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Sceptically yours, Bjorn Lomborg

A couple of years ago, just before some greedy banks were screaming out for bail-outs the developing world went through  what was known at the time “the food crisis”. I remember it was a boost for organic markets or for fair trade. In that context, I managed to squeeze out a phone interview from a person considered infamous by the majority of the radical environmental movement. However, after reading “The Sceptical Environmentalist” and “Cool It”, I became less radical and tried to lend my ears to this guy. Bjorn Lomborg is an avalanche of pro-business platitudes, however his stance on R&D investments focus is quite appealing. And in the context of today’s recession it is really cool to balance corporate greed and public spending. So this is a battle between keynesianism and neoliberalism washed in tonnes of green. Enjoy the reading!



Raul Cazan: Given that I am old enough to remember communism, I feel a little bit ashamed when I find myself sustaining leftist environmental ideas or strategies. I lived in a European country, nowadays an EU Member State and, to a considerable extent, I experienced in the communist Romanian society malnutrition, scarcity of health and sanitation services, terrible education (I still remember freezing during classes in winter while in elementary school). Now, today’s environmental discourse may sound a little out of balance for an East-European… Romania, for one, is focusing on accelerated economic growth and is open to foreign direct investment. Environmental education, coverage of environmental issues and global warming were utterly ignored until the accession to the EU.

We should be starting this interview with the big issue that, these days, floods all the newswires: the Food crisis. In a certain way, it plays along your tune. I made some ad hoc content analysis lately and Environmental news largely switched to issues related to malnutrition in the Third World. Food scarcity is definitely newsworthy and in this case, CO2 cuts passed on the second place. It seems that the media have already found other priorities for their news.

Bjorn Lomborg: It is certainly true that there is a stark contrast in our concerns on different issues when we realize that yes, there is a food crisis, and we realize that maybe this is more important than many other worries that we have been talking about. And of course, one of the crucial points, such as the food crisis is, was entirely avoidable, in the sense that we know that the long term problem is that we have not invested not even nearly enough in research and development of food production.

Actually this was the fifth outcome, the fifth best investment in the Copenhagen Consensus that entangles the best strategies of the best investments to do in the world.

But perhaps, more importantly, we have seen exactly the kind of trade off we talked about. We talked about global warming and everybody wants to switch to, for instance, biofuel causing, a fair amount, about 12% of the US food production to be converted into fuel. Essentially, we are the first civilization, on a major scale, to burn its own food. And so, it is not surprising that this is one, it is important to stress, it is only one, but one of the main, recent, worldwide food shortage.

So it is very clear that there are priorities. If we over-focused on one thing, as we have done with biofuels, it means we end up under-focusing on other major issues, as for instance the food crisis. And there are many other problems in the world.

Raul Cazan: Indeed, malaria, HIV/AIDS or trade barriers are still a bit… retro.

Bjorn Lomborg: Exactly. One of the things that I wanted to point out is that you have to be honest: if you focus on something it means you focus less on other things and we have to ask ourselves if cutting carbon emissions is the best way to head the world forward. Unfortunately, although most people fail to believe so, most academic economic studies show that while climate change is indeed happening and it is a serious problem, the current way of dealing with it is actually a very expensive way of doing virtually no good even a hundred years from now.

Raul Cazan: George Monbiot in his latest book, Heat, with his leftist and anarchist touch – that I personally enjoy, talks about grand strategies and philosophical change in the way we relate to the Earth by criticizing the very foundation of our economic system: the Capital. Yet, on the other hand, policies that promote economic growth might actually be the solution for the developing countries. Or do they?

Bjorn Lomborg: George Monbiot focuses very much on climate change. The way he casts the problem is all about cutting carbon emissions right now. If you are going to do that, he is absolutely right, this is not something that we can do and maintain our current standard of living. He is also right when he says that this requires an effort akin to the World War II effort that will lead to a much slower and passive, negative growth. The problem I have with this sort of argument is not that he wants to cut carbon emissions right now. Two reasons for that.

One is that he is essentially advocating something that even, I would argue, the most ardent promoters of the viewpoint would see as remotely likely to happen. So, basically, even if we follow this advice, chances are that we are going to end up talking a lot, doing nothing about global warming and nothing about the other problems in the world – essentially the worst outcome of them all.

The second part is to say that if you really want to do something about climate change, don’t you want to make sure that it becomes a much better deal to cut carbon emissions and say “well, maybe we should focus on investments, research and development, maybe we want to make solar panels cheaper rather than put out a lot of solar panels. Right now Germans are paying 120 billion euros till 2035 for solar panels that if they all offer what Germans are expecting, they will yield one hour of global warming postponement by the end of the century. Therefore, they are paying 120 billion euros for nothing. So this is the big problem, there are people spending a lot of money doing virtually no good even a hundred years from now. The real investment will be in making much better solar panels so that by, say, 2050 there will be solar panels, improved and cheaper than fossil fuels. That way we would actually fix global warming because we can make an incentives’ structure for everyone, not just for the rich world, but also for the Chinese and the Indian to cut their emissions by switching to solar panels.

And the third part, which is the crucial discussion, that you also mentioned, is that George Monbiot is a green activist and he is making an argument for climate. However, there are many other issues in the world. He is a very nice guy, he undoubtedly wants to do good, but he is talking only about climate. Obviously there are many other problems in this world and shouldn’t we tackle them as well? For example malaria victims. Not only does malaria cause a million people to die each year, it also causes about a billion people to get infected with malaria and be debilitated several weeks, maybe a month, per year. This has a huge impact not only on the fact that a lot of people die, but also on economy, on the general robustness of the society. Many people, including George Monbiot, threat about the fact that global warming will make malaria slightly more prevalent by the end of the century. This is entirely true. But, of course, we can do much much more if we cared about the malaria victims by dealing with malaria problems right here, right now. What I am trying to point out is that for every time George Monbiot will say that one person dying of malaria had the same money been spent in the smartest possible way to deal with the disease, you could, for the same amount of money, have saved 36,000 people from dying from malaria.

Raul Cazan: You use the World Economic Forum’s Environmental Sustainability Index to underline the principle deriving from your book, Cool It, that “higher income in general is correlated with higher environmental sustainability”. The scholars that wrote the Index have an open interest in maintaining the status quo, haven’t they? I mean, I do not perceive a shift in the environmental paradigm, but the same polluting production with a greenwashing twist. So to speak, do we have to pollute a lot in order to reach environmental sustainability? Quite a paradox, here.

Bjorn Lomborg: First of all we have to realize that most countries do not pollute nearly as much in rich industrialization as we did in the long past. Most cities in the Western world, for instance London, at the turn of last century were much more polluted than most polluted cities in China today. And that is because they are using our technology, which is more environmentally conscious. The crucial question is to say “do really that people whose kids are dying from incurable infectious diseases, who do not have enough food to feed their children, and who do not get a proper education, care about the environment 50 to a hundred years from now?” Of course not! They care about their next meal. After these previously mentioned problems are solved they will care about environmental issues. And not because they are bad people, but because they have more important and immediate problems related to their very existence.

If we want to make sure that people in the third world and also, as you mentioned, in Eastern Europe, care as much about the environment as many as in the richest countries of the planet do, we have to make sure that they get as rich. So yes, it is important to realize that prosperity is the best way to ensure people care about the environment. This is not necessarily true, it seems, for global warming, but it stands for virtually all other environmental indicators. As people get richer they stop cutting down their forests, they start cleaning up their air, their rivers and lakes.

Raul Cazan: There are many claims of radical environmentalists that CO2 cuts are a global hoax, a mere hypocrisy. Even though emission cuts are reported gloriously by companies, in absolute numbers we consume more, that is we use more energy. “All that fuel is going to be burned, and it takes more and more”, says Monbiot, criticizing capitalism. A good example at hand is the country where I was born, Romania: giant energy generators, such as Electrabel or Enel, are investing Greenfield in coal burning plants. I’m talking here about a new EU member state, but I’m terrified about what is happening in China or India, noting their poor emission standards. Aren’t you concerned about that?

Bjorn Lomborg: No, I think that a tone averted of CO2, anywhere on the planet, is a tone averted. In that sense it is absolutely smart to say that if we want to cut tons of carbon we should definitely cut them where they are cheapest, in Romania and probably in China and India. But the main point, again, is to realize that people will note that we saved this much CO2, we improved our production processes and so forth. This is all good. However, we have reduced our carbon intensity in our economies in the last 200 years. It probably annually decreased about a percentage for the last two centuries. So it will not be surprising to see even more people reducing CO2. Actually this is what we should hope they would do. Just remember, this is all built-in to the business-as-usual scenario. This is what it will happen if nothing else is done. We see lots and lots of events from businesses around the world, from governments and building constructors; they al say, “we are cutting carbon emissions”. This is what we hoped it would happen just like it happened for the last 200 years. Today we want to cut emissions dramatically and see this as painting a wishful thinking picture. “Wouldn’t it be nice to cut carbon emissions dramatically?” But we will not! Unless we are willing to either accept dramatic costs, which I do not believe that anyone is keen to do, or to invest in R&D so that we could have smarter technologies at hand.

Raul Cazan: Global warming is the last hype, obviously the engine of the last worldwide hysteria. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall it is the only one that threatens Western comfort. If global warming were only a construct, do you think people would have found other “threats”, and create other fashionable trends? Maybe the prioritization of global problems that you propose is too… rational.

Bjorn Lomborg: There is no doubt that we were always flooded with events such as airplane crashes, tsunamis, disasters or earthquakes. We are naturally intrigued and perhaps secretly thrilled about reading about that. This is all part of the “world is going down” sort of mythology. In the 60s we worried about the overpopulation, in the 70s about running out of everything, in the 80s we thought acid rains would eradicate life on Earth. It is important to say that all had parts of arguments that were actually true. And just like that, global warming is true, but it is vastly overplayed, one sided and exaggerated. I am proposing a rational way to look at the world today. Rationality is not exactly what governments need. But most people would like to try be more rational, they would rather do something that really works rather than just make them feel good. It’s about being rational rather than fashionable.

Raul Cazan: Would you summarize, for Green Report, in a few words the size of the problem that climate change is? What is, in brief, the solution you propose? Please do also refer to the costs of dealing with it.

Bjorn Lomborg: Climate change will have a lot of impact, but, let us just remember, over the next hundred years. People will talk about sea levels rise of about 30 centimeters, which is the standard estimate of the UN Climate Panel. Obviously there will be some problems, but only over a century. Over the last 150 years though, sea levels rose about 30 centimeters. Yet I would defy if anyone really noticed. We must adapt to the long period ahead of us and slowly deal with it. It does not mean that the fight against global warming will be costless, but today’s implicated costs are much overstated. If you do the economic model, and that is what climate economists do, the costs of global warming will probably be one half a percentage point of the global GDP over the coming century. And this gives you a sense of proportion: half a percentage point is obviously a problem, but by no means a catastrophe. In 100 years we will be looking back and say “wow, global warming was the defining moment of the 21st century.” The important thing, however, is that what we can do about global warming, in very round numbers, is to spend 3 to 5 percent of GDP to avoid part of the problem. And this is why global warming economic models show that dealing with climate change the way we do is a very bad idea. We need smarter ideas. We should invest in research and development. The Copenhagen Consensus states that for each dollar we invest in R&D we yield 60 dollars, whereas if we invest in Kyoto-style policies it is less than a dollar back on a dollar. That’s the difference between doing something really smart and something pretty stupid.

The bottom line is that many people will say you should not be a climate denier. It is absolutely true, one should not ignore what the best climatologists tell you. But likewise, you should not be an economics denier. You should not deny what the best economists are telling you that the way we deal with global warming today is an incredibly expensive way of doing little good even a hundred years from now. Let’s get smarter.

Raul Cazan: You present a cost-benefit analysis justification as to why we ought not to cut emissions significantly, but this presents more problems than it solves. The model you are using, developed by William Nordhaus of Yale University, has been criticized by scholars for exaggerating the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by ignoring the economic potential for conversion to cleaner energy sources and evolution of technologies – in the model, cuts are just cuts. For example, rather than using a wind turbine, you have to switch the lights off. Technologies’ evolution, even though this is an uncertain indicator, play a big role in reducing CO2 emissions more effectively in the future, don’t they?

Bjorn Lomborg: It is true that the Nordhaus model does not include dramatic technological change; it would have been pretty difficult to put it into the model. But it assesses that we got better and better in cutting carbon emissions over the years. However, the new models include technological evolution and shows that investment in R&D is an incredibly much better strategy than just cutting carbon emissions.

Raul Cazan: Thank you.


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