“The idea that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind is laughable” — Prof. Richard Tol

by Marlo Lewis on April 1, 2014

in Blog

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Climate economist Richard Toll has a provocative op-ed in today’s Financial Times titled “Bogus prophesies of doom will not fix the climate.” Last week, Tol accused the IPCC of being too alarmist about global warming and asked to have his name withdrawn from its recently-released Working Group II report (WG2) on climate change impacts.

Public discourse on climate change would be much improved if every discussion — for example, Secy. of State John Kerry’s climate speech in Jakarta, Indonesia — began with a reading of Tol’s opening paragraph:

Humans are a tough and adaptable species. People live on the equator and in the Arctic, in the desert and in the rainforest. We survived ice ages with primitive technologies. The idea that climate change poses an existential threat to humankind is laughable.

Even if one accepts WG2′s estimate that a “further warming of 2°C could cause loses equivalent to 0.2-2 per cent of world gross domestic product,” that is “about as bad as losing one year of economic growth” in half a century, Tol notes. In contrast, since the start of the Eurozone financial crisis, the income of the average Greek has fallen more than 20%. “Climate change is not, then, the biggest problem facing humankind.”

After noting that climate change is not even the biggest environmental problem (indoor air pollution has killed 260 million people — more than all the wars of the 20th century combined, Bjorn Lomborg estimates), Tol points out that the best protection from climate-related risk is economic growth and the institutions that facilitate it:

Climate change will make the disease [malaria] worse. Economic growth will make it go away.

In the worst case, climate change could cut crop yields in Africa in half. Yet yields would increase tenfold — in the same climate, on the same soil — if subsistence farmers started using crops and techniques pioneered on experimental farms. Climate change may be a big issue in Africa. But it is not nearly as important as lack of tenure, poor roads, roving warlords and so on.

Tol agrees with the IPCC that “We cannot let the planet grow warmer and warmer,” but solving that problem must wait until “carbon neutral technologies saturate the market,” which “will take decades at least.”

I don’t share Tol’s faith in the ability of government-directed “adaptation and development” to “improve lives.” But his contention that the IPCC’s “prophecies of doom” are false and divert public attention and resources from more urgent threats is spot on.

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