Bjorn Lomborg is back, and his critics will not be happy. In 2001, the Danish statistician published The Skeptical Environmentalist, an optimistic assessment of global environmental trends that provoked intense controversy and debate. His data-driven challenge to the “Litany” of environmental pessimism incited vitriolic attacks from environmentalist doomsayers. Malthusian environmental activists sought to discount his message, accusing Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty” and, in one case, throwing a pie in his face. Such tactics failed to accomplish anything but increase Lomborg’s notoriety and boost book sales.
If The Skeptical Environmentalist gave eco-pessimists epileptic fits, Lomborg’s new book could provoke outright seizures. Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming is Lomborg’s take on the number one environmental issue of the day. Lomborg remains stubbornly optimistic about humanity’s future as he argues we must “cool our conversation, rein in the exaggerations, and start focusing where we can do the most good.” For Lomborg, this also means cooling the push for binding limits on greenhouse-gas emissions.
Lomborg readily accepts that human activity has increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and that this, in turn, has contributed to global warming over the past several decades. Such claims are “beyond debate.” “What is debatable,” he explains, “is whether hysteria and headlong spending on extravagant CO2-cutting programs at an unprecedented price is the only possible response.” In Lomborg’s view, the dominant climate-policy prescription — draconian emission controls — would likely do more harm than good, particularly in the near term, so other options must be considered. Lomborg explains that “policies addressing societal factors rather than climate policies will help much more and much faster. “Doing too little about climate change is definitely wrong,” he counsels, wisely adding that “so is doing too much.”
Lomborg provides a brief overview of the state of climate science. Global mean temperatures have increased over the past 100 years, and the available evidence suggests humanity bears some of the blame. The observed warming is greater than that which would be expected from natural variability. Additional anthropogenic contributions to greenhouse gas concentrations should continue to warm the earth over the next 100 years, producing a wide range of possible environmental effects.
Lomborg accepts the IPCC’s “standard” model projection of a 4.7ºF average increase in global temperature by 2100. Yet he also notes that a focus on “average” temperature obscures the regional variability in projected temperature rise. Temperatures in temperate and polar regions are expected to increase more than those in tropical regions. At the same time, increased greenhouse forcing should do more to increase winter and nighttime lows than summer and daytime highs. Such changes will be significant, but not necessarily a crisis in Lomborg’s view, as climate change can produce benefits as well as costs.
On the whole, Lomborg accepts that human-driven climate change is a problem worthy of serious concern, but he does not believe projected warming will be catastrophic. Many of the predicted effects of global warming, from glacial retreat and rising sea levels to droughts and food shortages are vastly exaggerated by activists and the media. Just as Lomborg sought to debunk environmental doom-saying about many environmental trends in The Skeptical Environmentalist, in Cool It he shows how many projections of a hothouse apocalypse are equally baseless. According to Lomborg, “once you look closely at the supporting data” underlying many terrifying projections, “the narrative falls apart.”
Placing the actual risks of climate change in perspective is the first step toward a rational assessment of climate policy options. The existence of global warming does not, in itself, call for a new generation of environmental regulations. All policy options should be on the table. Yet, as Lomborg laments, “we often don’t hear the proposals that will do the most good but only the ones that involve cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.” This is a peculiar, almost pathological, way to develop public policy. After all “our goal is not just to cut carbon emissions but to do better for people and the environment.”
Lomborg makes a compelling argument that stringent emission controls make little sense, particularly in the near-to-medium term. If the primary objective of global-warming policy is to improve human welfare, other policy measures make far more sense than regulations that will inevitably restrict the consumption of carbon-based fuels. The underlying point is that we cannot do everything — we cannot even do everything worth doing. Trade-offs are inevitable, so it is important that we focus our energies on those policies that are most cost-effective.
The proper approach, according to Lomborg, is not to focus on emission cuts to the exclusions of all other policy options. Rather it should be to identify the major economic and environmental problems facing human societies, including those that could be augmented by an increase in global mean temperature, and to dedicate resources where they can do the most good. This, in turn, means adopting policies other than controls on greenhouse emissions. He explains: “Even though CO2 causes global warming, cutting CO2 simply doesn’t matter much for most of the world’s important issues. From polar bears to poverty, we can do immensely better with other policies. This does not mean doing nothing about global warming. It simply means realizing that early and massive carbon reductions will prove costly, hard, and politically divisive and likely will end up making fairly little difference for the climate and very little difference for social impacts.”
One of the primary reasons to fear global warming is that it could exacerbate other problems, from the spread of disease and water shortages to flooding and extreme weather events. Like others before him, Lomborg stresses that it is far more cost-effective to address these concerns directly than to seek greater protection through emission controls. If we care about controlling the spread of malaria or fresh water supplies — two problems that could be worse in a warmer world — direct interventions are far more cost-effective than climate change policies; “in the short and medium term we can help real people much better through alternative policies. We can cut diseases, malnutrition, lack of access to clean drinking water, and sanitation while improving the economy with much cheaper policies that will have much greater impact.” Building infrastructure and improving access to health care are far less costly than controlling the consumption of fossil fuels.
Lomborg does not make this argument to dismiss climate policy altogether, merely to place it in perspective. In the long run, Lomborg accepts that reducing the anthropogenic contribution to global warming makes sense if it can be done in a cost-effective manner. Adopting policies today that will help shift economies to post-carbon energy sources can be a wise investment. On this basis he endorses substantial global investments in alternative-energy sources and a modest carbon tax.
Lomborg argues that R&D funding of alternative energy technologies has fallen in recent years, when it should be increased dramatically. He proposes a commitment of 0.05 percent of GDP worldwide, or $25 billion, to the development of new energy technologies. It is Lomborg’s hope that such investments could, over time, greatly reduce the cost of carbon-emission reductions, paving the way for meaningful emission reductions in atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations in the future.
At times Lomborg’s discussion seems a bit technocratic, and he understates the degree of uncertainty inherent in climate-change policy. Estimates of future emissions and energy use patterns decades hence are highly suspect. So too are climate projections that are based on such uncertain inputs. This does not mean that climate-change concerns should be dismissed, but it does counsel against pretending cost-benefit analyses can be conducted with any degree of precision.
While Lomborg is quite attuned to the pathologies of the climate-policy debate, he pays little attention to the pathologies of climate policymaking. To be sure, spending billions on alternative energy R&D could result in significant technological breakthroughs, but it is not as if governments have not tried this for years. The problem is that government subsidies are doled out according to political criteria, not the advice of technical experts like Lomborg. Given the power of the corn lobby, millions of taxpayer dollars go to ethanol in the name of environmental protection, but the environment is hardly better off. Expand the pot of available moneys, and the rent-seeking problem will only get worse. If Lomborg wants his research campaign to pay dividends, he needs to explain how such funding could be allocated in a less political fashion.
Despite these flaws, Cool It is a highly valuable contribution to the climate-policy literature. In clear and concise prose, Lomborg diagnoses the problems plaguing contemporary climate policy, injecting a needed tonic of realism and common sense into the climate debate. And for that very reason, it is sure to make Lomborg’s critics hot-under-the-collar.
— NRO Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.