Are we headed for a climate cataclysm? Do we need a World War Two effort to stave off disaster? “Ecomodernist” Will Boisvert explains why the effects of climate change won’t be as bad as most people think. Karel Beckman has the story. (This article is published in full on our premium website Energy Post Weekly in Karel Beckman’s weekly Energy Watch.)
Are you also a bit tired sometimes of the endless stream of alarming climate reports? Here some random headlines from just the past two weeks:
- Fish and chips to curry: UK’s favourite dishes at risk from climate change, research shows
- The Arctic is sending us signals of impending climate chaos
- Global warming will increase world death rate
- Expect tens of millions of internal climate migrants by 2050, says World Bank
- Marine heatwave set off ‘carbon bomb’ in world’s largest seagrass meadow
- Pakistan among most vulnerable countries to climate change: HSBC report
- Can climate litigation save the world?
- Avocado trade threatened by shipping climate measure, say Chile, Peru
- Carbon cuts could help 15 cities each avoid at least 1 million early deaths: study
- Climate change and protectionism could harm efforts to feed the world: report
I could go on and on. No wonder many people shrug off climate concerns. They feel helpless to do anything about it.
It has also become a kind of cliché to observe that whatever measures we are taking today, they are not going to be enough to halt climate change. “At this rate, it’s going to take nearly 400 years to transform the energy system”, ran a typical headline in MIT Technology Review recently.
Referring to a new scientific paper by Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, James Temple of MIT Technology Review writes: “Instead of the roughly 1,100 megawatts of carbon-free energy per day likely needed to prevent temperatures from rising more than 2 ˚C, …, we are adding around 151 megawatts. That’s only enough to power roughly 125,000 homes. At that rate, substantially transforming the energy system would take, not the next three decades, but nearly the next four centuries. In the meantime, temperatures would soar, melting ice caps, sinking cities, and unleashing devastating heat waves around the globe.”
“It’s not that we aren’t building clean energy fast enough to address the challenge of climate change”, writes Temple. “It’s that—even after decades of warnings, policy debates, and clean-energy campaigns—the world has barely even begun to confront the problem.”
The problem is neatly illustrated in this chart:
“It’s somewhere between difficult and impossible to see how any of that will change until there are strong enough government policies or big enough technology breakthroughs to override the economics”, Temple writes.
The only way out seems to be some kind of radical change. He quotes Daniel Schrag of the Harvard University’s Center for the Environment and one of the top climate change advisors of Barack Obama, who believes the world needs a kind of World War Two effort to convert the entire economy to a low-carbon energy system.
This clearly is not very likely to happen, leaving us with nothing but despair.
Could there be another way to look at climate change? Yes. Will Boisvert, an “ecomodernist” American journalist, has written a remarkable article, The Conquest of Climate (23 February 2018), in which he succeeds in bringing another perspective to bear on the subject.
The article starts as follows: “How bad will climate change be? Not very”.
This of course will immediately have a lot of readers up in arms. But Boisvert quickly adds that he is not a climate change denier: “No, this isn’t a denialist screed. Human greenhouse emissions will warm the planet, raise the seas and derange the weather, and the resulting heat, flood and drought will be cataclysmic.”
How can those two seemingly contradictory visions be united? Boisvert argues that mankind has seen tremendous economic and technological progress in the past few centuries – and this progress is likely to continue. Climate change will be one of the challenges encountering us in this process – but we will be able to overcome its consequences in the same way as have been able to overcome similar challenges (including climate changes) in the past.
He gives an example: “… consider a 2016 Newsweek headline that announced ‘Climate change could cause half a million deaths in 2050 due to reduced food availability.’ The story described a Lancet study, ‘Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change’, that made dire forecasts: by 2050 the effects of climate change on agriculture will shrink the amount of food people eat, especially fruits and vegetables, enough to cause 529,000 deaths each year from malnutrition and related diseases. The report added grim specifics to the familiar picture of a world made hot, hungry, and barren by the coming greenhouse apocalypse.”
“But buried beneath the gloomy headlines was a curious detail: the study also predicts that in 2050 the world will be better fed than ever before. The ‘reduced food availability’ is only relative to a 2050 baseline when food will be more abundant than now thanks to advances in agricultural productivity that will dwarf the effects of climate change. Those advances on their own will raise per-capita food availability to 3,107 kilocalories per day; climate change could shave that to 3,008 kilocalories, but that’s still substantially higher than the benchmarked 2010 level of 2,817 kilocalories—and for a much larger global population…. Even after subtracting the 529,000 lives theoretically lost to climate change, the study estimates that improved diets will save a net 1,348,000 lives per year in 2050.”
Looking at such problems as drought, hunger, heat and even sea-level rise, Boisvert concludes that yes, climate change will contribute to those in a major way. Yet, at the same time, growing wealth and technological skills will enable people to achieve a better life, in which they will be able to better cope with drought, hunger, heat and floods.
S. Herb says
There is something to this, but it has also a certain Dr. Strangelove quality – don’t worry, we will live the good life in our bunker. It is one of many views we must use in looking to the future and is no reason not to build on the present modest CO2 reduction programs.
Temple seems to assume a linear growth of clean technology. Currently it looks more like exponential growth so there is hope yet, for a technological fix.
Climate change may improve the agricultural productivity in moderate regions, it decreases productivity in areas that are already struggling. Even if the net effect would be postive, it would increase the gap between poor and rich countries. So unless we would get a global socialistic system (fat chance with that) the increasing gap will cause all kinds of instability like (civil) wars and emigration.
Roger Lambert says
So we are to believe that the long-range projections of climate scientists that the breadbasket regions of the world will be in full-fledged long-term drought, if not outright desertification is nothing to be worried about?
Will Boisvert has a bridge in Brooklyn he wants us to buy.
Peter Cohen says
It may be correct. But what if it isn’t? It is a case of risk management. As in all risk assesments we have to consider not just the possibility of failure but the consequences of the failure.
Right or wrong it is a horrendous risk to take!
Roger Lambert says
Here is first image of projected temperature changes across breadbasket regions by year 2100, which should be available to all for viewing: