“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words…People are suffering. People are dying.”
Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech at the UN’s Climate Action Summit was a remarkable act of courage. Scolding world leaders on an international stage would be a tall task for a seasoned politician, let alone a 16-year-old student-activist.
However, emotion must not be confused with scientific credibility, and in this case, the “science” behind Thunberg’s pleas for help is (mostly) wrong, and her message dangerously misguided.
First, the science: Despite the tearful claims of stolen childhoods, suffering and death, Greta’s generation has grown up in the most prosperous time in human history. Global hunger is at an all-time low. Fewer live in poverty than ever before. Life expectancy is up. Disease is generally down.
And all of this has occurred in the face of rising global temperatures, because this is what Greta gets right: Global warming is real, and human activity is likely to blame.
In fact, the planet has warmed by about 1.0°C over the past century, and temperatures continue to rise in concert with increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. Impacts from this warming are already being felt in the form of rising sea levels (about 3.1 mm per year), more common heat waves, more intense (but not necessarily more frequent) storms, and beyond.
Yet despite this, humans have thrived due to a multitude of advancements. In the United States, for example, increased use of air conditioning has reduced heat-related mortality despite higher temperatures. Globally, malaria, which was once forecast to become more widespread in a changing climate, has been on the steady decline as a result of highly successful control efforts.
In other words, fewer people are dying and suffering than ever before.
Greta describes a bleak future on the brink of ecological collapse, and although she highlights a plethora of important environmental problems, much of what she describes is only loosely tied to climate change and not entirely supported by science. While she is correct that extinctions are occurring at an alarming rate and some ecosystems are struggling, these are primarily a result of local land-use modification in developing nations rather than a result of global climatic change. Likewise, she suggests that warming will be worse than predicted due to “tipping points, most feedback loops, and additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution.” but this is only half-true.
Most scientists believe warming will progress in a rather linear fashion with progressively worsening effects, and the idea that Earth as we know it will be very different if we don’t act in eight years or ten years is arbitrary. Fortunately, Earth has relatively few “tipping points” and positive “feedback loops,” although there are some notable exceptions. As for “toxic air pollution,” this has likely slowed global warming by blocking the sun, and in an ironic twist, Greta is concerned global warming will progress more rapidly once highly-polluted countries clean up their act. Taken as a whole, environmental degradation is a significant problem, especially in poorer countries, yet there is little evidence of an imminent and sudden climatological shift or ecological collapse.
Regarding Greta’s proposed solutions, she expressed dismay at politicians’ “fairytales of eternal economic growth” while ominously warning “Change is coming whether you like it or not.”
Sadly, a future of few luxuries and reduced wealth is the last thing she should be proposing if she wants to combat climate change. After all, the increased wealth and improved living conditions are the very factors most responsible for bringing countless people out of poverty while saving millions of lives.
Despite Greta’s warnings, any solution to combat climate change should seek to reduce the impact on day-to-day life while striving to maintain the unprecedented global rise in wealth. Anything else would be potentially catastrophic and could reverse decades of dramatic gains combating poverty.
Fortunately, even though Greta maintains that “solutions are nowhere in sight,” there is reason for optimism. For instance, modern nuclear energy is safe, produces almost no carbon, and unlike wind or solar, can run reliably and continuously. We should be constructing new nuclear plants, not dismantling them.
Further in the future, emerging technologies that capture carbon from the atmosphere and even convert it into fuel show great promise. Unlike Greta’s bleak outlook, these solutions would require relatively few changes to our current lifestyles, yet would effectively and seamlessly reduce carbon emissions. Most Americans simply aren’t willing to give up their cell phones and cars, nor should they.
A common refrain from Thunberg is that we should “listen to the science.” I wholeheartedly agree. The science suggests that despite some major environmental challenges, humans across the planet are better off than ever before, and the future is not unremittingly bleak. We should strive to keep it that way while combating climate change and preserving our environment in a controlled, yet effective manner.
Kalkstein is a climate scientist at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.