Who’s afraid of climate change?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Warnings about the effects of climate change often amount to mere scaremongering, writes author Bjørn Lomborg, head of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School.

The following contribution is authored by Bjørn Lomborg, author of 'The Sceptical Environmentalist' and 'Cool It', head of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School.

"Imagine that over the next 70 or 80 years, a giant port city – say, Tokyo – found itself engulfed by sea levels rising as much as 15 feet or more. Millions of inhabitants would be imperiled, along with trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

This awful prospect is exactly the sort of thing global-warming evangelists like Al Gore have in mind when they warn that we must take 'large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilisation as we know it'.

The rhetoric may sound extreme, but with so much hanging in the balance, surely it's justified. Without a vast, highly coordinated global effort, how could we possibly cope with sea-level rises on that order of magnitude?

Well, we already have. In fact, we're doing it right now. Since 1930, excessive groundwater withdrawal has caused Tokyo to subside by as much as 15 feet, with some of the lowest parts of the downtown area dropping almost a foot per year in some years. Similar subsidence has occurred over the past century in a wide range of cities, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Osaka, Bangkok and Jakarta. In each case, the city has managed to protect itself from such large sea-level rises and thrive.

The point isn't that we can or should ignore global warming. The point is that we should be wary of hyperbolic predictions. More often than not, what sound like horrific changes in climate and geography actually turn out to be manageable – and in some cases even benign.

Consider, for example, the findings of climate scientists Robert J. Nicholls, Richard S.J. Tol and Athanasios T. Vafeidis. In research funded by the European Union, they studied what the global economic impact would be if global warming were to result in a collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

An event of this magnitude would likely cause the oceans to rise by perhaps 20 feet over the next hundred years – precisely the sort of thing that environmental activists have in mind when they warn about potential end-of-the-world calamities. But would it really be all that calamitous?

Not according to Nicholls, Tol, and Vafeidis. Here are the facts. A 20-foot rise in sea levels (which, not incidentally, is about ten times more than the United Nations climate panel's worst-case expectations) would inundate about 16,000 square miles of coastline, where more than 400 million people currently live.

That's a lot of people, to be sure, but hardly all of mankind. In fact, it amounts to less than 6% of the world's population – which is to say that 94% of the population would not be inundated. And most of those who do live in the flood areas would never even get their feet wet."

To read the op-ed in full, please click here.

Published in partnership with Project Syndicate.

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