Economic Development

Climate Change Problems Will Be Solved Through Economic Growth

"How bad will climate change be? Not very."


Petar Veinovic

"It is, I promise, worse than you think," David Wallace-Wells wrote in an infamously apocalyptic 2017 New York Magazine article. "Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century."

The "it" is man-made climate change. Temperatures will become scalding, crops will wither, and rising seas will inundate coastal cities, Wallace-Wells warns. But toward the end of his screed, he somewhat dismissively observes that "by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans….Now we've found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another."

Over at Scientific American, John Horgan considers some eco-modernist views on how humanity will indeed go about engineering our way out of the problems that climate change may pose. In an essay called "Should We Chill Out About Global Warming?," Horgan reports the more dynamic and positive analyses of two eco-modernist thinkers, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and science journalist Will Boisvert.

In an essay for The Breakthrough Journal, Pinker notes that such optimism "is commonly dismissed as the 'faith that technology will save us.' In fact, it is a skepticism that the status quo will doom us—that knowledge and behavior will remain frozen in their current state for perpetuity. Indeed, a naive faith in stasis has repeatedly led to prophecies of environmental doomsdays that never happened." In his new book, Enlightenment Now, Pinker points out that "as the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species." Economic growth and technological progress are the solutions not only to climate change but to most of the problems that bedevil humanity.

Boisvert, meanwhile, tackles and rebuts the apocalyptic prophecies made by eco-pessimists like Wallace-Wells, specifically with regard to food production and availabilty, water supplies, heat waves, and rising seas.

"No, this isn't a denialist screed," Boisvert writes. "Human greenhouse emissions will warm the planet, raise the seas and derange the weather, and the resulting heat, flood and drought will be cataclysmic. Cataclysmic—but not apocalyptic. While the climate upheaval will be large, the consequences for human well-being will be small. Looked at in the broader context of economic development, climate change will barely slow our progress in the effort to raise living standards."

Boisvert proceeds to show how a series of technologies—drought-resistant crops, cheap desalination, widespread adoption of air-conditioning, modern construction techniques—will ameliorate and overcome the problems caused by rising temperatures. He is entirely correct when he notes, "The most inexorable feature of climate-change modeling isn't the advance of the sea but the steady economic growth that will make life better despite global warming."

Horgan, Pinker, and Boisvert are all essentially endorsing what I have called "the progress solution" to climate change. As I wrote in 2009, "It is surely not unreasonable to argue that if one wants to help future generations deal with climate change, the best policies would be those that encourage rapid economic growth. This would endow future generations with the wealth and superior technologies that could be used to handle whatever comes at them including climate change." Six years later I added that that "richer is more climate-friendly, especially for developing countries. Why? Because faster growth means higher incomes, which correlate with lower population growth. Greater wealth also means higher agricultural productivity, freeing up land for forests to grow as well as speedier progress toward developing and deploying cheaper non–fossil fuel energy technologies. These trends can act synergistically to ameliorate man-made climate change."

Horgan concludes, "Greens fear that optimism will foster complacency and hence undermine activism. But I find the essays of Pinker and Boisvert inspiring, not enervating….These days, despair is a bigger problem than optimism." Counseling despair has always been wrong when human ingenuity is left free to solve problems, and that will prove to be the case with climate change as well.

For more background, see my article, "Is Degrowth the Only Way to Save the World?"