The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer


published August 2014
Or just another line item in the budget?
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In the year 2393 a historian in the Second People’s Republic of China penned a book about how scientists, economists and politicians living in the 21st century failed to act on the solid science they had that gave clear warnings of the climate catastrophe ahead. As a result, the world experienced the Great Collapse of 2093, bringing an end to Western civilization.

So speculate historians of science Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Erik Conway of the California Institute of Technology in their book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia University Press, 2014), a short scientific- historical fantasy. During the second half of the 20th century— the “Period of the Penumbra”—a shadow of anti-intellectualism “fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world…preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Why the failure to act? The authors’ future historian posits several causes: blind optimism; religion; reductionism that prevented scientists from understanding holistic systems; disciplinary narrowness that restricted cross-field communication between scientists; adherence to avoiding type I errors (believing a hypothesis is real when it isn’t) over type II errors (not believing a hypothesis is real when it is); and insistence on a 95 percent confidence limit for statistical significance that caused scientists to dismiss as unproved climate effects caused by warmer weather, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Between 1751 and 2012 more than 365 billion metric tons of carbon was released into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to increase, the historian notes. Another century of warming devastated the populations of Australia and Africa, and those of Europe, Asia and North America had to move inland from flooded coastal regions.

This science-historical fantasy is thought-provoking, but is it prescient? Global warming is, of course, real and caused by human activity. But predicting how much warmer it is going to get and what the consequences will be is extremely difficult because estimates include error bars that grow wider the further out the models run. The precautionary principle states that we should act, just in case. But act on what? Climate change is not our only problem, and we do not have unlimited resources. Which problem should we tackle and how much should we spend?

In the second edition (2014) of his book How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place, Bjørn Lomborg reports the findings of a study sponsored by his Copenhagen Consensus Center 2012 project in which more than 50 economists evaluated 39 proposals on how best to solve such problems as armed conflicts, natural disasters, hunger, disease, education and climate change. Climate change barely rated a mention in the top 10, which included, in order, malnutrition interventions, malaria treatment, childhood immunization, deworming of schoolchildren, tuberculosis treatment, research and development to increase crop yields, early-warning systems for natural disasters, hepatitis B immunization, and low-cost drugs for acute heart attack. Number 12 was R&D for geoengineering solutions to climate change, and number 17 was R&D for green energy technologies. The rest of the top 30 were related to disease, water and sanitation, biodiversity, hunger, education, population growth and natural disasters.

The ranking is based on a cost-benefit analysis. For example, an investment of $300 million “would prevent the deaths of 300,000 children, if it were used to strengthen the Global Fund’s malaria-financing mechanism.” Another $300 million would deworm 300 million children, and $122 million would lead to total hepatitis B vaccine coverage and thereby prevent another 150,000 annual deaths. Low-cost drugs to treat acute heart disease would cost just $200 million and save 300,000 people.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do more about climate change. But what? Both books posit technological solutions: Lomborg’s Copenhagen experts recommend spending $1 billion for research on planet-cooling geoengineering technologies; Oreskes and Conway have humanity saved by the creation in 2090 of a lichenized fungus that consumes atmospheric carbon dioxide. Whatever we do about climate, we should recognize that the world has many problems. If you are malnourished and diseased, what the climate will be like at the end of the century is not a high priority. Given limited resources, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the apocalyptic fear generated by any one threat.

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9 Comments to “ClimeApocalypse”

  1. Richard Martin Says:

    50 economists versus thousands of scientists? Economists believe that there is no end of growth, and their proposals are all about saving lives which will increase the population of the already over populated earth. Continual global warming will cause much greater disaster to the population than all their proposals to sustain it. And global warming predictions are not speculation – they are based on solid science. If there was was a 95 percent probability of a global nuclear war, would you take a wait and see attitude?

  2. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Hmmm. Each of those solutions listed cost hundreds of Millions of dollars (and 1 Billion for research into planet cooling) OTOH: Katrina caused ~81 Billion in damage (yes, ‘Billion’ with a ‘B’). Increased severity of hurricanes is one result of warming oceans – if we could prevent one Katrina event per decade we could afford hundreds of those programs.

    You might say that the savings of not having to rebuild coastal cities every decade would pay for the efforts to abate global warming.

    Also, tropical diseases wouldn’t spread into the temperate regions so it would help solve other problems.

    Dr. Mike, I am afraid what we’re really lacking is vision & leadership. Green tech, like many new technologies, can solve problems AND create new jobs & wealth… paying for itself in the long-run – sometimes by a wide margin. For example, look at how much the US economy grew for every NASA dollar spent. Businesses wish they could get that kind of ROI!

  3. Chris Tolbert Says:

    I like the final message. One tough thing about climate change is that action is usually championed by those who think the solution is a political one. Legislation to research climate change will inevitably cost taxpayers a lot of money. The payout MAY be good but we do have real examples of that investment being wasted. If the intention is to just throw money at it through government, there is every reason for trepidation that we’ll get more investments like Solyndra. I think the only appropriate way for government to be involved is to place a tax on pollution. That would be a good incentive for companies to operate with less pollution, and therefore a good incentive for people to develop ways of reducing pollution. I am optimistic because so many companies are already voluntarily trying to operate with less pollution.

  4. Kathy Moyd Says:

    Many economists support a carbon tax with all revenue returned equally to families. This would encourage market-based decreases in carbon dioxide emissions.

  5. Robert Sheaffer Says:

    “Oreskes and Conway have humanity saved by the creation in 2090 of a lichenized fungus that consumes atmospheric carbon dioxide.” Such organisms already exist. They’re called “plants.”

    While there is a broad consensus that human-released CO2 will probably lead to some warming, there is no consensus as to the degree of warming, or its effects. It’s misleading to suggest things like ‘97% of climate scientists believe we’re headed for catastrophe unless we radically limit the burning of fossil fuels,’ cause it just isn’t true. See, for example,

  6. vm Says:

    embrace nuclear power temporarily along with renewables and you get rid of fossil fuels faster. in return for less climate change devastation there is a CHANCE a few plants and nuclear storage sites might statistically suffer chernobyl scale accidents. We lose maybe several hundred square kilometers per century of usable land to radiation and a death toll maybe at worst in the millions per century


    status quo. Nuclear is being supressed. Renewables are increasing in number slowly so fossil fuel hangs around much much longer. Climate change then FOR SURE becomes worse, what else is the CO2 being spewed gonna do?. We lose millions of square kilometers per century to desertification and sea level rise. At worst case, death toll in the billions per century from heat waves, displacement of populations, famine, increased extreme weather events, new diseases or tropical diseases moving to temperate areas and maybe resource wars

  7. Sergio Says:

    Bjørn Lomborg wasn’t allowed by his patrons to recognize that Global Warming will increase the range of malaria, malnutrition and natural disasters.

  8. Ricardo Illiingworth Says:

    I agee with Richard Martín. Population is the BIG problem.

  9. karol Says:

    Wasn’t other Lomborg’s book criticized by SA for misrepresenting climate science?

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