Skeptical enviro Bjorn Lomborg discusses post-Kyoto roadmap, calls Kyoto "feel good strategy"

As the international community convenes in Bali to create a roadmap for post-Kyoto climate discussions, how successful will a new climate treaty be at reducing emissions and decreasing the impacts of climate change? During today's OnPoint, Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg explains why he believes Kyoto is a "feel good strategy". He also explains why the international community should be focusing on funding R&D for alternative technologies and adaptation measures, rather than emphasizing an emissions-reduction treaty. Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and "Cool It--The Skeptical Environmentalists Guide to Global Warming," gives his views on the Stern review on the economic impacts of climate change and assesses the current climate discussions in Bali.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Danish political scientist, Bjorn Lomborg. Bjorn is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and the author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and also "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming." Bjorn, thanks for coming on the show.

Bjorn Lomborg: It's great to be here Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Bjorn, you're often referred to as a skeptic or a contrarian when it comes to the global warming issue. But you do believe that global warming is happening and you do believe that it's man-made, it's man caused.

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes.

Monica Trauzzi: So where is it that you don't fall in line with the majority opinion on global warming?

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, it's important to say, as you also said, I'm a political scientist. So I don't look at the natural science, I simply take the starting point in the U.N. climate panel report. But I say two things; first of all, we need to get realistic about what are going to be the impacts on societies? That is we both need to remember that there's going to be positives and negatives, overall the negatives are going to be out weighing the positives. That's why global warming is a problem. And we also need to have a much smarter and more well-informed conversation about what we should do. So let me give you two examples of these things. First of all, when we talk about the problems, we very much talk about these scare scenarios almost, the 6 meters of sea level rise that for instance Al Gore shows us in his movie. But quite frankly, the U.N. climate panel is telling us it's going to be somewhere between 18 and 59 centimeters, between half and 2 feet of sea level rise. That's a very different statement. And, of course, we've got to remember that societies actually adapt this. We know over the last 150 years we had about 1 foot of sea level rise. So we will have more due to climate change, but it will still be within that range of saying, yes, it will be a problem, but it will not be a catastrophe by any standards. I mean look back 150 years and did anyone mention sea level rise is one of the major factors of human civilization? So we need to get real about saying it's a problem, but it's not a catastrophe. The second part I try to make is simply we need to find smarter ways of dealing with climate change because everybody talks about cut, cut, cut carbon emissions. And it's all very well to talk about it, but it doesn't actually happen. And the reason of course is that it's actually very expensive. And so I'm saying, instead of trying to cajole everybody to cut carbon emissions when it costs fairly much, we should much more focus on investing in research and development of noncarbon emitting energy technologies. Basically make solar panels and all the other things much cheaper, because if we do so, it will be much easier to convince everyone, including the Chinese and the Indians, to cut emissions in the long run. This is not a short sprint about making sure we cut carbon emissions over the next five or 10 years. This is about a long marathon, making sure that we eventually stop emitting carbon by the end of this century.

Monica Trauzzi: But many of these cap and trade policies are talking about 2050 as a goal year to reduce emissions by a certain percentage. So, they're not necessarily short sprints. Why is cap and trade such a problem? Because it is probably one of the more popular ideas that's floating out there.

Bjorn Lomborg: Oh, absolutely! I mean most economists, and I would certainly also be one of those, would be a little bit more in favor of carbon tax, simply because it makes it clear for everyone what you're paying. It's more manageable for the economy. You have a better set of incentives, because everybody in the company side would want to cheat on this because it's essentially a way of getting out of the problem. But if you have cap and trade, the nations also have the interest to cheat simply because it will make their bargaining power and their international standing, the economic situations better, whereas, if it's a tax they actually have an incentive to cash in on it, the companies to pay for it. But let's leave that aside and simply say, sure, we should have caps and trades or carbon taxes. But when you talk about 2050, you're simply talking about this would be nice to do. As Richard -- I can't remember his name right now, sorry, but the commentator from Newsweek says, just because Schwarzenegger wants to reduce carbon emissions by 60 percent, doesn't mean it will actually happen. And there's a lot of nice statements out there, but it doesn't mean that it will actually happen.

Monica Trauzzi: But if you have a goal in sight, then you can work towards it.

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, but the problem is, look at the goals that we've had so far. Before Kyoto in 1992 we actually had the Rio summit, where we said we were going to cut emissions by 2000 to 1990 levels. We overshot that by 12 percent. Then in Kyoto we said, all right, let's make it harder. It didn't work out very well the first time. Let's try to make it harder. So in 1997 we said, all right, we're going to reduce it below 1990 levels by 2010. We're probably going to overshoot that by about 25 percent it seems likely to me to say we're going to do that again and again, simply because it's very costly. Look at Tony Blair, arguably the primary mover on climate change over the last 10 years; he came into office in 1997 together with the Kyoto Protocol. He said, "Britain is going to cut another 15 percent of its emissions by 2010." Since then, they've increased 3 percent. So it's very easy to say, but it's actually very hard to do. And that's why I'm saying instead of trying to believe that everybody will do something that's incredibly costly, well, fairly costly, I mean it's not going to bring us to the poorhouse, but fairly costly and will do very little good only far into the future for everyone else. Try to make technologies cheaper so that everybody will want to do it, because it's cheap.

Monica Trauzzi: So Kyoto is a feel-good strategy. Explain what that means.

Bjorn Lomborg: Yeah, Kyoto simply as a way that we all talk about now we're doing something about the problem. But of course, two things, Kyoto, even if everybody had done what they promised, that is the U.S. and Australia had signed up, and Canada and Japan had also done what they promised, even if everybody had done that, it would only have postponed global warming, by the end of the century, by seven days. Even if we expanded the Kyoto Protocol to be about all the way through the 21st century, it would still only postpone global warming by about five years at the end of the century. So fairly little at a fairly high cost, at about $180 billion a year. So essentially we're saying let's all feel good about this and, of course, the outcome is that we don't even do very much in Kyoto. So we're essentially having a failed strategy that even if it had worked, would just have cost a lot of money and done virtually no good. I'm simply saying the only way you're going to get everybody on board is by making sure it becomes much cheaper. So the advantage in investing in research and development is you can get everybody on board. It's much cheaper. The thing that I propose is that we should spend 0.05 percent of GDP on research and development of noncarbon emitting energy technologies. It would be 10 times cheaper than Kyoto, yet it would be a tenfold increase of what we spend right now. So it's a win-win situation in that sense. You can get everybody on board, it's 10 times cheaper, but it will be 10 times more effective. Isn't that a good idea?

Monica Trauzzi: But the intention now, especially as we're in-between of the Bali discussions and we're looking at 2009, 2010 as a goal year for creating a post 2012 policy, the intention is to learn from the mistakes that were made in Kyoto and create a better policy. So do you think that the world just has it completely wrong and we're totally in the wrong direction here?

Bjorn Lomborg: No, of course we're not totally in the wrong. That would be a very surprising development.

Monica Trauzzi: OK.

Bjorn Lomborg: But we are mostly in the wrong in the sense that most people seem to think, and that was the feel-good part of it, most people think this is about cutting carbon emissions right now. I mean I understand that because it makes us feel like we're doing something. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy that we've cut a ton of carbon, but the end result is it has virtually no impact in a hundred years. Whereas what we really should have done was to enable future generations to cut carbon much cheaper and, therefore, much more. And especially of course because we're just talking in the rich world, but if we're going to get the Chinese and the Indians aboard we have to be able to offer them much cheaper technologies. And so my point is simply to say we need to get back and spend much more on research and development. It's not going to make you feel so good because we're not actually going to say, in 2009, we've done something that immediately will have an impact on climate. But no, what we've done is set in motion a series of proposals that hopefully will make, for instance solar panels or other technologies, much cheaper come 2040, so that everyone will want to switch much more over to these technologies. So it's really a question of saying do you want to do a little good with lots of money or do you want to do more good with less money? Obviously, I'm in favor of the second.

Monica Trauzzi: Do you agree with the assessments and recommendations that were made in the Stern report regarding the economics of climate change?

Bjorn Lomborg: The Stern report, I think, was an important document in the sense that it made people realize we need to talk about economics. We can't just talk about, you know, the natural science of it, but we also need to look at what's it going to cost and how much is the impact going to be? With that said, that's the only positive thing I can say about the Stern review. It was supposedly a review, as it says in its name, of all the existing literature. But it is systematically much more scary in its outcomes if we don't do something than all of the things they've reviewed. That's also why it's been incredibly criticized in the peer-reviewed literature. Most of the people feel that they have certainly picked worst-case or even worse than worst-case scenarios in the outcomes. On the other hand, they've been incredibly optimistic on the political outcomes. First of all, they've been incredibly optimistic about its not going to cost that much. And then they've also said all politicians in the whole world and all the way throughout the 21st century are going to get it right. Now that, I would say, is at least a very optimistic assessment. So, basically, they're saying it's going to be incredibly costly if we don't do something, very exaggerated negative, and they're saying it's going to be very cheap because all politicians are going to be incredibly smart about this on the treatment side. Now I would say both of these are very much designed to reach one conclusion, namely that it actually pays to do something with climate change. But actually, if you look at all the peer-reviewed studies of climate change show you should only do a little, simpler because it's fairly expensive to do something right now and it does fairly little good as I also talk about with Kyoto Protocol, far out into the future. And that's why I'm saying, instead of cutting now, which makes us feel good, but doesn't quite do it, we should focus on investment in research and development.

Monica Trauzzi: We've seen many developments in the last six years, on both the economic and scientific front when it comes to climate change. Has your rhetoric changed at all since you wrote your book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist", in 2001? In the past six years have you shifted some of your thoughts?

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, I think I've certainly, as everybody, learned a lot. We know a lot more about both of these things. We have better economic models, as you say. We also have better predictions of many of the things both that are more scary, but also less scary. Of course, for instance the Gulf Stream, we typically worry about the next scare. We rarely go back and say, oh, we were wrong about the last scare. For instance the Gulf Stream, the U.N. climate panel comes out and says, yeah, it's not actually going to stop. We were wrong there. To the extent that it is going to slow down, that's actually going to be a benefit for Europe because it means it will get less more warm by the end of the century, as is presumably the goal of all climate policies. So, yes, my rhetoric has changed in the sense that I try to get people to think much more not about the scenarios side, which I also spend quite a bit of time on, and I think you can reasonably talk about that, but let's just say all this is we know pretty much what's going to happen with the standard scenarios. Still, we need to have a conversation about what can we do. And if you'll allow me just one sort of sidetrack, I like to point out the polar bears, which in many ways have become sort of the icon for global warming. And it's absolutely true; polar bears are going to have problems because of dwindling and eventually disappearing summer Arctic ice. But the curious thing is, what can we do? Well, if we do the Kyoto Protocol, we can probably save about one polar bear every year. Now, I'm all for saving a polar bear, but I'm just surprised that we don't have a conversation about the fact that we shoot somewhere between 300 and 1000 polar bears every year. And I'm simply saying wouldn't it be smarter maybe if you --

Monica Trauzzi: Where are you getting those numbers though, one polar bear year?

Bjorn Lomborg: The one polar bear, that's an extrapolation of the best studied polar bear population if all of the decline that we are seeing in that population is due to climate change, which is admittedly a very exaggerated expectation and that this would be true for all of these areas. So I would say it's a very, very optimistic estimate. It's probably much less than one polar bear. But the point I'm trying to make is, isn't it curious that we talk about spending trillions of dollars saving one polar bear, when there's such obvious solutions on how you could at least save 300 polar bears by simply stopping shooting them? And that's the point that I try to get the conversation back to. We have become so focused on there's only one answer to any question, any question at all, has to be cut carbon emissions. Now surely, that sometimes true, but surely it's not always the best answer.

Monica Trauzzi: We're just about out of time. Let's get this last question in. You referenced An Inconvenient Truth earlier and Al Gore has certainly received a lot of positive attention and positive feedback for his movie this year. He was also given the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on global warming. Does he deserve all of this?

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, I think you have to -- and unfortunately, that's going to be a slightly more complicated answer. The Nobel Prize was, of course, also given to the U.N. climate panel.

Monica Trauzzi: To the IPCC, sure.

Bjorn Lomborg: I think that's absolutely great, but let's just remember, Al Gore has done something amazingly good by getting a lot of Americans, especially right wing Americans, away from it, oh, it's all a natural variation, it's all a left-wing conspiracy to raise taxes kind of thing. I think that's good and he should get credit for that. On the other hand, he's also done so by scaring the wits out of many people by telling us we're going to see 20 feet of sea level rise. We're going to see all of these terrible things happening, which I think there's very little or no basis for making. So, yes, some applause, but mostly I think it's problematic and there is a problem in having the public policy determined by hysteria, by us all running around screaming, because we're unlikely to make sound and good judgments. If this really is a long-term issue, we need to get it right and not just do what feels good.

Monica Trauzzi: OK, we'll end it right there. Thanks for coming on the show.

Bjorn Lomborg: Thank you.

Monica Trauzzi: This is OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Thanks for watching.

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