Why Greta Thunberg is smarter than Niall Ferguson

In a Boston Globe op-ed, Niall Ferguson has plenty of scorn to heap on Greta Thunberg, the young Swede who’s become well known for talking about climate change. After an embarrassing allusion to child sacrifice to rain gods in 15th century Peru, he gets to his point:

But what does it tell us about our world that Greta Thunberg is about to add the UN General Assembly to the list of august bodies she has addressed in the past year, after the Pope, the World Economic Forum, and the European Parliament? “I want you to panic,” she said at Davos in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.” That is not the voice of science. It is the voice of a millenarian cult leader.

Unless, of course, the science of climate change is panic-worthy – and even the most optimistic versions (which are probably too optimist) are, in fact, panic-worthy. Ferguson’s view is that yes, changes to the climate the completely determines our ability to live on Earth are bad, but we shouldn’t worry too much because we will definitely figure it out. We have, after all, figured everything out before, therefore it’s not possible that we won’t this time, right?

Now, I am not about to deny that climate change is happening, or that global warming is going to have adverse effects in the foreseeable future. Not even Bjorn Lomborg, the skeptical Danish economist, says that. The point, as he argued in a recent, brilliant presentation at the Hoover Institution, is that — as in the past — we humans are capable of adapting to climate change in ways that can significantly mitigate its adverse effects.

It would be foolish to do nothing to prepare for a warmer planet. But it would be even more foolish to take, on the basis of apocalyptic visions, extreme precautions that end up costing even more than inaction would. Subsidies to renewable energy have a cost. Cutting CO2 emissions has a cost. Those costs in terms of forgone growth could exceed the costs of climate damage if we over-reach in the way that, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would. The key point, as Lomborg says, is that vastly more people die as a consequence of poverty each year than die as a consequence of global warming. A CO2 emissions target is not the optimal target if meeting it would trap millions in poverty, not to mention ignorance and ill health.

That last paragraph lets you know just now ignorant Ferguson is. Let’s take it apart.

  • You cannot separate deaths from poverty from deaths from climate change. If you are poor, you’re going to be facing new challenges like not having drinking water (already happening in Indian cities), living in a place where going outdoors is potentially lethal during a significant chunk of the year (getting there in a number of equatorial areas already), having no home because it’s underwater (a likely fate for much of Bangladesh, as well as coastal areas in India, for starters). If you are so poor you can’t get enough drinking water, because drinking has become scarce, and you die, did you die from poverty or climate change? Both.
  • He thinks the Green New Deal is overreach? Over the rest of the 21st century, climate change – even somewhat controlled – is likely to cut the total economic production of the planet by 20-30%. It will be like going into a deep depression that will make the Great Depression look like a vacation, with one key exception: it will not end. At some point economic growth will start up again, but it will be a long, slow slow over centuries. And that’s keeping global temperature rise to a couple of degrees. That’s the one of the less cataclysmic outcomes of the Ferguson approach.
  • What about technical fixes, like carbon scrubbing and sequestration? Well, the current estimate is that to deploy such a thing – if it works as expected, which is a big question – would cost several times the economic output of the entire human race. And it needs to get done quickly.

The fact is that rapid, intensive investment in retooling our energy, transportation, and food systems as fast as we possibly can, while painful in a lot of ways, is our best bet at a not-awful outcome to all of this. That’s very disruptive. It’s likely to be very painful for those of us living in the richest countries – our consumption is so far above the global averages that we have a lot of money and comfort to lose.

The global poor have their lives and homes to lose, of course.

So yes, Greta Thunberg wants you to be scared, because for the last thirty years we have not been scared enough, and as a result we’ve squandered thirty years of action that would have made a really big difference. In the thirty years since we identified climate change as a problem, we’ve put more carbon into the atmosphere than all of human history that predated it, when we could plead ignorance.

Because we listened to people like Niall Ferguson, who soothed us with the idea that we didn’t really need to worry too much, because this is just another problem that can be put in its own little box to be handled later. That works right up until the water runs out, the fields become fallow, and the hundreds of millions of climate refugees to come land on our front doorstep.

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