Lomborg’s Cool Take on Global Warming

by Bill Chameides | August 28th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 8 comments

Bjorn Lomborg is at it again on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. (See previous Lomborg posts here and here.) No action on climate change, he argues, because it’s too hard *and* too easy. Cool argument.

I woke up this morning to find one of my favorite columnists in the journal’s op-ed pages. In “Technology Can Fight Global Warming” (Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2009) Lomborg outdoes himself in his sleight-of-hand pseudo-logic arguing against imposing emission reduction targets through a global climate agreement. In Lomborg’s worldview, the whole climate problem will go away if we just throw a few dollars at the problem and stand back. Actually, I thought that’s exactly what we’ve been doing over the last two decades or so, and look where that’s gotten us.


A Lomborg piece would not be a Lomborg piece without a healthy supply of misinformation, and his latest does not disappoint.

  • Lomborg cites studies purportedly showing that avoiding dangerous climate change would require a “staggering” 12.9 percent reduction in world gross domestic product. He even states that “some economic models” find that the only way to avoid dangerous climate change is to reduce “world population by a third.” I agree: these scenarios are staggering — they are also absurd. They do not represent the economic community’s main findings. Virtually every economic assessment of the impact of a global effort to avoid dangerous climate change puts the impact on global G.D.P. at three percent or less. (See economic analyses here, here, here, and here [pdf].) How is it that Lomborg neglected to mention these other studies?
  • Lomborg argues that we should lower methane emissions and plant trees. Great ideas, but guess what? Both those measures are included in the menu of options for lowering greenhouse gas emissions through a proposed global treaty (and, by the way, U.S. legislation also). So how is this at all relevant to whether a treaty is needed?


Lomborg argues that geoengineering can be a substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions: for example by seeding clouds over the ocean to cool the planet and offset the warming. He fails to mention the logistical challenge of deploying ships all over the world’s oceans to continuously spray seawater into the atmosphere.

Lomborg also doesn’t mention that such “solutions” leave the problem of ocean acidification from enhanced carbon dioxide unsolved. And he does not acknowledge the host of unanticipated consequences of our geoengineering. If you’re thinking geoengineering is a panacea, read this by Gabriele Hegerl of Grant Institute in Edinburgh and Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But hey, why sweat the details?

Sleight of Hand

Technology plays an interesting role in Lomborg’s piece. Note how he telegraphs it in his title “Technology Can Fight Global Warming,” as if using technology runs counter to the intention of a global treaty to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, technology is the answer to getting us out of our climate change pickle. The question is how to get the new technologies we need developed and implemented. Many economists say the most effective and least expensive way to make this happen is through market forces. Internalize the cost of greenhouse gas pollution by putting a “price on carbon” (e.g., mandating lower emissions) and allow the marketplace to wind down our dependence on carbon-intensive energy sources and industries.

But Lomborg doesn’t want to go down that path — it is simply too expensive and too difficult to even try. But don’t despair. Lomborg claims to have a better way.

The Technology-Led Effort

Lomborg’s alternative to requiring emission reductions is a “technology-led effort.” He claims that a paltry $100 billion investment per year “in noncarbon based energy research could result in essentially stopping global warming within a century or so.” Wow, I had not realized it could be that easy. Instead of requiring emission reductions, just invest a small sum in energy research and presto chango, emissions will fall of their own accord. I like it. Sign me up.

But wait a minute. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2008 “total clean-energy investment last year grew … to $155 billion.” So, by Lomborg’s metrics, we are already there! We don’t need to spend anything additional. Like Marx’s rise of Communism, in Lomborg’s climate manifesto stopping global warming is an historical inevitability — all we have to do is leave everything alone.

There is however this little nagging problem. It’s a consistency thing. You see, according to Lomborg, a global treaty mandating emission reductions through the development of new technologies will cost us 12.9 percent of world G.D.P. — that’s equivalent to about $7 trillion per year. At the same time Lomborg claims we can solve the global warming problem with an investment of $100 billion per year. It seems that the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to not require any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Like I said, cool argument.

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  1. Simon D
    Aug 31, 2009

    Fine job, Bill. One implicit assumption in Lomborg’s arguments, here and elsewhere, is the assumption that adaptive measures are inexpensive and simple to implement. Just because an adaptive measure is technically possible, does not mean we have the social, economic or political will to implement that adaptive measure. The poor effort to build stronger storm protection in New Orleans, before and indeed after Katrina, is an example.

  2. John Mashey
    Aug 31, 2009

    Good post, but this is nothing new for Lomborg. See Lomborg & Playing the Long Game, which covers the clever mechanisms of Cool It! and observes that Lomborg seems to act like a reincarnation of Julian Simon. Sleight of hand is indeed the right term.

  3. Chris Hagin
    Aug 29, 2009

    Lomborg’s position may be the right one. It would be far less costly to the present economy to do nothing than to enact such draconian command and control policies as the one before the Senate in the form of the Waxman-Markey bill. The bottom-line for any reasonable climate change policy is to ask the question: what will it cost and how much future damage will be avoided? The first question is fairly easy compared to the second one. The second one relies on the inexact processes of environmental modeling, which, in my light experience, is unreliable and highly volatile at best. I recommend a serious read of Bjorn’s latest book, “Cool It” to anyone who wants some solid alternative recommendations for battling climate change to the current slew of market suppressive proposals.

    • Bill Chameides
      Sep 2, 2009

      Chris: It amazes me that Lomborg (and apparently you) favor heavy-handed government subsidies — which any economist will tell you is market suppressive — to market-based approaches, which place the action in the marketplace, and then claim to be concerned about the economy. And, uncertainty is a poor justification for inaction since it cuts both ways. Maybe it won’t be so bad and maybe it will be a lot worse — assuming the former is in my opinion a foolish bet.

      • Chris Hagin
        Sep 2, 2009

        I do not favor government subsidies in the energy sector. We need to produce energy as cheaply and safely as possible. Under any future circumstance, this will require bringing in a variety of energy sources (coal, oil, nuclear, wind, solar, etc) to diversify the sector. We need to do this even if there weren’t a global warming trend because our society will only become more productive/efficient as new energy sources are tapped and brought into the infrastructure — preferably without government subsidies. I recommend a close read of the IPCC’s current measurement of mean global temperatures and compare it with their data a decade ago. It is clear that the alarming projections have been seriously downgraded. In fact, through the next century, estimated temperature increases for regions such as Greenland and Antarctica have been lowered below ‘critical’ points (aka: large ice masses melting and raising sea levels dozens of feet). Yes, there has been measurable sea level rise (several mm’s over the past fifty years), and yes, of course, temperatures have been rising, but you can ask any compatible statistician to review the climate data and he could come to the conclusion that drastic, costly measures such as Waxman-Markey are simply inexcusable. We can stop the flow of heavy-handed government subsidies by stopping Waxman-Markey’s bloated bill.

        • Bill Chameides
          Sep 8, 2009

          Chris, As I have noted on numerous occasions on this blog, one cannot use a short-term temperature trend to extrapolate to a long-term multi-decadal trend. In fact recent work confirms that Arctic and Antarctic temperatures continue to increase rapidly. And analyses of the Congressional Budget Office and others conclude that the costs of Waxman-Markey will be modest. While there may be uncertainties, certainly you must agree that there is a chance that the costs of doing nothing could be disastrous. Why are you so willing to take that chance?

      • John Mashey
        Sep 2, 2009

        Do you have any evidence that Lomborg actually *does* favor heavy-handed government subsidies? AS alluded to in my earlier post, his recent set of comments would be quite consistent with the various other misdirection arguments he’s used over the years.

  4. Chris Winter
    Aug 29, 2009

    Sure, voluntary compliance. Look how well that worked for the GW Bush administration. (/sarcasm) It amazes me that so many apparently well-educated people continue to ignore the lessons of history. It was not oil and chemical companies that voluntarily came together to fund cleanup of toxic waste sites. That took “Superfund” legislation. So it was for every other pollution problem I’m aware of, from oil spills to the ozone hole. Private industry certainly has the capability to develop remediation methods, but (except for a few farsighted companies) it won’t act unless government forces it to.

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