Development Roast

Living on the Edge: The Perils of Climate Change

During the last 100 years, we have experienced four rounds of significant climate change. In 1912, when Titanic struck an iceberg and sunk, the New York Times reported that "Prof. Schmidt Warns Us of an Encroaching Ice Age." Los Angeles Times the same year: "Fifth ice age is on the way. Human race will have to fight for its existence against cold."

Global temperatures were indeed unusually cold during the first decades of the previous century (see Figure 1 below), and ice age warnings regularly popped up in the media: Los Angeles Times, 1923: "The possibility of another Ice Age already having started… is admitted by men of first rank in the scientific world, men specially qualified to speak." Chicago Tribune, 1923: "Scientist says Arctic ice will wipe out Canada."

Figure 1: Instrumental Temperature Record
Source: 1

 But then temperatures started increasing for a while, and the media started warning about warming instead. Los Angeles Times, 1929: "Most geologists think the world is growing warmer, and that it will continue to get warmer." New York Times, 1933 "America in Longest Warm Spell since 1776. Temperature line records a 25-year rise." In 1938, British amateur meteorologist G. S. Callendar made the now familiar claim, in the Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, that man was responsible for heating up the planet with carbon dioxide emissions.

Before the media grew frantic, however, temperatures started falling again. Although average temperatures fell by less than half a degree Celsius, both scientists and media found sufficient reason for doomsday warnings. New York times, 1974: "the facts of the present climate change are such that the most optimistic experts would assign near certainty to major crop failure in a decade," If policy makers did not take immediate action "mass deaths by starvation and probably in anarchy and violence" would result. Newsweek, 1975: ""There are ominous signs that the earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production -- with serious political implications for just about every nation on earth." Nigel Calder, 1975: "The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind." Lowell Ponte, 1976: "The cooling has already killed hundreds of thousands of people in poor nations." If proper measures weren't taken, then the cooling would lead to "world famine, world chaos, and probably world war, and this could all come by the year 2000."

But by that time temperatures had already started increasing again, and during the last couple of decades global warming has replaced the media's ice age claims. The results have pretty much stayed the same, however – the deaths of millions or even billions of people, widespread devastation and starvation. People apparently believe that we are living on a knife edge, where everything is just right (or was just right about 30 years ago), and that any change is likely to lead to disaster.

Many of the current claims about the effects of climate change could make even Malthus turn in his grave: "Billions will die…Human civilisation will be reduced to a broken rabble ruled by brutal warlords, and the plague-ridden remainder of the species will flee the cracked and broken earth to the Arctic, the last temperate spot, where a few breeding couples will survive" (James Lovelock in the Daily Telegraph, 2006). "Our ability to live is what is at stake" (Trailer to the 2006 Al Gore movie "An Inconvenient Truth").

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change states that if global temperatures increase by more than 5 degrees Celsius "effects could be catastrophic, but are currently very hard to capture with current models as temperatures would be so far outside human experience." True, global average temperatures have not been five degrees warmer than now at any time in human history. Last time it was 5 degrees warmer was during the Eocene Climate Optimum about 50 million years ago. Still, most people experience warming of more than 5 degrees every morning between 7 and 9, and somebody who moved from Boston to Florida would experience a whooping 14.5 degree increase in average temperatures. The poor students at University of Chicago suffer average temperature increases of almost 30 degrees Celsius between January and July every year.

I suspect that people are probably a whole lot better at dealing with climate change than they are currently getting credit for.

Can people survive climate change? Leave your reply below.

Lykke Andersen is the Director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Modeling and Analysis (CEEMA) at INESAD.

(1) The main source for this article: R. Warren Anderson (2006) "Fire and Ice 2", Business and Media Institute. The summary of the climate change debate by Michael Goodfellow: "Global Warming: Our Story So Far 3" is also very useful.

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  2. 6/fireandice/fireandice.asp
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