Tackling climate change the Lomborg way

Cool It, a new book by Danish professor Bjorn Lomborg, argues for a more balanced debate on climate change. He tells World Business that the debate so far has been divided into the ‘catastrophists' and the ‘hoaxers'.

by Morice Mendoza, World Business
Bjorn Lomborg: sceptic
Bjorn Lomborg: sceptic

Since Kyoto the catastrophists have continued to support a policy of cutting carbon emissions. Economist Bjorn Lomborg argues that this policy has not worked and it is a mistake to think that the answer is to set even more onerous targets for cuts.

Rather, Lomborg suggests that the debate should focus on smarter ways to achieve the greatest impact such as lowering the price of solar panels or investing more money into R&D for new energy technology. At the same time, Lomborg argues the case for businesses to ensure that every dollar they spend on CSR projects achieves the greatest possible outcome in terms of social good. This might be helping to fight the problem of malaria as much as it could be about global warming. Morice Mendoza, editor of World Business interviewed Bjorn Lomborg in London on 2nd October at the time of the publication of his new book.

WB: What is wrong with the current debate on climate change?

There has been this unproductive dichotomy of saying [climate change] is either a hoax or a catastrophe. What I am saying is that it is neither. It is not a hoax: global warming is happening and it is manmade. On the other hand it is not a catastrophe, it is not the end of humankind. We need to find a middle ground. It is a surprisingly difficult thing to do because people have an almost tribal-like tendency to say, ‘No, I believe it is a hoax or it is a catastrophe.' But this dichotomy is generally unhelpful for us to move forward and find good political choices. Because quite frankly what we have seen is that the hoax camp is saying let's not do anything at all and the catastrophists end up saying let's do everything right now. Both of which are not going to get us to the point we need to get to.

WB:Why does this division between two extremes exist?

This is much more of a moral story, which is saying you either want to be this really inclusive person who cares about the planet [or you don't see the need to do anything]. On the other hand, the sceptical reaction to that is to say it's all nonsense. We need to find our way back to saying that we should treat this in the same way as any other problem we face. We'd love to fix it today just like we'd love to fix HIV-AIDS, malnutrition, malaria and all the other problems today. But given that that is not going to happen how do we smartly address the issue. It's not moral to take action that is not going to effect much change. What is moral is to make sure we do the best we can.

WB:Are people still reacting in extreme ways to this debate?

I think the good news is that they are reacting in a much less extreme way. There are still people out there who get intensely annoyed [with my views]. But a lot of people are starting to realise we need another way. In the UK, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair realises that you need another way, for example. In 1997, the government in the UK promised to cut emissions by 15% by 2010 but in fact emissions increased by 3%. Leaders might start thinking now maybe we should have another way [to tackle this problem]. A lot of people have argued that Kyoto was too little too soon which I think is a good way to summarise it. We need to find much smarter solutions.

WB: So how should they think about this?

My main metaphor is solar panels cost about ten times as much as fossil fuels. That means rich people in rich countries will put up a few of them. Most people in rich countries are not going to do it. Most people are going to say let's push, let's cajole, let's force people to use a little more of the solar panels. But that is not going to solve the problem. What I'm saying is maybe we should think about cutting the price of solar panels. If you could get the price to drop dramatically we would not need to have this conversation. This is the only way you can get the vast majority of people both in the rich world and especially in the poor world like China and India to adopt solar panels [in large quantities] and then we could make a real move against climate change.

WB:Is there anyone having this sort of conversation now?

No, we don't have much of this conversation now because everyone wants to say we should have high carbon taxes or we should be cutting [emissions] right now. This is the pattern we have seen since 1992 (the date of the earth summit in Rio) when we promised to cut emissions and overshot and then this was followed by the Kyoto Protocol (1997), where we promised [cuts in emissions] and overshot. People are still saying that this failure only means we should do it much more. My sense is if we tried twice and really failed miserably maybe we shouldn't go for a third time and say let's make it even harder. Instead we should try to find another way. The other way to look at this issue is that the Arabs have already tried the high carbon tax out for us and yet it didn't work. It does work predictably in the sense that we do have more renewable energy and we do have more research and development [in this area] but it is not very much more. But it is an incredibly expensive way to get there. In the long run if we want much better energy technologies then we should invest in that rather than just investing in the cost of fossil fuels.

WB:What is your message for big business?

Two things: first of all, global warming is real. So it is a problem. But then again you need to ask how do we efficiently address this problem. You might ask rather than cutting back on our carbon emissions should we instead be investing in research and development to make sure there are better technologies on the horizon. And secondly, and I think more importantly, most businesses are not predominantly in the business of producing Co2. It's a side effect. You know, most businesses do not decide the kind of energy the future is going to run on. They're making DVDs or lamps or something else. And they basically enter the whole climate change debate by saying, ‘let's buy carbon offsets'. They are recognising they have some responsibility to save the planet and they are going to realise that responsibility by buying carbon offsets.

WB:What is wrong with that?

If you buy a carbon offset at the going rate of say $10 per tonne or $20 per tonne, the economic estimates show that you do $2 of [social] good per tonne. So you have not actually done that well. And of course you have to remember there are many other problems in the world, which potentially would be much better to solve first. If you invest, for instance, in preventing HIV-Aids you can do forty dollars worth of good for every dollar you invest. So if you spent $20 you could actually do eight hundred dollars worth of good. I would like business leaders to think about this. They should be thinking: ‘If I'm going to be spending $20 to do good do I want this money to do two dollars worth of good or eight hundred dollars worth of good.' I understand why companies would for PR purposes would want to say they are carbon neutral. But you might as well want to say, ‘Well, we saved a thousand people from malaria or we saved a thousand people from HIV-Aids. That is how we spent our money and we actually did a lot more good.'

WB: Can there be offsets in such things as malaria?

I actually spoke yesterday to a top CFO who is thinking about doing something on those lines. The company was absolutely enthusiastic about that idea of maybe buying malaria offsets. It is actually a good business opportunity for someone. It would be great if someone would think about offering those sorts of offsets. You could buy them and save, say, ten, one hundred or one thousand people from malaria or from HIV-Aids. And maybe you will have ended up doing a great deal more good from the money spent.

Cool IT - The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming is published by Cyan and Marshall Cavendish Editions,

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