The NYTimes is featuring an article today on Bjorn Lomborg’s take on climate change.
While the content won’t be unfamiliar to most people who follow the issue, let me quote the gist of it:
“Wealth is a more important factor than sea-level rise in protecting you from the sea. You can draw maps showing 100 million people flooded out of their homes from global warming, but look at what’s happened here in New York. It’s the same story in Denmark and Holland — we’ve been gaining land as the sea rises.”
In his new book, he dismisses the Kyoto emissions cuts as a “feel-good” strategy because it sounds virtuous and lets politicians make promises they don’t have to keep. He outlines an alternative “do-good” strategy that would cost less but accomplish more in dealing with climate change as well as more pressing threats like malaria, AIDS, polluted drinking water and malnutrition.
But preparing for the worst in future climate is expensive, which means less money for the most serious threats today — and later this century. You can imagine plenty of worst-case projections that have nothing to do with climate change, as Dr. Lomborg reminded me at the end of our expedition.
I don’t think these points can be dismissed as easily as a lot of my fellow climate worry-warts tend to do. My response to this way of thinking is to question the very notion of “wealth”, which surely must mean something different on a planet which is full of people than on a planet with open space and natural ecosystems. For instance, the “value” of a free ranging species of bird or butterfly is much higher now that so many of them are in decline, but there’s no sensible way to reduce that to dollars.
I realize this is a lot to swallow all at once. Is there another way of looking at it that doesn’t require a total rethink of economics?
I think there is. Lomborg suggests putting more emphasis on our “other problems” and less into climate change. The difficulty with this view is that we no longer have the luxury of thinking of our problems as decoupled. Our problems include:
- increasing superstition and xenophobia, tendency to war
- decline of the natural environment, especially the oceans
- immediate limitations on liquid fuel
- desire for increasing wealth in backward countries
- dependency on extractive water sources, food security
- accumulation of trace substances not appearing in nature in the environment
Assuming the Hansen rapid sea level rise scenarios are unlikely (which I’m not sure about), climate change will not kill us. What it will do is this.
Climate change makes addressing almost every one of the principal global issues more difficult to address. There is no case where it makes matters easier.
Lomborg does advocate a carbon tax, so he really isn’t the enemy people make him out to be. I am not at all sure the way many people react to him is justified. Based on what I have seen, I think it’s reasonable to consider him intellectually serious and honest. I don’t think he understands the complexity of our predicament, though.
In a sense I actually agree with Lomborg. “Climate change” is not the problem. Managing the earth is the problem. Success is not in avoiding this or that global calamity. We have to avoid all of them, and they are intertwined.
There is only one big problem, how to get the biosphere into a sustainable condition. Economists are ateached to an essentially nonsustainable concept of perpetual growth, so they are not helping. They have a good point that climate change should not be viewed in isolation.
Update 9/14: Joe Romm’s first anti-Lomborg article discussed polar bears, about which I have no opinion. His second anti-Lomborg article addresses sea level rise. It is very clear that Lomborg got this badly wrong, but I still don’t see that he did so dishonestly. People are easily confused about things that aren’t their core expertise.
Anyway, I specifically excluded sea level rise above when discussing whether Lomborg could be right on his own terms. The confusion about sea level rise is attributable in large measure to systematic understatement on the part of the IPCC. Lomborg is not alone in missing the fine print, and this still is no indication of intellectual dishonesty.
I still think it would be best to engage Lomborg respectfully, rather than trying to tie him to the lawyer’s science of the main denialists. Of course, I recommend being
studiously polite even to the slimiest of the opposition, a tactic most of them know well enough. In the case of Lomborg, the respect would be genuine. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I see a man thinking for himself and advancing his opinions, even in the face of vitriolic opposition. He may be wrong, but that doesn’t make him dishonest.
My opinion remains tentative but Romm has not dissauded me from it.