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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Beware Greta Thunberg’s science fiction — the end of the world is not nigh

The Malizia II, a zero-carbon yacht, with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, arrived in the US after a 15-day journey crossing the Atlantic. AFP/Getty Images

In 15th-century Peru, we learned last week, children were sacrificed to propitiate to the Chimú gods, in an attempt to end natural disasters caused by the climatic phenomenon we now call, appropriately enough, El Niño.

In our time, the roles have been reversed. Now children warning of an impending climate catastrophe are the ones that have to be propitiated. Now it is they who demand sacrifices.

The arrival of Greta Thunberg in New York on Thursday was one of many recent events that illustrate how rapidly modern environmentalism is degenerating into a millenarian cult.

Thunberg, 16, is in New York at the invitation of the United Nations, having already established herself as a public figure in Europe by leading mass truancies to protest against climate change (“Fridays for the Future”). Rather than flying, she sailed across the Atlantic in an “emissions-free yacht in order to spare the earth’s atmosphere the exhaust from a plane that was flying to New York anyway, with or without her.

“Just before 3 p.m.,” reported the New York Times, “a shout went up from those waiting in the intermittent light rain to greet her.”


“Sea levels are rising, and so are we!” the young activists chanted. Greta was soon safely ashore in Manhattan, where she lost no time in urging President Trump “just to listen to the science, [as] he obviously doesn’t do that.”

Science. Or perhaps science fiction. There is something unnervingly reminiscent of John Wyndham’s “Midwich Cuckoos” about Greta. The pigtails. The unsmiling stare. But then you learn she has struggled with mental health conditions, including high-functioning autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This makes it hard to criticize her.

But what does it tell us about our world that Greta Thunberg is about to add the UN General Assembly to the list of august bodies she has addressed in the past year, after the Pope, the World Economic Forum, and the European Parliament? “I want you to panic,” she said at Davos in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day.” That is not the voice of science. It is the voice of a millenarian cult leader.


The end of the world is not nigh, however.

Now, I am not about to deny that climate change is happening, or that global warming is going to have adverse effects in the foreseeable future. Not even Bjorn Lomborg, the skeptical Danish economist, says that. The point, as he argued in a recent, brilliant presentation at the Hoover Institution, is that — as in the past — we humans are capable of adapting to climate change in ways that can significantly mitigate its adverse effects.

It would be foolish to do nothing to prepare for a warmer planet. But it would be even more foolish to take, on the basis of apocalyptic visions, extreme precautions that end up costing even more than inaction would. Subsidies to renewable energy have a cost. Cutting CO2 emissions has a cost. Those costs in terms of forgone growth could exceed the costs of climate damage if we over-reach in the way that, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal would. The key point, as Lomborg says, is that vastly more people die as a consequence of poverty each year than die as a consequence of global warming. A CO2 emissions target is not the optimal target if meeting it would trap millions in poverty, not to mention ignorance and ill health.


Back in the 1400s people in Peru believed that sacrificing their children would reduce rainfall. Not only did that not work. Regardless of their grim, murderous rites, they were soon to be hit by a far worse natural disaster than rain, namely the various lethal pandemics that swept the Americas following the arrival of Europeans. We know climate change can happen because it followed hard on the heels of this “great dying”: collapsing population in the New World reduced man-made emissions, leading to the so-called Little Ice Age.

I have said more than once in recent years that our era has more in common with the 16th and 17th centuries than with any intervening period. It is the early-modern world all over again, not least because the effects of the Internet on popular belief so closely resemble the effects of the printing press.

The challenge of millenarianism — as Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore pointed out in my favorite sketch from “Beyond the Fringe” — is what to do when the end of the world fails to happen.

Greta is right about one thing. The chances are virtually nil that the governments of the world will do as she asks. While the West virtue-signals, China, India, Brazil, and others will continue to attach more importance to growth than to curbing emissions in the drastic way she and her fellow Friday truants demand. The planet will grow warmer, just as it grew colder in the 1600s. And we shall adapt, taking advantage of the technological innovations that will gradually improve how we generate and store electrical power and ward off flood waters.


It is 2059. To the embarrassment (but, I hope, relief) of Greta Thunberg, now 56, her great expectations of the end of the world have not been fulfilled. Jair Bolsonaro didn’t torch the Amazon. Donald Trump didn’t incinerate the planet. You should come back to New York to celebrate our survival, Greta.

But this time fly.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.