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17 October 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 11:02am

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.

By Duncan Geere

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.

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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.

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