Not long ago, I was accused of being a mass murderer. The j’accuse came, as most do these days, via tweet. My accuser? A science fiction writer whose subgenre is thrillers in which scientists save humanity from apocalyptic climate change.
My supposed contribution to the coming human die-off was a commentary published in The Economist, in which I challenged the view of a not-insubstantial segment of the climate movement that societal collapse is virtually assured absent immediate and radical action. To disagree, for some activists, constitutes “predatory delay,” a term coined in 2016 by the green futurist Alex Steffen that basically encompasses any disagreement with activist claims and demands.
The notion that questioning apocalyptic claims about climate change makes one complicit in crimes against humanity (at the very least) is not a fringe concept. Consider a 2021 statement authored by two dozen leading scholars of genocide who fret that the study of genocide “has to date only rarely included in its roll call those most responsible for the ongoing structural as well as ecocidal violence visited upon [marginalized] communities.” Violence, they assert, that “will lead to the displacement and death of hundreds of millions, if not billions of human beings.” Or Genevieve Guenther, a former Renaissance literature scholar turned climate activist, who has parlayed highly selective readings of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and tendentious arguments about “discursive norms” into fawning coverage in outlets like the New Yorker and New York Times and a new gig as a climate communications expert. Three degrees of global warming will destabilize the “conditions of our current civilizations,” Guenther insists with utter certainty, “potentially killing billions.” Anyone “fighting not to change our energy system,” she argues, is “willing to commit genocide for money.”*
These statements are not outliers. Rather, they explicitly express what is implied in most mainstream discussions of climate change. Not so long ago, the case for climate action was rooted in uncertainty—the acknowledgment that the exact effects and severity of climate change were unknown, as was the capacity of human societies to adapt to it. Today, any suggestion that the risks and consequences of continuing climate change might be uncertain, and hence subject to multiple legitimate views about how to balance climate mitigation with other societal priorities, is considered beyond the pale.
If the key to saving humanity from catastrophic climate change were merely shifting discursive norms, the battle would seem to be won. At the opening of the Glasgow COP26 meeting, British prime minister Boris Johnson described climate change as “a doomsday device.” A failure to act would, according to US president Joe Biden, “condemn future generations to suffering.” United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres opined, “We are digging our own graves.” Science, all insist, unequivocally tells us this.
Except that it plainly doesn’t.
Climate Fortune Tellers
Like all efforts to predict the future, the effort to anticipate what’s to come for the global climate and its impacts on human societies is, unavoidably, shot through with uncertainty. How much will the planet warm if atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases double? Somewhere between two and four degrees, a range that four decades of research has managed only to modestly narrow. How high will emissions and atmospheric concentrations rise without concerted government action? Until recently, most experts assumed around 1200 ppm by the end of the century. Today, with revised estimates of plausible emissions growth rates, the consensus is closer to 600 ppm.
And even if we could get good answers about the precise climatic effects of a warming planet, we’d then have to consider how adaptable human societies will be to those changes. There are multiple credible views on this question. Rising temperatures might make present levels of agricultural productivity unsustainable. Or areas under cultivation, crop mixes, and technologies might shift. Billions could become refugees as cities are inundated by rising seas. Or human settlement zones and infrastructure might evolve, as they have over centuries, to changing social, economic, and environmental conditions.
These latter possibilities, and so many others, depend not simply upon climatology and atmospheric science but on economics, technology, and, most of all, institutions. A world that is wealthy, technologically capable, and equitable will be far better able to manage the consequences of climate change than one that is poor, low tech, and inequitable, even if the latter world isn’t as hot.
Parsing the question of how to balance economic growth, resilience, and climate change mitigation is, of course, further complicated by a long-running debate about whether and at what levels climate change might slow economic growth. With or without a warming planet, there is no guarantee that global economic growth will continue to tick along at 2 or 3 percent a year through the rest of the century, as many mainstream climate economic models assume. But neither is economic collapse assured at three or four or even five degrees of warming. The debate folds back onto itself as multiple layers of uncertainty—about warming, development, mitigation, and adaptation—intersect. Neither economists’ claims that they can calculate economically optimal levels of warming nor activists’ claims that catastrophe is virtually assured absent immediate action should be taken with more than a grain of salt. All ultimately project the world as it is today into a hotter future.
This is the same mistake that both mid-20th-century planners and their environmental critics made again and again. The former assumed that continuous exponential population growth and resource consumption would be met by massive expansion of nuclear energy and agricultural production. The latter predicted that population and consumption growth would overwhelm food production and that resource depletion would lead to industrial collapse. Neither camp seems to have learned much in the intervening years from their failures.
The Race Is On
The scope of possible consequences of climate change on human societies can be understood as a race between two robust and dynamic trends. On the one hand, rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will bring increasing global temperatures and a variety of attendant impacts at local and regional scales. On the other, greater societal wealth, better technology, and improved infrastructure have already increased societal resilience against climate extremes and variability.
Since the early decades of the twentieth century, when greenhouse gas emissions began rising rapidly and large global populations began to experience the benefits of industrialization, urbanization, and much higher levels of energy consumption, resilience has won that race time and again, even as the planet has warmed by over a degree. Average annual deaths globally due to climate-related disasters have fallen tenfold over the last century. (On a per capita basis, that works out to a 25-fold decline.) And even that statistic probably significantly understates the magnitude of the decrease. There is, after all, a strong reporting bias toward the present, since most parts of the world didn’t reliably track disasters and their consequences until relatively recently.
Even modest increases in per capita wealth have brought substantially greater adaptive capacities. In 1970, Cyclone Bhola, one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, killed somewhere between a half-million and a million people in Bangladesh, at a time when over 80 percent of its population lived in extreme poverty. Bangladesh is still a relatively poor nation and continues to experience severe cyclones. But less than 10 percent of its population today lives in extreme poverty, and no cyclone or flood has killed even 100 people over the last 20 years. Bangladesh is not alone. Recent research suggests that, in recent decades, vulnerability to climate-related disasters has fallen fastest in poor countries, even as populations in those countries are moving in enormous numbers towards the hazard (that is, into coastal zones and floodplains) and as some climate hazards have intensified.
Past returns, of course, are no guarantee of future performance. The case for catastrophism is that further gains in resilience will be overwhelmed by intensifying climate extremes.
But it is worth considering what would be necessary to return the world to the levels of climate-related mortality and societal disruption experienced in the first half of the 20th century. What combination of climatological and social factors, in other words, would be necessary to produce body counts comparable to those experienced in the not-so-distant past by societies that were significantly poorer and lacked everything from satellite imagery, forecasting and disaster response plans, and modern communications technology to antibiotics, modern agricultural systems, refrigeration, and air-conditioning?
Simply put, such a catastrophe would require a reversal of economic fortunes and a failure of institutions that, while not by any means unprecedented, would also likely not be centrally a story about climate change. Bhola struck Bangladesh prior to its independence from Pakistan, a period defined by Pakistan’s failure to fully enfranchise and attend to the social and economic needs of Bangladesh’s citizenry. In the decades since, the worst natural disasters around the world, in terms of loss of life and human suffering, have reliably occurred at the intersection of poverty and failing states. Even without global warming, those factors combined with natural climate variability are a deadly mix. Even with a fair amount of additional climate change, functioning middle-income countries are likely to be reasonably resilient to climate extremes.
Fiction as Fact
The paradox at the heart of the climate issue is that a world incapable of adapting to a significantly hotter climate is one that is probably also incapable of deeply decarbonizing. A world capable of deeply decarbonizing, by contrast, is one that is probably also quite resilient to significant additional warming.
I am of the view that we increasingly live in the latter world. Development, uneven and inconsistent as it has been, continues to increase our ability to manage climate extremes. Meanwhile, the relationship between carbon emissions and consumption continues to attenuate.
These two dynamics are deeply linked. Demand for carbon-intensive goods and services plateaus as more of the global population achieves modern living standards. Late-developing nations get access to more efficient and lower-carbon technologies. Higher levels of energy consumption and modern energy services make global populations more resilient to a changing climate.
Ignoring the fundamental and robust relationships between these processes, the climate commentariat instead routinely insists both that deeply decarbonizing the global economy is simply a matter of political will—not constrained by technological or economic capabilities nor subject to legitimate trade-offs—and that failing to make the “right” political choice will result in certain catastrophe.
To sustain that contradiction, the climate movement is forced to actively misrepresent a range of phenomena as centrally driven by climate change that demonstrably are not. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, conflates refugees and climate refugees, even those fleeing civil wars that have dragged on for decades. Media coverage of climate-related disasters now reliably features claims from the new field of climate attribution, a subdiscipline invented virtually overnight to make stronger claims about the role of climate change in individual natural disasters. At the same time, that coverage entirely ignores robust and long-term trends showing that the human costs of disasters have fallen dramatically, the economic costs are flat, and both the frequency and intensity of most disasters have, at best, modestly increased.
The same outlets frequently hype dire studies suggesting terrifying future climate impacts even as most reporters and editors who cover the issue are now well aware that the emissions and warming scenarios upon which they are based are improbable at best.
Little wonder then, that the climate movement increasingly promotes science fiction, even as it demands that we all “believe in science.” The blockbuster Hollywood movie Don’t Look Up, in which scientists heroically struggle to save the world from an asteroid strike while political leaders dissemble, bills itself as a parable about climate change. Kim Stanley Robinson’s best-selling 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future,
which opens with an extreme heatwave in 2025 that kills 20 million people in India, has been received by reviewers and pundits as prophecy. Environmentalist Bill McKibben called it “realist to its core.”
The End of Catastrophe
The astrobiologist David Grinspoon has written that “climate disruptions could make the 21st century as bad as the 20th century.” It is the sort of statement that, at first blush, seems dismissive. Until, that is, one remembers just how bad the 20th century was. Hundreds of millions perished in wars, famines, plagues, and pogroms. An exchange of nuclear weapons might actually have resulted in human extinction—a threat that, one could forget amidst the drumbeat of apocalyptic warnings about climate change, has not much receded. To truly come to terms with this history is to recognize, against the mindlessly repeated claim that climate change represents the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, that catastrophe comes in many guises. Any large-scale climate-driven catastrophe capable, say, of killing 20 million Indians over the course of a week or two, will almost certainly be the result not of a simple failure to cut emissions but a complex failure of underlying development and adaptive processes.
Robinson, in his book, repeats the long-standing green trope that it is easier for most to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But the real failure of imagination implicit in most contemporary claims about the climate is that it is apparently far easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of poverty. Robinson must situate his great Indian die-off in the very near future because it is only plausible as long as so many are so desperately poor, lacking in infrastructure, and living in nations unable to mount an adequate societal response.
To observe this is not to suggest that poverty will end or that progress is inevitable. War, disease, inequality, economic stagnation, and societal breakdown have plagued human societies for as long as there have been human societies. Future climate extremes will almost certainly result in death, disruption, and displacement for many people—as climate extremes have for millennia. But to suggest that future climate extremes threaten catastrophe raises an unasked question: compared to what?
And while climate change, absent some other more proximate and central driver, is unlikely to produce the scale of death, suffering, and dislocation that natural climate variability routinely produced throughout much of the 20th century, much less earlier periods of human history, the early decades of the 20th century should not be our objective. The world is far wealthier and far more technologically advanced today. It will, hopefully, be even more so in the future. We can and should do better.
Indeed, the massive decline in climate-related mortality should give us confidence that we can reduce it further still. A billion people globally continue to live in deep agrarian poverty. Several billion more are still striving to achieve modern living standards. Simply raising living standards around the world should significantly reduce climate vulnerability. Improving forecasting, communications, building and infrastructure standards, and much else should allow societies, rich and poor, to mitigate the impacts of a changing climate even further, even as some significant amount of future warming is virtually assured.
Similarly, plateauing emissions globally—and falling emissions across most developed economies—should inspire confidence that we can limit future warming, if not to the arbitrary and implausible levels that many climate campaigners demand. Most projections now assume that the world is on track for somewhere around three degrees of warming by the end of the century. A wildly successful effort to cut emissions and control warming over the next three or four decades might limit warming to much closer to two degrees. There is a world of difference between two and three degrees, and while not likely to be the difference between catastrophe and safety, much less survival or extinction, it will profoundly shape the sort of world that future generations inherit.
One need not accept the apocalyptic claims of the climate movement to work toward a future in which people are able to live, work, and recreate outdoors comfortably across far more of the planet for far more of the year. Or one in which shifts in settlement patterns are undertaken if not entirely by choice, at least not precipitously and in the midst of crisis. Or one in which we are able to sustain far more of the biodiversity and unique ecosystems that we have coevolved with over hundreds of thousands of years.
These are all laudable, indeed noble, goals. But they are better pursued, in my view, without apocalyptic and polarizing rhetoric—and certainly without threatening all who demur with a seat on the wrong side of the bench at The Hague. Indeed, those who fantasize about a Nuremberg trials-type accounting for crimes against humanity in, say, 2070, after climate-fueled disasters have killed tens or hundreds of millions, might consider that sitting alongside the CEOs of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies could be Greta Thunberg and the aging Gen Z heads of global green groups, called to account for a multidecadal conspiracy to misinform the public about the costs and risks associated with nuclear energy or for campaigning to deny access to fossil fuels for poor countries that desperately needed them not only to raise living standards but to become more resilient to climate extremes.
My point is not that environmentalists might themselves be committing crimes against humanity. I am doubtful that future generations will view the climate issue through that particular lens. It is rather that, insofar as the future of the global climate and its impacts on human societies is difficult to predict, the question of how future generations will view the worlds that they inhabit—much less how they will apportion responsibility retrospectively—is simply impossible to answer.
What I am more certain of is what apocalyptic framings of the issue are in service of, which is an effort to impose a totalizing political project upon democratic societies that have thus far rejected environmentalist demands to rein in consumption, abolish fossil fuels, and limit economic activity to that which can be supported solely with green-approved technologies and energy sources. It is not coincidental that the characters in The Ministry for the Future, as many have noted, are two-dimensional. Climate change, as activists would frame it, flattens the world and subsumes all other concerns, obliterating any broader context through which human development, ecological concerns, and the future might be viewed.
To resist that claim, to recognize that what is at stake is something short of human extinction, societal collapse, or billions of unnecessary deaths, is to acknowledge that there are legitimate competing human values and trade-offs that must be navigated. What we face is not a stark choice between catastrophe and survival, as so many in the climate movement suggest, but rather a constantly proliferating series of choices between marginally better and worse futures—futures that will be shaped by a kaleidoscope of forces, most of them having not so much to do with climate change.
*This piece has been updated to correct an error in the quote from Dr. Genevieve Guenther