We are at a dramatic moment in the story of global warming. We’ve known, as a society, about the climate change crisis for just over twenty years, from the day in June 1988 when the NASA scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that the planet was heating up because we were burning so much fossil fuel and hence emitting so much carbon dioxide.
By 2010—the warmest year on record, according to most of the planet’s record-keepers—the earth was getting a taste of what global warming feels like in its early stages. Nineteen nations set new all-time temperature records, itself a record; in early summer Pakistan set the new all-time high for Asia at 128 degrees. That warmth accelerated the already rapid melt of the Greenland ice sheet; in some areas the melt season lasted fifty days longer than average. Meanwhile, record heat in central Russia triggered wildfires and drought, spooking the Kremlin enough that it suspended all grain exports to the rest of the world, which helped push the price of wheat sharply higher.
Most ominously, the pace of record-breaking deluge and flood surged. Because warm air holds more water vapor than cold (the atmosphere is about 4 percent moister than forty years ago), scientists have warned that we’re increasing the possibility of greater downpours; country after country found itself on the wrong side of those odds in 2010, Pakistan most desperately. (Six months after the summer flooding there, the Red Cross reported in January that four million people were still homeless.)
It’s a trend that’s continued into the new year, despite cold snaps in parts of North America and Western Europe: Jeff Masters, the meteorologist whose WunderBlog is the Internet’s go-to site for weather data, reported that the first three weeks of 2011 saw “an entire [typical] year’s worth of mega-floods,” with remarkable events in the Australian states of Queensland and Victoria, the Rio de Janeiro region of Brazil, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and South Africa. Oscillations in Pacific Ocean temperatures drive some of the flooding, but it’s the combination with the extra atmospheric moisture provided by global warming that leads to what Masters calls a “much increased chance of unprecedented floods.”
Notably, these effects are occurring with a temperature increase of slightly less than one degree Celsius, and with atmospheric CO2 concentrations of only 390 parts per million; researchers say that without dramatic action to move our economy off fossil fuels, those numbers will reach four degrees or more, and 550 parts per million or higher, by century’s end.
Meanwhile, 2010 also saw the end of the first wave of attempts to deal politically with climate change. A two-decade effort with the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 as its high point, it relied on mobilizing elite opinion, and focused on so-called “cap-and-trade” solutions to climate change. These measures would have placed limits on carbon and allowed businesses to trade the amounts they were allowed to emit; it was an effort to deal with the problem at minimal cost, and with only slight disruption to business as usual. But scientists pointed out that the limits were not strict enough; policy analysts showed that the complicated schemes would likely be gamed by various companies; and most of the fossil fuel industry fought them vigorously as a threat to its business model.
Industry leaders funded—as The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer and others have demonstrated—a powerful campaign to deny the clear facts of climate science, which reduced public demand for action. All these forces meant that during the last fourteen months the cap-and-trade effort foundered, probably for good. In December 2009 the UN’s climate conference in Copenhagen—meant to negotiate the next iteration of the expiring Kyoto Protocol—imploded when neither Chinese nor American leaders were willing to take bold action.
Six months later, in the summer of 2010, the US Senate refused to even take a vote on a very moderate version of the cap-and-trade law, yielding to pressure from fossil fuel interests. And of course in the autumn of 2010 the GOP carried midterm elections, on a platform that embraced denial of the climate crisis. The power of the coal and oil lobby was clear—even one of the few new Democrats elected to the Senate, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, filmed a campaign commercial that showed him shooting a copy of the cap-and-trade bill with his deer rifle.
This is the climate, as it were, into which Bjørn Lomborg publishes his latest venture. His earlier effort, The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), downplayed the danger of climate change, ranking it near the bottom of problems facing the world and recommending spending money on other issues. It was beloved of those working to defeat cap-and-trade-type legislation, and less beloved of scholars in the field. Yale University Press published a volume, The Lomborg Deception (2010), that checked every one of his footnotes and found them regularly misleading. In his new book, Lomborg attempts to resuscitate his reputation, declaring that climate change is indeed at least a somewhat serious problem, and offering to show what course of action might best tackle it.
In this pursuit he serves as editor, not writer: he has assembled a team of academics to describe eight possible solutions to climate change, from focusing on soot or methane to planting more trees; and also a hand-picked group of five economists to assess the findings and rank the “best” solutions. For this task he needs to be able to weigh the costs and benefits of various approaches, and so the papers are largely attempts to demonstrate the high expense and low utility of the major approaches the rest of the world has tried to adopt. In particular, Lomborg wants to show that “mitigation”—running up the price of fossil fuel so we use less of it—is a bad idea because its costs will be high, much higher than the costs of global warming.
Indeed, in several of the projections his team relies on, global warming supplies more economic benefits than costs for decades to come. Richard Tol, one of his economic gurus, points out that most of the planet’s economy is in temperate zones “where warming reduces heating costs and cold-related health problems,” and hence is a net benefit for now. “Gains for the high-income areas of the world exceed losses in the low-income areas.” There is a Marie Antoinette tone to this argument.
You get occasional glimpses of the weakness of the economic modeling sprinkled in footnotes and asides throughout the volume—for instance, people fleeing from one country to another to escape rising seas or spreading deserts are “assumed to assimilate immediately and completely with the respective host population.” (Try running that argument by, say, the Indians, currently building a containment wall along their border with Bangladesh.) Or Russian agriculture is seen as benefiting from warmer temperatures, a prediction very worth revisiting after last summer’s epic heatwave.
In fact, buried in the middle of the book under the title “Market- and Policy-Driven Adaptation, Alternate Perspective,” there’s an eight-page article by Frank Jotzo, a climate economist at the Australian National University, that, to Lomborg’s credit, eviscerates the entire enterprise. “The economic analysis—and, in particular, aggregate economic modeling, of climate change impacts and adaptation—is in many respects a long way from being directly useful for the formulation of policy decisions,” he writes, going on to explain in great detail the manifold weaknesses of the kind of models formed by his fellow contributors.
Sometimes you can almost hear a suppressed giggle: writing about the models’ assumption of “a strong degree of substitutability in both production and consumption structures,” he shows that “physical factors, such as the need to produce and consume a certain amount of food per person, are often inadequately represented, or not at all.” His critique goes entirely unanswered by anyone else in the volume, and all the experts proceed to their task as if he had not spoken at all; it’s really quite astonishing.
What’s even more astonishing is that all the economic modeling studiously ignores what is becoming one of the scariest parts of the climate scenario: abrupt and extreme changes that cause huge and irreversible damage. As the experience of 2010 demonstrates, however, we’re already seeing precisely those kinds of changes start to take place: three years of rapid melt have put Arctic sea ice in a “death spiral,” according to the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Mark Serreze. “It’s not going to recover,” he said. Meanwhile, the Amazon has just suffered through its second “100-year drought” in the past five years, with dried-up rivers, dying trees, and a resulting flood of carbon into the atmosphere. Rosie Fisher, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, said of the Amazon:
I’m genuinely quite alarmed by this. In some ways it kind of reminds me of when they figured out that the Greenland ice sheet was melting much faster than the climate models predicted it would.
The Arctic and the Amazon are two of the largest physical features on our planet, though not as big as the oceans, which are growing steadily more acidic as they absorb carbon from the atmosphere; pretty much every large system you can think of is already out of kilter.
Against this background, Lomborg’s sober exercise of expert panels and careful charts is in fact grotesque—for the most part, the numbers he’s relying on bear so little relation to what’s actually happening now, or to what scientists insist will happen soon, that the enterprise turns farcical. He’s standing amid a fire murmuring “theater.” As a result, sensible decision-making becomes impossible.
Yes, there’s no question that very rapid reductions in carbon emissions would, as he claims, be expensive and difficult, though a variety of other economists have produced scenarios showing it far less costly than the ones he has chosen. But regardless of the cost, the planet’s scientists, and now the planet itself, seem to be suggesting we better do it and fast. In December, in a special edition of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, a number of researchers presented evidence that we may see globally averaged temperature increases of 4 degrees Celsius—more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit—as early as the 2060s, i.e., when children born today will be at the height of their careers. If one degree melts the Arctic, how much do you want to spend to avert four degrees?
Lomborg’s panel says not very much. I’m more inclined to go with Lonnie Thompson, the great glaciologist, who, speaking of his fellow climatologists, said recently, “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”
Still, the book does end up developing one idea that really is worth understanding: the part that technological research and development could play in helping make this century merely miserable and not impossible. Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green are climate change economists at McGill University in Montreal, and their essay is lively indeed. It begins by making the case that the transition from fossil fuels will be tough—and here, I think, they and Lomborg are on very solid ground. Say you wanted to cut emissions 50 percent by 2050—which is actually considerably less than scientists say is necessary to have any hope of achieving climatic stability. You’d need to cut the carbon intensity of the economy more than 4 percent a year, or roughly three times as fast as we’re going at present. That is a Herculean task—in the past it’s taken many decades to move from, say, wood to coal, and that in a world that used far less energy. We won’t be able to just pull the internal combustion engine out of the great economic machine, toss in a windmill, and then carry on as before.
What Galiana and Green argue (and it inspires confidence that almost alone among Lomborg’s contributors they use the far more credible economic damage estimates from Nicholas Stern) is that the best way forward is to spend money right now on research and development, counting on breakthroughs that will lower the price of that mammoth switch away from fossil fuel. They assess a number of technologies, from nuclear to wave energy, and argue that they need far more development before they will be cheap enough to compete with fuels like coal. Where most environmentalists propose driving up the price of coal—that’s what various caps and taxes would accomplish—Galiana and Green concentrate on driving down the price of various forms of low-carbon power.
That same case is being made by the American duo of Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, whose Breakthrough Institute has assembled a diverse coalition of groups—from the American Enterprise Institute to the Brookings Institution, from Bill Gates to David Brooks—behind a proposal for tens of billions of dollars a year in directed research and development. As Shellenberger and Nordhaus explained it in The Wall Street Journal recently:
Governments should solicit bids for projects or technologies within a given class—say, a next-generation nuclear reactor or a new solar-panel technology. Once a new technology with the lowest cost is proved, it should be set as the benchmark for another round of bids—all with an eye toward ever-newer, ever-cheaper technologies.
The military has used this method for decades to drive down the costs and improve the performance of critical technologies. A decade of Pentagon procurement drove the price of microchips to $20 a chip by the mid-’60s from over $1,000 in the late ’50s.
Their proposals make sense, and they deserve support—in fact, in one guise or another they’re becoming the conventional wisdom. Time magazine’s Bryan Walsh, for instance, recently wrote:
Just as American scientists created the atomic bomb, pioneered the space program, and launched the information and biotechnology revolutions, they can create the energy solutions needed for the future. We just have to give them a chance.
Barack Obama echoed this congealing standard view in his State of the Union address—not a word about climate change, but a promise to invest in R&D:
We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon indicated in January that he was deemphasizing the Kyoto treaty process and that he would concentrate on “a broader agenda of promoting clean energy.” Visitors to China know that Beijing is already racing down a similar path and many of the most dynamic minds in American business are thinking similar thoughts: Google launched its RE<C (“renewable energy cheaper than coal”) drive three years ago.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus, who were caustic but prescient in their attacks on the chances for cap-and-trade, and on establishment environmentalism in general, in their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism,” should be applauded for helping lead this constructive work, and Lomborg may have a part here too.
The reason for the shift, however, is partly because this kind of strategy is easier to win backing for—at least in theory no one objects to the idea of more research down the road. (Whether the Republicans will actually vote to spend government money on it remains to be seen.) There is, however, a very deep rub, and the careful reader will have guessed it. By their nature, these technology-led efforts take time to bear fruit. It would have been a very good idea to start them some decades ago (or even a decade ago, when Lomborg was explaining why we shouldn’t be spending any real money on climate change at all). But unless we have unexpected success with time machine R&D, that’s no longer an option.
At this point, therefore, this intensive R&D doesn’t make sense as the only response, because the climate is already destabilizing dangerously. We need to take strong emergency action in the present, doing what we can to start cutting carbon emissions immediately. And happily this is not an impossible task—Galiana and Green, for instance, are more pessimistic than the latest evidence warrants about the possibilities for short-term technological solutions that can quickly be put into action. Experts as different as the consulting firm McKinsey and Company and the climate blogger Joe Romm have listed at great length the opportunities for deployment of technologies right now.1 They may not get us 80 percent carbon reductions soon, but they could get the ball rolling fast.
The precondition that most of these require is a higher carbon price, though some—widespread adoption of cogeneration of electricity from waste heat, for instance—need only regulatory change to cut red tape. You can see these off-the-shelf technologies multiplying quickly: in China, for instance, coal-fired power is still on the increase—but solar hot water heaters have also become commonplace. By one manufacturer’s estimate, when 250 million Chinese take a shower, the hot water is coming from solar panels on the roof. Even in India, still at the beginning of energy transformations, you can sense possibilities: the operators of cell-phone towers, for instance, are converting their power source from diesel generators to solar panels, and producing enough excess capacity to power local schools or clinics as a side business.
It’s also worth asking where it makes the most sense to spend the money. Tariq Banuri, Niclas Hällström, and Alan AtKisson, among others, have been pushing a plan that calls for rich governments to concentrate their spending not on R&D within their borders, but on pushing renewable energy technologies in poor countries; they present a nuanced and interesting plan that suggests a trillion dollars of investment over the next decade. This, they say, would both drive down the cost of renewables to the point where they’d make sense for the whole world, and provide much-needed power to the poorest countries, preventing them from building coal-fired plants in the next few years that will pour carbon into the air for decades.2
In the end, the choice is pretty clear. If we change regulations, set and enforce strong targets, and commit large sums of money now, we could cut carbon now—with some of that money going for increased research and development that would provide a good second punch in the decades ahead. Galiana and Green advise against such immediate action, because by their calculations it would require “substantially reducing” economic growth. But they see no real need for it anyway because they think that climate tipping points are “low probability” events, and that talk of catastrophe is “emotive” language.
Shellenberger and Nordhaus unfortunately have argued much the same things; citing one study on insured damage from storm losses, they’ve insisted that “researchers are unlikely to be able to unequivocally link storm or flood losses to anthropogenic warming for several decades, if even then.” They extrapolated from that to argue that campaigners should downplay the fears of global warming. This reluctance to admit that global warming is a present crisis, not simply a future problem, in the end weakens all these analyses; it’s a point I imagine that nature will continue to press home in the months and years ahead.3 Munich Re, the world’s biggest insurer, reported recently that 2010 had indeed been an epic year for natural disasters and that its premium payouts “provide further indications of advancing climate change.”
The best case you can make for postponing most real carbon-cutting until some future date is not scientific or economic, it’s political. So far, no one has been able to get our political leaders to take action anywhere near strong enough to matter; with cap-and-trade in the ditch, Lomborg, in the introduction to Smart Solutions, defends his prescriptions as “more effective, more efficient, and—crucially—more likely to actually happen.”
But it’s here that Lomborg and his followers are doing real damage. One reason that we’re unable to get public demand for action on climate is that there’s always someone downplaying the risk. Exhibit A would be Cool It, the documentary timed to accompany this book. Though it’s directed by Ondi Timoner, I think we can safely assume that the film is in some measure Lomborg’s creation. He’s listed as the lead writer, he’s on the screen almost continuously, and above all the movie manages to convey his energy with great accuracy. We see (the always carefully casual) Bjørn on a train, Bjørn on a bike, Bjørn with his mother. But through it all we see Bjørn spinning.
Consider, for instance, the way he deals with James Hansen, the NASA scientist who more than anyone else has led the scientific quest to understand climate change. The movie uses several clips of Hansen being interviewed, and they are each used disingenuously. In one, for instance, Hansen explains that the cap-and-trade bill would have been ineffective; the eminent scientist seems to be agreeing with Lomborg’s core contention that putting a stiff price on carbon is too expensive and ineffective.
But I’m willing to bet that in that interview Hansen went on to call for a much tougher and more populist version of market-based carbon restrictions, the so-called “fee-and-dividend” policy he’s defended ably. (In fact, I watched earlier this year as Hansen made that case on a stage he shared with Lomborg at a New York symposium—but the Cool It film crew had only miked Lomborg, so audiences are deprived of the chance to see Hansen challenge him on this and other issues.4) The movie adds insult to injury by showing another shot of Hansen while it talks about scientists who find it “important to their livelihood to keep people scared.” In point of fact, Hansen has kept his federal job for decades when it would have been easy and more lucrative to jump to some academic post; he donated the royalties from his recent book Storms of My Grandchildren to the fight against climate change. Slur, pure and simple.
And not just a slur, but a way to hide the possibilities for a third way out of our mess. Cap-and-trade is dead; research and development are helpful, but not immediately. That leaves, I think, another possibility for the short term: a real and concerted grassroots political movement that alerts people to the desperate stakes and figures out ways to attract their support. The fee-and-dividend policy that Hansen favors, for instance, would in essence put a huge tax on oil and coal companies, collected at the wellhead or the mine gate; and they of course would respond by raising the price of a gallon or a kilowatt.
But instead of the elite-endorsed cap-and-trade idea, where the money would disappear into a trackless void comprehensible only to energy traders at places like Goldman Sachs, under fee-and-dividend the proceeds of that whopping tax would simply be divided up and every American would get each month a check for their share, which many would use for their energy costs. By most analyses, 80 percent of Americans would come out ahead—and so you can imagine building a constituency for such a plan, especially if you were willing to tell the truth about the immediate peril of climate change.
Veteran environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard makes the case for such a movement strategy in his new book Hot. He wants to improve already available technologies, but much of the book argues, correctly, that we’ve already committed ourselves to some temperature rise, and so will also need to be clever and nimble as we try to adapt. However, Hertsgaard is also conversant with the latest science, and understands that there are deep limitations to that adaptation—we may be able to figure out how to grow enough food if the temperature rises a degree or two, and our cities may be capable of handling a meter of sea-level rise. But past a certain point, adaptation is impossible—recent data suggests, for instance, that unabated temperature rise could cut world grain yields by a third or more as the century wears on.
So he calls for a real movement—not the inside-the-Beltway lobbying that produced the cap-and-trade failure, but an in-the-streets surge that labels the fossil fuel companies as the enemies to a workable future, guilty of a “crime” comparable to the cover-up of the links between tobacco and cancer but with even greater consequences. The closest we’ve come to such a movement so far was in the months around the release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but that effort faded quickly; the solutions the movie offered were less political than personal, and despite Gore’s strenuous efforts for a governmental solution, the public responded with a short-lived wave of lightbulb-changing and Prius-buying.
I’m not sure it’s possible to build a movement to get deep short-term responses to climate. My own experience as one of the founders of the first big grassroots global climate campaign, 350.org, has been suggestive. This past fall, with almost nothing in the way of resources, we managed to organize 7,400 events in 188 countries on a single day, the most widespread day of political action that the planet has yet seen. This isn’t big enough yet to offset the power of the fossil fuel industry, but it offers hope that with a fierce push we might build enough power to win real and dramatic carbon cuts in the short term and also set the stage for the later improvements in R&D.
In any event, those people were rallying around a scientific data point—the CO2 target of 350 parts per million identified by scientists as the safe upper bound for carbon in the atmosphere. To my mind, they are the true realists in this fight, far more than the theoretically hardheaded Lomborg. His brand of realpolitik makes sense as long as you’re fighting a purely political battle. But in this case the actual adversaries are driven by physics and chemistry, and they are unlikely to be swayed by arguments about political convenience.
April 7, 2011
The chapters on “clean energy solutions” in Romm’s recent book Straight Up (Island Press, 2010) are particularly valuable. ↩
A good summation of their work is available in a book published by the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, entitled A Green Energy Revolution for Climate and Development. An online version, mostly in English, is available at www.naturskyddsforeningen.se/upload/Foreningsdokument/Klimat/Knackfragor/GER_feed-in-tariff_compilation.pdf. ↩
Lomborg’s prescription for dealing with the possibility of abrupt climate change is geo-engineering, a fascinating topic worthy of in-depth treatment. But his movie doesn’t supply it—mostly it shows Bjørn gazing at Nathan Myrhvold, former chief technology officer at Microsoft, as he shows a small model of a plan to suspend a hose twenty-five kilometers into the atmosphere using helium balloons. The hose will pump out sulfur, which will block incoming solar radiation. The scheme will do nothing to deal with the acidifying ocean, and by many accounts the side effects may be almost as bad as the disease of climate change—among other things, since plants need sunlight to grow, blocking it comes with certain disadvantages. ↩
One can see a debate between Lomborg and myself at middarchive.middlebury.edu/cgi-bin/showfile.exe?CISOROOT=/diglectarc&CISOPTR=168&filename=169.url. ↩