Planet Gore

Debating Bjorn Lomborg

Having linked to Mona Charen’s column discussing Bjorn Lomborg’s analysis of polar bear populations in my post below, I suppose I should get around to telling Planet Gore about Lomborg’s visit to the Big Apple last week. Perhaps President Bush should have a sit-down with Lomborg — or for that matter, Benedict XVI — before making his climate-change announcement tomorrow.

The Danish “skeptical environmentalist” was in town to take part in the Smith Family Foundation’s monthly debate series (as well as for a breakfast earlier in the day at my old MI stomping grounds). Only problem was: they couldn’t find an opponent for him. The Onion’s Bob Bowdon was pressed into service to play the role of interlocutor. The discussion that followed showed the wisdom of the alarmist camp’s decision not to show.
Lomborg is too tough a target for the run-of-the-mill Al Gore climate-camp trainee. He thinks global warming is real, at least partially man-made — but doesn’t see any proposals on how to respond to it that will be worth the massive investment. Most Planet Gore readers know Lomborg’s shtick — but in case you don’t, check out NRO’s review of and excerpt from his latest book, Cool It.
Of particular interest to Planet Gore readers — in light of the PG discussion on flex-fuel mandates — was that Lomborg hit all the points on ethanol skepticism: it consumes more energy than it produces; it’s driving rainforest clearages in the most biodiverse tropics; it’s sparking food riots all over the world; and finally, where’s the water going to come from? Lomborg is skeptical of peak-oil panic, as well — confident that we’ll find replacement sources of fuel long before we actually run out of oil. A Lomborg-Zubrin debate would be interesting — and quite different from the Zubrin-libertarian debate that’s ongoing on Planet Gore.
Why? Because Lomborg is a self-professed social democrat. He endorses government investments — of about .05 percent of GNP, if I recall correctly – in new technology to help make alternative-energy options eventually marketable.
What would he spend the money on? He threw out a few expensive ideas: an updated electricity grid adapted to make the best use of wind’s intermittency; solar panels that are flexible; his fondest hope, though, is for progress on what might be the most expensive option — carbon sequestration. He considers this the wisest course because the U.S., Russia, and more importantly China have mountains of coal, and we should proceed under the expectation that someday they are going to burn it. Therefore, we should develop the technology that will mitigate the environmental damage when they do.
”Why should this require government investment?” a skeptical libertarian might ask. Because as the European example shows, when you raise taxes on carbon, R&D investment in new technologies does not necessarily follow. Government bureaucrats who are focused on Kyoto emissions goals are focusing on short-term mitigation of CO2. What the world needs is investment in the blue-sky technologies that will solve the issues we’ll face two and three generations down the line. Private industry won’t be funding these efforts, since they’ll never get a return on their investment. So it will have to be government, Lomborg argues – despite all the temptations to politicize the process. Accordingly, there will need to be careful oversight over how such grants are awarded. The best way is to pay only for progress — to offer substantial monetary prizes for significant piece-of-the-puzzle breakthroughs.
Lomborg accepts the middle-of-the-road IPCC consensus on man-made global warming — “all things being equal, rises in atmospheric CO2 lift global temperature.” Refreshingly, though, he encourages skepticism. The IPCC is still only a best guess: Lomborg repeatedly cautioned that no one should believe unquestioningly in the IPCC’s numbers — or Lomborg’s numbers for that matter. After all, “all things may not be equal.” In a hat-tip to his countryman Henrik Svensmark, Lomborg noted that “The sun may vastly overshine this discussion.”
[In a nutshell: Svensmark believes that fluctuations in the Sun’s interplanetary magnetic field effect cloud formation in the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The more magnetically active the sun is — which we can proxy-measure by counting sun spots, intense magnetic storms on the sun’s surface — the fewer cosmic rays reach the earth’s upper atmosphere. Cosmic rays react with atmospheric gasses to free nuclei that help seed cloud formation, cooling the earth’s surface.]
At both the SFF “debate” and the private dinner that followed, Lomborg was asked why he wasn’t more of an IPCC skeptic — “You give the IPCC too much credit.” Even the IPCC’s middle-of-the-road numbers may be wrong. But since so many believe it, why fight the climate-science arguments when there are so many powerful arguments against climate alarmism on the social-scientific side? Lomborg’s approach is to say, “OK, IPCC, you’re right. Now what are you going to do? Let’s monetize these ideas and see where they lead us.” That’s a conversation that climate-change enthusiasts, skeptics, and “deniers” can all enjoin.
Of course, what if the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios are right? Anyone with a keen sense of the obvious will note that worst-case scenarios, by their nature, are the ones least likely to happen. In a refreshing bit of candor, Lomborg pointed out that worst-case thinking has to work both ways. Some of the same people who want the world to regulate emissions according to a worst-case scenario on climate will in the next breath indict George W. Bush for not finding WMDs in Iraq. Why wasn’t it OK for the precautionary principle to be operative in Bush’s foreign policy? Lomborg asks.
Not everything Lomborg had to say would tick off libertarians. During the Q&A session after the “debate,” a student got up to ask the vegetarian Lomborg: “Wouldn’t worldwide vegetarianism fix the problem?” Uh, sure, it would. But when people escape poverty and get more prosperous (and that’s our goal for the planet, isn’t it?) they eat more meat, not less. Even if you could enforce global vegetarianism, would you really want to? His answer is to correctly tax CO2; not to impose lifestyle choices on individuals.
Of course, here we’ve come to the core issue. Whether naively or mock-naively, Lomborg approaches the climate-change debate with the assumption that environmentalism’s ultimate goal is a sustainably prosperous globe — it’s an effort to make human life on our planet better for everyone. That’s the point of his Copenhagen Consensus: to quantify the best ways for world governments to use tax dollars and international aid to improve standards of living across the globe. But what if that isn’t really why you get into the emissions-regulation game — even though you might use sustainable prosperity as a talking point along the way? Why, in that case, you might be reluctant to debate this man.


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