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We can adapt to climate change without destroying our way of life

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OOur understanding of the climate and its evolution is sufficiently advanced to make reasonable decisions, using computer models, regarding activities such as future energy use and food production. However, over the past four decades, some have used these models to project disasters in case governments fail to act. Although many of these projections are wrong, pessimists continue to warn that humanity still has 12, 10, or even fewer years to save society.

These models represent our current best understanding of how climate works. They have been positively evaluated by the World Climate Research Programme. Yet they are not necessarily correct. For example, a group of scientists from the University of Alabama at Huntsville found that predicted temperature trends were twice those observed for the tropical upper atmosphere. Other published studies have shown that these same models overestimate global mean surface temperatures, so observed trends in global temperature are often at the lower end of the models’ prediction range.

From the end of the 1980s, the New York Times published projections that global temperatures would rise 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit while sea levels would rise 1 to 4 feet by the second quarter of the 21st century. Concerns have been expressed that climate change will lead to more droughts and floods. The reality is far from these disastrous scenarios. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s Sixth Assessment Report shows more modest warming (less than 1 degree Fahrenheit) and much less sea level rise (8 inches since 1900, according to NASA ). And where heavy rainfall or drought has increased, confidence in the models is low, according to the same report.

Other dire predictions have also been blatantly falsified – for example, that parts of the globe, including Britain, will be relatively snow-free by 2020, that the North Pole will be ice-free by the mid-2010s, and even that the glaciers of Mount Kilimanjaro will disappear by the mid-2010s. In the late 1980s, widespread famines were predicted, followed by the collapse of global agriculture, all at the start of the 21st century. Since that prediction, agricultural production has increased by about 20% in the Midwest.

Finally, a recent study has shown that predictions that ocean acidification will decimate fish populations also turn out to be wrong.

Does all this good news mean that we can ignore patterns or that looking for them is a wasted effort? Of course not. They are perhaps some of the best tools we have. It suffices to interpret their results while being aware of their limitations. When people sensationalise the results by highlighting only the most unfounded alarmist projections at the upper end of the forecast range, we must resist their alarmism in the absence of convincing evidence.

Given the relatively poor track record of model predictions, we should not be afraid to adopt draconian policies that threaten our entire way of life and well-being, especially those that would harm the world’s poor. Rather, we need to adapt to climate change, which can be done most effectively through the entrepreneurial innovations made possible by free markets.

Anthony R. Lupo, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Missouri, is a research fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif., and co-author of the book Hot Talk, Cold Science: Unfinished Debate on Global Warming.