Environmental Protection Agency

It's 'Time to Panic' Over Climate Change, Asserts New York Times Op-Ed

That's wrong. Promoting fear hinders more than helps environmental progress.



Unabated man-made climate change would likely pose problems, many significant, for humanity during the course of this century. But is it "time to panic" about it, as David Wallace-Wells writes in a recent New York Times op-ed?

"The age of climate panic is here," declares the author of the forthcoming The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. Although he thinks it's not nearly enough, Wallace-Wells suggests that the newly proposed Green New Deal is "what the beginning of a solution looks like."

To support his call for panic, Wallace-Wells cites the so-called Doomsday report, which the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued last fall. That special report aimed to analyze the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It projected that if no policies aimed specifically at reducing carbon dioxide emissions are adopted, average global temperature will rise by 3.66°C by 2100, resulting in a global GDP loss of 2.6 percent from what it would otherwise have been. (In the 2°C and 1.5°C scenarios, global GDP would be reduced by 0.5 percent or 0.3 percent, respectively.)

The global GDP currently stands at about $80 trillion. Growing at 3 percent annually, it would rise to $903 trillion by 2100. A 2.6 percent reduction means that it would only be $880 trillion by 2100. A 0.3 percent decrease implies a global GDP of $900 trillion. The IPCC report recommends that the world spend more than $45 trillion between now and 2035 in order to endow $2.7 trillion more in annual income on people living three generations hence.

Assuming the worst-case loss of 2.6 percent, that would mean that a world with a population of 10 billion would have to scrape by on an average income of just $88,000 per year. (The average global GDP per capita now is $10,500.)

Meanwhile, the worst-case scenario laid out in the appropriate chapter of the federal government's Fourth National Climate Assessment indicates that Americans living in 2090 would be about $500 billion poorer than they would have been without climate change. Citing the even more dire projections of outside researchers, the assessment suggested that at 10°F of warming, the U.S. economy would be about 10 percent smaller than it would otherwise have been. For context, consider that today's $20 trillion GDP, growing at a 3 percent rate, would rise to $226 trillion by 2100. Pondering both worst-case climate scenarios, GDP would instead rise to either $225.5 billion or $203 trillion. Americans living at the end of this century would be about 10 times richer on average than we are now, albeit in a much warmer world.

These numbers, derived from integrated assessment models that combine econometric and climate projections for the next eight decades, need to be eyed with enormous skepticism. Nevertheless, neither suggests that climate change will make the earth uninhabitable by the end of this century.

An intriguing sidebar to Wallace-Wells' op-ed helpfully provides three examples that aim to illustrate what happes when environmentalist rhetoric succeded in ratcheting up fear. These cases of panic promotion "marked turning points on major environmental issues and inspired change." The moments? Silent Spring, Love Canal, and Three Mile Island. The "inspired change" stemming from these cases has not, shall we say, been wholly beneficial.

"Fear can mobilize, even change the world. When Rachel Carson published her landmark anti-pesticide polemic Silent Spring, Life magazine said she had 'overstated her case,' and The Saturday Evening Post dismissed the book as 'alarmist,'" Wallace-Wells writes. "But it almost single-handedly led to a nationwide ban on DDT." He's quite right about the DDT ban, but as history has now shown that Life's assessment was largely correct.

In Silent Spring, Carson described the choice humanity faced as a fork in the road to the future. "The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress at great speed, but at its end lies disaster," she declared. "The other fork of the road—the one 'less traveled by'—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth." As Wallace-Wells' op-ed amply shows, this kind of apocalyptic rhetoric is now standard fare in environmental policy debates.

Carson was correct that the popular pesticide DDT disrupted reproduction in some raptor species and that some insect pests were developing resistance to it, making it less useful for protecting crops and preventing insect-borne infections in people. But Carson's most worrying claim was that exposure to trace amounts of synthetic chemicals like DDT would set off a cancer epidemic. For a time, cancer incidence rates did indeed rise, but largely as a result of an increase of Americans living past age 65 and the residual effects of extensive tobacco use and hormone replacement therapy.

The most recent American Cancer Society report on cancer trends finds that U.S. cancer incidence and death rates have fallen to a 25-year low. Nevertheless, hypercautious Environmental Protection Agency regulations aiming to protect consumers from supposed cancer risks posed by slight exposures to synthetic chemicals continue to multipy. Whether the benefits outweigh the costs of EPA regulation is an ongoing controversy.

What about Love Canal? In 1978, residents of that neighborhood outside Buffalo, New York, found that their homes had been built on top of an area where a chemical company had sequestered and sealed tons of toxic wastes in an abandoned canal. The company, under threat of eminent domain, had sold the land for $1 to the local school board warning that it should never be developed. The chemicals began leaking out only after local and state agencies willfully breached the dump site's clay seal as part of a development scheme. Obviously, none of us wants toxic chemicals leaking into our basements, so it was entirely reasonable for the residents to react with alarm when that happened to them.

A local Environmental Protection Agency administrator declared this "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history." Happily, it turned out not to be such an "appalling environmental tragedy" after all, at least with respect to the former residents' health. The New York State Health Department tracked about 6,000 former residents. In its last report issued in 2009, the agency found that their "overall mortality rates were similar to those of New York State and Niagara County." More specifically, the final report noted, "For cancer incidence, the results of the external comparisons indicated that the total number of cancers observed among Love Canal residents was within the range expected for New York State and Niagara County." The report also found that "rates of preterm and small-for-gestational age (SGA) births among [emergency area] women were similar to those in New York State and Niagara County, and the rates of low (LBW) and very low (VLBW) birth weight tended to be lower." The department did report a slight change in the sex ratio of births, favoring girls over boys.

"The nightmare led to the creation of the federal Superfund program to clean up Love Canal and other toxic waste dumps around the country," the Times sidebar notes. Like many policies driven by panic, this has proven less than optimal. The Superfund program has pleased neither environmentalists nor industry. The litigation that it sparks both boosts costs and slows cleanups. One 1999 study estimated that Superfund remediation would on average avert less than 0.1 case of cancer per site, and that the cost per cancer case averted is more than $100 million.

The third moment of panic that supposedly led to progress was the partial meltdown in 1979 of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. "Thousands fled the area around the plant," notes the Times sidebar, "and though very little radiation escaped, the accident hurt the industry and raised public apprehension about nuclear power." Indeed it did.

The accident did release a very small amount of radionuclides into the environment. These consisted of radioactive isotopes of the noble gases krypton and xenon and a bit of iodine, all of which have half-lives measured in days. Whatever amount did escape decayed into background undetectability within a few weeks.

The Pennsylvania Health Department monitored the health of a cohort of nearly 60,000 local residents between 1982 and 1995. Its final report, released in 2011, found "no evidence of an increased risk for all malignant neoplasms." A more recent study using very subtle molecular techniques reports that a slight increase in thyroid cancer rates among former residents might be attributed to the radiation exposures.

Although the U.S. nuclear power industry was already pulling back, due largely to increasing regulatory pressure, the Three Mile Island accident basically ended the construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. for the next three decades. In the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission had anticipated that more than 1,000 nuclear reactors would generating electricity in the United States by the year 2000. By now that number would have replaced all coal and natural gas power generation, and U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would be 34 percent lower than they are currently

The Australian economist Peter Lang calculates that nuclear power would have outcompeted most fossil fuel generation at one-tenth of nuclear's current cost. Folks concerned about global warming—and I include myself among them—may reasonably conclude that the panic over nuclear power did not result in overall environmental progress.

Wallace-Wells ends by asking, "What creates more sense of urgency than fear?" Nothing. But as those three examples of past panic suggest, fear doesn't produce clear thinking either. It thus may actually hinder rather than help environmental progress.