisations was an inability to afford heating.

Once again, this perverted conception of climate justice consigns people to misery in the present to mitigate circumstances which may or may not unfold decades down the track. No allowance is made for the human race to use the intervening time to develop better solutions to those problems. So many people— particularly young people—being crippled by a sense of dread due to the state of the debate around climate change is a tragedy. There are a great many reasons for optimism about the state of humanity and the planet. Challenging and reclaiming the concept of climate justice is a good first step in addressing this trend.

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