But are we not told to expect more volatile weather as a result of climate change? It is certainly assumed that we should. Yet there’s no evidence to suggest weather volatility is increasing and no good theory to suggest it will. The decreasing temperature differential between the tropics and the Arctic may actually diminish the volatility of weather a little.
Indeed, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) repeatedly confirms, there is no clear pattern of storms growing in either frequency or ferocity, droughts are decreasing slightly and floods are getting worse only where land-use changes (like deforestation or building houses on flood plains) create a problem. Globally, deaths from droughts, floods and storms are down by about 98 per cent over the past 100 years – not because weather is less dangerous but because shelter, transport and communication (which are mostly the products of the fossil-fuel economy) have dramatically improved people’s ability to survive such natural disasters.
The geological record shows greater climatic volatility in cold periods of the Earth’s history than in hot periods. At the peak of recent ice ages, the temperature fluctuated dramatically between years and decades, while decade-long mega-droughts ravaged Africa, drying up Lake Victoria at least twice. Those mega droughts happened 17,000 years ago and 15,000 years ago respectively, when the world was much colder than today and cooler oceans meant failed monsoons. One theory about the invention of farming argues that it was impossible until the climate settled down in the post-glacial warmth of around 10,000 years ago: ‘Recent data from ice- and ocean-core climate proxies show that the last glacial climates were extremely hostile to agriculture – dry, low in atmospheric CO2, and extremely variable on quite short time scales.’ It then became calmer as it became significantly warmer than today between 9,000 and 6,000 years ago, when human civilisation emerged.
The effect of today’s warming (and greening) on farming is, on average, positive: crops can be grown farther north and for longer seasons and rainfall is slightly heavier in dry regions. We are feeding over seven billion people today much more easily than we fed three billion in the 1960s, and from a similar acreage of farmland. Global cereal production is on course to break its record this year, for the sixth time in 10 years.
Nature, too, will do generally better in a warming world. There are more species in warmer climates, so more new birds and insects are arriving to breed in southern England than are disappearing from northern Scotland. Warmer means wetter, too: 9,000 years ago, when the climate was warmer than today, the Sahara was green. Alarmists like to imply that concern about climate change goes hand in hand with concern about nature generally. But this is belied by the evidence. Climate policies often harm wildlife: biofuels compete for land with agriculture, eroding the benefits of improved agricultural productivity and increasing pressure on wild land; wind farms kill birds and bats; and the reckless planting of alien sitka spruce trees turns diverse moorland into dark monoculture.
Meanwhile, real environmental issues are ignored or neglected because of the obsession with climate. With the help of local volunteers I have been fighting to protect the red squirrel in Northumberland for years. The government does literally nothing to help us, while it pours money into grants for studying the most far-fetched and minuscule possible climate-change impacts. Invasive alien species are the main cause of species extinction worldwide (like grey squirrels driving the red to the margins), whereas climate change has yet to be shown to have caused a single species to die out altogether anywhere.
Of course, climate change does and will bring problems as well as benefits. Rapid sea-level rise could be catastrophic. But whereas the sea level shot up between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago, rising by about 60 metres in two millennia, or roughly three metres per century, today the change is nine times slower: three millimetres a year, or a foot per century, and with not much sign of acceleration. Countries like the Netherlands and Vietnam show that it is possible to gain land from the sea even in a world where sea levels are rising. The land area of the planet is actually increasing, not shrinking, thanks to siltation and reclamation.
In January 2020, the UK’s chief scientific adviser organised for some slides to be shown to Boris Johnson to convert him to climate alarmism. Thanks to a freedom of information request, we now know that these slides showed the likely acceleration in sea-level rise under a scenario known as RCP 8.5. This is shocking because RCP 8.5 has long been discredited as a highly implausible future. It was created by piling unrealistic assumptions on to each other in models: coal use increasing tenfold by 2100, population growth accelerating to 12 billion people, innovation drying up and an implausibly high sensitivity of temperature to carbon dioxide. No serious scientist thinks RCP 8.5 represents a likely outcome from ‘business as usual’. Yet those who want to grab media attention by making alarming predictions use it all the time.
Environmentalists don’t get donations or invitations to appear on the telly if they say moderate things. To stand up and pronounce that ‘climate change is real and needs to be tackled, but it’s not happening very fast and other environmental issues are more urgent’ would be about as popular as an MP in Oliver Cromwell’s parliament declaring, ‘The evidence for God is looking a bit weak, and I’m not so very sure that fornication really is a sin’. And I speak as someone who has made several speeches on climate in parliament.
No wonder we don’t hear about the good news on climate change.
Matt Ridley is co-author of Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, with Alina Chan.