When I walk into the plush Library Bistro, housed in the Alexis Hotel, Bjorn Lomborg is already seated at a side table, tap-tap-tapping on a laptop. Hovering nearby, a two-person TV crew, fresh from Denmark, readies a mic and camera. "They're doing a local-boy-does-good story," Lomborg says as I take a seat.
Or local boy does it big. Lomborg, a political scientist from Copenhagen who was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time, is riding the crest of a media frenzy wave, one that's already landed him on Comedy Central's Colbert Report. "Great," Lomborg says, closing his laptop, "they want me to do Bill Maher."
The cause of all the talk show to-do? His new book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming (Knopf, $21), a short and, some would say, bittersweet pill of a book, which argues that many of the actions professed to cure global warming... well, they're well-intentioned, but poorly reasoned, notions we've cooked up because we've gotten a little too emotional about climate change.
Nowhere is this more evident, he believes, than in the much lauded Kyoto Protocol. While cast as a green dream, one where cutting carbon emissions will wake us from our climatic nightmare, he maintains that the symbolic agreement won't yield the bang we want for our bucks. Instead, Lomborg -- who started a conference of top economists called the Copenhagen Consensus -- suggests we take a cooler, more rational approach to global warming, focusing our resources instead on meeting more necessary and attainable goals: fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS, ensuring fresh water supply, ending First-World agricultural subsidies, investing in research and development.
In a gotta-be-carbon-free city such as Seattle, which just announced it had lowered its greenhouse-gas emissions 7 percent between 1990 and 2005, Lomborg's beliefs might be construed as fighting words. But over a fancy lunch -- he dined on a healthy Greek salad, I chowed on pear and gorgonzola ravioli -- Lomborg keeps his cool, in a conversation that touches on recent Peace Prize laureate Al Gore, the four-wheeled symbol of the environmentally conscious soul, the Prius, and how our actions reveal that we care very little about the rest of the globe.
I'm going to start with a totally basic beginning: Can you define global warming?
Global warming is simply the physical point of saying that there are things that actually keep our earth a lot hotter than it would otherwise be. So basically, global warming is a really, really good thing, because otherwise, we would be freezing our asses off. But the extra carbon emissions that we are putting into the atmosphere because we burn fossil fuels, which basically powers our economy, is doing extra damage: it's increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that increases the temperature by some five degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. We're changing the thermostat and that's not an unproblematic situation. It will mostly be a negative impact.
So let's talk a little bit more about the negative impacts.
Well, it raises sea levels by a foot by the end of the century. It's going to cause more heat deaths. The increases in temperature are going to lower the average yields of many agricultural products. It's going to cause more precipitation in general, which means that you will see, potentially, more flooding.
But it is not an entirely one-sided story. When we hear that there will be more heat deaths, that's true, but there will also be fewer cold deaths. There will be more flooding, but the vast majority of the increase in flooding, in damages, comes from the fact that we have taken up wetlands, that we've cut down forests. So, "What should we do?" comes back to saying the only answer to all our questions is not going to be, "Let's cut carbon dioxide." One of the problems I have with this discussion is that we sometimes forget to be cool and rational, we sometimes forget our ultimate goal: for virtually everyone to end up making a better planet for humans and for the environment, and not just to cut carbon emissions. Why do you think people latch onto carbon emissions as the solution?
It has that ultimate feeling that we're talking about the grand scheme of the future of humanity, whereas many of these other policies that I advocate, how boring: they're about changing our building codes, whether we should build new homes in the flood plains of the Mississippi. When people say to me, "I live a carbon-free life," they feel really good about themselves, but I often say to them, "Well, if I give my donations to Red Cross, I save 100 people from dying from malaria." I think we should thank Al Gore for having brought the American population out of the, "Oh, it's all a hoax or a left-wing conspiracy" kind of thing. On the other hand, you might also argue that he's sort of brought it too much to the other side. We need to find a middle ground, of saying, "This is a problem that we need to fix," but it's unhelpful and untrue to establish [cutting carbon emissions] as a thing we need to do within the next 10 years.
So what's in this "middle ground?"
Two things. It's partly about dealing with the real effects of climate change. The people dying from the spectacular heat waves in Europe in 2003, or the people in New Orleans getting flooded from Hurricane Katrina: most people use that as a springboard to say, "We need to cut carbon emissions." Whereas, if you actually care about people, we should give them better: put in air conditioning, perhaps paint some of the tarmac of rooftops white, which we know would dramatically lower temperatures [in urban areas]. Likewise, if we want to deal with people in New Orleans, they should have better dikes.
That's one side of it. The other side of the issue is, of course, to say in the long run, we've got to stop emitting carbon. But that's a global, long-term issue. It's about making sure that we find long-term viable solutions, and that's why I argue Kyoto Protocol, and those kinds of immediate solutions, feel good, but do very little actual good at a fairly high cost.
To give you an example: solar panels probably cost about 10 times the amount per kilowatt hour than fossil fuels, which is why most rich people would put up one or two on their roofs to make themselves feel good. But they are not actually going to do very much to solve [global warming], because the vast majority [of people] are not going to put them up, not even in the U.S. And clearly India and China are not going to do this because there are much more immediate issues, like feeding their populations. So what we need to do is make sure that that cost of solar panels will drop dramatically. If we can get it below fossil fuels, we wouldn't even have to have this conversation: people would just simply use it.
How do we know that industry -- oil companies -- won't try to put the big kibosh on solar panels, or other forms of renewable energy?
The short answer is we don't. I'm simply saying no matter who might end up trying to block it, we should at least make sure that we have the smartest possible opportunities available. So the idea is to say there's lots of different solutions out there and instead of cutting emissions now -- which is fairly expensive and will do fairly little good 100 years from now -- we should focus on making it much cheaper to cut carbon emissions in the future. It's not about cutting one ton now: it's about making sure that we cut lots of tons come 2050.
But it seems to me -- just a little bit -- as if waiting to cut them until 2050, it's not really causing us to be culpable for our actions, that we've been spewing carbon emissions into the atmosphere for quite a while now.
In a perfect world, of course we should also cut carbon emissions, but look at our track record. In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio, we said that countries were going to cut their emissions about -- oh, what was it? -- 12 percent. Instead, we increased it about 12 percent. Then we promised in 1997 with Kyoto that we were going to cut it about 20 percent. We increased it instead about 20 percent. So, we have a situation where we continually promise all kinds of things, but we don't even get close to doing it. And so, it seems to me that instead of just spewing out this nice nonsense about all the stuff we're going to do, maybe we should focus much more on making sure we have much, much better alternatives. So what are some things you think we can do that are cost efficient?
You could get more efficient cars, you could have efficiency standards, you could get people to buy fluorescent lights instead of incandescent. I don't have a car. I just have a bicycle. But, of course, I also come here by airplane. But the idea here is to remember: this is a good little step and we should do it, but you changing your light bulbs is not what's going to solve the world's problems. Individuals should help, but we should also realize that the main issue is going to end up to be: how is your society structured? What solutions are available? By all means, buy a Prius, but that's not what's going to solve the global warming issue. That is about making sure we get technology to solve it so cheaply that everybody will want to -- not just you, because you're rich.
One of the curious things, I think, that is happening in the climate-change debate is, because we worry so intensively about climate, we tend to see every other problem in that lens, and that actually does not help us very much. A lot of people will say climate change will hurt Third World countries the most. But then the conclusion that very often comes from that is that to help the Third World, we should do something about climate change, which is not true. There are so many other ways that we can help.
A perfect example -- malaria -- will be increased due to climate change probably by three percent. If we just secured the [Kyoto] Protocol, we could avoid about 0.2 percent of malaria that comes in 100 years. We fail to remember that there is 100 percent that we could do very, very cheaply, like mosquito nets and drugs, that would make much more of a difference right now.
But, those things being true, why haven't we done them already? We just don't seem to care enough about the world. It doesn't seem to me that dealing with climate change the way we do right now is the best way to help. We can do huge amounts of good with prevention of HIV/AIDS, prevention of malnutrition, lack of free trade subsidies, prevention of malaria. There is no doubt that there was a lot of goodwill [in the Kyoto Protocol] and there are a lot of people who feel that urgent need that we need to cut emissions right now. But if you look at it rationally, the Kyoto Protocol was nothing more than, basically, symbolic action. If we're going to spend $180 billion [annually on Kyoto], I'd like to get more than just a symbol.
But the U.S. has already spent $450 billion on the Iraq War. What about that money?
There's a lot of money being spent and you could argue very stupidly. But even if you got 100 billion dollars out of George Bush, you still want to spend that on something that's worth $40 per dollar, rather than something that's worth 30 cents.
Of course, it's a very different question than saying, for the amount of money to save one human life here in Seattle, you could quite likely save 100 or 1,000 people in Somalia. But most of us don't care most of the time about the rest of the world. We care about Seattle or maybe even the U.S., but that's about it.
Maybe it's a na