The Dixie Fire, now over 200,000 acres, burns at night in Taylorsville, California on July 27 2021. Picture: REUTERS/DAVID SWANSON
The Dixie Fire, now over 200,000 acres, burns at night in Taylorsville, California on July 27 2021. Picture: REUTERS/DAVID SWANSON

The reaction from politicians and media pundits to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) latest climate report could not have been more predictable. Fitting the apocalyptic narrative many have spun lately, the always climate-breathless UK Guardian newspaper summarised this scientific report as finding mankind “guilty as hell” of the “climate crimes of humanity”. Needless to say, the report says no such thing.

UN secretary-general António Guterres called the findings a “code red for humanity”, saying we can only avert catastrophe by acting in the next couple of months. Of course, the UN has a long history of claiming catastrophe is right around the corner: the first UN environment director claimed already half a century ago that we had just 10 years left, and the then-head of the IPCC insisted in 2007 that we had just five years left.

In contrast to the hyperventilating media, the report is actually serious and sensible (and very, very long). It doesn’t surprise, since it is a summary of already published studies, but it reconfirms that global warming is indeed real and a problem. But it also highlights how much one-sided thinking takes place in the climate conversation.

Since the heat dome in the US and Canada in June there has been a lot of writing about more heat deaths. And the IPCC confirms that climate change has indeed increased heatwaves. However, the report equally firmly, if virtually unacknowledged, tells us that global warming means “the frequency and intensity of cold extremes have decreased”.  

This matters, because globally many more people die from cold than from heat. A new study in the highly respected medical journal The Lancet shows that about half a million people die from heat every year, but 4.5-million people die from cold. Increasing temperatures over the past two decades have caused an extra 116,000 heat deaths each year.

This, of course, fits the narrative and is what we have heard over and again. But it turns out that because global warming has also reduced cold waves, we now see 283,000 fewer cold deaths. You don’t hear this, but so far climate change has saved an average of 166,000 lives a year.

Likewise, we have heard a lot about flooding in Germany and elsewhere being caused by climate change. But the new UN report tells us it has “low confidence in the human influence on the changes in high river flows on the global scale” — and low confidence in attributing “changes in the probability or magnitude of flood events”. The report tells us that the evidence isn’t there to say floods are caused or driven by climate change.

It also mentions climate upsides like the fact that more CO₂ in the atmosphere has acted as a fertiliser and created a profound global greening of the planet. One Nasa study found that over a period of 35 years, climate change has added an area of green equivalent to twice the size of Australia. But don’t expect to read about this in any of the breathless articles on climate impact.

The new UN report only deals with the physical impact of climate change, but of course much of what really matters is how humans handle it. Often the real problem of rising sea levels is converted into a catastrophe by arguing that nobody will adapt and everyone will drown or be displaced. Remember when news reports told us that rising seas will displace an astonishing 187-million people, potentially “drowning” entire cities like Miami in 80 years?

In reality, humans adapt, as Holland has shown. That’s why many models show that adaptation will reduce the number of people seriously affected by flooding 12,000-fold. As in the past, rising prosperity will continue to reduce flood affects, and climate change will merely slow down this reduction slightly.

Ultimately, this is why the scare stories on climate effects are vastly overblown and not supported by this new climate report. One of the clearest ways to see this is through climate economics.

Because of economic development, the UN estimates that the average person in the world will become 450% as well-off by 2100 as they are today. But climate change will have a cost, in that adaptation and challenges become somewhat harder. Because of climate change, the average person in 2100 will “only” be 436% as well off as today.

This is not the apocalypse, but it is a problem we should fix smartly.

• Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is ‘False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet’.

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