1.5C Is Not a Tipping Point

A report released on Tuesday by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) made waves at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow. CAT finds that with governments’ “2030 pledges alone—without longer term targets—global temperature increase will be at 2.4°C in 2100.” Moreover, “projected warming from current policies (not proposals)—what countries are actually doing—is even higher, at 2.7°C.”

In short, governments are failing to achieve the Paris Agreement’s overarching goal—to hold warming below 2°C and pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. But don’t assume that is bad news for the climate summiteers. The report stokes their alleged moral imperative to wipe out coal-based power, fracking, and the internal combustion engine, expand government regulation and spending, and raise taxes.   

Writing in the Guardian, Fiona Harvey warned that in a 2.4°C warming scenario, “widespread extreme weather—sea-level rises, drought, floods, heatwaves and fiercer storms—would cause devastation across the globe.” Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace, went further, comparing climate change to an extinction-level event:

This new calculation is like a telescope trained on an asteroid heading for Earth. It’s a devastating report. We have until the weekend to turn this thing around.

Here I offer a cheerier perspective, based on three big-picture points.

First, 1.5°C is not a tipping point beyond which we court our doom.    

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C seems to have fostered the opinion that any warming beyond 1.5°C is catastrophic—at least among people who have not read it. The report nowhere uses the terms “climate crisis,” “climate emergency,” or “existential threat.”

Far from treating 1.5°C as a global calamity, the IPCC estimates that in a “no-policy baseline scenario, temperature rises by 3.66°C by 2100, resulting in a global gross domestic product (GDP) loss of 2.6 percent” (IPCC, Special Report, Chapter 3, p. 256). A 2.6 percent drop in global GDP is undesirable, but hardly qualifies as an existential peril.

That is especially the case considering how much wealthier people in 2100 are likely to be. In the IPCC’s five socioeconomic development scenarios, global GDP in the 21st century is projected to grow to between 600 and 1,800 percent of its current size. A global economy 600 percent larger than the current economy minus 2.6 percent would still make for a more prosperous world than we live in today.

Second, achieving NetZero by 2050 would impose economy-crushing burdens—a cure worse than the disease.

A carbon tax is generally viewed by economists as the most efficient (lowest-cost) form of coercive decarbonization. An August 2021 study in Nature Climate Change estimates that a carbon tax would have to be set above $1,500 per ton to almost achieve NetZero (95 percent decarbonization) by 2050. For perspective, that is about 18 times higher than the Biden administration’s central estimate of the “social cost of carbon” in 2050 (Table ES-1).

When the tax maxes out in 2050, the cost to the economy amounts to 11.9 percent of GDP. Statistician Bjorn Lomborg put that number in perspective in an October 2021 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Total expenditure on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid came to 11.6 percent of GDP in 2019. The annual cost of trying to hit Mr. Biden’s target will rise to $4.4 trillion by 2050. That’s more than everything the federal government is projected to take in this year in tax revenue. It breaks down to $11,300 per person per year, or almost 500 times more than what a majority of Americans is willing to pay.

Third, people are much safer from climate-related hazards today than ever before. 

If climate change were an existential threat, we would also expect to see long-term increases in deaths due to extreme weather and weather-related losses as a percentage of GDP. Instead, we find the reverse.

Absolute numbers of weather-related damages have increased in recent decades. However, that is due to population growth, ongoing economic development in coastal areas and flood plains, and rising property values. A May 2019 peer-reviewed study by European scholars Giuseppe Formetta and Luc Feyen analyzed changes in weather-related fatalities as a percentage of exposed population and weather-related damages as a percentage of exposed wealth. They report that climate-related hazards show a “clear decreasing trend in both human and economic vulnerability, with global average mortality and economic loss rates that have dropped by 6.5 and nearly 5 times, respectively, from 1980–1989 to 2007–2016.”

Since the 1920s, global CO2 concentrations increased from about 305 parts per million (ppm) to more than 410 ppm, and average global temperatures increased by about 1°C. Yet, globally, the number of people dying from storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, and extreme temperatures decreased from about 472,000 per year in the 1920s to a projected 6,600 in 2021. “That’s almost 99 percent less than the death toll a century ago,” Lomborg pointed out earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal. Weather-related mortality rates have dropped even more dramatically, as the global population has quadrupled over the past 100 years.

Anthropogenic warming is real but the “climate emergency” is not. Exploitation of climate fear to impose central planning, redistribute wealth, and suppress dissent is by far the greater peril to prosperity, the rule of law, and personal liberty.

Opinion