Policy by Panic

August 20, 2012

Global warming has been a hot topic for policymakers the past few decades. Debates range from whether warming is real to whether the effects are exaggerated. Natural incidences such as droughts, hurricanes and wildfires, are all opportunities for environmental advocates to lay the blame on global warming, says Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School.

For example, a recent piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times about how the "rising incidence of extreme events" and "large-scale damage from climate change is ... happening now" shows how people try to make extreme claims to garner attention about an issue like global warming. Krugman states that the drought in America is brought on by global warming, which in turn causes high corn prices, leading to a global food crisis.

Not only is this chain of events improbable, the facts paint an entirely different picture.

  • First, the United Nations climate panel's assessment says that in North America there is a trend toward less dryness and more soil moisture.
  • Furthermore, the rising prices in corn and soybean are unlikely to result in a global food crisis, according The Economist.
  • Krugman's argument also forgets that warming is the primary impetus for 40 percent of corn in the United States being converted to ethanol, which causes more of a shortage.
  • As for wildfires, the latest overview of global wildfire incidence suggests that fire intensity has declined in the past 70 years, getting closer to preindustrial levels primarily because humans have suppressed fire and decreased vegetation density.
  • Finally, hurricane incidence has dropped off considerably.
  • Global accumulated cyclone energy is at its lowest level since 1970, despite the cries of those that claimed Hurricane Katrina was a shape of things to come as a result of global warming.

It is necessary to set aside the practice of "policy by panic" and instead look to the real causes and effects of natural incidences. Simply blaming disasters on warming will generate distrust from the public and cause them to lose interest in a matter that is very serious to human beings around the planet.

Source: Bjørn Lomborg, "Like Water for Climate," Project Syndicate, August 14, 2012.

 

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