I was ill earlier this week and spent my time on the couch watching youtube. Of course, being the wonk that I am, I spent my youtube time not watching funny cats or silly dancing girls and men, but watching videos about global warming.
I watched Bjorn Lomborg’s five part series, “The Facts About the Environment” since he claims if you watch his presentation, you don’t have to buy the book, “The Real State of the World”. Always interested in saving trees and money, I took him up on it.
His lecture in a nutshell?
Don’t worry. Be happy.
Yes, that’s right, folks. As far as I can tell, his message is this:
We can’t make proper decisions if we think we have a gun at our heads. Alarmism on the part of environmentalists and climate scientists prevents a rational discussion. We can’t properly prioritize our goals and objectives if we feel under threat.
Luckily, there is no gun.
There is such a thing as global warming, and it is important, but not as important as people have led you to believe.
His main points flow from one to the other:
- There is no gun to our heads. The sense people have that things are getting worse is a myth. Things are getting better and better.
- The whole “limits to growth” argument is wrong. It’s a myth created by the interest groups including climate scientists and environmentalists and the media, who want you to be afraid so you will focus on their issues as opposed to others and buy magazines and newspapers. We have more food, more resources, and our resources are cheaper and easier to get due to technological developments. We’ve always used technology to find more resources and cheaper resources and will in the future. He quotes Sheikh Yamani, who said “The oil age will come to an end, but not for a lack of oil. Just as the stone age came to an end but not for a lack of stone.”
- Ergo, the problem of global warming will take care of itself because we will stop using fossil fuels sometime in the mid-21st century when we transition to renewables. We will do so because by then, renewables will make good economic sense. Speaking of economic sense, Kyoto wouldn’t have worked anyway and would have cost trillions of dollars that could be better spent. Even if it had been implemented globally and perfectly, it would have only reduced temp when compared to BAU from 2.1 degrees to 1.9 degrees by 2100.
- Yes, we are committed to some warming regardless of what we do, but it will hurt the poorest in developing nations the most. Ergo, we have to ensure that our policies do the most to help them. Now that we don’t have to worry about Kyoto-like solutions, since they won’t work anyway and we happily realize we won’t run out of resources and will be transitioning to renewables by 2050 or so, thus solving the problem of global warming, we can focus instead on using those trillions of dollars to save human lives. What we should be asking is how efficiently do we save human lives?
- According to a cost benefit analysis, to save one human life requires the following investment:
- health = $19,000,
- residential = $36,000,
- transportation = $56,000,
- employment = $350,000,
- environment = $4,200,000.
- Lomorg: “Spot the bad investment.”
In other words, now that we know there is no gun and it certainly is not loaded, we can prioritize our goals. If our goal is to save lives, it makes sense to spend more of our dollars on those investments that bring the most return — economic rather than environmental policies.
I don’t know about you, but I have some discomfort with his presentation. Oh, I’m sure his audience liked it — it was delivered, after all, at the Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture. Sir Ronald, for those not in the know, was a pre-eminent businessman in New Zealand, knighted for his service to business.
It seems to me that all of his analysis rests on this assumption that — there is no loaded gun.
My question is this: is there?
Before I accept the argument that there is no loaded gun at my head, I want to see some concrete evidence. Lomborg provided none.
If there is a loaded gun, I would think it’s important to know that fact because that fact is the overarching fact you need to take into account. Loaded guns are dangerous things because they kill a lot of people and if you have one pointed at your head, it might go off. If there is a loaded gun at your head and you pretend it isn’t there, thinking that the pressure against your temple is likely just your anxiety, or a toy, you might get shot. The main priority would be to know if it is a gun and then to ensure it does not go off. To prevent its discharge. To disarm the bandit.
Climate scientists say there is a loaded gun. The IPCC, which Lomborg admits is the institution best able to present the information on climate change, says there is a gun and that it is loaded, but the IPCC doesn’t tell us whether it makes sense to hand over our wallet or resist.
Despite his statistics on starving people (which is not proof of the existence of a climate change gun anyway) and his faith in the future being even better than today, and his assumption that we will find a technological solution to the problem because we have done so before, Lomborg provides no evidence to confirm or deny the existence of a loaded gun. He merely asserted that there isn’t one. He is asking us to act on faith – faith in human progress and technology.
Things are better than ever and will continue to get better than they are currently.
We will prevail as we have in the past.
In effect, he is saying that we must have faith.
Sorry — but faith isn’t going to cut it for me.
Yes, he is right — we have made strides in addressing absolute poverty. However, even though there is a smaller proportion starving, the sheer number of people who live on the edge of starvation and could be adversely affected by climate or any other crisis such as crop failure or market failure, is much greater today than three decades ago.
Just because things improved in the past doesn’t mean they will continue to improve. There is no evidence that things can’t get worse.
Yes, he is right — if renewables become as cost-effective as fossil fuels, it makes sense that we might shift to them but there is no certainty that we will do so. Shifting from one source of energy to a different source is complex and fraught with difficulties and costs. There is a lot of money invested in fossil fuel extraction, processing, transportation and sale and a lot of money to be made from it. Will fossil fuel companies just give up?
There is no certainty as to when this will happen either. I agree that we should invest heavily in R&D in renewables as part of our response to climate change. But I don’t think it is wise to rely on the hope that it will happen because similar transitions have happened in the past. There could be events in the intervening decades that prevent this or delay it. We can’t just rely on faith and hope that what held in the past (progress, technological breakthroughs) will hold true in the future.
Lomborg argues that any warming we see will likely be at the lower end of the model predictions. He provides no evidence as to why we should accept this is the case. Given the uncertainty in the models, it may in fact be the case that we see warming at the higher end of the model predictions.
What Lomborg has done is muddy the main issue with irrelevancies, such as resource levels and starvation levels and pollution levels and has obscured the main issue — is there a gun at our heads and is it loaded? Instead, he focuses instead on issues that do not directly bear on the question of whether we should enact policies to address global warming. He discredits environmentalism (the environment is getting better like everything else, and besides, the environmentalists are an interest group hoping to make you fear so you will focus on their issue!), discredits conservationism (we won’t face limits on growth – even when we use up resources, we leave our children with more and better access to cheaper resources!) and discredits the precautionary principle (it’s not a threat so we don’t need to act because it will take care of itself due to progress — look at the global cooling scare!).
His conclusion is that since there is no loaded gun pointing at our heads, environmental policies are just not worth the effort and cost, if one looks at costs and benefits. Economic policies offer the best bang for the buck because they save more lives for less money.
Every day in every way, things are getting better and better.
Don’t worry. Be happy.
[edited for grammar]