International Affairs Forum:
It’s been 6 years since the English edition of the Skeptical Environmentalist was released. What do you make of how the debate on global warming has progressed since then?
Well it's progressed in the sense that it's become clear now that global warming is real. I think everybody's gotten on board with that. But it's become sadder in that it's become much more focused on hyperbole and panic, and quite frankly that's not very helpful for the debate. I think underlying both of these trends is the lack of understanding of the main point in climate change- namely that what we do today, the very drastic measures undertaken- will have very dramatic costs now but very little benefit even far down the road. And we're not dealing with that very well right now.
Your work back then came in for some ferocious criticism. How has the response been to your latest book?
I think it's been very much the same. I felt back then that people who believed that global warming was not a big problem, who said it's a left-wing conspiracy or natural variation, greeted the book with an enormous amount of hype. But that was not at all what the book said. And a lot of people who felt that this was an incredibly urgent issue that needed immediate action and strong political curbing of carbon omissions criticized the book also for the wrong reasons. The book neither said that climate change was not happening (it is) nor did it say we shouldn't do anything. It said we should do smart things; and apparently that riled a lot of people up on both sides of this argument.
And that is part of the risk and the problem in trying to stake out a middle ground in this whole discussion. And I think we keep seeing a replay of that discussion in that a lot of people seem quite disturbed that I keep saying very clearly that climate change is happening. On the other hand, I also feel that a lot of people who feel climate change is an urgent issue just simply don't read the book. It doesn't seem to sink in that what I'm saying is that what we're currently proposing to deal with climate change simply will not have enough impact on all the problems that we profess to care about.
In ‘Cool It’ you don’t claim global warming isn't happening, you just argue that it is being tackled in the wrong way. What action in your view should governments be taking and how much of a priority should it be?
Well I don't think it makes sense to talk about what priority it should be without talking about what solutions there actually are. So I'll focus on those. Right now the typical answer is to cut carbon omissions, specifically in rich countries. This answer costs a lot and does very little good, and of course it's why we've seen very little happening. But it's what everybody seems to be arguing for again and again and again.
If you look at what has been argued in the Kyoto Protocol, it's cutting omissions to some 5% below what they were in 1990 by 2010. Yet it seems likely we're going to fall short of our estimates by about 25% when we get to 2010. So people are arguing that this is doing a lot when actually we are doing very little. And the reason for this is that the cost of this is fairly substantial. The average macro-economic model shows that the Kyoto Protocol if fully implemented will be about $880 billion a year, yet the impact would be minuscule. If we only did the Kyoto Protocol it would impact climate change such that it would postpone global warming by about 7 days. And that's why I'm arguing that we need to find a different way.
The bottom line is that cutting omissions is costly but does very little good. What we should be focusing on is making sure that it will pay off to cut carbon omissions throughout the century, and mainly that's about making sure that we have cheaper technology- cheaper solar cells, windmills, carbon storage, cheaper ways to deal with carbon omissions- and of course that means investing in research and development, yet we don't. We focus so much on cutting carbon omissions that we've actually seen a dramatic decline in the level of research and development, even in Kyoto-signing countries since the early 80s. So investment in research and development has never been lower than it is now since the early 70s. And so that's why I'm arguing that we need to focus much more on research and development; the great news is that it's both much cheaper and much more efficient.
Essentially, I'm proposing we should invest 0.05% of GDP in research and development of non carbon-emitting energy technologies- this would be about 7 times cheaper than the Kyoto Protocol, yet the benefits would be about 10 times as great. So we can do much more at a much lower cost and actually make sure we leave technologies much better suited for our kids and grand kids, and also for the Chinese and Indians.
Although you don’t deny global warming is happening, your work seems popular with many global warming skeptics. Do you ever worry that your work gets hijacked and distorted?
I actually don't think it gets "hijacked" as much as it just gets used. Many people who are global warming "deniers," who don't want to do anything about it, will use my argument as one more reason we shouldn't do anything. I actually think if you look at where most of my work gets misused and misquoted, it's by people who I'd like to be friends with but who seem to see global warming as the overarching problem of our time and like to suggest that I'm being overly optimistic or one-sided and misquoting the data. Although clearly in their approach to do so...I've just been writing a response to a piece in Prospect magazine by Kevin Watkins who said I've been cherry-picking when I said temperatures will rise 2.6 degrees centigrade where the U.N. says they will rise anywhere from 1.8-4 degrees centigrade, after which he goes on to talk about how it might be 4 degrees, it might even be 6 degrees, which seems to me to underline his point, namely that the outer edges of these figures go beyond what the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) talks about.
I actually take the median, the typical, the standard scenario. So yes, my work does get misused, but I certainly don't think that the right-wing, the skeptics, are the only ones to misuse it, and I think it's the inevitable outcome of a discussion that's very polarizing when you try to find a sensible middle ground.
You wrote in an article in the Washington Post recently that governments would be better off spending money on things like mosquito nets if they want to deal with malaria, or outlawing polar bear hunting if they want to save polar bears. Why do you think they haven’t done some of the things you say it would be more cost effective to do?
Because at the end of the day, what matters is that you look good, that you say the right things, rather that what actually comes out of it. And if talking about climate change is on everybody's lists, everybody's minds, then that is what politicians will talk about. Of course if everybody is worried about climate change through the mechanism of malaria then that is what we'll be talking about when we talk about malaria. Although we could do much more good and that's why I'm saying there is a huge amount of irrationality in this debate. We have a huge opportunity to improve ourselves, but politicians will only talk about it if the public start demanding not just churning out pretty words, but what is going to be the real impact of what you propose, for example in terms of cost and in terms of benefits.
It's hard to escape the fact that when people talk about dealing with endangered polar bears or dealing with malaria or any of the other climate change problems, they're only used as placeholders for arguing about climate change. If you really cared about people dying from malaria, if you really cared about polar bears, you could do so much more good elsewhere. And so it's hard to believe it's actually these people or these bears that we're trying to save; it's a particular argument we're trying to make. And of course that questions the whole approach because if you can do much more good wouldn't you want to do that?
What did you make of Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize? Some of his supporters argue that the fact that the issue is getting more attention now is a good thing, even if you don’t agree with everything he says.
I think there's some value to that argument. To the extent that he's gotten more of the right-wing American public to realize that global warming is a problem, that's great. And I think we should congratulate him for really putting climate change on the agenda. But I do think we should be worried that he's put it on the agenda in a very catastrophic and unproductive way because obviously if we're being told about scenarios that are vastly exaggerated compared to the I.P.C.C., it's unlikely that we'll make sound policy judgments. The obvious one is when he talks about 20 feet of sea level rise, where the U.N. climate panel tells us it's going to be somewhere between a half and two feet. Talking about 20 feet sea level rises then is not helpful and it's panicking people and making them make bad judgments.
That of course answers the question about what I think of him getting the Nobel Prize along with the U.N. climate panel. I think the I.P.C.C. was a good idea- if we want to talk about climate change; they've done a great job. But it's curious that they chose to give the award also to someone who so clearly contradicts much of what they say and who has basically been the P.R. person, and not entirely in a positive way.
I just wonder if part of what you call Gore's exaggerations isn't due to the fact that he was making a film and needed it to be more dramatic cinematically...
Of course that's part of it. Had he shown a one foot sea level rise, you wouldn't have been able to see it on the map. But that doesn't mean it's reasonable to scare people witless. If you do that, I think you've done a disservice to the discussion because at the end of the day we have to make judgments based on information we get from every available quarter on all the different problems facing the world. And if one problem ends up scaring the wits out of us then of course we're going to spend more money, more time, more political focus on those issues rather than on others. And that's not a good way to prioritize.
Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and author of the best-selling "The Skeptical Environmentalist." His latest book is "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Climate Change."
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