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False Alarm by Bjorn Lomborg; Apocalypse Never by Michael Shellenberger – review

It is no longer credible to deny that the average temperature around the world is rising and that other phenomena, such as extreme weather events, are also shifting. People can now see with their own eyes that the climate is changing around them.

Nor is it tenable to deny that the Earth’s warming is driven by increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting from human activities, such as the production and burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. Such denial is only now promoted by cranks and conspiracy theorists who also think, for instance, that the Covid-19 pandemic is linked to the development of the 5G network.

So instead, a different form of climate change denial is emerging from the polemical columns of rightwing newspapers. They paint a Panglossian picture of manmade climate crisis that will never be catastrophic as long as the world grows rich by using fossil fuels. The “lukewarmers” are on the march and coming to a bookshop near you.

Two prominent lukewarmers are now launching new manifestos: False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet by Bjorn Lomborg, and Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by Michael Shellenberger.

Although they are aimed primarily at American audiences, they will appeal to anyone who, like the authors, proclaims themselves to be an environmentalist, but despises environmental campaigners.

Both books contain many pages of endnotes and references to academic publications, conveying the initial impression that their arguments are supported by reason and evidence. But the well-informed reader will recognise that they rely on sources that are outdated, cherry-picked or just wrong.

The content of False Alarm will be familiar to those who have read Lomborg’s previous books, The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. New findings and evidence are twisted and forced into the same haranguing narrative for his new contribution. Shellenberger’s book is far easier to read, at least near the beginning, but gradually descends into a bitter rant against environmentalists, the media and politicians who do not share his fervour for nuclear power.

Not everything that Lomborg and Shellenberger write is wrong. They are both correct in saying that the world should be investing far more in making populations, particularly in poor countries, more resilient to our changing climate. Even if the world is successful in its implementation of the Paris Agreement and limits global warming to well below 2C by the end of the century, the impacts will continue to grow over the coming decades, threatening lives and livelihoods across the globe.

But their argument that adaptation to climate crisis impacts is easier and cheaper than emissions cuts is undermined by their admission that the economic costs of extreme weather are rising because ever-more-vulnerable businesses and homes are being built in high-risk areas.

Lomborg is also right that the world should be spending far more on green innovation to develop technologies to help us to tackle climate breakdown. But he is pinning all his hopes on the breakthrough discovery of a magical new energy source that will be both zero-carbon and cheaper than fossil fuels.

This is wrong-headed for at least two reasons. The first is that most innovation occurs through the incremental improvement of existing technologies and we will probably need several different sources of affordable and clean energy. The second is that climate crisis results from the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that is already happening, so we cannot afford to delay the deployment of today’s alternatives to fossil fuels.

I also have some sympathy for Shellenberger’s argument that nuclear power has a role to play in creating a zero-carbon energy system. However, instead of calmly explaining its advantages over fossil fuels, he attempts to promote it by trash-talking about new renewable technologies, particularly wind and solar.

Walney Extension windfarm
Walney Extension, the world’s largest offshore windfarm, on the Cumbrian coast. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

He is right that we cannot yet store energy affordably on the scale needed to power an entire electricity grid with intermittent renewables. But he also claims that windfarms might be responsible for an alarming decline in insect populations in Germany, which entomologists have blamed on agricultural practices. And he complains that the turbines “are almost invariably loud and disturb the peace and quiet”, although he stops short of repeating Donald Trump’s ridiculous falsehood that the noise causes cancer.

Both Lomborg and Shellenberger also make some legitimate criticisms of “alarmism” by environmentalists. One of the most difficult problems in making the case for action on climate crisis is that the elevated levels of greenhouse gases we create over the next few decades will have consequences not fully realised until the next century and beyond. Some campaigners deal with this communications challenge by wrongly warning of imminent catastrophe.

However, many scientists do suspect that we are approaching, or have already passed, thresholds beyond which very severe consequences, such as destabilisation of the land-based polar ice caps and associated sea level rise of several metres, become unstoppable, irreversible or accelerate. Lomborg and Shellenberger both downplay these huge risks because they fatally undermine the fundamental basis for their lukewarmer ideology.

Lomborg’s book relies heavily on the creative use of the Dynamic Integrated model of Climate and the Economy (Dice). William Nordhaus, who won the Nobel prize for economics in 2018 for his pioneering work on climate change, created the Dice model, but it has been strongly criticised for omitting the biggest risks.

A graph in Lomborg’s book shows that he has used Dice to predict that 4.1C of global warming by the end of the century would only reduce global economic output, or GDP, by about 4%. He also finds that even more extreme warming of 7C would lead to a loss of GDP of just 15%. These are hard to reconcile with the scientific evidence that such temperature changes would utterly transform the world.

Lomborg also exaggerates the costs of action by automatically doubling researchers’ estimates for reducing emissions. He justifies this by referring to an obscure study in 2009 that concluded it may prove twice as costly as the European commission expected for the member states to cut their collective emissions by 20% by 2020. But the European Union reached its target ahead of schedule in 2018, with the price of emissions permits over the previous decade usually at less than half of the level anticipated by the commission.

Nevertheless, Lomborg doubles Nordhaus’s estimates of the costs of global action and concludes that the “optimal” level of global warming, balancing both damages and emissions cuts, would be 3.75C by 2100.

This calculation made me laugh out loud because modern humans have no evolutionary experience of the climate that would be created by such a temperature rise. The last time the Earth was more than 2C warmer than pre-industrial times was during the Pliocene epoch, three million years ago, when the polar ice caps were much smaller and global sea level was 10 to 20 metres higher than today. Only lukewarmers would claim that modern humans are best suited to a prehistoric climate!

In short, these new books truly deserve their place on the bookshelf among other classic examples of political propaganda.

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics

False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet by Bjorn Lomborg is published by Basic Books (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

• Apocalpyse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All by Michael Shellenberger is published by HarperCollins (£22). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

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