The Corner

Quit Freaking Out, Senator McCain

Bjorn Lomborg, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” is not easy to label but very easy to listen to. He makes a lot of sense on Kyoto and other matters — including practical money and cause-and-effect matters. Anyway, I interviewed him in the wake of McCain’s climate-change speech and here’s a little of what he had to say:

Lopez: What’s the most frequent mistake you see politicians make when talking about climate policy?

Lomborg: John McCain’s daughter recently told GQ magazine that her dad is “freaked out” by climate change.

I think freaking out is the worst thing that any of us can do. There’s a lot of hysteria about this problem, which means that we don’t look at the full picture.

For example, McCain mentions that global warming means that there’ll be more heat-waves which will claim lives. That is correct. But it’s also true that rising temperatures will reduce the number of cold spells. And cold is far deadlier than heat. According to the first complete peer-reviewed survey of climate change’s health effects, global warming will actually save lives. It’s estimated that by 2050, global warming will cause almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths each year. But at the same time, 1.8 million fewer people will die from cold.

When we get “freaked out,” we don’t see the big picture. We don’t have a sensible discussion about dealing with climate change the best way possible — instead, we just reach for answers like massive cuts in carbon emissions, which we know is a very inefficient way of responding.

He also cautioned …

Lopez: How can John McCain legitimately differentiate himself from the Democratic nominee on climate policy?

Lomborg: I’m no expert on American politics.

I note that Obama and Clinton have called McCain’s plan “too timid” — but I also note that the three of them are all supporting, in varying levels, the Warner-Lieberman Bill on climate change, which looks set to be a massive subsidy-fest that would achieve very little for the environment, at great cost.

McCain could dramatically differentiate himself by being the only candidate acknowledging that promising cuts in the near future just means economic pain for no gain. He could stand out by acknowledging that promising dramatic reductions in the far-off future is simply sweeping the hard choices under the rug for now, for no gain. Wishful thinking is not sound public policy.

We need the technological solutions that will allow our societies to transition cost-effectively to low-carbon energy by mid-century. McCain could recognize that this is a century-long problem which needs century-long, smart solutions.

He should also realize that global warming is not the top concern of the American public. Despite all the attention and attempts to stir up panic, Gallup polls show the American people worry about it as much today as they did in 1989. Moreover, it is one of the lowest-ranked issues across all voters: in a Pew survey of Republicans in 2006, the percentage of respondents rating global warming as “very important,” was the lowest out of all 19 issues presented, and, for Democrats, 13th-lowest. In 2007, the ranking was even lower.

As McCain also knows, because of his promise to cut gas taxes this summer, the voters overwhelmingly reject tax increases as a way of dealing with global warming.

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.

The whole Lomborg interview can be read here.  

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