Politics & Policy

Cool, Dispassionate Reason

A review of Cool It.

Skeptics of cap-and-trade have found their cinematic answer to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in Bjørn Lomborg’s new documentary, Cool It.

Lomborg, 45, has an innocent-sounding résumé: He is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a Danish think tank that researches cost-effective ways for governments to spend aid money. However, the film begins with clips of scientists denouncing him as a traitor, a parasite, and an idiot. In one shot, Stephen Schneider, the late Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies at Stanford University, tells the camera crew that they’re “not helping the world” by publicizing Lomborg’s efforts.

Although Lomborg believes in global warming, he doubts cap-and-trade is worth its cost. His skepticism is particularly dangerous because he’s not a card-carrying member of the Flat Earth Society. He’s a former member of Greenpeace. He has been a vegetarian since the age of eleven. One time, he and his childhood friends tried to build a windmill so they could renounce fossil fuels altogether.

But when Lomborg started teaching, he stumbled upon Julian Simon’s book The State of Humanity, which argued that, notwithstanding the media’s warnings of Armageddon, human civilization actually had become safer over time. Incensed by Simon’s contention, Lomborg asked some of his students to investigate the book’s claims. After six months of research, they concluded that much of what Simon had written was true.

In 2001, this experience inspired Lomborg to write The Skeptical Environmentalist, in which he debunked many misconceptions about global warming. His book invited scrutiny from the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty, which declared him in breach of “good scientific conduct.” Later, however, Arthur Rorsch, a professor emeritus of molecular genetics at Leiden University, wrote an article in the Journal of Information Ethics that reexamined the book and found that although Lomborg had made some mistakes, he hadn’t been dishonest.

After this introduction to Lomborg — including an endearing but unnecessary tangent on his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s — the film focuses on a lecture Lomborg gave at Yale University. Lomborg outlines his objections to Gore’s film and suggests different projects for developed countries to tackle. He thanks Gore for “putting [global warming] on the agenda” but warns that “the current approach” — that is, the worldwide agreement to cut carbon emissions — “is broken.” For instance, if every country actually implemented the 1997 Kyoto Treaty — which sought to cut emissions to 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 — it would have cost $180 billion per year and lowered the world’s temperature by only 0.0008 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.

The developing world, meanwhile, is home to great human suffering that — Lomborg claims — we can alleviate more effectively. Lomborg trots across the globe in his ubiquitous black T-shirt and blue jeans, highlighting these pockets of poverty. In Nairobi, Kenya, for instance, Lomborg visits a grammar school and asks the students what they would spend aid money on. A smattering say global warming, but most say health care. When Lomborg visits a well-to-do British school, by contrast, he finds the overwhelming majority of students concerned about global warming. Environmentalism, it seems, is a privilege of the rich.

Lomborg doesn’t condemn environmentalism; he just objects to shoddy arguments. For instance, he rejects the insinuation in An Inconvenient Truth that the greater damage caused by Hurricane Katrina relative to previous storms was the outgrowth of warming in the Gulf of Mexico. True, hurricane damage has increased over the past century, and warmer temperatures do make storms more intense — but the predominant reason for the greater damage is that more people live near the coast.

Lomborg also goes after Gore’s cuddly mascot, the polar bear. Yes, the melting of ice in the Arctic is bad for polar bears, but their population has increased dramatically recently. And had the Kyoto Treaty come to fruition, it would have saved only one polar bear per year. If governments really want to save polar bears, Lomborg reasons, then they should ban hunting them.

As the film ends, Lomborg offers his own policy proposals. He suggests the world spend $100 billion on research and development into renewable energy. Rather than waste money and stifle economic development by implementing a carbon-permit scheme, countries should make renewable energy cheaper. Lomborg mentions more outlandish ideas as well, such as whitening existing clouds to better reflect the sun’s heat. Yet his willingness to think outside the box is welcome.

If Lomborg’s film suffers one flaw, it is its overoptimism in suggesting that global poverty is much easier to solve than global warming. In the final scene, Lomborg is testifying in front of a congressional committee, whose chairman, Democratic representative Jay Inslee, smugly asserts the United States will take care of malaria and other diseases. With a mischievous smile, Lomborg asks, “Why haven’t you solved all these problems?”

We haven’t because, as the film shows, throwing money at a problem doesn’t solve it.

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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