Chill out

Skeptical environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg questions the Kyoto Protocol’s effectiveness

Bjørn Lomborg disagrees with plenty of Al Gore’s conclusions about global warming, but shook the Nobel winner’s hand anyway.

Bjørn Lomborg disagrees with plenty of Al Gore’s conclusions about global warming, but shook the Nobel winner’s hand anyway.

Courtesy Of Bjørn Lomborg

Ten years after the Kyoto Protocol first was introduced, the question remains: What can be done about global warming? For the 175 countries that have ratified it so far, the treaty goes into effect next year. While participants from the developing world have agreed to reduce anthropomorphic greenhouse gases by more than half of their total output, the majority of the nations covered by the treaty are under no obligation to actually reduce emissions, and the world’s three largest polluters—the United States, China and India—aren’t participating in the protocol or don’t have to meet its requirements.

Complicating the question of what can be done is the fact that global warming is by no means the only peril facing the planet. The U.S. occupation of Iraq easily could spill over into a larger conflagration. Trillions of dollars worth of bad loans weigh down the global economy. Increasing demand and decreasing supply have driven up the price of petroleum to nearly $100 per barrel, with no end in sight. Poverty, famine and disease plague the developing world. Nuclear proliferation remains a very real danger.

Against this backdrop, Bjørn Lomborg says chill out.

Lomborg, a Danish political-science professor, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and controversial author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and the recently released Cool It, argues that the Kyoto Protocol, after weighing its costs and benefits against his interpretation of the relevant research on the threat posed by global warming, is poor public policy. In the United States, the Lomborg perspective has been embraced by conservative sources such as The Wall Street Journal and universally shunned by environmentalists, a situation that perplexes the 42-year-old, slightly left-of-center Dane.

“I’m a little disheartened that many of the people who like me are the people who I’d be least likely to like, where a lot of people who ought to be my friends, who I think of as my friends, are the most likely to be my enemies,” he admitted via telephone from Copenhagen, where he’s an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. “Sometimes I have the experience that some of my friends don’t even read me, and will just sort of say, ‘Oh, well he just doesn’t care about the environment at all. He’s just saying that we should go on and emit as much carbon dioxide as we can possibly get away with and it’s no problem.’ Which of course is not at all what I’m saying. I think both sides are in a sense making a caricature of what I’m trying to say.”

Lomborg doesn’t deny that global warming is a serious issue. He applauds Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth for drawing the “American right wing away from the ‘Oh, it’s all a hoax. It’s all a left-wing conspiracy to raise taxes,’ kind of thing.” However, he adds that in doing so, Gore has “brought a lot of people far toward the panic side. That is to say, ‘My god, this is a huge and humongous problem that we really need to fix right now.’”

By far the most controversial aspects of Lomborg’s views—which he presented to Congress earlier this year, his blond, Scandinavian good looks and casual attire standing out like a surfer against a sea of buttoned-down bureaucrats and prominent environmental advocates such as Gore—concern what critics claim is his minimization of the crisis and the ultimate effectiveness of Kyoto.

“If no other treaty replaces Kyoto after 2012, its total effect will have been to postpone the rise in global temperature a bit less than seven days in 2001,” he writes in Cool It. Eschewing high-end scientific estimates, such as the 20-foot sea-level rise by 2100 projected in An Inconvenient Truth, Lomborg instead focuses his claims on the more probable averages provided by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At an estimated cost of $185 billion per year, Kyoto just isn’t worth it in Lomborg’s opinion.

“The problem with the Kyoto Protocol is not that it’s not well intentioned. It’s not that it’s not attacking a real problem,” he said. “Climate change is a real problem, and it’s definitely one that we need to fix in the long run. It’s simply that it fails to realize that it will cost a lot, and do very little good.”

Even if major polluters such as the United States, China and India had to meet Kyoto’s requirements, there’s no guarantee that any country will adhere to Kyoto’s guidelines. When real limits are placed on the table, politicians back away, Lomborg said, citing recent experience in England. Members of Parliament just rejected a proposed annual emissions cut of 3 percent after being pressured by the energy lobby.

“It’s very easy to make promises when you don’t actually have to show the costs,” he said. “Famously, Kyoto was agreed upon in 1997, but won’t come into effect until next year, when politicians such as [Kyoto supporter] Tony Blair have left office. Likewise, Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which conveniently will probably be when he’s left office.”

Lomborg’s contrary assessments once earned him a literal pie in the face from activist and author Mark Lynas, who compares Lomborg and others who question climate-change orthodoxy to Holocaust deniers. Danish biologist Kåre Fog has devoted a lengthy Web site to documenting Lomborg’s errors and alleged deliberate fabrications. Indeed, most of his critics find it difficult to restrain invective when discussing the controversial Dane, even in otherwise well-thought-out responses, such as the unprecedented, four-part critique in the January 2002 issue of Scientific American, with separate sections written by climate-change luminaries Stephen Schneider, John Holdren, John Bongaarts and Thomas Lovejoy.

The article was an evisceration, to which Lomborg responded at length.

“I’m very willing to have an argument, and I think I’ve proven that fairly well by engaging a rather large number of people in how we should think about these issues,” he said. His critics claim he plays fast and loose with the numbers. He insists that he does not, and counters that his critics like to revel in catastrophe. World-threatening climate change is sexy. You’re not likely to see Brad Pitt “digging latrines in Tanzania” in the next Hollywood disaster epic. Doomsday must always be right around the next corner.

When asked why we find the threat of imminent disaster so compelling, Lomborg offered a cautious appraisal.

“It’s very important to say that I’m totally outside my area of expertise now, so I’m just giving you my gut sensation,” he said. “It’s because a lot of people are making a lot of claims, and the ones who are making panicky or catastrophic claims simply have better press. At the end of the day, the other things that I talk about—prevention of HIV/AIDS, prevention of malnutrition, prevention of malaria—those are just boring things.”

In 2004, Lomborg organized the Copenhagen Consensus, a collection of economists, including four Nobel laureates, to weigh the costs and benefits between such competing claims for limited public funding. A second Consensus last year was composed of ambassadors from around the world, including India, China and the United States. A key topic that has emerged from the Consensus concerns the inequality of incomes between the developed and developing worlds.

“At the end of the day, even if we end up convincing, by 2050, Europe and the U.S. to cut their emissions, the vast majority of emissions in the 21st century are going to come from developing countries,” he said. “They’re not going to care very much about climate change before they’ve fulfilled all their other discussions about getting a meal and getting education and getting health and also fixing their local environmental problems before they’ll start worrying about the global environmental problem.”

So what can we do about global warming from Lomborg’s perspective?

“Let’s focus on research and development. Let’s focus on non-carbon-emitting technologies like solar, wind, carbon capture, energy efficiency, and also, let’s realize the solution may come from nuclear fusion and fission,” he said.

Lomborg cited the prohibitively high price of solar power—presently 10 times the cost of fossil fuels—to illustrate his point. Currently, only a few relatively rich people in the developing world can afford to place solar panels on their houses. For poor people in the developing world, especially those who are already in close proximity to an electrical grid, it simply isn’t an option economically.

“Imagine if we could make solar panels close to the price of fossil fuels by mid-century,” Lomborg asked. “It would be much easier to get everyone to commit to drastic reductions. Imagine if we could make it cheaper than fossil fuels. The discussion would be over. Everybody would switch. We wouldn’t have a problem.”

Is Lomborg right? Is the Kyoto Protocol destined to fail? Can we get more bang for the buck by focusing on R&D and providing more aid to the developing world? Only time will tell. Perhaps the contrary Dane’s most important contribution has been to show us that there may be other ways besides Kyoto to do something about global warming. A far worse prospect than Lomborg being correct is the notion that nothing we do will matter at all.