The world is only getting greener thanks to climate change: there are no grounds for pessimism. So says British author and businessman Matt Ridley, the keynote speaker at the Opening of the Academic Year on 4 September. Resource asked him a few questions by email.
Isn’t it naïve to be optimistic in the face of threats such as climate change, overpopulation, the exhaustion of natural resources, and terrorism?
'We could certainly achieve calamity with the wrong policies – ones that reduce cooperation and exchange. But equally, previous predictions of calamity have nearly always been wide of the mark. We were repeatedly told in the 1960s and 1970s that the population “explosion” was unstoppable and required drastic and inhumane actions. In fact, since then the rate of increase has halved and we are on course to see world population cease growing by the end of this century. The main cause was the decline in infant mortality, which causes people to plan smaller families. In the case of climate change, there is a possibility of catastrophe, but there are three reasons to expect that it may not be that bad. Firstly, warming has happened roughly half as fast as predicted in the past 33 years. There has been no increase in drought and storms, while any increase in floods is down to land-use changes, not climate change. Secondly, current estimates of climate sensitivity have come down substantially, which indicates that dangerous warming is unlikely before the 22nd century. Thirdly, there is every reason to expect that new technologies will help us solve the carbon problem. Especially given how much richer the world will have become.’
You believe in progress. What is the role of science and technology in this?
‘I do not “believe” in progress – I see evidence of progress. 'There is no doubt that technology and science make progress. That process – innovation – is responsible for the extraordinary improvement in human living standards over recent decades, to the point where just 9% of people are living in extreme poverty, down from 70% when I was born. This has also been accompanied by an increase in health, happiness, education and freedom, and a decline in pollution, violence and inequality. The world is rapidly growing more equal today, because people in poor countries are getting richer faster than people in rich countries.’