The skeptical environmentalist

"We have to ask why we seem so focused on cutting CO2 when there are so many other policies that would do so much more good."

In "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming", Danish statistician and ex-member of Greenpeace Bjorn Lomborg demonstrates that his views have changed little from the time that he wrote "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "How to Spend $50bn to Make the World a Better Place". Lomborg is an unashamed economic liberal and globalist and believes that unrestricted (or at least, only slightly restricted) economic development will make all the world's people wealthier, lifting the grandchildren on those living in poverty today to a level of prosperity exceeding that of the first world by 2100, giving them and us, at the same time, the resources to deal with the effects of global warming. It is perhaps unsurprising to report that while he does believe that (man-made) global warming is happening, that it is not going to cause a calamity for the planet: it may cause a temperature rise of 2.5 degrees by 2100, and while this will, on balance, be bad, it does not present a challenge to humanity that is massively greater than other challenges that it has, and will, face. In support of that evidence he quotes the International Panel for Climate Change's (IPCC) 2007 data for a "business as usual" scenario. This is the worst case scenario of a body that is, he suggests, far from the neutral scientific body that it set out to be.

Lomborg's analysis is optimistic and his objective humanitarian. His argument is that Kyoto, had it been applied as originally intended, would have made little difference to global warming while seriously reducing the world's economic growth (to the tune of $50 - $180bn per year) and thus its ability to remedy current problems (e.g. HIV, malnutrition, a trading system biased against the third world, malaria, drinking water and sanitation). The actual effects of a temperature rise of 2.5 degrees will not in fact be that bad, he says, and can be dealt with more cheaply and efficiently by dealing with the symptoms rather than the cause. Kyoto, he argues, was a bad idea, and the world is lucky that we have not bothered to implement it effectively, because it would have cost far more than it would have achieved. Lomborg's argument is one of cost-benefit analysis.

Objectors to Lomborg's relentless economic optimism might challenge him from a number of angles. Lomborg rubbishes, for example, Dr James Lovelock on the basis of a few of the latter's metaphorical flourishes, but make no mention of the series of possible, and potentially catastrophic, "positive feedbacks" that he lists in "The Revenge of Gaia" (2006). This posited that a rise in temperature will set in train further warming events, including the release of further CO2 from dying rain-forests, methane (a worse greenhouse gas) from melting permafrost, the impairment of the oceans' ability to absorb CO2 as the warm and from the absorption of the sun's heat in areas of melted glacier (glacier that would previously have reflected that radiation). A 2.5-degree upward trend in 2100, even if not disastrous at that point, might indeed be too late to remedy before irreparable harm did occur. While Lomborg may be clever in relying on the IPCC "enemy's" data, however, I do wish that he had spent more time proving that the effects of global warming will certainly be as modest as he says, even if we do nothing.

Lomborg skates over the fact, moreover, that the world's economic development over the past 100 years has depended increasingly on oil. Before very long, say 5 - 10 years at most (e.g. Jeremy Leggett, Half Gone, 2005), the amount of oil we can pump from the ground annually will probably begin to decline. While this will of course reduce CO2 emissions in the long run, it is no foregone conclusion that it will not tip the world into an economic reverse that will leave it least able to deal with the effects of climate change as its effects become worse. Statisticians excel at understanding and extrapolating past data series when the underlying system does not change. They are inevitably less well equipped to deal with a "paradigm shift" caused by a significant change in that underlying system.

Other quibbles? He attacks work that has not been "peer-reviewed" (e.g. the Stern Report and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth") but it is not clear that his work has been subject to peer review before publication either. While he gives extensive footnotes he does not give page numbers for his references and so academic review, or indeed following up the odd point out of interest, would be more difficult than it might otherwise have been. Nonetheless, this is a work on the scholarly side of popular science.

Lomborg proposes a series of actions consistent with his interpretation that seem sensible, however, even if you think his analysis borders on the complacent. He points out forcefully that while many in the rich west have begun to believe even the most alarmist of global warming stories, all but a few have done more than make a few token cuts. He proposes a modest carbon tax (starting at perhaps $2 per ton of CO2 produced, rising over the course of the century to $14, which he says reflect the actual likely cost of the warming caused), not otherwise focussing on CO2 reduction, but while channelling $25bn (0.05% of GDP, for each nation in the world) into R&D on carbon-free energy*. Otherwise, we should spend money to alleviate the world's current problems of poverty, malnutrition and water shortage, disease and poor sanitation and hurricanes and flooding, which are a problem whether caused by global warming or otherwise. This would, over the next 40 years, make the world a better place, especially for those currently living in poverty, and better equip humanity to deal with the next set of problems.

I am impressed by Lomborg's analysis and his recommendations. Never a natural tree hugger, I am indeed inclined to believe that the current hype is the result of an unholy conspiracy between eco-freaks who would have us adopt an economic model of the middle ages (or some other golden age) and those who, while understanding the scale of the real problem, wish to shock us into action for their own ends, be they political kudos, scientific research grants, or because they simply don't have faith in the people at large to respond to the real situation. I feel more comfortable turning on the heating, driving my car or boarding an aircraft after reading his work (though I do feel a little guilt)! Whether you are impressed may depend to a great degree on whatever you have adopted from the massively confusing "public debate" on the greenhouse effect and climate change and other preconceptions. I do wish he had spent more time analysing the spectrum of possible effects of global warming rather than glibly reassuring us that these would not be catastrophic within the next 100 years, and it does strike me that we could do a lot worse than following his recommendations than merely worrying and wailing about inevitable disaster. I thoroughly recommend the book, and indeed, his earlier ones!

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