Late last summer, arguably the world’s most high-profile climate change doubter, Danish statistician and author Bjørn Lomborg, surprised the green intelligentsia when he declared global warming to be "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today.”
Many high level eco-operatives were skeptical of the reformed skeptic’s motives. Lomborg's nuanced about face was a not-so veiled attempt to gin up interest in a new book, went the argument. Others said better late than never. Lomborg should be given credit for finally acknowledging settled science.
TakePart leans towards the Grist take on Lomborg, that he “wants to have it both ways, calling climate change real, but not really urgent."
On the heels of the DVD release of Cool It, a film based on a Lomborg book of the same name, TakePart spoke with the academic that environmentalists love to loathe about why he believes climate change isn’t the end of the world, why geoengineering is a nice tool to have in our green arsenal, and why the U.S. government should not subsidize the production of oil.
TakePart: Why did you title the book, and subsequently the film, Cool It?
Bjørn Lomborg: Because we need to do two things: we need to cool the planet, that’s why global warming is a problem. It’s real. It’s manmade. It is something we need to fix. But we are not fixing it, because, I would say to a very large extent, the whole conversation has been so hyped, so overplayed. That’s why we also need to cool our conversation. Unless we start to look at this as a practical problem as something we need to fix over the next 90 years, we will just never get it done.
TakePart: You’ve argued that climate change isn’t the end of the world. Why not?
BL: Listen, if you look at the best models out there that indicate what’s going to happen, we’re looking at a sea level rise of somewhere between half and two feet. This will constitute a problem. We know that sea levels rose about a foot over the last 150 years. But it has a very small consequence. And if you look at all of the impacts that are likely to come from global warming, most of them are negative, the economists argue that the total impact by the end of the century will be on the order of 2 to 5 percent of global GDP. That means we will be less rich. That means we will have to spend more money on dealing with the problems that global warming will incur on us. That’s the bad. But remember, 2 to 5 percent is not 100 percent. It is a problem, but it is not the end of the world.
TakePart: What is the difference between feel-good and do-good?
BL: A lot of the solutions that we look at for global warming feel good. I put up energy saving light bulbs, I buy a Prius, I shut off my water while I’m shaving, I feel good about taking a shorter shower, I walk instead of taking the elevator—these kinds of things are all feel good. By all means, do them. They’re nice. But let’s not pretend that this is what’s going to fix global warming. If we are going to dramatically reduce our C02 emissions, it will require a change in our energy infrastructure, and an entirely different scale. That’s why I try to point out that these things, while they are nice and good, that’s not what’s going to fix global warming. What we need is for non carbon-emitting energy to be cheap and for everyone to want it. And that’s about innovation.
TakePart: You’ve argued that to do that sort of R&D, the world would need an annual investment of $100 billion. In practical terms, how would you pay for it?
BL: At the end of the day, that’s a question for politicians to answer. All economists would ask how much bad is an extra ton of C02? The answer is about $7.00 per ton of C02. So that’s 6 cents on a gallon of gasoline. If you did this across the world, then we would raise about $250 billion every year. So that would amply pay for the $100 billion in research and development. There’s some beauty in saying we should tax the bad. But let's not kid ourselves; this won’t stop the problem. It will reduce emissions about 10 percent, but it will be able to raise the funds that are necessary to actually discover the technology that will solve the problem.
TakePart: What’s your stance on using geo-engineering to stop climate change?
BL: There are two things you need to know about geoengineerists setting the world’s thermostat. One is we shouldn’t just jump into it. It is a thing that we should look at, but it is a thing that we shouldn’t go out and do right now. The second thing is that it is a possible way to buy Earth some time if we need a couple of more decades to bridge before we get to the green, cheap energies. That might be one way that we could use geoengineering. And the second way is that it is the only way that we can do anything about runaway global warming. For instance, if all of Greenland were about to melt—now, there’s nothing that indicates that it is about to happen—but if it was to happen, this is the only way that we can react in a very short timeframe. A year, or so. Whereas emission cuts would only work over half, or a full century.
TakePart: Should the U.S. government subsidize the production of oil?
BL: No. In general, economists would say that we shouldn’t subsidize anything because this skews the economy. At the other end, you have to remember that a lot of the things people are talking about as subsidies for oil are really subsidies for an entirely different thing.
While there are some subsidies for oil and fossil fuels in the western world, the vast majority of them are actually in the developing world. They are mainly poverty alleviation subsidies. Now, they don’t work efficiently, and I would love to see them go, but let’s not pretend that they are going anywhere anytime soon.
TakePart: On September 6, 2010, Joseph Romm, the editor of Climate Progress, wrote: “Future generations are likely to view Obama’s choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions.” Is Romm right?
BL: For all the things that I like about him, I think that Romm has a tendency to believe that it’s the short-term thing that really matters. And I tend to disagree with him on that. I tend to say that what really matters is that we get the innovation going. I think what Romm was probably predicting—and he’d probably be right about this—was that had Obama gone for climate legislation, we would have gotten a very Christmas tree, pork-laden cap and trade bill that would have done very little to offset global warming. It would have almost made us say, "Oh, okay, well we fixed that." It would have been a little bit how like Europe felt after we did the Kyoto Protocol. And the problem is that approach just wastes another 10 years. Going down the wrong path is not going to make this work out. We need to find smarter solutions.
TakePart: Can you rate President Obama’s environmental performance 30 months into his Presidency?
BL: I’m not American. I’m just not good enough to make that call.
TakePart: In 2009, at an economics conference in California, you asked former U.S. Vice President Al Gore if he would debate you on the merits of spending more money on health and education than on curbing carbon emissions. He respectfully declined your request. If given the opportunity to debate him on the topic, what would be the first question you would ask?
BL: I don’t think it is so much about asking Al Gore. It is more about engaging the American public, and everywhere, to be honest on what are the smart ways to spend money. One of the points that I’ve tried to emphasize is that we have better ways to spend money in the climate area. Not focusing on carbon cuts, which tend to be very expensive, but rather on innovation which is going to solve the problem much more because we are going to make green energy available.
TakePart: What’s one thing a person can do for $5.00 or in less than five minutes to stop global warming?
BL: The honest answer is nothing. That’s a terrible answer, but it's true. I would love to be able to say that there is something that you can do that’s very, very simple. The real answer is that it has to be about stopping our politicians from making empty promises. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, and it’s led us nowhere. We’ve got to start to ask them to invest in research and development.