Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm (Basic Books, $20) does not “deny” the likelihood of global warming as set out in the United Nations’ Reports on Climate Change. Lomborg expresses belief in the U.N.’s central estimate of a temperature increase of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by 2100. He argues, however, that after another 80 years of economic growth, such an increase will not impose particularly burdensome costs. Mitigation and adaptation are the right approach to dealing with rising temperatures, rather than ultra-expensive attempts to attack the problem head on. Irrespective of whether Lomborg is correct in taking global warming seriously, his approach is undoubtedly the optimal one when trying to set policy to combat it.
Lomborg, the former director of the Danish government’s Environmental Assessment Center, became known for his 2001 best-seller The Skeptical Environmentalist, in which he first showed that many of the costly actions we take to combat climate change are a poor allocation of resources. His new book discusses the prospects for global warming and then sets out to demonstrate that, even taken at face value, it can be addressed much more easily than by turning our carbon-based economy upside down. The most effective way to do this is by mitigating the effects of higher temperatures, which is almost always far less expensive than trying to hold back the increase in temperatures by reducing the CO2 content of the atmosphere.
Global agreements such as that signed in Paris in 2015, even if fully implemented and extended to 2100, would reduce the 2100 temperature by only 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Lomborg — and at enormous expense. With the United States withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and China adding coal-fired power stations at a rapid rate in defiance of it, the chance of a global temperature reduction by means of international treaty is infinitesimal. While expenditures to “fight climate change” are politically popular on the left, they are highly economically damaging, generally far more so than the cost of climate change itself. Lomborg quotes an estimate made by the government of New Zealand of its 2007 promise to become carbon-neutral by 2050, which suggested the cost by 2050 would be an annual 16 percent of GDP.
Conversely, Lomborg quotes an estimate by Professor William Nordhaus, the only Nobel winner in climate economics, that the 7.2 degree rise in temperature by 2100 would reduce global GDP in 2100 by 2.9 percent. Since the world of 2100 is expected to be more than twice as rich as our own, that cost appears manageable. Not to mention that the positive effects of global warming will partly offset the negative ones; for example, excessive cold currently kills more people than excessive heat, and in a warming world, crop yields are likely to increase on balance.
Lomborg gives many examples of how mitigation can reduce global warming’s costs. For example, the increasing cost of floods and fires may owe less to climate change than to a widening “bullseye effect” in which increased housing density in the wrong areas cultivates fire, flood, and expense. The solution is to increase the insurance costs of building on flood plains or near flammable forests, rather than subsidizing the cost of such insurance, as, for example, the state of Florida currently does. Again, the one-meter increase in water levels by 2100 from polar ice melting estimated in the U.N. projections will do immense damage if we do nothing to adapt, but can easily be mitigated through increased flood controls. So too with other ill-effects of climate change, such as the potential extinction of polar bears, which is the result of increased contact with humans. Despite increasing temperatures, the polar-bear population is now growing, and the species has been moved from the “endangered” list to a “threatened” category.
Lomborg also gives good examples of how “climate change” projects often don’t work; for example, solar-power installations in a poor district of India proved so inefficient as to be useless to the inhabitants.
If you buy only one book on climate change — and I don’t know why you would buy two — this should be the book. Its careful analysis and openness to the claims of climate-change proponents make its deconstruction of proposed steps to attack climate change especially devastating. If our moderately free civilization is to survive, the climate debate must be won by those offering practical solutions rather than hysterical talking points. Lomborg’s book gives you the ammunition with which you can win it.