Monday, August 13, 2007

Live Earth Interview With Bjorn Lomborg: Rational Environmentalist

The organization Live Earth, that was used by Al Gore to put on the series of world-wide concerts promoting their version of the global climate issue published the following interview with Bjorn Lomborg. Mr. Lomborg, the author of the book "The Skeptical Environmentalist", has long been critical of the hype and inaccuracies surrounding the global warming issue.

I am happy, and a bit surprised to see this interview published. I hope it is a sign of more reasoned thinking related to global warming.

The sceptical environmentalist

There are two sides to every story – and global warming is no exception. Thus far, much has been said via Live Earth about the potentially catastrophic dangers of allowing climate change to continue unchecked. But there is an alternative perspective.

Bjorn Lomborg, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004 and author of the bestselling The Sceptical Environmentalist, is the poster boy for that perspective.

An adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, Bjorn believes sweeping calls for action are little more than scare-mongering and insists that taking drastic, here-and-now measures is the worst way to spend the world’s financial resources. Live Earth UK caught up with him to take a long, cool look at global warming.

LE: You’re a self-confessed environmental sceptic. Does that mean you believe global warming is just an urban myth?

BL: To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by CO2. The trouble is that today’s best climate models show that immediate action will do little good. The Kyoto Protocol will cut CO2 emissions from industrialised countries by 30% below what they would have been in 2010 and by 50% in 2050. Yet, even if everyone (including the United States) lived up to the protocol’s rules, and stuck to it throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable, postponing warming for just six years in 2100.

Likewise, the economic models tell us that the cost would be substantial ¬– at least $150 billion a year. In comparison, the United Nations estimates that half that amount could permanently solve all of the world’s major problems: it could ensure clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education for every single person in the world, now.

LE: Why are you so critical of the emerging global efforts to control climate change?

BL: Making global warming the world's top priority means that we shuffle other major challenges down our "to do" list. Some climate change activists actually acknowledge this: Australian author Tim Flannery recently told an interviewer that climate change is "the only issue we should worry about for the next decade." Tell that to the four million people starving to death, to the three million victims of HIV/AIDS, or to the billions of people who lack access to clean drinking water. Human-caused climate change deserves attention, but the world faces many other vast challenges. Whether we like it or not, we have limited money and a limited attention span for global causes. We should focus first on achieving the most good for the most people.

LE: Does that really justify ignoring global warming altogether? Surely failing to take immediate action will only cause more acute problems further down the line.

BL: Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to prioritise. We could do all good things. We would have enough resources to win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, broaden educational access, and halt climate change. But we don’t. So we have to ask the hard question: if we can’t do it all, what should we do first?
LE: So, assuming international attention should be focused somewhere other than reducing CO2 emissions, what should we be doing instead?

BL: The Copenhagen Consensus project in 2004 brought together top-class thinkers, including four Nobel Laureate economists, to examine what we could achieve with a $50 billion investment designed to "do good" for the planet.

They examined the best research available and concluded that projects requiring a relatively small investment - getting micro-nutrients to those suffering from malnutrition, providing more resources for HIV/AIDS prevention, making a proper effort to get drinking water to those who lack it - would do far more good than the billions of dollars we could spend reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change.
LE: But surely the effects of climate change, if it is allowed to continue unchecked, will do just as much damage to the human race as malnutrition or AIDS – if not more?

BL: Carbon reduction activists argue that focusing exclusively on climate change will bring many benefits. They point out, for example, that malaria deaths will climb along with temperatures, because potentially killer mosquitoes thrive in warmer areas. And they would be right. But it's not as simple as the bumper sticker slogan "Fight climate change and ward off malaria."

If America and Australia are somehow inspired by the Live Earth concerts to sign the Kyoto Protocol, temperatures would rise by slightly less. The number of people at risk of malaria would be reduced by about 0.2% by 2085. Yet the cost of the Kyoto Protocol would be a staggering $180 billion a year. In other words, climate change campaigners believe we should spend $180 billion to save just 1,000 lives a year.

LE: Given that we’re talking about saving human lives, isn’t that a price worth paying?

BL: For much less money, we could save 850,000 lives each and every year. We know that dissemination of mosquito nets and malaria prevention programs could cut malaria incidence in half by 2015 for about $3 billion annually – less than 2% of the cost of Kyoto. The choice is stark. Indeed, the Copenhagen Consensus experts discovered that for every dollar invested in Kyoto-style battling climate change, we could do up to 120 times more good with in numerous other areas.

Here’s another fact to consider: the entire death toll from the Southeast Asian tsunami is matched each month by the number of worldwide casualties of HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive prevention program providing free or cheap condoms and information about safe sex to the regions worst affected by HIV/AIDS would cost $27 billion and save more than 28 million lives. This, say the economists who took part in the Copenhagen Consensus, makes it the single best investment that the world could possibly make. The social benefits would outweigh the costs by 40 to one.

And according to UN estimates, for $75 billion a year – half the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol – we could provide clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education to every single human being on Earth. Shouldn’t that be a higher priority?
LE: Are you suggesting we do nothing at all to combat climate change?

BL: No, but the problem needs to be dealt with in a responsible way. There can be no ten-year quick-fix solution; climate change is a 100-year problem. We need to find a viable, long-term strategy that is smart, equitable, and doesn’t require inordinate sacrifice for trivial benefits. Fortunately, there is such a strategy: research and development. Investing in R&D of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies would leave future generations able to make serious and yet economically feasible and advantageous cuts. A new global warming treaty should mandate spending 0.05% of GDP on R&D in the future. It would be much cheaper, yet do much more good in the long run.

This approach would be much cheaper than Kyoto and many more times cheaper than a Kyoto II. It would involve all nations, with richer nations naturally paying the larger share, and perhaps developing nations being phased in. It would let each country focus on its own future vision of energy needs, whether that means concentrating on renewable sources, nuclear energy, fusion, carbon storage, or searching for new and more exotic opportunities.

LE: An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about global warming presented by Al Gore, has received mixed reactions around the world: some view it as a timely call to arms, others have branded it blatant propaganda. What were your thoughts?

BL: An Inconvenient Truth makes three points: global warming is real; it will be catastrophic; and addressing it should be our top priority. Inconveniently for the film’s producers, however, only the first statement is correct.

Gore shows that glaciers have receded for 50 years. But he doesn’t acknowledge they have been shrinking since the Napoleonic wars in the early 1800s, long before industrial CO2 emissions. Likewise, he considers Antarctica the canary in the coalmine, but again doesn’t tell the full story. He presents pictures from the 2% of Antarctica that is dramatically warming, while ignoring the 98% that has largely cooled over the past 35 years. The UN climate panel estimates that Antarctica’s snow mass will actually increase during this century. And, whereas Gore points to shrinking sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, he fails to mention that ice in the Southern Hemisphere is increasing.

The movie shows scary pictures of the consequences of the sea level rising 20 feet (seven metres), flooding large parts of Florida, San Francisco, New York, Holland, Calcutta, Beijing, and Shanghai. Were realistic levels not dramatic enough? The United Nations panel on climate change suggests a rise of only 1-2 feet during this century, compared to almost one foot in the last century.

Similarly, Europe’s deadly heat waves in 2003 lead Gore to conclude that climate change will mean more fatalities. But global warming would mean fewer deaths caused by cold temperatures, which in most of the developed world vastly outweigh deaths caused by heat. In the UK alone, it is estimated that the temperature increase would cause 2,000 extra heat deaths by 2050, but result in 20,000 fewer cold deaths.

Financial losses from weather events have increased dramatically over the past 45 years, which Gore attributes to global warming. But all or almost all of this increase comes from more people with more possessions living closer to harm’s way. If all hurricanes had hit the US with today’s demographics, the biggest damage would have been caused not by Katrina, but by a hurricane in 1926. Allowing for changes in the number of people and their wealth, flood losses have actually decreased slightly.

The movie invites viewers to conclude that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, with Gore claiming that the warm Caribbean waters made the storm stronger. But when Katrina made landfall, it was not a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane; it was a milder Category 3. In fact, there is no scientific consensus that global warming makes hurricanes more destructive, as he claims. The author that Gore himself relies on says that it would be “absurd to attribute the Katrina disaster to global warming.”

At the climax of his movie, Gore argues that future generations will chastise us for not having committed ourselves to the Kyoto Protocol. More likely, they will wonder why, in a world overflowing with inconvenient truths, Gore focused on the one where we could achieve the least good for the highest cost.

LE: So, are we to assume the global Live Earth events of July 2007 left you cold?

BL: It's honourable that the Live Earth organisers are so concerned about the far-off future, but you have to wonder why there is so little concern about the much-worse present. I don't want to stop anyone from caring about climate change, only to encourage a sense of perspective. There is a massive amount of good that we can do through practical, affordable approaches like HIV/AIDS education, malaria prevention, and the provision of micro-nutrients or clean water. This is the message I would like to ring out: we should focus on the best ideas first. At the Live Earth events, unfortunately, that is not what we heard.


Anonymous said...

Hi Pete, well I had a moment, so I thought I'd go through the articles you suggested. So, since I think you were looking for critiques (you actually used the word "discredit") I thought I'd start at the top of your recommendations...

So let's see: it is true that Dr. Lomborg does in fact have a Ph.D. - except that it is in political science. Let me say that again, this "doctor" has an advanced degree in political science!!! He has no training in anything other than the social sciences. He has no credentials in climate science.

Okay, so any predictions on climate should be discounted simply because he does not have the training to be an authority on a scientific matter. I'm sensing a trend so far in climate deniers...hmmm...

But what does he actually say in the article you posted?

In the interview he says, "To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by CO2."

Oh! So he is not actually a global climate change denier. Good, we've got that out of the way.

Some of the things he says in the article -
"While Gore was creating alarm with his belief that a 20-foot-high wall of water would inundate low-lying cities,"
and -
"while Gore was raising fears about the Gulf Stream halting and a new Ice Age starting"
- seem like a bit of hyperbole to me. Did Gore actually day that a 20 foot wall of water was going to smash into the continent? It's been a while since I saw the movie, but I didn't think he did. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

However, moving on, Lomborg's article charges Gore with exaggerating the danger of climate change - he cites his sources. But he is not a climate scientist so I would give Lomborg no more credence than I would give Gore (who also cites his sources and won the Nobel prize for his efforts).

Lomborg's statements in the interview are predicated upon the belief that global climate change is occurring but that it is folly to spend money and human energy on it. He essentially says that, even if the gulf stream changes course and the sea-level rises, it won't be all that bad. And we need to spend our moneys on more important things such as AIDS and world hunger and the like.

Okay...I guess I could get on board with this guy...but one must admit that his views are extremely subjective. Is AIDS really more important than climate change? I dunno; that is an individual perspective and I fail to see how this has anything to do with your blog, which decries climate "hysteria," except that he takes issue with Al Gore.

I assume that his book - which I have not read - makes the case from a statistical, monetary point of view that money is better spent elsewhere than climate control.

And that's more opinion with limited relevance. And let's just hope he is correct in his predictions if, in fact, the climate is about to change...

Personally, I'm not all that impressed or convinced of anything. Onward and upward!

Peter said...

You read one article about Lomborg and you jump to these sweeping generalizations. Lomborg never claims to be a meteorologist/climatologist. The issue of what to do about climate change involves decisions by people in a diverse group of professions. Don't be so quick to condemn. That is anything but scientific. It is called emotional and irrational, and hardly respectable.

You're reinforcing the idea that believe in man-caused global warming is a religion, not a science. Research that subject.

Anonymous said...

"You read one article about Lomborg and you jump to these sweeping generalizations."

What "sweeping generalizations"? I kept strictly to what he says in the texts you posted. Did you read my post?

"The issue of what to do about climate change involves decisions by people in a diverse group of professions."

Okay, I buy that - didn't I more or less say that I could get on board with his ideas? Again, you didn't read very carefully, if at all. I said his ideas were "subjective" - he calls some issues more important than others. What I don't buy is that he can adequately judge the scientific data. Plus, Lomborg actually does not disagree with the scientific conclusion that climate change is occurring. Read carefully your own posts, my little droogy.

"You're reinforcing the idea that believe in man-caused global warming is a religion, not a science. Research that subject."

How on earth did I do that? Did you just run home to a cliche because you didn't know what else to say?

Are you sure your not a wingnut?

I didn't mention, actually, that there are plenty who disagree with Lomborg - just google him if you want another perspective.

I suspect you wont...

Cheers for now.

Peter said...

Dearest Anon,
Enough personal slurs. This is going nowhere. Take "I don't know what I believe" attitude to some religious discussion board, or have a talk with you local Priest or Mullah, or whatever.

Anonymous said...

Peter, may I remind you that you invited me (challenged is more like it) to look around your blog and "learn something"? And so I am, and I disagree - this is pretty clearly going somewhere. And the "wingnut" question was an honest one, not a personal slur, and you're the one slinging dogma, my friend.

I'll buzz off if you want me to, but I think you should change your tag line to "Come join me in a discussion as long as you don't challenge my redoubt of anti-climate-change-cut-and-pastes".

I do need to apologize, however - rereading yesterday's riposte I see that I used the wrong "your" (possession) when I should have used "you're" (contraction). Sorry about that.

So what say you, Peter, you want to actually discuss or whimp out?