Bjørn Lomborg relishes his role as contrarian in the debate over how to tackle climate change.
Despite the controversy over his book the Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg is not afraid to continue ruffling feathers, complaining the global debate on global warming is “polluted with myths and wishful thinking”, arguing extreme weather events are not on the rise, that climate change will on balance benefit the world’s population until around 2070 and that a high carbon tax is misguided.
The head of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre also warns the climate-centric agenda is squeezing out other key societal challenges that can be more easily solved, such as the nearly four million people killed annually from indoor air pollution.
Lomborg, who presents the epitome of cool, with his sharp haircut, tight black t-shirt and brightly coloured trainers, says there are both benefits and downsides to being such a controversial figure.
“I think it’s a mixed blessing because it’s very clear that a lot of people are intuitively either, ‘Oh, he’s terrible’, or, ‘Oh, he’s great’ and quite often for the wrong reasons,” he says. “But of course, it also means a lot more people are actually listening to what I am saying.”
Along with economists around the world, Lomborg, adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School, is analysing the cost benefit return of various social and environmental initiatives, in a bid to create more effective decision making about how to use scarce financial resources.
Is it more effective, for example, to increase agricultural yields or prevent stunting from malnutrition. How do you compare these to biodiversity loss and sanitation? While Lomborg rails against policy-making that is based on the tugging of heartstrings, he understands rational arguments alone do not change public opinion
“The thing I’ve learned is that we’re talking both about a rational argument but also a very emotional argument,” he says. “I think it’s important to point out, ‘listen, I understand what it is that you’re worried about and I share that passion. But let’s just look at the cost and benefits.’ So I try to soften the blow of the economics, because it’s not about being right, it’s about getting people on board. When people say ‘I want to do something that’s moral,’ I would argue helping ten people for the same amount of money that you’d otherwise have helped one is actually deeply moral.”
Does Lomborg regret taking such a purist approach earlier on in his career? “I just thought a good argument was a good argument; get over it,” he says. “And while that’s intellectually true, it’s not how the world works. And so I’m more mellow and try to be more cognisant that there’s a lot of different ways to look at this. I’m simply providing my two cents and I hope that’s worthwhile.”
While Lomborg agrees that climate change is a serious long-term threat, he warns that saturated media coverage of extreme weather events means that people mistakenly believe it is already starting to have a dramatic effect.
“When there is a heat wave, the Guardian and every other paper in the world is going to write about it and talk about it, and we’re going to be very focused on it,” he says. “But when there’s not a cold wave it’s not a news story; it’s inherently not a story that something did not happen. And so there is a crucial asymmetry in the way that we see the problems that occur and the problems that we didn’t get. We need to be careful to not just be convinced when we see Hurricane Haiyan, the terrible catastrophe in the Philippines, but remember overall we’ve actually seen very, very low levels of hurricanes in most of the world.”
Lomborg dismisses concerns that his focus on the benefits of climate change up to 2070, including higher agricultural yields and few deaths from cold, will have the psychological impact of preventing people from taking action now and says exaggerating the risks would be similar to Tony Blair pushing the UK into the Iraq war because of the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
He says: “If you feel that global warming is something we’ve got to fix in the next ten years or we’re all going to die, which is a fair representation of the gut instinct part of the reporting of global warming, we will tend to say, ‘well, we’ve got to do something now so let’s put up a solar panel or a wind turbine” – which, quite frankly, is going to do very, very little.”
What Lomborg claims will be most effective in combating climate change is for governments to develop new technologies. If 0bn were invested annually in research and development, Lomborg estimates there will be a cost benefit return of for every dollar invested. He contrasts this to a focus on a carbon tax, which he says will provide a return of just 0.02% if it was the main policy instrument for seeking to keep within a 2C temperature rise.
It’s not just politicians who are failing to make decisions based on economic reasoning. He believes business puts too much emphasis on environmental initiatives that make the CSR report look good and get involved in too many initiatives to give the impression they care about a range of issues.
Critics of Lomborg argue that it does not makes sense to try to model impacts so far into the future, as there are so many variables and projects never end up where you think they are going to. He admits that predictions get more imprecise the further ahead you look but insists that economists should be thinking 100 years ahead to try to understand the implications of actions taken today.
Lomborg’s current focus is a cost benefit analysis of the most significant post-2015 development goals, because there is growing confusion with so many proposals currently on the table. “The post-MDG process could possibly end up directing 0bn of development aid in 2015-2030,” he says. “If we could achieve a switch from one bad goal to one good goal, we could do tens, possibly even hundreds of billions of dollars of good. That’s the best anyone can hope to do.”
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