No, climate change will not be good for the world

While there are benefits to higher global temperatures, they are vastly outweighed by the costs to human life.

The cover story in the Spectator this week is from economist and "rational optimist" Matt Ridley, arguing that climate change is good for the world. In it, he grandly declares that "the scientific consensus is that warmer temperatures do more good than harm".

That's simply not true. In the article, Ridley refers to a 2009 paper by economist Richard Tol, which summarises 14 studies (between 1994 and 2006) of the economic effects of future climate trends given a doubling of CO2. If you read the paper yourself, you'll quickly see that Tol's actual conclusion is that things start going downhill at about a +1C rise - which is projected to happen by 2030 regardless of what we do with emissions.

He also says that many of these studies are too optimistic, and that far more research is needed that looks at the indirect economic effects of climate change. Essentially, Ridley's grand declaration should really be "Tol's representation of the scientific consensus of the economic effects of climate change is that by 2006, we didn't know enough". Not so grand, really, is it?

Ridley makes a large number of other misleading claims in his article, too. I only have the space to address the biggest whoppers here, but let's walk through some of his major omissions.

He's right that there are some short-term economic benefits to climate change, but multiple analyses have shown that the long-term costs are far in excess of the costs of preventing it, making his complaints about the price of climate policies irrelevant. If we spend £100 on climate policies and get £3 of benefit (an assertion that I can't find a source for), that's a better situation than spending nothing on climate policies and having to deal with hundreds of billions of pounds of costs over the next century.

He's right that warmer winters will mean fewer deaths, but then lists stats on past heatwaves - temperatures that will be considered around average by the middle of this century - without considering the heatwaves of the future. He also doesn't mention the vast increases in the spread of tropical diseases projected to occur under higher temperatures.

He's right that CO2 is essential for plant growth, but so is a steady water supply. The scientific consensus is floods and droughts will become more common during this century, significantly disrupting that supply. Some areas of the globe will become more productive, mainly those in developed northern countries, but most will not - particularly those with large, poor populations.

He's right that confidence is low among scientists on whether tropical cyclone activity will increase and that death rates due to extreme weather have dropped due to better technology, but we've seen (and expect to continue to see) an increase in the number of extreme rainfall events and the aforementioned heatwaves. The jury's still out on tornadoes, floods and hurricanes, but Ridley presents it as if extreme weather is a problem that technology has solved. That is not the case - just ask those who suffered in Katrina or Sandy, or the millions hit by stronger events in the rest of the world over the past decades.

His predictions of fewer droughts and richer biodiversity don't seem to be grounded in any facts whatsoever, and run contrary to peer-reviewed research on the effects of climate change.

Finally, Ridley completely ignores a number of other effects of climate change that are wholly negative for humanity. Sea level rise, melting glaciers, ocean acidification, extinction of species, and increased incidence of wildfires all go unaddressed.

There are some benefits to be had from climate change, sure. But they're vastly outweighed by the negatives, even on shorter timescales than the 2080 date that Ridley picks. He notes that even his children will be old by then, but what about their children? And their children?

In his article, Ridley presents an extreme photoshopping of the truth - a side of the facts tailored towards those who want an excuse to continue business as usual. Essentially, he's telling the audience of the Spectator what they want to hear - and profiting handsomely from it. His version of events is certainly optimistic, but rational? Unfortunately not.

Duncan Geere is a freelance journalist, specialising in the ways that technology is changing science, our environment and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @duncangeere.

Higher temperatures will lead to more severe droughts. (Photo: Getty)
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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.