Managing Climate Change: An Alternative Strategy

A Conversation with Bjorn Lomborg, Author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center

Shifting from a focus on short-term solutions to investing in long-term innovation could be the best way to combat the threatening effects of global climate change.

Bjorn Lomborg on a visit to Greenland (www.lomborg.com)

The author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg is a provocative mixture of realist and conservationist. Hailed by TIME as one of the world’s most influential people, the Danish professor writes widely on climate change and global development and is founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. The think tank’s aim is to find “the smartest ways to do good.”

In this interview with Catalyst Editor William McKenzie, Lomborg explains why he considers climate change not like an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth, but rather a problem to be managed, much like one would a chronic disease. He would treat the disease through intense research and development in future technologies, helping poor countries develop economically smart adaptation strategies, and a moderate carbon tax shared by all nations. 

You acknowledge that climate change is real. What do you say to those who deny its existence and the contributions of humans to climate change?

I’m a social scientist so I’m not actively researching whether climate change is real or not. Just like most other things where you’re not the expert, you listen to the experts. I’ve talked to a large number of the people who do research in climate science. The basics of climate science, such as why more CO2 in the atmosphere would mean higher temperatures, are very simple. We have known about this for 100 years. You put out CO2, you make it harder for heat to get out and that’s why it warms up. This is really not controversial.

Even the most skeptical people say there is global warming taking place. The real question is, how much will global warming increase? How much of a problem will it be for us and what should we do about it?

What, then, do we do about it? You talk a lot about the smartest solutions to climate change. What are they?

The first thing is to realize we rarely solve problems or get rid of problems  we manage them. The best way to start thinking about global warming is to think about it as a chronic disease, like diabetes. We need to manage it.

The best way to start thinking about global warming is to think about it as a chronic disease, like diabetes. We need to manage it.

A lot of people have this idea that global warming is the end of the world, and that we have 12 years to turn it around or we’re all dead. And, of course, that’s not what the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is telling us. It is telling us if we want to limit temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius, then we have to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions in the next 12 years.

If we do an enormous amount in the next 12 years, then, yes, maybe we can get to 1.5 degrees. But that is not the relevant argument. The important one is, how much will global warming matter?

The UN climate panel did a survey to look at all the evidence on this. And the latest Nobel Laureate in economics, William Nordhaus, has made his career in answering how much global warming will impact us. His and many other people’s answer is that the cost will be 2 to 4 percent of GDP by the end of the century if we don’t do anything about global warming.

That is a problem, but by no means the end of the world. On average, the world will probably be between three and 10 times richer than what we are today. So it’s a much richer world and we will have a slightly less rich world because of global warming.

This is an important difference. If it’s an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, you have to throw everything in the kitchen sink at this problem. You have to go in war mode. But if it is diabetes, it’s a manageable problem. You then have to make sure we don’t spend a lot more money trying to fix the problem than the benefits we’ll reap.

What is the way forward that acknowledges climate change, but doesn’t bankrupt economies or undermine them?

That is what Nordhaus has looked at. What he shows, and most economists would say, is you need a moderate carbon tax across the entire world that increases over time and that limits temperatures a little bit. He found that a moderate carbon tax across all countries and across this century can cut a little bit of CO2 and reduce the increase in temperatures by about one degree Fahrenheit (0.5°C). That would be smart.

But if we do more and reduce the increase in temperature by almost 3°F (down to 2.5°C), which is less than what almost everyone in the climate community talks about, we will reduce climate costs but the policy will cost about $50 trillion or more in lost growth. So, a small, increasing carbon tax can solve part of the problem. But go too far, and you create more harm than good.

And this only works if you get everyone on board and everyone does the smart stuff. That’s a little hard to do because that requires not just the U.S. but China, India, Europe, and everybody else to coordinate their taxes across the century. That would be unprecedented.

Another market failure is in basic research and development. Companies don’t spend a lot on basic research because it’s hard to capture the benefits. You cannot patent it and you can’t get your money back.

It is a great idea for society to spend money on research and development because it benefits everyone. But there’s an underinvestment from private companies, including on the energy side. We invest very little on research and development. If we invested more, we would have a good chance that we’d be able to come up with much better and cheaper energy technology. Cheaper wind, cheaper fusion, cheaper nuclear power, and then lots of other storage technologies.

We invest very little on research and development. If we invested more, we would have a good chance that we’d be able to come up with much better and cheaper energy technology.

Are you talking about private R&D, public R&D, or public and private R&D?

Public R&D because private R&D is inevitably focused on the next five years. Globally, public R&D in low-CO2 energy is probably about $15 billion a year. And we could profitably increase that dramatically more and get it up to $100 billion a year.

That would be much cheaper than our climate policies. The U.S. would probably pay between $20 billion to $30 billion of this $100 billion. But it would make humanity much better off. It also would increase our chances of finding a cheap green energy in the long run. And it could make a lot of other innovations more likely and make mankind better off. We estimate that for every dollar spent, you’d do $11 of social good, mostly by avoiding very expensive carbon costs later on.

Research and development is probably the smartest single way to tackle global warming. By all means, if you can get a globally-coordinated carbon tax that would be a little bit of a solution. But innovation is the real solution.

If we can innovate the price of green energy down below the price of fossil fuels, everyone will switch. If we can’t do it, you’re never going to fix global warming. 

If we can innovate the price of green energy down below the price of fossil fuels, everyone will switch. If we can’t do it, you’re never going to fix global warming. 

Fracking rig operates in a field. (Shutterstock.com)

What are the most likely green energies of the future?

I obviously would love to have that answer and be investing in that technology. Remember fracking didn’t just happen out of the blue. The Department of Energy, George Mitchell, the founder of Mitchell Energy, and a lot of other people probably spent about $10 billion over a 10-to-15 year period when fracking was not profitable.

Fracking had to do with getting as much oil and gas for the U.S. But because gas became so much cheaper, the U.S. has seen a dramatic reduction in the use of coal versus gas.

That matters because gas emits about half as much CO2 as coal. You probably cut more CO2 than any other nation in the world, despite the fact that you have not been very strong on climate promises. You happened to do it while you got rich in the process.

That is the best of all policies, when you can say we can get rich and do more good for the environment. That’s a better sales argument than cutting a lot less carbon, as Europe did with renewable subsidies, but ended up paying a lot more for that. This underscores the fundamental point that innovation is the way forward.

If you think back to the 1860s, people were hunting whales like crazy because whales have this oil that burns nicely. It is bright and doesn’t soot at all. This lit up all the wealthy homes in North America and Europe. We probably would have lost all the whales had this not stopped.

The current way of thinking about tackling global warming is saying, “I’m sorry but could you please travel a little less? Could you please turn down the air conditioner? Could you please freeze a little more in the winter?” The equivalent back in 1860 would have been to say, “I’m sorry, could you please turn down the light? Could you please go back to the sooting oil that you used before?” This solution will never work. 

What did work was that somebody in Pennsylvania drilled for oil and found a cheaper, better solution. Technology came in and saved the whales. It was not telling people to do less. It was simply finding a much better resource.

All throughout humanity, we’ve used innovation to get out of problems rather than telling people, “Can you please go and be poor again?” 

All throughout humanity, we’ve used innovation to get out of problems rather than telling people, “Can you please go and be poor again?”
Prospect Park in New York City (Elliotte Rusty Harold / Shutterstock)

What would you say to those who say, “Well, that may be good for the long term but what about now?”

That is a common argument. We feel that we’ve got to do it now. But people have been saying that for the past 30 years and virtually achieved nothing. We have wasted tens of trillions of dollars across the world on implementing carbon-cutting policies that are very expensive and do little good. They have not done nothing, but they’ve done very little.

I understand that it would be nice to come up with some simple solutions to implement now. But we have the choice of doing the stupid stuff that doesn’t work or the smart stuff that only works in the long run.

Again, if this was an asteroid hurtling towards Earth, maybe it would make sense to throw everything in the kitchen sink at it. But this is a manageable issue. Let’s make sure we don’t spend 6 or 10 percent of GDP to solve 1 percent of damage.

You have talked about adding more greenery and water to places like London and New York to offset the urban heat island effect. What cities, states, even nations are making themselves more resilient to the effects of climate change?

There are two answers. One, everyone is doing resilience.

The fact that we are getting richer means that global warming has less impact. When a hurricane hits Florida, it causes devastations worth maybe billions of dollars but very few people die. When a hurricane of similar strength hits Guatemala, it eradicates their economy. It typically costs them a third of their economy for years and it kills tens of thousands of people.

The point is, if you’re poor, you’re incredibly vulnerable. If you are rich, you’re not — you’re resilient. Heat waves are not nearly as bad in the sense that they don’t kill nearly as many people as they used to. Why? Richer people get air conditioning.

It drives me nuts how people say global warming will harm the poorest in the world. That is true but it is because they’re poor.

Do you want to help them incredibly ineffectively by reducing the increased heat problem you’ll have by the end of the century, or do you want to make sure they’ll stop being poor right now? A very large majority of the world's poor will say they want to focus on health, education, jobs, and food. They will say those issues really matter to me and global warming matters the least.

A very large majority of the world's poor will say they want to focus on health, education, jobs, and food. They will say those issues really matter to me and global warming matters the least.

The second answer to your question deals with the specific things we can do. For most, tackling sea-level rise is about smart city planning. Most buildings will be rebuilt over the next hundred years, so make sure they’re ready to see increased sea levels. If you have cities like Houston that are almost paved over, make sure that surfaces are porous and have rainwater drains.

By the end of the century, the vast majority of the world will live in cities. We know we can make cities much cooler by putting in more greenery and putting in more water features. Simple things like painting rooftops white can make a big difference.

A famouspeer-reviewed studylooked at what would happen to temperature and poverty if we have the greatest rise in sea level. Not surprisingly, you would see a lot more people being flooded. Today, about three million people get flooded every year. In 2100 this model shows that if you don’t do anything and continue as normal, you’ll see more than 300 million people being flooded at a cost of 5 percent of global GDP.

These are the standard scare stories that we hear about global warming. But what is crucial is they’re saying that people will stay as the waters start lapping at their feet, and they won’t do anything and eventually they’ll get flooded. Of course, this is not how real humans behave. They adapt. 

The study showed that if you include adaptation only about one million people will get flooded. That’s instead of three million, and certainly not 300 million. And we will have less of a problem because people got richer and adapted.

It’s still smart to make sure we have even less of a problem by also cutting some carbon emissions. But adaptation is going to be a very large part of the answer. And a large part of adaptation is making sure people across the planet get out of poverty.

[A]daptation is going to be a very large part of the answer. And a large part of adaptation is making sure people across the planet get out of poverty.
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