Monday, December 05, 2005

Bjorn Again

The anti-environmental activist Bjorn Lomborg is such a demonstrable fraud that I don't usually bother to keep up with his antics. Why should I waste my time trying to decipher his articles, when I could be addressing the infinitely more important mysteries of the Voynich Manuscript, or the Oak Island Money Pit?

Once in a while, though, Lomborg offers up such a pretty specimen of willful illogic that I can't help but tape it to the refrigerator door of my soul. Previously, I noted his claim that it doesn't matter if the ocean rises 50 cm in coming decades, because it rose 25 cm in past decades and "it is something we dealt with." Basically, his argument amounted to an inability to add 50 to 25, and get 75. That incapacity, I'd say, is an exceedingly slender thread from which to hang scientific pretensions as weighty as Lomberg's.

His latest article - titled The Relative Unimportance of Global Warming - isn't quite as entertaining, but it comes close enough to warrant an honorable mention.

Lomborg is different from most climate skeptics, in that he usually prefaces his ravings with this forthright credo:

To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by CO2.
It's not the most detailed explanation of climate change I've ever seen, but by the standards of Lomberg's peers, it still counts as a penetrating and insightful statement.

Unfortunately, once he's said that, he's talked about as much sense as he can manage. Take a gander at this pretty conceit:
[I}mmediate action will do little good. The Kyoto Protocol will cut CO2 emissions from industrialized countries by 30 percent below what it would have been in 2010, and by 50 percent in 2050. Yet, even if everyone (including the United States) lived up to the protocol's rules, and stuck to them throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable - postponing warming for just six years in 2100.
Some people might find Lomberg's standards for measurability a bit too stringent. Six years is a fairly long time to postpone a catastrophic event, especially when your only solution for that event depends - as Lomborg's does - on finding a technological fix.

But perhaps I'm splitting hairs. I'll give this one to Lomborg, if only because he needs rope for the noose he's making.
Global warming will mainly harm developing countries, because they are poorer and therefore more vulnerable to the effects of climate change. However, even the UN's most pessimistic forecasts project that by 2100 the average person in developing countries will be richer than the average person in developed countries is now.

So, early action on global warming is basically a costly way of doing very little for much richer people far in the future. We need to ask ourselves if this should, in fact, be our first priority.
Why are you furrowing your brow like that? It's perfectly simple. In 2100, the average person in, say, Guinea-Bissau will be richer than the average person in the United States is today. Therefore, "early" (i.e., tragically late) action on global warming is essentially a handout to unborn people who will be much better off financially than many of us currently are. In other words, when you resign yourself to eating strawberries grown without methyl bromide, you merely increase, ever so slightly, the decadent luxury of foreign freeloaders from the year 2100 AD. One can almost hear their mocking laughter echoing back through the decades.

Having tossed this army of straw men on the smoldering funeral pyre of his intellect, Lomborg is ready to consider real solutions - the kind men like.
Some of the world's top economists - including four Nobel laureates - answered this question at the Copenhagen Consensus in 2004, listing all major policies for improving the world according to priority. They found that HIV/AIDS, hunger, free trade and malaria were the world's top priority concerns. These were problems on which we could do the most good for our money. On the other hand, the experts rated immediate responses to climate change at the bottom of the world's priorities.
What's the Copenhagen Consensus, you ask? It was a meeting of economists and their fellow-travelers, organized by none other than Bjorn Lomborg, which labored mightily to arrive at conclusions eerily similar to his own. Major funding came from the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a dubious philanthropic group started by Ryƍichi Sasakawa, a Japanese fascist and organized crime figure with thought-provoking ties to Reverend Moon's Unification Church. Other sponsors included the pro-business Tuborg Foundation, and The Economist magazine. You can read more about it here, and decide for yourself whether its conclusion that trade liberalization is one of the world's top four priorities was arrived at through reasoned debate, or brought to the meeting as a basic, unanimous assumption.

The rest of Lomborg's article says that restrictive measures like those mandated by Kyoto are expensive, and don't deliver worthwhile results for their cost. Instead, he favors a worldwide research program into energy alternatives:
[W]e should be concentrating on investments in making energy without CO2 emissions viable for our descendants....[We} should suggest a treaty binding every nation to spend, say, 0.1 percent of GDP on research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies....Such a massive global research effort would also have potentially huge innovation spin-offs.
I don't disagree with Lomborg's point about research and innovation, although I think the requirement that every nation should contribute a flat amount is high-handed for a number of reasons (e.g., the fact that in certain developing regions, the bulk of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions occurs at the behest of first-world countries).

That said, Lomborg's wrong to downplay the importance of reducing emissions. First, one can argue that regulation often drives innovation; contrary to their image as groundbreaking innovators, businesses have a tendency to resist change through sheer irrational stubbornness, and often require multiple wake-up calls of increasing intensity before they'll take steps that are actually in their best interests. Second, firms that fight for their "right" to ignore Kyoto tend to be bad citizens in other ways; they're more likely to pollute water and air in ways that may not contribute to global warming, but are still socially undesirable. Third, the costs of reducing a business's carbon footprint are not necessarily as high as Lomborg claims, and can be mitigated by such benefits as new patents, and various other forms of competitive advantage (including consumer goodwill).

It's not an either/or choice in any case. Cutting emissions and increasing research into solutions are equally wise, and equally necessary. My suspicion is that the firms most likely to reject regulatory solutions are also the ones most unlikely to produce innovative solutions to climate change. It may well be that for all their technological triumphalism, Lomborg and his ilk are ultimately apologists for dinosaur industries, and other corporate dead-enders, who stand in the way of adaptation and innovation.


Cervantes said...

I certainly agree that the negative consequences of human caused climate change will be substantial. (And I recommend the web site of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change for an excellent outline of the issues.) It's disgraceful that the corporate media here in the U.S. is largely ignoring the meeting in Montreal which is going on right now.

At the same time, it is true beyond a doubt that it is already too late to prevent substantial further warming -- almost certainly we will soon cross the 2°c threshold at which positive feedbacks will be induced, indeed that may already be happening. We need to prepare for the consequences, big time, starting now.

As for the argument that even the poorest people in the future will be as well off as rich people today -- sorry Bjorn, my crystal ball is not transmitting the same information. But that's for another day.

Phila said...


At the same time, it is true beyond a doubt that it is already too late to prevent substantial further warming -- almost certainly we will soon cross the 2°c threshold at which positive feedbacks will be induced, indeed that may already be happening.

I think you're almost certainly right. Regardless, it still makes sense to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the greatest extent possible. Instead, though, the USA is asserting its right to use more methyl bromide in 2007 than every other country on earth combined.

The main aim of restricting emissions, IMO, should be to change the way we approach manufacturing and transportation, and to get rid of the unfair advantage that polluting companies currently have over more responsible ones.