Professor Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, urges you to be wary of apocalyptic climate change news, even as the media, politicians and activists depict global warming as an existential threat. They assert that society must stop using fossil fuels, eliminate carbon emissions and find a new way to power the global economy. Lomborg is not a climate change denier – he does advocate a carbon tax, green innovation and other measures – but he regards climate change as a tractable problem society can navigate with adaptation and innovation.
- The media, politicians and activists cause people to panic about climate change.
- Experts assess climate change by measuring temperatures and their effect on gross domestic product (GDP).
- Political leaders should evaluate climate change policies and expenditures based on a cost-benefit analysis.
- Individual efforts to deal with climate change don’t work.
- Humanity’s future could follow one of five viable paths.
- Carbon taxes can reduce emissions and slow global warming.
- Dealing with global warming demands innovation.
- Adaptation and increased wealth are paths to addressing global warming.
- Climate change isn’t the most important issue regarding making the world safe for future generations.
The media, politicians and activists cause people to panic about climate change.
The media depicts global warming as an impending Armageddon, more dire than any thermonuclear apocalypse. Activists and progressive policymakers insist that only drastic solutions, such as eliminating fossil fuel use and reducing carbon emissions to zero, will prevent civilization’s imminent demise and human extinction. But since 2000, scientists have collected detailed information about climate change, and the science doesn’t support a doomsday view of global warming.
“People are panicking about climate change in large part because the media and environmental campaigners tell us to, because politicians overhype the likely effects and because scientific research is often communicated without crucial context.”
One story suggested that large portions of the inhabited earth would soon face inundation due to rising sea levels caused by climate change. But it did not mention that many people have lived on land that lies below sea level for generations and have adapted via “flood protection.” In the United States’ polarized political climate, politicians argue they can save humanity from the global warming apocalypse – but their opponents can’t.
Experts assess climate change by measuring temperatures and their effect on gross domestic product (GDP).
The effects of climate change include higher average temperatures, violent storms that cause flooding, and prolonged droughts that cause crop failures and wildfires. Temperature remains the metric that best represents the potential impacts of climate change. Expressing these impacts in human terms is difficult because human well-being is multi-dimensional and spans numerous factors, from health to education levels to economic prospects. The single metric that reflects these phenomena is gross domestic product (GDP).
“Global temperature and GDP are both rising, and each affects the other. Our efforts to rein in temperatures will cost resources and lead to slower GDP growth.”
Global temperature links to GDP. Temperature increases are caused by the large amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere due to the dramatic increase in how much fossil fuels humans have burned since 1970. Temperatures will continue to rise if nations don’t reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. But even if all the world’s wealthy countries eliminated carbon emissions, overall carbon dioxide levels would continue to rise.
As a society becomes more affluent, it manufactures more goods and people build nicer houses, eat more varied foods and engage in more leisure activities – all of which produce carbon dioxide. Thus, as GDPs rise, so do carbon dioxide emissions. Economic growth contributes to global warming, but it also can serve to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. As people become more affluent, they become more inclined to vote for candidates who promote improved environmental conditions. Policymakers can’t focus only on either climate change or economic growth. They must direct their attention to both.
Political leaders should evaluate climate change policies and expenditures based on a cost-benefit analysis.
Those who create climate change policies should base their decisions on detailed cost-benefit analysis. That requires understanding climate change’s true cost. Economist William Nordhaus won the Nobel Prize in economics for his studies of climate change economics. Nordhaus and other economists estimate the costs of climate change by combining all available, relevant scientific data to assess climate change’s economic impact on, for example, agriculture, forest management and communities affected by sea level rise.
“When we look at the full range of studies addressing this issue, what we find is that the cost of climate change is significant but moderate, in terms of overall global GDP.”
The governmental policy response to climate change should be commensurate to its overall economic impact. If its impact is massive, policy implementors must control the cost of the response. If its impact is moderate, the policy response must not be more damaging than the problem. According to Nordhaus’s estimates, the impact of climate change on GDP tracks with temperature rise.
A rise in global temperatures of approximately two degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial revolution has caused a negligible net impact on global warming. A temperature rise of, for example, 7.2°F (4°C) by 2100 without any intervention will cause a 2.9% global GDP loss.
Individual efforts to deal with climate change don’t work.
Various regulations and subsidies meant to give people incentives to use “alternative energy technologies” cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Soon governments will spend trillions to shift their national economies toward energy sources that don’t emit carbon. Yet none of these efforts reduce carbon emissions.
“Despite dozens of climate summits, and despite global climate agreements struck in Kyoto and Paris, carbon intensity has increased ever since nations first made commitments to rein in climate change at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.”
As the world uses more energy, it emits more carbon dioxide. Despite many people’s goodwill, changes in individual behavior, such as turning off your cell phone or becoming a vegetarian, won’t drive any significant change.
Humanity’s future could follow one of five viable paths.
Looking back over the years, if people were given the choice between a slightly higher or slightly lower economic growth rate per person, they would surely choose the higher rate. Compounded over time, even a small increase in the economic growth rate can generate a massive impact on people’s lives, especially the lives of those who earn lower incomes. Questions about climate change policy pose this kind of choice. The approach to climate change advocated by the media, activists and progressive politicians will most likely lead to lower growth, which will generate dire consequences for the poor.
“By 2030, the Paris Agreement will cost $1 trillion or more per year. But this is just the start. Climate panic is likely to end up costing humanity hundreds of trillions of dollars, every single year.”
According to the United Nations climate science panel, five “Shared Socioeconomic Pathways” offer potential ways forward into the future. They all entail substantive economic growth, but at different levels. And, bear in mind, every increase in GDP means an increase in carbon emissions. The first three are:
- “Regional Rivalry – A Rocky Road” – This path involves resurgent nationalism and a lack of interest in climate change, education or research. It leads to slow economic growth. This is the worst of all possible futures.
- “Inequality – A Road Divided” – This path splits humanity into those who are educated and affluent and those who are less educated and poor. This approach would devastate undeveloped countries, erode social cohesion in affluent countries and exacerbate social conflict. Despite the destruction this path will engender, GDP will rise more than 200% per person.
- “The Middle of the Road”– Even under this moderate and conservative approach, GDP per person will increase more than 400% over the coming decades.
These three slow growth pathways forward are unappealing, especially for low wage earners. The last two pathways offer more positive approaches. The two most appealing paths forward have little to do with climate policy, but they could create a more affluent and less divided society by the end of the 21st century. They are:
- “Sustainable Development or Green Road” – This calls for creating a healthy, highly educated population capable of using and creating innovative cutting-edge technologies.
- “Fossil-fueled Development or Conventional Development” – This path spurs growth through open markets, investment in education and innovation.
Carbon taxes can reduce emissions and slow global warming.
Current approaches to dealing with climate change aren’t working. More rallies, money, windmills or solar panels won’t help. Most economists agree that the best way to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions – and thereby global warming – is to assess a tax on carbon emissions: a carbon tax. Governments would levy a tax on producers of carbon dioxide emissions who perform productive tasks, such as harvesting crops or manufacturing cars.
“It [the carbon tax] doesn’t just show consumers which products are carbon intensive and should be used more sparingly, but it helps energy producers move toward lower carbon dioxide emissions.”
Governments can set a carbon tax at whatever level their policymakers deem appropriate. If governments do not implement a carbon tax, humanity will suffer the worst effects of climate change, including the environmental costs of a 3.6% increase in GDP by 2100.
A limited increase in temperature would reduce global warming costs to $87 trillion, less if temperatures rise less. Nordhaus’s model of the cost of climate change over the next 500 years (considering temperature rises that occur by 2100) shows a cost of less than $50 trillion dollars if there is a “very low” rise of 3.9°F (2.2°C) and a cost of more than $100 trillion if people do nothing, leading to a temperature rise of up to 6.3°F (3.5°C).
Dealing with global warming demands innovation.
Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide and causes global warming. Humans must reduce this emission of carbon dioxide if they want to reduce global warming. But society lacks an effective, inexpensive replacement for fossil fuels. This is a significant problem but it is hardly the first time humanity has faced a significant problem.
“When we look back in time, we seldom fixed big problems by telling people to live with less of everything they wanted.”
Fossil fuels are inexpensive, and they empower the global economy. Public policy should aim at finding innovative alternatives to fossil fuels. Solar and wind power are too inefficient and costly, despite trillions of dollars of investment in those industries. However, the innovation of fracking, for example, has reduced carbon emissions by making natural gas cost less than coal.
Other areas of “green innovation” could include research, development and investment in nuclear power and in energy storage that enables holding limitless amounts of solar energy. Nuclear power plants are very expensive, but they don’t emit carbon dioxide. Innovation in developing nuclear power plants at a reasonable cost could lead to producing inexpensive energy that doesn’t contribute to global warming.
Adaptation and increased wealth are paths to addressing global warming.
In addition to implementing a carbon tax and pursuing technological innovations that support energy sources that limit CO2 emissions, simple adaptation – and better maintenance of existing systems – can address climate change. For example, much of the damage Hurricane Sandy caused in New York resulted from missing subway system storm covers.
“We should invest far more in planning and infrastructure to provide protection from natural disasters…We must do all of this with a clear understanding that adaptation is an effective and necessary climate policy.”
In 1953, the low-lying Netherlands suffered terrible flooding. Over the following decades, the Dutch government invested billions in flood prevention. As a result, the Netherlands has had only three floods since 1953. Impoverished, floodable countries such as Bangladesh lack the economic capacity for such an investment and will thus continue to be vulnerable to events related to climate change.
Climate change isn’t the most important issue regarding making the world safe for future generations.
The purpose of climate change policy is to make the world a better place for human beings to live. Yet, much of the climate change policy egged on by the media, activists and progressive politicians does not improve the world and is astronomically expensive.
Expensive investments in climate change policy will slow economic growth and worsen many people’s lives. More important priorities include establishing effective healthcare systems and ensuring food security and proper nutrition for all.
About the Author
Bjorn Lomborg, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, also wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It. In 2004, Time named him on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
In “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet,” Bjorn Lomborg offers a contrarian view on the issue of climate change, arguing that the current approach to addressing the problem is ineffective, expensive, and disproportionately harmful to the world’s poor. In this review, we will examine the strengths and weaknesses of Lomborg’s argument, evaluate the evidence he presents, and assess the impact of his ideas on the broader conversation around climate change.
- Critical perspective: Lomborg’s book provides a much-needed critique of the climate change discourse, challenging the conventional wisdom that climate change is an existential threat that demands immediate and drastic action. His argument that the current approach to addressing climate change is ineffective and harmful to the poor is an important contribution to the debate.
- Evidence-based analysis: Lomborg presents a wealth of data and research to support his argument, drawing on a wide range of sources, including scientific studies, economic analyses, and social impact assessments. His use of evidence-based analysis adds credibility to his claims and helps to build a robust case against the current approach to addressing climate change.
- Realistic solutions: Lomborg offers alternative solutions to the problem of climate change that are more effective, efficient, and equitable. His focus on technological innovation, carbon pricing, and international cooperation provides a more realistic and pragmatic approach to addressing the issue.
- Overly simplistic: Lomborg’s argument relies heavily on overly simplistic assumptions about the relationship between climate change and economic growth, downplaying the complexity of the issue and the many factors that contribute to it. This can make his case appear oversimplified and unconvincing to some readers.
- Cherry-picking data: Lomborg selectively chooses data to support his argument, ignoring or downplaying contradictory evidence. This can undermine the credibility of his claims and reinforce the perception that he is selectively presenting information to support his agenda.
- Lack of policy prescriptions: While Lomborg offers alternative solutions to the problem of climate change, his book does not provide a comprehensive policy roadmap for addressing the issue. This can make it difficult for readers to understand how his ideas could be implemented in practice, and how they would address the many challenges associated with climate change.
Lomborg’s book has the potential to influence the broader conversation around climate change by challenging the conventional wisdom on the issue and offering a more nuanced and realistic approach to addressing it. However, his arguments have been met with criticism from some quarters, with some experts accusing him of downplaying the severity of climate change and the need for urgent action.
In conclusion, “False Alarm” provides a thought-provoking critique of the current approach to addressing climate change, highlighting the limitations and flaws of the conventional wisdom. While Lomborg’s argument has some strengths, including his use of evidence-based analysis and his focus on realistic solutions, his book also has several weaknesses, including his tendency to oversimplify the issue and selectively present data. Ultimately, Lomborg’s ideas have the potential to influence the broader conversation around climate change, but they must be carefully considered and evaluated in the context of the complex and multifaceted challenges associated with this critical issue.