Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist who rose to fame in 2001 with his controversial world bestseller The Skeptical Environmentalist, in which he challenges global warming orthodoxy, recently spoke in the 2012 Distinguished Speaker Series sponsored by the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy Environment and Economy.
Sporting a black T-shirt and jeans — his trademark — the charismatic Lomborg regaled the overflow audience in MacEwan Ballroom with tales of academic ineptitude, political idiocy and ecological chicanery that have characterized the global warming movement since 1992, when the first world environment summit was held in Rio de Janeiro. Citing the failed Kyoto Accord as “Exhibit A,” Lomborg explains our fixation on carbon emissions has led to the misallocation of trillions of dollars to support policies and actions that, in the end, do little more than make us feel good. “Reducing emissions doesn’t actually save many polar bears,” he quipped.
Citing International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) statistics, Lomborg points out that even if the Kyoto Accord were fully implemented by 2100 — estimated by the IPCC to cost the world economy $15 trillion — the rise in the Earth’s temperature will only have been lessened by a fraction of a degree from what it would otherwise have been. True, but irrelevant; we’ll return to this.
Lomborg is not a denier. He agrees that “global warming is real, it’s man-made, and that it must be addressed,” but after that his thinking diverges radically from most believers. For one, he thinks the threats posed by global warming have been, at best, exaggerated and, at worst, fraudulent. Aiming humorous barbs at alarmist-in-chief Al Gore, Lomborg confides that while the truth may be inconvenient, it’s not the whole story.
One example is the fear that the number of heat-related deaths will increase significantly as the Earth warms. “True,” agrees Lomborg. In 2003 as many as 35,000 victims — mainly poor, elderly folks — died in Europe during a record-breaking heat wave that Gore’s minions say will become more common. What Goreites don’t tell us is that although more people will die from heat, almost nine times as many will not die from cold as the climate moderates, claims Lomborg.
He also tackles sea level rise. He doesn’t dispute the fact, but contends that it will be neither as severe nor as destructive as we’ve been told. Oh, there will be disastrously negative outcomes in a few places — some Pacific Islands and swaths of Bangladesh, and Vietnam and Florida, among others — “but it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” Lomborg’s solution? Instead of wasting a fortune to reduce carbon emissions, the world should invest in actions “that actually help people.” Fifteen trillion dollars builds a lot of dikes for drowning cities and buys a lot of air conditioners for sweltering Europeans seniors. And it could do a lot more, says Lomborg, including providing clean drinking water to the whole world and ending malaria in developing cities, while still having plenty left over to aid displaced climate refugees.
Lomborg’s alternative to Kyoto-type solutions that aim to reduce emissions is rooted in free-market economics. The best way to adapt to global warming is to make more people rich. Rich people can afford air conditioners. In malaria-prone areas of the world, the rich do not die of it because it’s easily treated when diagnosed. Investing in free markets instead of failed policies would yield 10 times the benefit for just half the money, he says. Sounds nice, but Lomborg’s “bang-for-the-buck” theorem is fatally flawed.
Leaving aside the standard critiques of capitalist development, Lomborg’s analysis hinges on the repeated assertion that reducing carbon emissions is solely motivated by the desire to decrease heat deaths, save polar bears, stop sea level rise or prevent any multitude of disasters that entice you to donate to Greenpeace or buy carbon offsets. This assumption is both inaccurate and misleading, and lends false credibility to his argument.
Although more polar bears and fewer heat deaths would be welcome, the primary reason for reducing carbon emissions now is to prevent the situation from getting worse than it already is.
The scientific community has already conceded two degrees of warming by 2100. Already processes that cannot be stopped have been set in motion. But the problem isn’t the first two degrees of warming, which we could probably live with, it’s the third, fourth and fifth degrees that are the killers; which brings us back to that fraction of a degree.
Conveniently, Lomborg’s universe ends in 2100, a parlour-trick to set up false comparisons. In the real world there’s going to be a 2101 and that’s when things start to get ugly. This presents two scenarios which, without context, appear almost identical, but they are trending in dramatically different directions. In his, which is only fractionally warmer but which has been accumulating carbon for another century, temperatures will be set to soar as greenhouse processes intensify. In the other, temperature is contained because emissions have stabilized at manageable levels.
Lomborg is right about a lot of things. We must invest heavily so that the world remains prosperous and peaceful as we adapt to a new climate reality. But if we do it at the expense of attending to atmospheric carbon, those efforts will be wasted. Two degrees of warming is inevitable. More than that is not.