How bad will climate change be? Not very.
No, this isn’t a denialist screed. Human greenhouse emissions will warm the planet, raise the seas and derange the weather, and the resulting heat, flood and drought will be cataclysmic.
Cataclysmic — but not apocalyptic. While the climate upheaval will be large, the consequences for human well-being will be small. Looked at in the broader context of economic development, climate change will barely slow our progress in the effort to raise living standards.
To see why, consider a 2016 Newsweek headline that announced “Climate change could cause half a million deaths in 2050 due to reduced food availability.” The story described a Lancet study, “Global and regional health effects of future food production under climate change,”  that made dire forecasts: by 2050 the effects of climate change on agriculture will shrink the amount of food people eat, especially fruits and vegetables, enough to cause 529,000 deaths each year from malnutrition and related diseases. The report added grim specifics to the familiar picture of a world made hot, hungry, and barren by the coming greenhouse apocalypse.
But buried beneath the gloomy headlines was a curious detail: the study also predicts that in 2050 the world will be better fed than ever before. The “reduced food availability” is only relative to a 2050 baseline when food will be more abundant than now thanks to advances in agricultural productivity that will dwarf the effects of climate change. Those advances on their own will raise per-capita food availability to 3,107 kilocalories per day; climate change could shave that to 3,008 kilocalories, but that’s still substantially higher than the benchmarked 2010 level of 2,817 kilocalories—and for a much larger global population. Per-capita fruit and vegetable consumption, the study estimated, will rise by 6.1 percent and meat consumption by 5.4 percent. The poorest countries will benefit most, with food availability rising 14 percent in Africa and Southeast Asia. Even after subtracting the 529,000 lives theoretically lost to climate change, the study estimates that improved diets will save a net 1,348,000 lives per year in 2050.
A headline like “Despite climate change, rising food production will save millions of lives” isn’t great click-bait, but it would give a truer picture of a future under global warming as envisioned in the Lancet study. That picture is typical of the scientific literature on the impacts of climate change on human welfare. Global warming won’t wipe us out or even stall our progress, it will just marginally slow ordinary economic development that will still outpace the negative effects of warming and make life steadily better in the future, under every climate scenario. What the doomsday prognostications of drought and flood, heat-stroke and famine, migration and war miss is that climate change is not the only thing going on in the world, or even the most important thing.
It’s not even a new thing. Throughout history humans not only weathered climate crises but deliberately flung ourselves into them as we migrated away from our African homeland into deserts, mountains, floodplains and taiga. Global warming pales beside the climatic challenge surmounted by the Inuit when they settled the Arctic with igloos and kayaks, revolutionary technologies that improved their ability to travel and hunt. Theirs is just one example of the human capacity for finding better ways to get food, shelter, energy and resources from the hostile environments we embrace. “Adaptation” is not quite the right word for that process, which is so ubiquitous—and so fundamental to progress—that it is the essence of development.
This latest episode in humanity’s ongoing conquest of extreme climates will likewise amount to just another problem in economic and technological development, and a middling-scale one at that. Although clean energy will play a significant role by slowing and perhaps moderating global warming (as well as reducing pollution and easing resource constraints), contrary to the decarbonize-or-die doomsayers our main response to climate change will be other kinds of development that make climate change irrelevant. We will grow more food, harness more water, cool ourselves more vigorously, move to new lands and build—and-rebuild—new cities. We will exploit technological breakthroughs, but mostly we will improve familiar technologies and deploy them more widely. We will do all this not because of global warming but because of more pressing challenges like population growth and the demand for higher living standards. The means by which we will overcome specific problems posed by climate change look less like the pristine “sustainable development” envisioned by greens and more like the ordinary development that has always sustained us.