A Believer Plays The Skeptic
Skeptics have their utility, especially when it comes to the science of climate change.
Bjorn Lomborg, a former director of the Danish Environmental Assessment Institute, professor at the Copenhagen Business School and organizer of Copenhagen Consensus has generated some controversy for his views on climate change and the efforts of government and corporations to deal with it.
A supporter of a carbon tax and massive research into energy alternatives, Lomborg plays a good devil's advocate, questioning whether some of efforts are sensible and cost-effective based on how much money is spent to reduce carbon omissions.
He spearheaded the Copenhagen Consensus, whose aim is to prioritize the best solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. He is the author of two books, The Skeptical Environmentalist, a best seller, and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Climate Change
Why the stampede to go green?
That’s a big question and I’m not sure there is an adequate answer to that. There’s a need for something big and beautiful to believe in.
There are certainly a lot of politicians who have found it very effective to use the green issue to rise above the ordinary and pedestrian, to talk about saving the world, even though the cost will be borne by the people who occupy the office after they have left. It is a very easy place to promise a lot and deliver a little.
What about all the companies?
The corporate side is doing it because it has become the big and fashionable thing to do. Corporations are partially right in doing so because it is what people want. It sounds great and it doesn’t cost much. A lot of companies, especially those with a low carbon footprint in the first place, want to go green. But you have to ask what is the benefit of this?
For most of these companies, it is seen as necessary to do so, to appear advanced and concerned and modern. To a certain extent they are probably right. But to have a sensible conversation about climate change it can’t start with the companies. It has to start with the people.
There are a lot of ideas out there in the corporate world, surely some are better than the others?
I simply cannot give you a hard and fast answer to that. An economist would say you should do this through a carbon tax. Some of these things are eminently worthy if they can cut a ton of carbon for 50 cents. On the other hand, with some of these thing, the costs could easily outweigh the benefits.
They are embracing this idea because that is what we are all taking about. There are more ways to deal with climate change than cutting carbon omissions.
What about thedeveloping world -- China, for instance -- joining this movement?
It is really clear Chinese companies care about air pollution and rightly so, because that is what actually bothers the people who work in the factories. Likewise with water and deforestation. Those things make a real impact. Those are the kinds of things that they should be doing something about it. They should be worried about local pollution problems—and that’s where they do spend most of their time.
What about the value of alternative energy?
Most of the things that people talk about have fairly high costs and do little good in the long term. People invest a little bit to look good but they will not pay a lot to actually help solve the problem. It would require high subsidies for these alternative fuels. You can envision cutting emissions 5 percent probably at very low cost but can you cut 10 percent-15 percent? That’s much harder to do.
Of all the alternatives, what looks the best?
I don’t know. Nobody really knows. We would want to invest in a large number of alternatives. It is not about all of them succeeding but some of them succeeding. Like solar and carbon capture. We need to find cheaper ways to do solar, partly because it is the one thing that is ubiquitously available. It is the same with carbon capture, which makes a lot of sense in China.
What do you think of former U.S. Vice Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize?
I think it was good that the United Nations climate panel won but I thought it was a curious choice to also award it to Al Gore.
Because Al Gore, particularly in the US, has brought us away from thinking it is all a hoax, which is good, but he’s also brought a lot of people to the conclusion that it is a catastrophe, which is not good.
We need to realize that sea levels will raise a foot over the next century but we need to realize that they also rose a foot over the last century and a half.
What is the single biggest mistake people are making?
It is probably the idea that this is something we can fix in the next five to ten years, If you imagine that we are going to go along as we have before, by 2030, we will have 14% of our energy come from renewable sources. But what would happen if we had a dramatically different scenario, where we really make a big effort, then by 2030 instead of going from 13% to 14%, we would go all the way to 16%. That points out we are really trapped in the idea we can make a huge difference if we try right now. What we can do is affect rich people in rich countries a little.
And look at the Kyoto Protocol. People look at it like a good standard. If everybody had approved it and lived up to the requirements, it would have postponed global warming seven days by the end of the century.