Bjorn Lomborg and the challenges of mitigation

The Danish political scientist and statistician Bjorn Lomborg is a hugely controversial figure in the climate-change discussion and I hesitate even to bring him up. But what the hell.

If you’re not familiar with him, the 30-second summary is that Lomborg describes himself as an environmentalist and says he believes climate change is happening and that human beings are significantly responsible for it, but he’s used several lines of argument over the years to propose that responding to the situation by cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is the wrong move. He wrote a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist that has been quite popular in certain quarters, though many, many professional earth-scientists (as opposed to political scientists) in the relevant fields have challenged both its premises and its conclusions.

His argument, articulated at length in an interview on PBS’s NewsHour, is that we’d end up better off if we accept that climate change is inevitable no matter what we do, take the money we’d spend cutting greenhouse-gas emissions (which he estimates at about $180 billion per year globally in today’s dollars) and apply it to mitigating the effects of climate change and a host of other problems such as malaria and poor nutrition and to research on easier ways of cutting emissions so that countries like China will want to and be able to afford to get on board.

Well, basically, Ray [host Ray Suarez], the point is to say, we don’t care particularly about climate change, per se. We care about, what are its impacts? We care about the people who are going to get more risk in flooding, the people who are going to get more exposed to malaria, the people who are going to die more because of heat waves. And those are the people we actually want to help.

So the question is: Can we do better? And my argument is simply, if you look, for instance, at the Kyoto Protocol, even if everybody did the Kyoto Protocol, including the U.S., it would have very little impact. It would basically postpone global warming by about five years at the end of the century, at a cost, as you mentioned, of about $180 billion a year.

Now, if you look at some of the other things, you could do great good in the world. You could actually do amazing amounts of good to many of the people who are going to get hardest hit by climate change through focusing on HIV-AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, free trade, agricultural research.

The point is that most of the impact that’s going to come throughout the 21st century will come from emissions from third world countries like China and India. And the idea is to say, as long as it costs $30 to cut a ton of carbon dioxide, rich countries may do a little, but poor countries, like China and India, are not going to do anything. What we need to do is to cut the cost of cutting carbon emissions from $30 down to $3. If it costs $3, then maybe they would.

So this is about a long-term strategy. Instead of these, “Let’s cut a lot now,” that makes us feel good, but end up doing very little good, it’s about making sure that we end up making much better technologies available to everyone in the world so that we can cut carbon emissions cheaply.

That’s about investing in research and development, and that’s why I’m suggesting spend perhaps $25 billion a year on research and development in low-carbon emitting energy technologies. That will likely do much more good than the Kyoto Protocol at a much lower cost.

Put aside all the other stuff Lomborg has said about climate change in the past. This is, on its own merits, an interesting economic and utilitarian argument.

The premise of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions is that we will be able to make a difference globally — that the total worldwide emissions will be able to be cut drastically and permanently, and that that will slow down and ultimately halt climate change before it makes things too uncomfortable for too many people. The premise assumes that although the United States, China, India, Brazil and other emerging economic powers that pollute a lot are not now doing very much to reduce their emissions, they will be persuaded to do so in the future.

A further premise is that two forces will act on these laggards if most of the world’s other countries do cut their emissions. The first is moral suasion, which can only come from leading by example. The second is economic opportunity, if it can be shown that cutting emissions ultimately leads to greater prosperity through more efficient industry.

This second point is the basket into which I put my rhetorical eggs — that this stuff is good for an economy completely independent of climate change, and the sooner we start, the better. I’m irked that Lomborg looks at costs and not benefits for the people doing the spending.

I’m also not convinced that China or the United States is a hopeless cause. China is reaching an environmental turning point where the health costs of its coal plants are practically exceeding the benefits of the electricity derived from them. A Democrat president and a Democrat-controlled Congress could make sharp reductions in gas emissions a matter of national policy in the United States. And if we can avoid the problem (and its potentially manifold unexpected consequences and ramifications that could be much worse than anybody’s predicting), that’s a better solution than learning to live with it.

So that’s my answer to Lomborg’s latest ideas. If you believe that climate change is a real problem, you probably ought to have one, too.

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