Bjorn Lomborg, Danish author of ‘The Sceptical Environmentalist’ and former member of Greenpeace, addressed a climate conference in Sydney on November 22-23.
His new book suggests alternatives to the proposed Kyoto treaty on the reduction of ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions, using detailed analyses to argue that Kyoto will cost a lot, yielding only miniscule benefits.
His critics to date seem better at name-calling than any serious refutation of his research.
He took time out from his schedule to speak with Francis Young for ‘News Weekly’.
Francis Young: What is your first reaction when you hear talk of the Kyoto Treaty and governments’ responses to it?
Bjorn Lomborg: It seems incontrovertible to me that there is a global warming effect and that it is going to be serious, probably not in the amount of, say, six degrees warming, but it’s likely that we’ll get two to three degrees warming and that will be serious enough.
You then have to separate the two issues of this seriousness from what we can do about it. Just because there is a problem doesn’t mean that we have to solve it, if the cure is going to be more expensive than the original ailment.
We should take a look at what Kyoto will actually do. First, let’s see whom this is actually going to harm. If we talk about two to three degrees warming, then it’s going to harm the Third World, not the First World. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that many of the temperate countries are going to have a small benefit from warming, whereas tropical countries, which is where most developing countries are, will have severe problems.
So it’s mainly a question of helping the Third World overcome the effects of global warming.
FY: What do you think those impacts might be for the Third World countries?
BL: One of the most publicised is flooding, but probably that will be one of the cheap things to solve, especially since you have to consider that it will be 100 years before the flooding really gets going, and by then we expect developing countries to be much richer than they are today.
So we’re talking about 0.1 per cent to 1 per cent of GDP to protect your shoreline. More important are the changes in agriculture and infrastructure, and to a large extent it’s going to be a loss of production, simply because it’s going to be so hot that you will have lower yields than you would otherwise have had, for a vast number of different agricultural products.
So it is going to have a severe impact. We’re talking about probably five to eight trillion dollars on the total cost of global warming, and we’d much rather not have that. However the Kyoto treaty will do almost nothing to help this. All the models agree about this, that Kyoto is going to cut warming by perhaps 10 per cent in 2100, or to put it more clearly, it’s simply going to postpone warming for about six years in 2100. Warming that we would otherwise have had in 2100 will now be postponed by Kyoto to 2106.
FY: What measures do you think could be adopted rather than those in the Kyoto treaty?
BL: Again, I have to stress, just because there is a problem, does not mean we have to solve it. If we envision that we are going to pump out more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere forever, then we have to say, no, we’ve got to stop this, because we cannot go on making the world warmer and warmer. But that’s not likely to happen, since we have seen that renewable energy sources have been dropping in price by about 50 per cent for each of the last three decades. This is likely to continue, at least at a lower rate of about 30 per cent. Even at this lower rate, renewables will become competitive, or even out-compete, fossils fuels by mid-century. And that means, of course, we are talking about a limited problem with fossil fuels.
So we have to consider how we can spend our money most wisely now. The Kyoto treaty has an estimated cost of between US$150 and $350 billion a year, starting in 2010.
That’s three to seven times the total amount of global development aid that we give to the Third World right now.
So we are basically talking about helping them very little, but at an incredibly high cost.
My suggestion is that we should first work to ensure the Third World has clean drinking water and sanitation.
The second thing is, if you want to do something about global warming, you have to think much more long-term. There is something wrong with saying we should start using renewables now, while they are still incredibly expensive.
Instead, we should increase our research and development, so that when we switch over, let’s say in about five years, this research will have helped a lot more than Kyoto.
Think on a 50-year scale, which is a much more natural time-scale for global warming. The US is right now spending about 200 million dollars annually on research into renewable energy.
Even if you increased that ten times, it would be nothing compared to the cost of Kyoto, and that would be a much more sensible investment in the long-term.
FY: Dr Sallie Baliunas of the Harvard Smithsonian Institute of Astrophysics has noted that sunspots appear to also be contributing factors to climate change, analysing polar ice core data and old tree ring growth as a guide to estimating historical temperatures before accurate records were kept.
BL: There is no doubt that we should take solar radiation into account. We have seen ground temperatures rising since 1975, and it is important to know to what extent that has been caused by the sun or by carbon dioxide.
Right now, the consensus in the IPC is that it’s primarily caused by carbon dioxide. There are a lot of different alternative theories, both suggesting there might be even stronger positive feedback mechanisms, there might be negative feedback that we have left out, and other explanations that may be true. Of course, we have to investigate all these areas. (As a good academic, I should say this is a very cheap way of ensuring the world puts more money into academia!)
We always need to use the best scientific information to make our decisions. Some Green campaigners, like Edward Goldsmith in Britain, will say there are extra positive feedbacks, so instead of six degrees, we might be talking about a 12 degree increase. But we have to say, listen, we have set up a mechanism in the IPCC.
It’s not perfect, and you may have many criticisms, but it’s probably the best we can do right now. So we basically have to go with what it comes up with and say, this is probably what is reasonable.
In the same way, we have to investigate the solar mechanism, but right now, the IPC claims that it’s probably not the main cause. Some members of the Danish Meteorological Society started off this whole debate on sunspots. One of their recent analyses shows that there is an increasing gap between sunspots and temperatures, indicating that, yes, sunspots do have an influence but that carbon dioxide has, too.
We have to be aware that the scientific community throws up tons of different hypotheses and at a certain point we’ll find out who was right and who was wrong. But we have to go with the best information right now, which I would claim to be the IPCC reports.
FY: What do you think that governments should do when they are called to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol?
BL: I would say we could spend our money much more wisely. Certainly they should consider the alternative prioritisation of Kyoto. I do understand that it’s a difficult process – there are various coffers of money and a lot of bureaucracy. But on a basic level, as an academic, I think you have to say that we are talking about doing something that will do very little good, when we could spend that money doing much, much more good for the same people.
FY: What sort of criticisms have you encountered to your work, and how have you responded to them?
BL: A review was published in Nature, very scathing, essentially calling me incompetent, though they didn’t use that word. I am putting a reply on my Web site in a few days, where I go through their arguments, paragraph by paragraph. They paint me with all kinds of bad adjectives, but basically, if I’m so wrong, it should be easy to say, this number is incorrect, instead of just calling me an immoral person or somebody who doesn’t understand things. So I say, come out with the numbers instead of just calling names.
A favourite phrase I’ve heard from lawyers is, “If you have a good case, pound the case; if you have a bad case, pound the table.” If you hear that people are pounding the table, it indicates they don’t have very good arguments.
The point is to keep focussed on the facts. There are lot of unfair things happening in the world; we shouldn’t get upset about that. But we should be able to say, look, I’ve put forward these data, so disprove them. Don’t talk about me or what kind of political motives might be behind them. Go ahead and look at the data.
FY: What do you think of the methods and goals of Greenpeace and other environmental groups?
BL: I don’t think there is anything wrong with what they do, per se. But we do need to understand that they are lobby groups. When a business group tells us there is nothing wrong with the environment, naturally they may have good arguments, but we are also sceptical, because we know that they have an interest in these things.
Likewise, we should be sceptical of Greenpeace when it says that Doomsday is around the corner. They may even be right, but they certainly also have an interest in saying it, to make us allocate more money towards environmental protection. It’s fine that it is stressing one side of the argument, but we have to understand that they are a lobby group and they are only presenting one side of the argument.
I think it’s great that we have organisations like Greenpeace. In a pluralistic society, we want to have people who point out all the problems that the Earth could encounter. But we need to understand that they are not presenting a full and rounded view.
I’m trying with my book to say that, basically, we are going in the right direction. When we are going to try to counter all the other problems, certainly Greenpeace is a great player in that discussion, but we also need to get a feel for the overall size of the problem and where we would be best served to focus our interest first.