Cool It - Interview with Bjorn Lomborg

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Aug 13, 2007 10:48 AM
Cool It - Interview with Bjorn Lomborg

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming by Bjorn Lomborg (Knopf)

"Cool It" is not the first book Denmark's Bjorn Lomborg has written about global warming. Lomborg's heretical 2001 best-seller, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," drew a firestorm of nasty criticism and unveiled hatred from environmentalists and the global warming crowd because it said most of the bad effects of climate change have been grossly exaggerated. Named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2004, Lomborg -- a statistician by training -- believes global warming is occurring. But he also believes we should approach the problem rationally -- which means not wasting all our energy and resources today on global warming's long-run effects when there are more-pressing human-killing problems like malaria and malnutrition we should be addressing.

Q: What does “Cool It” refer to?

A: Well, of course it refers to the idea that we need to find a way in the long term to reverse global warming. But it also -- and perhaps more importantly in the current debate -- refers to the fact that we need to cool and temper our conversation on climate change. Right now there is a lot of hysteria going on, a lot of alarmism going on, and quite frankly, if we only hear one side of the story -- and often an exaggerated side of the story -- it’s unlikely we’ll make good judgments.

Q: Will you give us a brief synopsis of your book?

A: It tries to tell us three things. It first of all says global warming is real. The second point is to say that the effects of global warming are very often vastly exaggerated and one-sided and that doesn’t lead to good judgments. So that’s the third part, where I try to point out that we need a much smarter, much cooler way of talking about climate change and thinking about how we can do something about it in the long run. What I try to say is that we need to focus on things that are both cost-efficient and will solve climate change. Right now we talk about cutting CO2 emissions, which is expensive and which quite frankly will do very little good. What I talk about is cutting the cost of cutting emissions – that is, investing in research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies like solar, like wind, like carbon-capture, energy efficiency – all these things. If we do that, we will leave a world where our kids and especially our grand kids will have a much easier time cutting their carbon emissions, simply because we’ve made it much cheaper. And therefore, both our kids and grandkids -- but also the Chinese and the Indians, who will be much richer in 2050 – will want to cut much more. So at the end of the day, it’s really, “Do we want to cut a little now at high cost or do we want to make sure the whole world will want to cut a lot at low cost because we’ve invested in research and development?”

Q: What is your position on global climate change?

A: I think it’s incontrovertible that it’s happening and that it’s at least partially caused by man. But it’s often vastly over-sold. The idea that we are going to see a 20-feet sea level rise is just simply not in the cards. The UN climate panel tells us it’s going to be about a foot. There’s a huge difference in telling us the sea level rise is going to be a foot over the next 100 years or it’s going to be 20 feet. One is a problem; the other one is a catastrophe. But it’s the problem that will actually happen. To put it in context, remember over the last 150 years sea levels also rose a foot. Yet was it something we noticed very much? Ask a very old person who lived through most of the 20th century what were the important things that happened and she’ll likely talk about the two world wars, the emancipation of women, and maybe the IT Revolution, but it’s very unlikely she’ll say, “Oh, and sea levels rose.”

Q: You aren’t a climate scientist and don’t even pretend to be one like Al Gore. What makes you qualified to write books about global warming?

A: Because I’m a social scientist and I’m a statistician and what I look at is “What are the social impacts of many of these things?” I simply take as a starting point what the U.N. climate panel tells us. But then I say, “We need to remember all the facts.” As I say, “The UN climate panel tell us one foot of sea level rise, so let’s not say 20 feet.” When the U.N. climate panel says we’ll see increasing temperatures that will mean that more people will die in heat waves. That’s absolutely true and everybody points that out. But of course increasing temperatures also means that fewer people will die in cold waves. And since in most parts of the world there are many more people dying from cold than from heat, we’ll actually see more people not dying from cold waves than extra people dying from heat waves. In the UK, it’s estimated that 2,000 more people will die from heat waves each year – a very much publicized fact. But we forget to hear that 20,000 fewer people will die from cold. That’s the point: I’m simply saying we need to hear both sides of that argument. It’s not a very complicated argument, but it’s one that’s absolutely necessary to hear.

Q: The reason we haven’t heard both sides of the argument, some of us would argue, is because the media has let us down by not playing fair and balanced.

A: The media, as you probably very well know, is not necessarily fair, because they love a good story which is often a bad story. I don’t think it’s because anyone is being inherently dishonest or trying to torture the facts. It’s much more that we as a human species have a tendency to only say, “Oh, my God what’s going to happen? Oh, bad things.” But perhaps we are forgetting to say, “If we are going to make good choices, we need to hear the whole story.” So I simply see this as a way of saying, “Oooh, let’s just remember that 2,000 are going to die from heat but 20,000 are not going to die from cold and we need both sides of that information.”

Q: What’s the most dangerous exaggeration about global warming that needs to be debunked or at least put into the proper perspective?

A: I don’t think there is any one. It’s the over all idea that humanity is somehow at stake, that this is a planetary disaster, or that we’re going to see the last remaining couples of humanoids at the end of this century wandering around close to the North Pole where they have a slight chance of survival. Those kinds of scenarios which have been put forward and gotten a huge amount of publicity by eminent people simply are not in the cards. Climate change is a problem, yes. But it’s by no means a catastrophe. Perhaps it’s important to say that in a world where 15 million people die each year from easily curable infectious diseases, it seems to me that we are missing our priorities when we focus so exclusively on one problem and forget that there are many others – and many others, mind you, where we can do much more good. So it comes down to this: What do we want to be remembered as this generation’s big achievement? Do we want it to be that we did a little bit about climate change? Or do we want it to be that we did a lot about many of the other problems in the world, like HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, clean drinking water, the list goes on?

Q: Who is Julian Simon and how has he influenced your thinking about global warming, its threat and its solution?

A: Julian Simon is a famous American economist who died in the late 1990s who pointed out that contrary to common belief, most environmental indicators, at least in the rich world, were not declining but actually getting better because as you get richer, you actually can afford to get better at dealing with the world’s problems. I set out to disprove him. I’m an old member of Green Peace. I worried intensely, as I think most of my friends did, that the world was coming apart. So I actually set out to disprove Simon. But much to my surprise, I found that much of what he said is actually true. I think what Julian Simon has taught me is that we should not just take whatever we worry very much about today as the final truth. We need to actually ask, “Yes. But what are the other important facts to make good judgments?” Do you remember how we worried intensely about the millennium bug in 1999? Do you remember how we worried about the avian flu just a year or two ago? And acid rain in the 1980s? None of these were incorrect in the sense that were not possible. But we were vastly over-panicked about them. It actually meant we worried about them and forgot about the many other problems. So I think what it really has meant to me is about taking back the perspective and remembering that we can’t fix all things, so we really have to be sure that we worry about the right things and in the right proportion.

Q: So what do we do about GW?

A: We need to realize that global warming is a 100-year problem that will need cooperation between generations, between political parties and between continents. This is something that has to be a political deal that will work throughout decades between different political parties and different countries throughout the world. It’s not one along the Kyoto (Protocol) lines, which basically means cut emissions now at fairly high cost but have very little benefit only 100 years from now. It should much rather be one that says let’s make cost-efficient efforts to make sure we cut the cost of cutting emissions. It’s about research and development and I specifically propose we invest 0.05 percent of GDP in research and development in non-carbon-emitting energy technologies -- this could be wind, solar, you name it. There are many different opportunities. The idea is, it’s 10 times cheaper than Kyoto. It’s likely going to be maybe 100 times cheaper than the follow-up to Kyoto, which is going to be negotiated in my home town, Copenhagen in 2009. And yet it’s a 10-fold increase in the research and development that we commit right now to these issues. So it is one that is doable, it is politically feasible and it is smart. In the long term, it will likely do much more good than Kyoto or son of Kyoto will ever do – and it will actually have the affect in the long term to halt global warming.

Q: Why should Al Gore read your book?

A: (Laughs) That’s a great question. I think Al Gore has done a great service in making global warming cool. He’s basically taken it from a nerdy, almost ignored issue to making it what it is -- namely, a problem. But I think he’s over-sold it in many ways to make people over-worried and therefore has actually done global warming a disservice, because we will end up having one of those fads where we worry very much about it and then it sort of passes out of fashion. If we are going to have a sustained effort over the next 100 years, we need much smarter approaches. Since he is one of the very visible spokespeople, I would certainly hope that he would also read this book and realize if we need long-term progress on climate change and all the world’s other woes, we need to be smart about it and this is one way -- and hopefully a very smart way -- forward that I’m proposing.