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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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.