Smart strategies are needed to tackle climate change rather than being fixated on carbon cuts.
In his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Bjorn Lomborg says world leaders have to change track and focus on effective solutions.
A decade ago, I read the book Earth in the Balance (1992) written by former US vice-president Al Gore. It talks about how “industrial civilization as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet’s ecological system”.
It details the gradual destruction of the world’s rainforests, of the ozone layer, of fertile agricultural land, of the climate balance and warns that things could only go worse. It left a significant imprint on my mind. What kind of a world are we leaving behind for our children, I thought to myself. This dismal mood continued until recently when I chanced upon Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001).
At the time he wrote this book, Lomborg was Associate Professor of Statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. He admittedly does not have an environmental science background, but, despite this, attempts to overthrow the conventional outlook on the environment.
And what is this conventional outlook (what Lomborg calls the Litany)? Here is Lomborg’s depiction: “[T]he environment is in poor shape here on Earth. Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming more extinct in vast numbers – we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing and the coral reefs are dying.
“We are defiling our Earth, the fertile topsoil is disappearing, we are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world’s ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability, and the limits of growth are becoming apparent.”
In contrast to this Litany, Lomborg proffers the following: “Things are better…. We are not running out of energy or natural resources. There will be more and more food per head of the world’s population. Fewer and fewer people are starving. In 1900 we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67…. Global warming, though its size and future projections are rather unrealistically pessimistic, is almost certainly taking place, but… its total impact will not pose a devastating problem for our future. Nor will we lose 25-50 per cent of all species in our lifetimes – in fact we are losing probably 0.7 per cent. Acid rain does not kill the forests, and the air and water around us are becoming less and less polluted.”
Now I do not intend to summarise all the arguments and evidence Lomborg has given in support of his thesis. His book has over 2,900 endnotes and over 1,800 references. It is packed with facts and figures. I will just look at one example, scarcity of water.
Lomborg points out that “human beings … need about 100 liters per day for drinking, household needs and personal hygiene, and an additional 500-2,000 liters for agriculture, industry and energy production…. [I]f a country has less than 4,660 liters per person available it is expected to experience periodic or regular water stress. Should the accessible runoff drop to less than 2,740 liters the country is said to experience chronic water scarcity. Below 1,370 liters, the country experiences absolute water scarcity, outright shortages and acute scarcity”.
If you look at India’s available water (in litres per capita per day) it was 5,670 in 2000 and is estimated to be 4,291 in 2025 and 3,724 in 2050 (1998 World Resources Institute estimates). Thus India will not face a chronic water problem until well after 2050. Then why are we fighting over water and what can be done? The solution, according to Lomborg, lies in managing it better, with better distribution and adequate pricing. “When agriculture is given cheap or even free water, this often implies a hidden and very large subsidy – in the United States the water subsidy to farmers is estimated to be above 90 per cent or $3.5 billion. For the developing countries this figure is even larger: it is estimated that the hidden water subsidies to cities is about $22 billion, and the hidden subsidy to agriculture around $20-25 billion.” Thus to act as if water is free leads to conflicts.
In this article, I wish to focus mainly on Lomborg’s views on global warming and hence I will not write on his views on forests, energy, pollution, biodiversity, etc. These can be best looked up in his book.
To address global warming, Lomborg uses the figures and computer models from the official reports of the UN climate panel, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). Climate is an extremely complex system and involves multifarious interactions and scientists simulate it on supercomputers with so-called Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs).
Lomborg tells us that these models which predict global temperatures from 1990 to 2100 have uncertain representations of aerosols, water vapour feedback and clouds and hence tend to overestimate the climate sensitivity.
When IPCC gave a range of 1.4 to 5.8 degree celsius rise in global temperature by 2100, media preferred pessimism and CNN, CBS, Time and the New York Times all quoted only the high figure and omitted the low one.
While Lomborg accepts that manmade carbon emissions do contribute to global warming, he says that may not be the only culprit. He states: “it has been known for a long time that there is a correlation between solar activity and temperature. Probably, solar brightness has increased about 0.4 per cent over the past 200-300 years, causing an increase of about 0.4 0C …, and the trend over the last decades is equivalent to another 0.4 0C to 2100. A recent AOGCM study showed that the increase in direct solar irradiation over the past 30 years is responsible for about 40 per cent of the observed global warming”.
What will be the consequences of global warming? Lomborg responds: “Global warming will not decrease food production, it will probably not increase storminess or the frequency of hurricanes, it will not increase the impact of malaria or indeed cause more deaths. It is even unlikely that it will cause more flood victims, because a much richer world will protect itself better….Moreover, the consequences of global warming will hit the developing countries hardest, whereas the industrialized countries may actually benefit from a warming lower than 2-3 0C. The developing countries are harder hit primarily because they are poor – giving them less adaptive capacity”.
A step taken by the international community towards global warming was the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Lomborg, however, rejects this step saying that “the consequence of Kyoto will be a temperature increase of 0.15 0C less than if nothing had been done…. Permanent Kyoto curbs on carbon emissions would result in a sea level rise in 2100 which will be just 2.5 cm (1 in) less”.
Thus Kyoto will have an inconsequential effect on climate even though it would involve expenditures of the order of $150 billion a year.
The Skeptical Environmentalist offers a contrarian view to many mainstream thinkers on the state of the environment. The book created quite a furore when it was first published. There were accusations of sloppy work, inaccuracies, even dishonesty (all of which Lomborg defended against). Leading scientists and commentators wrote about it in prestigious journals, magazines and newspapers. But, in spite of the controversies, the book seems to have stood the test of time.
In 2007, Lomborg wrote another book: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. In the title, the reference is not only to global warming but also to the hot rhetoric that has surrounded his work. In this book he continues the cost-benefit analysis that he began in the previous book and the conclusion is the same: “global warming is not anywhere near the most important problem facing the world.”
In Cool It Lomborg counters the claims made by Al Gore in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth which enjoyed great success. For instance, Gore claims in this movie that global warming can lead to sea level rise of up to 20 feet over a century. Lomborg refutes this hysteria-mongering saying that it would be only up to one foot over a century. Already sea levels have risen one foot over the last 150 years and we have adapted to it. Similarly, we will be able to adapt in the future too, especially as we grow richer. Bangladesh, it is touted by the alarmists, will lose millions of lives due to flooding; Lomborg states that the loss in land area in Bangladesh will be virtually nil at 0.000034 per cent.
Lomborg points out the various exaggerations in Gore’s presentation as he addresses loss of polar bears, melting of glaciers, heat deaths, hurricanes and other extreme climates, malaria etc.
Lomborg says that instead of focusing on global warming and solutions such as Kyoto, we should focus on eliminating diseases, malnutrition and establishing sanitation and water and free markets. This would not only be cheaper but also make us readier for increasing temperatures. He also reposes a lot of faith on innovations in technology that would lead to reduced carbon emissions.
Lomborg is the founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a non-profit think tank that brings together prominent economists to examine and prioritise potential solutions to global problems using cost-benefit analysis. In his administrative capacity he has edited a few books: Global Crises, Global Solutions (2004), How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place (2006) and Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits (2010).
How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place is an abridged version of the book Global Crises, Global Solutions and is written with the educated lay reader in mind. Here an expert panel consisting of eminent economists (including Nobel laureates) was asked to prioritise among the opportunities for investment to improve conditions for the billions of poor in the world.
The panel gave top priority to combating communicable diseases, especially HIV/AIDS. Next came combating malnutrition and hunger. Next came global trade reform and spreading of free trade. Sanitation and clean water became the next priority. Later down the list came governance and corruption, international migration and finally climate change. Thus the Copenhagen Consensus determined that global warming was not as important as many other urgent issues facing the world.
After having said so much about the significance of global warming among other priorities, it was surprising to see Lomborg change his stand in Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits. In the introduction to this edited volume, he states: “the risks of unchecked global warming are now widely acknowledged: a rise in sea levels threatening the existence of some low-lying coastal communities; pressure on freshwater resources, making food production more difficult in some countries and possibly becoming a source of societal conflict; changing weather patterns providing favorable conditions for the spread of malaria….
“Climate change is undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today.”
This volume carries out cost-benefit analyses on various global warming solutions. The expert panel (comprising of three Nobel Laureates among others) ranked the solutions in priority order.
The panel listed novel methods such as marine cloud whitening (in which aerosols are seeded into clouds to make them reflect sunlight) and carbon capture and storage (in which carbon dioxide is sequestered and stored underground) as economically promising technologies. Then comes strategies such as technology transfers, expanding and protecting forests and increased use of stoves in developing nations. Cutting and taxing carbon, according to the panel, is a very poor strategy.
Lomborg concludes: “it is unfortunate that so many policy makers and campaigners have become fixated on cutting carbon in the near term as the chief response to global warming….
“If world leaders do not change track, they will be doing us – and future generations – a huge disservice. They will do much less good at much higher cost. It we care about the environment and about leaving this planet and its inhabitants with the best possible future, we actually have only one option: we all need to start seriously focusing, right now, on the most effective ways to fix global warming.”
This will not go down well with mainstream climate change campaigners who still swear by carbon cuts and carbon taxes.