Climate Change

Climate Change Versus Climate Catastrophe

Instead of talking about "climate change"-which will happen with or without human influence-we should focus on "climate catastrophe," weather that actually kills people.


People argue about whether the "consensus" of scientists is that we face disaster because of global warming. Instead of debating whether man's greenhouse gasses will raise temperatures, we should argue about how we gauge disasters.

If you take most environmentalists and climate scientists at their word, the Earth heated up about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, not much more than it heated up the century before that. Warming may increase, but no one can be certain of that.

Let's agree for the sake of argument that this recent warming was partly caused by humanity. Let's also agree that there are some negative effects, including more frequent coastal flooding or longer droughts. If we agree that those are costs, shouldn't we also look at the benefits? Much of modern civilization owes its existence to our use of the fossil fuels that produce the greenhouse gasses.

I don't see that civilization as misfortune. I wish climate alarmists would weigh its accomplishments against the relatively small downsides of climate change. One of industry's biggest accomplishments is creating a world where far fewer of us are likely to die because of weather.

Alex Epstein's book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels documents the rapidly shrinking number of human beings killed by storms, floods and other climate events thanks largely to ever-growing industry, fueled mainly by oil, natural gas, and coal. On my show this week, he argues that if we compare conditions a century ago to conditions last year, we shouldn't obsess about how much carbon dioxide is in the air—or whether earth is warming—we should look at how much safer life became.

In 2013, "Climate-related deaths were at a record low—in supposedly the worst climate in history—under 30,000," says Epstein. In 1931, bad weather killed 3 million people.

You can argue that we get some things wrong as a civilization, but thanks to our use of fossil fuels, we get something very right.

Epstein points out that humanity owes its current ability to survive harsh winters, arid deserts and other naturally dangerous environments to the same fuels that activists now condemn: "We have the luxury of being able to absorb a certain amount of climate-related damage so we can live in all of these cool places."

His argument is unusual because environmentalists spread the idea that, without human interference, the planet is perfect. But by what standard?

"If you went to someone 300 years ago and asked them, do you have a perfect climate?" they would think you were crazy, says Epstein. "They were terrified of climate, because climate doesn't give you the resources that you need. It doesn't give you water when you need it. It doesn't give you the temperature when you need it."

It was once common to say that humans change their environment. That shouldn't offend people today, says Epstein. We should be thrilled that humans "create technology to master climate. … That's why so few people today die from climate."

Epstein correctly says that instead of talking about "climate change"—of which there will always be some, with or without human influence—we should focus on "climate catastrophe," weather that actually kills people. Those catastrophes, measured in lost lives, are getting rarer.

Most of the changes humans make to our environment are desirable changes that help us live longer and more comfortably. "The dogma that man is ruining the planet rather than improving it is a religion, a source of prestige and a career for too many people."

If we regard nature as pristine and think it must never be altered, we will have big problems. We will die young and lead miserable, difficult lives.

I think of industry as something that is mostly very good for us, with a few minor side effects that aren't. Fossil fuels are a little like antibiotics, says Epstein. It's good to draw attention to minor side effects, but it would be crazy to abandon all treatment because of them.

Fossil fuels are no catastrophe. They contribute to health and a better life.

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  1. I vaguely recall hearing that someone, somewhere likes Stossel.

    1. Who doesn’t like Stossel?

  2. I’ve been saying this for years. It doesn’t take an expert to look at the raw data and see that the current pattern of temperatures is basically the same as previous patterns. And as an economist, it is glaringly obvious that global warming is *beneficial* to pretty much everyone and everything on the planet.

    Of course you don’t get million dollar government grants to study it if there isn’t a crisis, so people paid based on whether they say there’s a crisis say there’s crisis…

    1. it is glaringly obvious that global warming is *beneficial* to pretty much everyone and everything on the planet

      I think that might be overstating it a bit. There certainly are benefits to many and it may well be generally beneficial in the long term, but there are plenty of situations where a changing or warmer climate will cause problems for people and animals and things.

      The important thing is to do a proper and realistic cost/benefit analysis.

      1. A cost/benefit analysis to what end? What if the analysis shows a net cost to the global temperature increasing a degree over the next century?

        So what? What are we going to do about it?

  3. If we regard nature as pristine and think it must never be altered, we will have big problems.

    Rousseau’s ideas of a prior golden age still delude people. More recently, Disney portrayed this in Bambi.

    Humans, and life, are not perfectible. Hobbes was right. In nature:

    “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

  4. Oh, John, there you go again with that whimsical belief that the enviros are concerned about man having progressed and his life being far more comfortable and prosperous than those of his ancestors. You are arguing with people who see humans that planet’s biggest blight. Kinda tough to go anywhere when that is the starting point for the other side.

  5. We shouldn’t drift too far into hyperbole. Our ancestors undoubtedly had a more difficult life, but it wasn’t a hell where every day was spent dodging proverbial bullets coming at you from all sides. Industry makes us safer, but more importantly, it frees up human capital. No longer do most people have to grow food or harvest fuel to keep us fed and warm. Instead, people can work on connecting us to the rest of the world, making us healthier, crafting beautiful objects, entertaining us, etc. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs on a societal scale.

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  7. Climate change is a risk management problem. Hope is not an appropriate approach to risk management. We may hope that climate change is beneficial, and it may be. We may hope that climate change is benign, and it may be.
    But this is an experiment; and it could be dangerous. The response to this risk management issue — the only rational response — is to price the risk appropriately. The only interesting question is what is the appropriate price for increasing that risk by emitting greenhouse gases.
    Uncertainty about the science and about the economic models increases the appropriate price for carbon emissions.

    1. Well , so far , and with good physical reasons , the greening gas has not unambiguously warmed the planet , but , again with very fundamental scientific reason , being with H2O the building block of life , is unambiguously greening it .

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