Analysis: Exaggeration is gas that harms campaign to cut global warming

SCARE stories have been an integral part of the global warming narrative for a long time.

SCARE stories have been an integral part of the global warming narrative for a long time.

Back in 1997, Al Gore told us that global warming was making the El Niño winds stronger and more severe. That has not happened. Greenpeace and many others have told us for years that we will see more violent hurricanes. In fact, over the past six years, global hurricane energy has dropped to its lowest level since the 1970s, while the United States has had the longest absence of severe hurricanes ever.

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It is understandable that pundits, worried about global warming and frustrated with the near-absence of political solutions, see exaggeration as a way to garner attention. The problem is that when these scare stories are shown to be wrong, people become less willing to listen to reasonable arguments about global warming. Indeed, scepticism about global warming has gone up as false alarms have become increasingly high-pitched.

Moreover, by casting every problem as mainly caused by global warming, the solution almost automatically becomes cutting CO² emissions, though this often is the slowest, costliest way to achieve the least good.

Consider the newest global-warming exaggeration: an article from Newsweek claiming that rising temperatures are heralding “the end of pasta.” All of the major grains – rice, corn, and wheat – are already suffering from global warming, the article explains, but wheat is the most vulnerable to high temperatures. Its central message is straightforward: “If humans want to keep eating pasta, we will have to take much more aggressive action against global warming.”

The argument is wrong. Yields of major crops have risen dramatically in recent decades, due to higher-yielding varieties and use of fertiliser, pesticides, and irrigation. Moreover, CO² acts as a fertiliser, and its increase has probably raised global yields more than 3 per cent over the past 30 years.

The largest study, conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, includes temperature impacts, CO² fertilisation, and adaptation, and projects a 40.7 per cent increase in grain production by 2050. Our linguine supplies are safe.

Of course, this does not mean global warming has no impact on crops. Production will move to new varieties and away from the tropics, implying even higher yields for developed countries, but slower growth in yields for developing countries. For wheat, it is even likely that parts of Africa simply will be unable to sustain production.

But cutting CO² is an ineffective way to help the world’s poor. We could do much more good if we focused on allowing poor countries to use the benefits of extra CO² fertilisation while adapting to problems caused by higher temperatures. That means investment in crop research to produce more robust and higher-yield varieties, and making irrigation, pesticides and fertiliser available.

• Bjørn Lomborg founded and directs the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, which seeks to study environmental problems and solutions.

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