Bjorn Lomborg is a political scientist and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School
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Bjorn Lomborg: carbon cuts have got us nowhere in tackling global warming
16th March, 2010
Sceptic or realist? Bjorn Lomborg speaks to Tom Levitt about why his ideas on tackling climate change will actually help to solve the crisis
Tom Levitt: Are you convinced that climate change is both happening and man-made?
Bjorn Lomborg: Definitely it is happening. I don’t think anyone would say it is completely man-made - the UN says it is somewhere between 50-100 per cent man-made and I see no reason to disagree or not to accept that.
TL: Why are you still seen as a global warming sceptic?
BL: Unfortunately some of my opponents have somewhat successfully caricaturised me into someone who does not believe in global warming, which makes it easier to dismiss me.
I also called my book The Sceptical Environmentalist and being sceptical is a good thing. It’s what we should be doing in science but it has somehow being overtaken by how you characterise people in the global warming debate.
I am sceptical about how we approach global warming - the political and policy ways we tackle global warming - but I am not sceptical of the global warming science per se.
Listen: Bjorn Lomborg talks about his motivation for speaking out on global warming
TL: Why do you think your solutions will help tackle climate change?
BL: There are a lot of natural assumptions about what is the right policy on climate change and [one] assumption is that we should promise to cut a lot of carbon emissions. Well, we’ve been doing that for 18 years since Rio and we’ve got nowhere.
I am just pointing out that a successful strategy is not the same thing as a popular strategy. It’s the one that will actually work. I am proposing something I think will actually work rather than makes people applaud and say ‘oh, he’s a really nice guy’.
TL: But if we don’t act now to cut carbon emissions then aren’t we storing up worse problems for future generations?
BL: The UN climate panel estimates the average person in the developing world will be about 35 times richer by the end of the century, so we’re talking about very rich people. If you look at a Bangladeshi today they are poor, but by 2100 they will be as rich as people in the developed world.
So the real question is, is it justice to focus on people who will be a lot richer in 100 years and help them ineffectively through climate policies or should we rather be focusing on poorer people that are here today?
Imagine very rich Chinese or Congolese in 2100 as we expect according to UN predictions, imagine them looking back and saying, 'how odd that all these well-meaning people cared so much about helping me that they cut carbon emissions so that I would have a slightly easier life here in 2100; yet they cared so little about my great grandfather and great-great grandfather who were suffering from the most easily curable infectious diseases and did nothing about that'.
If you really care about justice, especially towards poor people, well the poor people are here right now.
TL: What in your opinion is a safe level of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere?
BL: The safe level, if there was no consideration of cost, would be pre-industrial levels. But you can’t talk about safe levels without talking about cost.
Traffic accidents are the second biggest killer worldwide. More than one million entirely man-made and preventable deaths. We could cut them all by cutting car speed limits to 5 Mph. But we are not going to do that because people would rather get home quicker and then kill some people. You don’t want to say it that way but that is the effect of what we’re deciding.
We don’t have the discussion about safe levels of traffic speeds without talking about the downside of the debate. We need that discussion on climate. How much are the economic models telling us it will cost to cut back and how much for not cutting back?
TL: So what is your solution?
BL: The problem we are seeing with global warming is that everyone has been saying for the last 18 years that we need to cut carbon emissions. Right now we are not succeeding because it costs too much and the benefits are not going to felt until 100 years from now.
So instead of trying to put expensive solar panels up that look good but don’t achieve much we should be focused on trying to make solar panels much cheaper.
If we could make them cheaper than fossil fuels by say 2040 we would have solved global warming because everyone; the Chinese, Indians would buy them not because they are green but because they are cheaper.
My point is that instead of trying to cut [emissions] directly - which economically seems a poor strategy and politically seems infeasible - a much better idea is to invest in research and development. By making green energy cheaper in the long run you will end up cutting much much more carbon emissions.
TL: Why do so many NGOs and campaigners oppose your ideas?
BL: I think it’s a testimony that there is a great power in images. WWF don’t raise money to help dung beetles; they raise it from Pandas and other cute animals.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t necessarily know that there are a lot of other issues that are perhaps more worthy but these are the places you can raise money. This is perhaps not politically correct but if it would do more good, doesn’t it need to be said by someone?
Listen: Bjorn Lomborg on why sea-level rises are not the disaster that many are suggesting
TL: What should NGOs be campaigning on?
BL: We shouldn’t blame Greenpeace for focusing on green stuff and not on poor people. It’s about what democracies should make of all that noise in trying to make good judgements.
They have caused the debate to focus on this one issue, namely to cut carbon emissions right now. The evidence indicates that that does not work. Economically, it’s the least effective way of cutting carbon emissions.
They have had a lot of success in getting that on the table but virtually zero success in getting it implemented. They could have a lot more success focusing on clean energy research and development and achieve much more.
TL: Do you believe that the current public scepticism about climate change is a result of alarmism?
BL: It’s very much of a consequence of the alarmism. I’ve always found it curious that well-meaning people think that you can long-term work with alarmism.
We are seeing the entirely predictable outcome of 5-15 years of scare campaigns that we’ve gone from being over-worried to being under-worried now.
I understand why people like Gore have thought this is a huge issue: 'people aren’t listening; I have to ramp up the fear factor'. But it only works for a short while.
If you scare the pants off people they eventually figure it out. Given that this is a 50-100 year problem it is just not going to work with fear.
TL: Is your work feeding global warming sceptics rather than helping tackle the problem?
BL: I have no doubt that many people would say I am a hindrance but that is because you are seeing it in too short a time-span.
Am I a hindrance to getting more than Kyoto passed? Undoubtedly. But that is because it is not going to get it passed, and even if it were it wouldn’t get implemented.
There are a lot of people I am arguing against that I am actually much more on their side than they realise. They are battling to do something about climate change but through unrealistic and ultimately futile policies.
I am trying to look out for [George] Monbiot's and others' better interest because I am coming up with suggestions that would do many of the things they want but much cheaper and more effectively.
TL: What about fears about runaway climate change if we do not tackle the problem today?
BL: I don’t think we have any good evidence for that but it’s definitely a possibility and to that extent if you want to talk about a solution that will work in the next 10-15 years then geoengineering is the only answer.
If you talk about a window of opportunity, the only one now is to throw a lot of money and gain very little. Just look at the German attempts on solar panels. Their finance ministry is estimating that they’ll be spending about $120 billion euros till 2010 in commitments to the solar panels. The net effect will be to postpone global warming by about one hour.
TL: Do you value nature and the future of the earth?
BL: Yes but when we talk about what political choices we are making it has to be something you can get people to value and not something important in and of itself but which no-one really cares about.
If you start asking, is this a bad thing for the earth? Well I am not really sure if this is bad for the rest of the ecological system.
One way to measure this is to look at the amount of biomass or living stuff on the planet. It’s a crude measurement but if you don’t pass a value judgement on whether, for example are penguins nicer than algae, then pretty much all the models for global warming indicate that we’re going to see a lot more biomass, in the order of 60-100 per cent more by the end of the century. Is that bad?
It might be bad for human ecological valuations because we’re going to have fewer polar bears and problems with our wetlands, but is it bad for nature?
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