• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Can Anyone Stop It?

During the last year, momentum has finally begun to build for taking action against global warming by putting limits on carbon emissions and then reducing them. Driven by ever-more-dire scientific reports, Congress has, for the first time, begun debating ambitious targets for carbon reduction. Al Gore, in his recent Live Earth concerts, announced that he will work to see an international treaty signed by the end of 2009. Even President Bush has recently reversed his previous opposition and summoned the leaders of all the top carbon-emitting countries to a series of conferences designed to yield some form of limits on CO2.

The authors of the first two books under review have some doubts about a strategy that emphasizes limits on carbon emissions, Lomborg for economic reasons and Nordhaus and Shellenberger for political ones. Since any transition away from fossil fuel is likely to be the dominant global project of the first half of the twenty-first century, it’s worth taking those qualms seriously.

In his earlier book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish statistician, attacked the scientific establishment on a number of topics, including global warming, and concluded that things were generally improving here on earth. The book was warmly received on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, but most scientists were unimpressed. Scientific American published scathing rebuttals from leading researchers, and its editor concluded in a note to readers that “in its purpose of describing the real state of the world, the book is a failure.” A review in Nature compared it to “bad term papers,” and called it heavily reliant on secondary sources and “at times…fictional.” E.O. Wilson, who has over the years been attacked by the left (for sociobiology) and the right (for his work on nature conservation), and usually responded only with a bemused detachment, sent Lomborg a public note that called his book a “sordid mess.” Lomborg replied to all of this vigorously and at great length,1 and then went on, with the help of The Economist magazine, to convene a “dream team” of eight economists including three Nobel laureates and ask them to consider the costs and benefits of dealing with various world problems. According to his panel, dealing with malaria ranked higher than controlling carbon emissions, though again some observers felt the panel had been stacked and one of the economists who took part told reporters that “climate change was set up to fail.” Lomborg later conducted a similar exercise with “youth leaders” and with ambassadors to the United Nations, including the former US emissary John Bolton, with similar results.

In his new book, Cool It, Lomborg begins by saying that the consensus scientific position on climate change—that we face a rise in temperature of about five degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end—is correct, but that it’s not that big a deal. “Many other issues are much more important than global warming.” In fact, he argues, it would be a great mistake either to impose stiff caps on carbon or to spend large sums of money—he mentions $25 billion worldwide annually on R&D as an upper bound—trying to dramatically reduce emissions because global warming won’t be all that bad. The effort to cut emissions won’t work very well, and we could better spend the money on other projects like giving out bed nets to prevent malaria.

Lomborg casts himself as the voice of reason in this debate, contending with well-meaning but wooly-headed scientists, bureaucrats, environmentalists, politicians, and reporters. I got a preview of some of these arguments in May when we engaged in a dialogue at Middlebury College in Vermont2 ; they struck me then, and strike me now in written form, as tendentious and partisan in particularly narrow ways. Lomborg has appeared regularly on right-wing radio and TV programs, and been summoned to offer helpful testimony by, for instance, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, famous for his claim that global warming is a hoax. That Lomborg disagrees with him and finds much of the scientific analysis of global warming accurate doesn’t matter to Inhofe; for his purposes, it is sufficient that Lomborg opposes doing much of anything about it.

But Lomborg’s actual arguments turn out to be weak, a farrago of straw men and carefully selected, shopworn data that holds up poorly in light of the most recent research, both scientific and economic. He calculates at great length, for instance, his claim that the decline in the number of people dying from cold weather will outweigh the increase in the number of people dying from the heat, leading him to the genial conclusion that a main effect of global warming may be that “we just notice people wearing slightly fewer layers of winter clothes on a winter’s evening.” But in April 2007, Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the panel of experts whose scientific data he prefers to cite, released a report showing, among many other things, that fewer deaths from cold exposure “will be outweighed by the negative health effects of rising temperatures world-wide, especially in developing countries.”

In fact, the IPCC poses a serious problem for Lomborg. He accepts this international conclave of scientists and other experts early on in his book as the arbiter of fact on questions of global warming.3 Unfortunately for Lomborg, just as he was wrapping up this book the IPCC published, quite apart from the report of its April panel, its most recent five-year update on the economics and engineering of climate change solutions, which undercuts his main argument.

Consider Lomborg’s central idea that we can’t do much about global warming, and that anything we do attempt will be outrageously expensive. Lomborg bases his analyses on studies of the Kyoto Protocol, negotiated a decade ago. He argues that that protocol would make only the slightest dent during this century in how much the planet warms. This is a debater’s point to begin with—the Kyoto Protocol was only supposed to last through 2012; everyone knew it was at best a first step, and this first step was further weakened after attacks from conservative economists claiming that it would bankrupt the earth (attacks that kept the US from ever signing on).

As it turns out, they were almost certainly wrong. Working Group III of the IPCC, which reported at the beginning of May, said at great length that in fact it was technically feasible to reduce emissions to the point where temperature rise could be held below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius—the point where many climate scientists now believe global warming may turn from a miserable problem into a catastrophe. As the IPCC said:

Both bottom-up and top-down studies indicate that there is substantial economic potential for the mitigation of global GHG emissions over the coming decades, that could offset the projected growth of global emissions or reduce emissions below current levels.

The technologies cited as examples are numerous and varied, and reflect the immense amount of research into alternatives that has been conducted in the decade since Lomborg’s estimates based on Kyoto data. They include hybrid cars, combined heat and power plants, better lighting, improved crop-plowing techniques, better forestry, higher-efficiency aircraft, and tidal energy, among others. These reflect precisely the kinds of human ingenuity that Lomborg says he wants to encourage, and they undermine the idea that we can’t possibly get emissions under control. By contrast, the report shows that following the Lomborg path—which essentially calls for some more funding for research and no governmental action—will see carbon emissions rise as much as 90 percent worldwide by 2030. The IPCC conclusions, it should be said, were compiled by 168 lead authors, 84 contributing authors, and 485 expert peer reviewers, spanning a huge variety of relevant disciplines. This seems to me more convincing than Lomborg’s “dream team” of eight economists gathered for a few days in Copenhagen.

Moreover, the IPCC team made it clear in their May report that it was not only feasible to make these changes but economically possible as well. They calculated that if we made this energy transition, the economy would grow very slightly more slowly than before—about 0.12 percent more slowly annually, or 3 percent total by 2030. In other words, our children would have to wait until Thanksgiving 2030 to be as rich as they would otherwise have been on New Year’s Day of that year.

This seems to me very good news—I’ve long worried that the cost would be substantially higher. But it also makes a good deal of sense. Remember how, say, the auto industry warned that first seatbelts and then airbags would cripple them economically? As soon as the government mandated their use, manufacturers figured out how to make them more cheaply and easily than we would have guessed. We’ve seen the same results with other pollutants.

The IPCC report, to put it bluntly, eviscerates Lomborg’s argument; maybe that’s why he devotes but a single paragraph to it in the book, scoffing at “several commentators” who called the estimated reduction of 3 percent by 2030 “negligible.” But though Lomborg will doubtless eventually produce a long disquisition on why he knows better than the 737 experts collaborating on the IPCC project, his bluff has been called. Consider the reaction of his old colleagues at The Economist, which only a few short years ago was underwriting his Copenhagen Consensus work. “Just as mankind caused the problem,” the editors said, “so mankind can stop it—and at a reasonable cost.” The 0.12 percent a year drag on GDP? “The world would barely notice such figures,” said the magazine, hardly noted for its casual attitude about economic growth.

Doubtless scientists and economists will spend many hours working their way through Cool It, flagging the distortions and half-truths as they did with Lomborg’s earlier book. In fact, though, its real political intent soon becomes clear, which is to try to paint those who wish to control carbon emissions as well-meaning fools who will inadvertently block improvements in the life of the poor. Just ask yourself this question: Why has Lomborg decided to compare the efficacy of (largely theoretical) funding to stop global warming with his other priorities, like fighting malaria or ensuring clean water? If fighting malaria was his real goal, he could as easily have asked the question: Why don’t we divert to it some of the (large and nontheoretical) sums spent on, say, the military? The answer he gave when I asked this question at our dialogue was that he thought military spending was bad and that therefore it made more sense to compare global warming dollars with other “good” spending. But of course this makes less sense. If he thought that money spent for the military was doing damage, then he could kill two birds with one stone by diverting some of it to his other projects. Proposing that, though, would lose him much of the right-wing support that made his earlier book a best seller—he’d no longer be able to count on even The Wall Street Journal editorial page.4

  1. 1

    His replies can be found at www.lomborg.com.

  2. 2

    Readers wishing to view that encounter on line may visit maozi.middlebury.edu.

  3. 3

    He needs to do this because otherwise he would have to contend with the recent work of the NASA climatologist James Hansen, indicating that the ice sheets of Greenland and the West Antarctic may be sliding into the sea much faster than previously imagined and raising the possibility of a horrific rise in sea level during this century. The IPCC, which considers the peer-reviewed research of the previous five years, remains agnostic on Hansen’s new work and presumably won’t offer its opinion for another half-decade, which allows Lomborg in turn to ridicule Al Gore as a hysteric for publicizing it. See James Hansen, “The Threat to the Planet,” The New York Review, July 13, 2006.

  4. 4

    Interestingly, the new owner of The Wall Street Journal, Rupert Murdoch, rattled by an epochal drought in his native Australia, has announced that his entire empire will soon be carbon-neutral.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print