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Lomborg's Partly Right Problem and Wrong Solution

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Bjorn Lomborg has been energetically courting publicity for his new film, “Cool It,” which has attracted minimal box office sales thus far. But he’s been publishing articles at an impressive clip, in a quest for more exposure, influence and funding.

He correctly observes that public discussion about global warming is largely between two entrenched camps of opinion. Lomborg is also right about our needing a “Plan B” climate policy that defuses the current rancorous and unproductive debate about “the manmade climate problem.” His first camp is inhabited by warming alarmists, supported by the majesty of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Most major institutions in western society have joined their funereal fugue (and funding pipeline) in supportive chorus.

In Lomborg’s other camp, empiricists (including a majority of independent scientists) argue implacably that we still await actual, factual evidence that our planet is still warming at all – let alone dangerously, let alone because of human carbon dioxide emissions.

Reality, of course, is a lot more nuanced. For example, it is simply incorrect to say, as Lomborg does, that most independent scientists argue that “global warming was a fabrication.”

The truth is, all competent scientists agree on three things. Earth has been warming since the Little Ice Age ended 150 years ago, and its climate changes frequently. Human activities (not just CO2 emissions) definitely affect local climate, and combined together have the potential to affect global climate, perhaps measurably. Third, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, albeit a minor one.

The real scientific debate is not about any of this. It is, rather, about the direction and magnitude of global human effects, and their likely significance when considered in the context of natural climate change – which has been occurring ever since Earth developed its oceans, atmosphere and climate many eons ago.

After spending more than $100 billion since 1990 to support research by thousands of scientists, we are still unable to isolate and measure human influence on global temperature. That influence remains buried deeply in the noise and natural variation of Earth’s climate system.

Lomborg is either ignorant of this fact, or chooses to ignore it. He simply assumes “the manmade climate problem” is real – and proceeds to offer a “solution.” He now asserts that governments should allocate yet more money for more research, this time into new renewable technologies for power generation, so that “green” energy will eventually (and presumptively) become cheaper than hydrocarbon-based energy!

There are two major problems with this. First, technological innovation is not enhanced by governments attempting to pick winners, but by encouraging and rewarding private investment and entrepreneurship in truly free markets.

Spending taxpayer money on problems that government wants to solve generally means the “problems,” and the funding recipients, are chosen for political reasons. As failures like Europe’s Concorde, Australia’s pink batts home insulation program and America’s Synfuels Corporation attest, they rarely achieve the desired result, but breed enormous cost, waste and corruption.

Second, the amount of capital invested in attempting to improve the efficiency of “green” energy over the last three decades is many tens of billions of dollars in tax credits and other subsidies. The results are lamentable, and fraught with waste and corruption on an embarrassing scale. Even when the sun shines or wind blows, solar-cell and wind-turbine power remains inefficient, unreliable, destructive of landscapes, and at least three times more expensive than conventional alternatives. These technologies survive solely because governments are in political thrall to small, but noisy and powerful, Green voter minorities and their rent-seeking corporate allies.

Can anyone seriously support pouring yet more unrequited money down this drain?

Lomborg also seems to have missed the fact that the debate over global warming has moved on. The ClimateGate emails were followed by the wholesale discrediting of the IPCC as a source for reliable scientific or policy advice. Moreover, new scientific papers continually weaken the already tottering hypothesis that human carbon dioxide emissions are causing dangerous climate disruption. Many independent scientists and commentators now realize that the real hazards we face come from natural climatic events and changes – rather than from hypothetical, computer-modeled “manmade global warming.”

The appropriate response to climate hazards, whether natural or human-caused, is to adapt to events, as and when they happen. Two recent books (Adaptive Governance and Climate Change, by Ronald Brunner and Amanda Lynch, and Climate: the Counter Consensus, by Robert Carter) describe this approach in detail. As former British Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson puts it, “First and foremost, we must do what mankind has always done, and adapt to whatever changes in temperature may in the future arise.”

Public debate about global warming has been dominated for far too long by scientists, economists and social scientists who proceed from the assumption that human CO2 emissions are causing dangerous warming. Most are unable to assess the latest science themselves, or have accepted verbatim what the world has now come to realize is the deeply flawed, alarmist advice of the IPCC.

The time has come to listen instead to the majority opinion of qualified independent scientists. They conclude that climate hazards are overwhelmingly natural problems, and thus should be dealt with by the time-honored civil defense technique of preparing for adverse events in advance, and adapting to them when they occur.

Whether the hazards are short-term (hurricanes and floods), intermediate (drought) or long-term (warming or cooling trends), preparation must be specific and regional in scale, for the hazards themselves vary widely by geographic location. If governments prepare properly for the full range of natural climatic hazards to which their countries are regularly exposed, this “be prepared” approach will also address the risk of future human-caused climate disruptions, should they ever occur.

Preparation and adaptation for all climate change is the simple, commonsense, cost-effective and precautionary Plan B that all governments can, and should, support.

This article is co-authored by Professor Bob Carter, an adjunct Research Fellow at James Cook University (Queensland). A paleontologist, stratigrapher, marine geologist and environmental scientist with more than thirty years professional experience, his personal research publication record includes more than 100 papers in international science journals on palaeontology, palaeoecology, the Great Barrier Reef, and sea-level and climate change. He continues to conduct research on climate change, sea-level change and stratigraphy and has been an expert witness on climate change before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, the Australian and New Zeeland Parliamentary Select Committees into Emissions Trading, and briefings at the 2009 climate summit in Stockholm.

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