On the bright side

On the bright side

Bjørn Lomborg tells climate-change worrywarts to chillax in Cool It

By Amanda Witherell

The most masterful crafters of fiction depend on the deliberate omission of details. Ernest Hemingway, in a 1958 interview with the Paris Review, called it the iceberg of a story, an eighth of which pierces the surface, known and visible, while an untold reality remains submerged beneath the narrative. This art of absentia served Hemingway well, layering his stories with nuance and mystery. The icebergs in Bjørn Lomborg’s Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming serve their author’s purposes too, but they’re likely to melt under the glare of critical scrutiny.

Lomborg, a Danish statistician and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, examines the problem of climate change through the lens of expense, and according to his calculations, the public benefits of cutting carbon dioxide emissions aren’t worth the cost. If we really want to improve future conditions, he contends, we should pay more attention to social problems like hunger and disease, causes that have been relegated to the status of ugly stepchildren by the new hype around saving the climate. Early in the book he concludes that, calculated in purely economic terms, the Kyoto Protocol is a “bad deal.” Every dollar spent cutting carbon emissions translates to 34 cents of “good” — a term he neglects to define.

Whatever his definition, it demands investigation. Lomborg is, after all, “the skeptical environmentalist,” as he first made plain in 2001’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, which was roundly debunked by scientists and Lomborg’s avowed fellow environmentalists. The Union of Concerned Scientists got concerned with his optimism about the state of the natural world and convened a panel of leading experts, including biologist Edward O. Wilson, water expert Peter Gleick, and climate modeler Jerry Mahlman to delve into the details of his data. They determined that his conclusions were drawn from an artful manipulation of facts disguised by a narrative deftly criticizing other artful manipulators of facts.

In Cool It, Lomborg attempts to defame the doomsday scenarios presented by respected environmentalists and thinkers such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and James Hansen by focusing on their offal: the potential positive impacts of global warming. He points out that more people die from cold-related deaths than heat-related deaths and wonders why no one’s talking about the fact that fewer people may freeze to death in 2050.

Lomborg never denies that climate change is occurring, but he proffers interesting statistics to show that things aren’t as bad as has been reported, and he blames the media for distorting facts by employing easy iconography — hurricanes, Mount Kilimanjaro, polar bears, Antarctica. And it’s true: the media often go for the easy image — such as Time‘s cover photo of a polar bear bereft on a chunk of ice, which played a role in bringing the term “global warming” into the common vernacular. Lomborg, by the way, made that same magazine’s “100 most influential people” list in 2004.

This influential person writes with cool-headed assurance that global warming will not adversely affect polar bears any more than hunting them does, that some populations of them are actually increasing, and that evolution will equip the fittest for the future. He writes, “Yes, it is likely that disappearing ice will make it harder for polar bears to continue their traditional foraging patterns and that they will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.” His back-of-the-book footnote to that statement reads: “The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment finds it likely that disappearing ice will make polar bears take up a ‘terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.’ ”

And the hawks begin to circle. In a recent interview with Lomborg, Salon.com’s Kevin Berger said, “But you edited the quote. The whole thing goes like this: ‘It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.’ ” Lomborg defends himself by saying he talked to a different expert.

While it would be easy to discredit the remainder of the book based on this exposé, there is some worth in Lomborg’s reminder that we’ve been asleep at the wheel on far too many social problems, such as clean water, hygiene, disease prevention, and hunger. He isn’t wrong when he says that solving them would better equip populations for dealing with climate change. But further tugging at the roots of his footnotes is almost unnecessary because Cool It is virtually devoid of fully explored ideas.

For example, at a 2004 meeting the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a consortium of economists headed by Lomborg that think tanks on global challenges, drew up a global priority list of issues we should be addressing rather than shuttling cash toward cutting CO2 emissions. Ranking third is increased trade liberalization — code language for more NAFTA-type agreements, which have proved detrimental to developing countries. And what exactly is meant by number five, “development of new agricultural technologies”? Genetically modified organisms? Newer, stronger, somehow nontoxic pesticides? It’s hard to believe an environmentalist might promote pesticide use, but in his chapter on eradicating malaria Lomborg writes, “Concerns from Western governments, nongovernmental organizations, and local populations make it hard to utilize DDT, which is still the most cost-effective insecticide against mosquitoes and, properly used, has negligible environmental impact.”

Such a statement underscores Lomborg’s priorities when it comes to health — both human and environmental. His definition of cost gives primacy to cold, hard cash at the “negligible” expense of humans and their environments. Likewise, when the discussion turns to ratifying Kyoto, which he claims — without much explanation — would cost the US economy $160 billion a year, the price tag refers solely to the cost of disrupting business as usual.

“If we try to stabilize emissions, it turns out that for the first 170 years the costs are greater than the benefits,” Lomborg writes. But for the past 200 years we’ve been doing business on the cheap — and that shouldn’t be our baseline cost of existence. What’s the true cost of a species? Do we really know until it’s gone? What about the other negative environmental impacts of business as usual? Or the positive impacts of, say, more public transit to reduce car trips to reduce emissions? Plus, a decrease in the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas means more than just a decrease in carbon emissions. It means less mining, less drilling, less invasion into remote or protected areas questing for new ores. It means fewer oil spills, less mountaintop removal, less ground, water, and air pollution for the communities that have the misfortune of being sited in the backyards of industry.

In the book’s conclusion, Lomborg pushes for a $25 billion investment in research and design for alternative technologies. Seven times cheaper than adopting the Kyoto Protocol or establishing a rigorous carbon tax to encourage less CO2 emission, R&D investments are, in Lomborg’s economic rubric, a better deal.

Of course, there are already operational solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal units, vehicle-to-grid electric cars, and biodiesel recipes that could be more aggressively produced and adopted. But in Lomborg’s eyes they’re too expensive, bound to be replaced by superior technology, and thus a waste of money, to invest in now — he brushes aside economists who contend that prices will drop as demand increases. And beyond offering no ideas on diminishing the use of fossil fuel, he in fact encourages burning more in the communities that aren’t yet — though the sole upside to fossil fuels is economic cost, and the only cap on price is the perception of abundance.

He also fails to acknowledge that we can’t have both. We can’t have an increase in alternative technologies and an unabated use of fossil fuels. To actually deploy alternative technologies in the market — the hoped-for end result of all that R&D — would require the fossil fuels to step aside. This would, in turn, cut CO2 emissions. One must necessarily replace the other. There isn’t room for both. It’s like trying to put ice in a glass that’s already brimming with cold water.

One could argue that any adoption of alternative technologies would cover increased use, but that ignores what numerous researchers have pointed out: we should be universally deploying simple, effective, already established energy-efficiency measures. For the past 30 years California has done this, and despite projections and escalating energy use nationwide, the state’s needs have only increased in lockstep with the population — about 1 percent a year. Lomborg doesn’t aggressively push for energy efficiency, despite its cost-savings popularity with the same economically driven corporations, governments, and individuals likely to elevate Cool It to biblical status.

Lomborg criticizes as too extreme and costly proposals by Tony Blair and Gore to slash CO2 emissions by 50 or 80 percent respectively. Similarly he writes, “Restricting transportation will make the economy less efficient. Cutting back on hot showers, plane trips, and car use will leave you less well-off. It will also reduce the number of people being saved from cold, it will increase the number of water stressed [people], and it will allow fewer to get rich enough to avoid malaria, starvation, and poverty.”

Is it too bold to ask people to foreswear some of the excesses they’ve enjoyed, to put to bed some creature comforts, to fundamentally change the way they perceive living in the 21st century if they hope for a 22nd century for their children? Lomborg doesn’t ask these questions, so Cool It becomes more of a distraction than a contribution at a time when environmentalists should be busy promoting solutions, not debunking the carefully crafted fables of Lomborg’s dollar-driven theses.

Originally published September 25, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian