Eyeing climate change, follow science, warily
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Eyeing climate change, follow science, warily

We endlessly hear the flawed assertion that because climate change is real, we should "follow the science" and end fossil fuel use. We hear this claim from politicians who favour swift carbon cuts, and from natural scientists themselves, as when the editor-in-chief of Nature insists "The science is clear -- fossil fuels must go".

The assertion is convenient for politicians because it allows them to avoid responsibility for the many costs and downsides of climate policy, painting these as inevitable results of diligently following the scientific evidence. But it is false because it confounds climate science with climate policy.

Careful climate science is clearly needed to shape thoughtful climate policy because it tells us what the physical impact will be of emitting more or less CO2. But climate policy -- like any policy -- should be the democratic outcome of a deliberation of the benefits of cutting emissions versus the costs. Climate science tells us about some of these benefits, but tells us nothing of the costs, which instead come from the much-less hyped field of climate economics.

The story told by activist politicians and climate campaigners suggests that there is nothing but benefits to ending fossil fuels, versus a hellscape if nothing is done. But the reality is that the world over the past centuries has improved dramatically largely because of the immense increase in available energy that has come mostly from fossil fuels.

While the impact of climate change is likely negative it is typically enormously exaggerated. We constantly hear about extreme weather such as droughts, storms, floods and fires, although even the UN Climate Panel finds that evidence of them worsening cannot yet be documented for most of these. But much more importantly, a richer world is much more resilient and hence much less affected by extreme weather. The data shows that climate-related deaths from droughts, storms, floods and fires have declined by more than 97% from nearly 500,000 annually a century ago to less than 15,000 in the 2020s.

The costs of the climate campaigners' calls to "just stop" oil, gas and coal are massively downplayed. Currently, the world gets almost four-fifths of all its energy from fossil fuels. If we quickly ended our use of fossil fuels, billions would die.

Four billion people -- half the world's population -- entirely depend on food grown with synthetic fertiliser produced almost entirely by natural gas. If we ended fossil fuels quickly, we would physically have no way to feed four billion people. Add the billions of people dependent on fossil fuel heating in the winter time, along with the dependence on fossil fuels for steel, cement, plastics and transport.

These vast downsides are not considered within climate science, which focuses on carbon emissions and climate models. Clearly though, they should be an integral part of the debate about climate policy.

Most politicians suggest a slightly less rushed end to fossil fuels by 2050. The latest, peer-reviewed climate-economic research shows that efficiently reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will cost a staggering US$27 trillion (990 trillion baht) per year on average over the century. That is one-quarter of the world's current GDP. The same research shows that the benefits will be just a small fraction of that cost. The policy is prohibitively expensive for little benefit.

A good analogy is to consider the more than 1 million global traffic deaths annually. Traffic -- like climate change -- is a man-made problem. Like climate change, it is something we could entirely solve. If scientists were to only look at how to avoid the million traffic deaths, one solution would be to reduce speed limits everywhere to 5km/h. If heavily enforced, this would almost entirely eliminate traffic deaths. Of course, it would also almost entirely eliminate our economies and our productive lives. We would laugh if politicians said we should "follow the science" and stop traffic deaths by reducing speeds to 5km/h.

In the climate debate we should take a sensible approach. This means focusing on short-term adaptation to build resilience, and long-term investment in R&D for green energy. Innovation must drive the price of reliable, green energy down below fossil fuels, making sure everyone can switch to low-carbon alternatives. When politicians tell us they are "following the science", they use the claim to shut down open discussion of the enormous costs of their policies. "The science" informs us about the problem, but is not the arbiter of solutions. Democracies are.

Sudden, dramatic cuts in fossil fuel consumption will have huge downsides. Climate change is a problem, but a civilisation-endangering cure can be far worse than the initial illness.

Bjorn Lomborg

President of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre

Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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