Lomborg’s Cool Take on Global Warming

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.

Misinformation

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?

Geoengineering

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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