A Slightly Hotter World Could Still Be a Better One

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Written By Pinang Driod

One of the only things we can say for certain about the future is that it will be hotter. Humanity is nowhere close to eliminating carbon emissions, meaning that even if every government on the planet went all in on tackling climate change tomorrow, temperatures would keep rising for many years.

This is often taken to mean that the future will necessarily be worse for humanity than the present. Leading publications refer casually to the “climate apocalypse.” People earnestly debate the morality of bringing children into the world. A letter from a young reader to the New York Times ethics column captured the sentiment well: “Is it selfish to have children knowing full well that they will have to deal with a lower quality of life thanks to the climate crisis and its many cascading effects, like increased natural disasters, food shortages, greater societal inequity and unrest?”

This attitude—that a world with 1.7 degrees Celsius of warming will be worse than one with 1.6 degrees, which will be worse than one with 1.5 degrees, and so on—is understandable. But it is mistaken. A lower quality of life for our children is far from certain, because global warming is not the only driver of change. Humanity would be far better off without climate change than with it, of course, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to a miserable future. Even in a warming world, we still have the power to make things better.

The world has warmed by almost 1.3 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, with most of that coming in the past 50 years. During the same period, life for most people has improved. Warming may have slowed down progress, but did not stop it. Child mortality rates have plummeted. Mothers are at a much lower risk of dying in childbirth. People live longer. They’re generally better fed. More have access to clean water, sanitation, electricity, and clean fuels for cooking. Most kids now get the opportunity to go to school. This progress has been very unequal. Child mortality rates in some of the worst-off places are 20 times higher than in rich countries. But prospects for children have typically improved across the board: Even in low-income countries, the rates have fallen by two-thirds since 1990.

This progress has happened not because of climate change, but in spite of it. Humanity’s ability to prepare for, adapt to, and mitigate risk has outpaced climbing temperatures. Crop yields across the world would be higher without climate change, yet they still have increased dramatically. Famines used to be common, but are much rarer as a result of political change, decolonization, and massive gains in agricultural productivity. Deaths from disasters are much lower than they were in the past—not because climate change isn’t making these events worse, but because we’ve become even more resilient to them. Conditions for malaria have worsened in some regions, yet deaths have fallen because of increased access to bed nets, antimalarial drugs, and other measures. In a world without climate change, these would have improved even more. But they have still improved.

The question is whether this progress will continue. Some dismiss the idea that any future could be better in a warmer world; it’s all downhill toward inevitable collapse. (In one recent global survey, a majority of young people said that they agreed with the statement “Humanity is doomed.”) Others argue that what’s inevitable is continued human progress—just look at how much has been achieved in the past century.

Both views are too simplistic. Those who extrapolate past progress to future success are making big assumptions. Because we’ve experienced 1.3 degrees Celsius of warming already, you might imagine that an extra 0.7 degrees of warming won’t be so bad. The problem is that the impacts of climate change are not always linear: The effects at 2 degrees are more than double those at 1 degree, and they increase the chance of reaching irreversible tipping points. But the other extreme school of thought, that every fraction of warming will make life worse, is also misguided. It will make the effects of climate change more severe—which is why we should fight against each increment—but the ultimate effect on human life depends on how we respond. Human progress can continue in a slightly warmer world.

To be clear, none of this is to say we should just accept warming. We might be able to keep pace with 1.7, 1.8, or 1.9 degrees of warming, but not with 3 degrees. We desperately need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and keep temperatures as low as we can. Our current trajectory looks bleak, but it’s improving. We’re on a better path than we were a decade ago, and the cost of low-carbon energy is still falling.

We also need to protect ourselves from the harm that we know will come. We are in a race with a warming climate, and as the consequences accelerate we need to run faster than we have before. Heat stress could reduce crop yields in some regions by 30 percent, for example, driving an increase in global hunger. But we can take steps to counter that, such as developing drought- and temperature-sensitive crops, improving access to irrigation, and protecting against pests. Yields in many regions of the world have doubled, tripled, or more over the past 50 years, and big yield gaps could still be filled with the right tools.

Or take disasters, such as flooding, droughts, and coastal storms, which could become more severe. In a world that gets warmer without making other changes, we would expect deaths to rise. But if we can improve early-warning systems, build protective infrastructure, improve recovery responses, and lift people out of poverty, we have a shot at lowering the human toll even as disasters get worse. Similarly, higher temperatures could increase the spread of malaria. But if we can accelerate our prevention and treatment measures, deaths could keep falling. Better yet: Two vaccines now exist to fight malaria, which could save tens of thousands of children every year if the obstacles to distribution are overcome. These innovations could outweigh the increased burden of a warmer world.

This will not be easy. We will need investment and coordination. But that’s precisely why messages that “we’re all doomed” are unhelpful. The effects of climate change will not be equally distributed, and to imply otherwise is to divert attention from where it’s needed the most. A world in which the average person is better off but hundreds of millions of the poorest get left behind is unacceptable. Climate change could create even bigger inequalities, as the rich buy their way out of harm.

As an environmental scientist, I would never deny that climate change will have severe, possibly devastating impacts. Nor that we can simply adapt our way out of any level of warming. The world urgently needs steep emissions cuts to avert worst-case scenarios. What I am saying is that a world at 1.8 degrees of warming could still be better than our 1.3-degrees-warmer world today. Whether we build that better future is still up to us.

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