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, 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 …

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Letters

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