Don’t Freak Out
Bjørn Lomborg speaks climate sense to nonsense.


We need to “cool our conversation, rein in the exaggerations, and start focusing where we can do the most good.” So Bjørn Lomborg writes in his recent book, Cool It!: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. This Danish statistician and “skeptical environmentalist” (the title of his earlier book) was recently named one of the “50 people who could save the planet” by the Guardian. Impatient with the overheated rhetoric and hyper-pessimism of conventional climate politics, Lomborg takes a cold, hard look at the empirical facts, and weighs the costs and benefits of global warming (which he does not deny) and the policy solutions advanced to restrain it. His recommendation: Calm down. In an interview with National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez today, Lomborg offers that same advice to Senator John McCain, while throwing some cold water on the Republican’s climate-change speech in Oregon this week. “Wishful thinking is not sound public policy,” Lomborg tells NRO.

Further, he warns: “In the May 1 London mayoral election, Ken Livingstone was a high-flying advocate for stringent carbon cuts and made his reelection a referendum on his policies to tackle climate change. His aides claimed it would be the first election in British history to be decided largely on environmental issues. Livingstone lost.”

Lomborg offers panic-free advice to the senator and the rest of the planet.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What did you think of John McCain’s speech on climate change Monday?

Bjørn Lomborg: McCain strikes some of the right notes — he says he recognizes the need for clean, affordable alternatives to fossil fuels; he acknowledges that climate change is real (although there are very few leaders these days who don’t) and he says that we need to deal with the central facts.

But then he doesn’t stay focused on the central facts himself, and ends up reaching some conclusions that are not so sound: he pushes for a cap-and-trade scheme which will do very little good while imposing very high costs. In his speech notes, McCain planned to call for punitive tariffs on China and India, but he omitted that from his delivered speech: hopefully because he realized that protectionism for green reasons can be just as harmful as protectionism for plain old economic reasons.

What’s the most disappointing part of his approach?

Lomborg: Instead of looking at the best answers to this problem, McCain is embracing those that are talked about the most.

His “free-market” talk is good stuff though, isn’t it? I know I like free markets.

Lomborg: To some, a cap-and-trade system might sound like a neat approach where the market sorts everything out. But in fact, in some ways it is worse than a tax. With a tax, the costs are obvious. With a cap-and-trade system, the costs are hidden and shifted around. For that reason, many politicians tend to like it. But that is dangerous.

It’s misleading not to recognize that the costs of cap-and-trade — financially and in terms of jobs, household consumption, and growth — will be significant. Some big businesses in privileged positions could make a fortune from exploiting this rather rigged market — but their gain is no reason to support the system.

Lopez: Is there anything worthwhile about Kyoto?

Kyoto burned a lot of political capital to create a response to climate change that costs a fortune but achieves very little.

The climate models show that the Kyoto protocol would have postponed the effects of global warming by seven days by the end of the century. Even if the U.S. and Australia had signed on and everyone stuck to Kyoto for this entire century, we would postpone the effects of global warming by only five years — at a cost of $180 billion each year.

Lopez: What could the planet do instead of Kyoto?

We need to make carbon-emissions cuts much easier. The typical cost of cutting a ton of CO2 is about $20 right now — but we know that the damage from a ton of carbon in the atmosphere is about $2. We need to reduce the cost of cutting emissions from $20 to somewhere nearer $2.

We can achieve this by spending dramatically more researching and developing low-carbon energy. Ideally, every nation should commit to spending 0.05 percent of its gross domestic production exploring non-carbon-emitting energy technologies — be they wind, wave, or solar power — or capturing CO2 emissions from power plants. This spending could add up to about $25 billion a year, but it would still be seven times cheaper than the Kyoto protocol, yet increase global research and development tenfold. All nations would be involved, but the richer ones would pay the larger share.

Today, solar panels are ten times more inefficient than the cheapest fossil fuels. Only the very wealthy can afford them. Many “green” approaches, right now, do little more than make rich people feel like they are helping the planet.

We can’t solve climate change by just forcing more inefficient solar panels onto people’s rooftops. The solution is to dramatically increase R&D so that solar panels become cheaper than fossil fuels sooner. Imagine if solar panels became cheaper than fossil fuels by 2050 — we would have solved global warming then, because switching to the environmentally friendly option wouldn’t be the preserve of rich Westerners.

If you could advise Sen. McCain on these issues, knowing where he is now and knowing he’s not going to want to look like a flip-flopper, how would you suggest this “maverick” approach the issue? Are there three things he could do better that wouldn’t be wholly inconsistent with where he is now?

The best legacy McCain could leave future generations is a world in which carbon emissions are low but incomes are high. It’s a possibility that is within reach — but not if politicians panic today.

McCain could propose that the United States spends 0.05 percent of its GDP on real research and development into low-carbon energy. That would give him the moral authority to ask the rest of the world to do the same when the Kyoto successor is negotiated in Copenhagen in late 2009. The total cost would be small so the likelihood of political success would be large.

With this move, McCain could leave behind the political mess and hypocritical in-fighting that marks Kyoto-type negotiations. He could show the leadership on climate change that has been lacking from the White House.

McCain would tap into the creative spirit that the United States of America is known for, and there would be some extraordinary results.