It’s easy to believe that life on Earth is getting ever-worse. The media highlight one catastrophe after another and make terrifying predictions. With a torrent of doom and gloom about climate change and the environment, it’s understandable why many people — especially the young — genuinely believe the world is about to end.
The fact is that while problems remain, the world is in fact getting better. We just rarely hear it.
We are incessantly told about disasters, whether it is the latest heatwave, flood, wildfire or storm. Yet the data overwhelmingly shows that over the past century, people have become much, much safer from all these weather events. Indeed, in the 1920s, around half a million people were killed by weather disasters, whereas in the last decade the death-toll averaged around 18,000. This year, just like 2020 and 2021, is tracking below that. Why? Because when people get richer, they get more resilient.
Weather-fixated television news would make us all think that disasters are all getting worse. They’re not. Around 1900, around 4.5% of the land area of the world would burn every year. Over the last century, this declined to about 3.2%. In the last two decades, satellites show even further decline — in 2021 just 2.5% burned. This has happened mostly because richer societies prevent fires. Models show that by the end of the century, despite climate change, human adaptation will mean even less burning.
And despite what you may have heard about record-breaking costs from weather disasters (mainly because wealthier populations build more expensive houses along coastlines), damage costs are declining, not increasing, as a percent of GDP.
But it’s not only weather disasters that are getting less damaging despite dire predictions. A decade ago, environmentalists loudly declared that Australia’s magnificent Great Barrier Reef was nearly dead, killed by bleaching caused by climate change. The UK Guardian even published an obituary.
This year, scientists revealed that two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef shows the highest coral cover seen since records began in 1985. The good-news report got a fraction of the attention.
Not long ago, environmentalists constantly used pictures of polar bears to highlight the dangers of climate change. Polar bears even featured in Al Gore’s terrifying movie “An Inconvenient Truth.” But the reality is that polar bear numbers have been increasing — from somewhere between five and ten thousand polar bears in the 1960s, up to around 26,000 today. We don’t hear this news. Instead, campaigners just quietly stopped using polar bears in their activism.
There are so many bad-news stories that we seldom stop to consider that on the most important indicators, life is getting much better. Human life expectancy has doubled over the past century, from 36 years in 1920 to more than 72 years today. A hundred years ago, three-quarters of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today, it’s less than one-tenth.
The deadliest environmental problem, air pollution, was four-times more likely to kill you in 1920 than today, mostly through people in poverty cooking and heating with dung and wood.
Despite COVID-related setbacks, humanity has become better and better off. Yet doom-mongers will keep telling you the end is nigh. This is great for their fundraising, but the costs to society are sky-high: we make poor, expensive policy choices and our kids are scared witless.
We also end up ignoring much bigger problems. Consider all the attention devoted to heatwaves. In the United States and many other parts of the world, heat deaths are actually declining, because access to air conditioning helps much more than rising temperatures hurt.
However, almost everywhere, the cold quietly kills many more. In the US, about 20,000 people die from heat, but 170,000 die from cold — something we rarely focus on. Moreover, cold deaths are rising in the US, and our incessant focus on climate change is exacerbating this trend, because politicians have introduced green laws that make energy more expensive, meaning fewer people can afford to keep warm. Lacking perspective means we don’t focus first on where we can help most.
On a broader scale, global warming prompts celebrities and politicians to fly around the world in private jets lecturing the rest of us, while we spend less on problems like hunger, infectious diseases, and a lack of basic schooling. When did politicians and movie stars ever meet for an important cause like de-worming children?
We need some balance in our news, but that doesn’t mean ignoring global warming: it is a real problem, caused by humanity. We just need perspective. To know what to expect from a warming planet, we can look at the damage estimates from the economic models used by the Biden and Obama Administrations, revealing the entire, global cost of climate change — not just to economies, but in every sense — will be equivalent to less than a 4% hit to global GDP by the end of the century.
Humanity is getting more prosperous every day. In a separate report, the United Nations estimates that without global warming, the average person in 2100 would be 450% better-off than today. Global warming means people will only be 434% richer they say. That is not a disaster.
Climate change fear is causing life-changing anxiety. You might be hearing nothing but bad news, but that doesn’t mean that you’re hearing the full story.
Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”