It’s time to cancel the climate crisis

After two weeks of continuously pressing the panic button in Glasgow, the climate-alarmed departed the 26th UN climate conference (better known as COP26), despondent at missing the latest “last best chance” to save the planet.

While the apocalyptic rhetoric used by politicians and activists to describe the changing climate has outpaced reality, there is some good news: First, science tells us that there is no crisis and we have ample time to respond to a changing climate. Second, terms such as “existential threat,” “climate catastrophe,” or “climate disaster” aren’t found anywhere in the most recent UN assessment of the science. The phrase “climate crisis” does appear, once — not as scientific finding, but as a description of how the media have increased the alarm.

Opening remarks during Global Climate Action High-Level Event: Racing To a Better World in Plenary Cairn Gorm in the COP26 venue. Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/NurPhoto

There is, however, an urgent need to quell the hysteria with a factual check before hasty “climate action” causes more damage than it averts.

What the UN report and the underlying scientific literature do say is that, even as natural and growing human influences have warmed the globe 1.1 C since 1900, most extreme weather events have remained within natural variability. The UN’s best estimate is that we’ll see an additional 1.6 C warming by 2100, an increase that is expected to have minimal net economic impact. That’s quite plausible since the 20th century saw a quadrupling of the global population and the greatest improvement ever in human wellbeing, even with the 1.1 C rise.

Science also confirms that we have time. As first recognized in the Nobel prize–winning work of William Nordhaus, an optimal path to “net zero” emissions would balance the disruption of too-rapid a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions (or decarbonization) against a growing risk of detrimental climate impacts. While there are many uncertainties in estimating that balance, future impacts appear to be small, thus suggesting that today’s mitigation plans are too hasty. To enable a graceful and economically viable energy transition in the coming decades, we must better observe and understand the changing climate and develop better emissions-lite technologies.

Emissions are best reduced gradually. The prevailing narrative that we must immediately undertake massive actions to eliminate global emissions by mid-century is not supported by the science. A crash elimination of emissions from our energy systems would be extraordinarily disruptive, raising energy costs and degrading reliability, stranding assets, and displacing workers. Those systems are slow to change, in part because they must be highly reliable and require large capital investments. While a zero-emissions electrical grid is central to decarbonization strategies, we don’t yet have the technology to create a grid that is also reliable and affordable. The recent EU electricity crisis, caused in large part by relying upon intermittent wind energy without adequate back up, illustrates the critical importance of reliability.

The false narrative that we must act urgently has taken hold because most people receive information which has been distorted somewhere along a tortuous route which starts with the original literature, runs through the assessment reports, to summaries for non-experts, and then on to the media. This process provides ample opportunities and incentives along the way to distort the story.

While perhaps well-intentioned, overstating the “climate threat” to spur rapid emissions reductions has been pernicious. It has usurped society’s right to make fully informed choices and it has stolen attention and resources from problems that are more immediate, more certain, and more tractable. It has also diminished the credibility of scientific input to other societal problems such as pandemics and has terrified young people.

We must set aside the fantasies of academics and activists and engage business and the public in charting a path that respects technical, economic, regulatory, and behavioral realities. Failure to do so will result in a backlash, as in the French yellow-vest protests and the UK’s failed attempt to mandate expensive heat pumps in homes. Popular resistance to drastic actions will also likely be a factor in upcoming US elections, particularly when the electorate realizes that the US accounts for only 13 percent of global emissions.

Governments and authoritative bodies such as the US National Academies, the UK Royal Society, and professional societies have a responsibility to state clearly that there is no crisis, and we need to act thoughtfully. That would help avoid ill-conceived and ineffective actions trying to address an imaginary emergency. Absent such statements, precipitous “climate action” is likely to damage society more than any actual impacts from a changing climate.

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It’s time to cancel the climate crisis