Climate Change

Ecomodernism Is the Solution to Man-Made Climate Change

The Breakthrough Institute's Ted Nordhaus urges Americans to reject both doomism and denialism.


In "Ignore the Fake Climate Debate," an essay in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, the Breakthrough Institute's Ted Nordhaus cuts through the co-dependent alarmist/denier dialectic that drives headlines and fuels overheated tweet-fights. Americans should reject both climate doomism and climate denialism, he argues; ecomodernism is the best way forward.

First, Nordhaus points out that there is no real debate over the fact that human activities are boosting concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that this is contributing significantly to increases in average global temperatures. "In the fake climate debate, both sides agree that economic growth and reduced emissions vary inversely; it's a zero-sum game," Nordhaus writes. "In the real debate, the relationship is much more complicated."

Among the complications is that we're seeing more or less the opposite of the worst-case emissions scenario. Instead of being on a trajectory in which humanity burns 10 times more coal by 2100, the amount of carbon used to produce a dollar of GDP has fallen by more than half since 1990. Thanks to improving energy efficiency and ever-cheaper renewable energy supplies, Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado argues that global carbon dioxide emissions have likely ceased rising.

This is just one indication that humanity is becoming more technologically adept. And we will probably become more adept, because more and more of us are better off: While 36 percent of the world's population lived on less than $1.90 per day in 1990, today less than 10 percent do. Both technological prowess and rising wealth enable people to respond better to whatever weather extremes and natural disasters may occur in the future. Nordhaus cites a new study in the journal Global Environmental Change that reports "a clear decreasing trend in both human and economic vulnerability, with global average mortality and economic loss rates that have dropped by 6.5 and nearly 5 times, respectively, from 1980–1989 to 2007–2016."

Nordhaus' ecomodernist solution to climate change mirrors my own analysis from back 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."

Taking economic growth and technological trends into account—along with the fact that the world's population will probably peak before 2100—the Breakthrough Institute's Zeke Hausfather and the University of British Columbia's Justin Ritchie recently calculated that the real business-as-usual trajectory of future emissions would result in an increase of global average temperature of about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century. Challenging, but not apocalyptic.

So Nordhaus is certainly right when he concludes:

The utopian dreams of those who wish to radically reorganize the world to stop climate change are not a plausible global future. Nor will denying the relationship between carbon emissions and global warming make the real risks of climate change go away. The world will tackle this problem the way that it tackles most other problems, partially and incrementally, by taking up the challenges that are right in front of us—adaptation, economic development, energy modernization, public health—and finding practical ways to address them.

Disclosure: I have had the pleasure of attending several Breakthrough Dialogues and participating in discussions where I made the case that supporters of free markets are natural ecomodernists.