Review of Lomborg’s new book

In the Financial Times, Clive Crook reviews Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,

One man who was not rooting for Al Gore to win the Nobel Prize was Bjorn Lomborg. The smiling Dane is the anti-Gore. Unimpressed with An Inconvenient Truth , his new book challenges many of that film’s alarming statements about global warming. Mr Gore and his admirers are paying no attention, needless to say, and that is a pity.

Lomborg’s capacity to anger his opponents is limitless. Of course, he disagrees with them, an outrageous affront in itself. He says that the state of the environment is not dire. He also argues that cutting greenhouse gas emissions should not be the world’s top priority, another scandalous provocation. He makes it worse by being pleasant and reasonable (not to mention Danish), turning up in T-shirt and jeans all the time, supporting his arguments with too many footnotes and acting in other ways designed to offend.

A disinterested review of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming is hard to find. I am predisposed to like the book because I have known Lomborg since he published The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001 and find him unfailingly courteous, open-minded and keen to engage in discussion. Most reviewers are prejudiced in the opposite direction. Lomborg’s arguments receive scant attention. The man is the target. E.O. Wilson, the biologist, once described him as “part of the parasite load that science must bear”. Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told a newspaper: “If you should follow the thinking of Lomborg, then possibly what Hitler did was right.” Such remarks sink ad hominem criticism to new lows.

As in his previous books, Lomborg does not challenge the scientific consensus, such as it is. For the most part, he merely describes it dispassionately and thinks through the policy implications. On global warming, he cites IPCC projections for rising temperatures and their effects as his baseline. He is no “climate change denier”, nor does he quarrel with the view that man-made influences are the principal cause. He proposes, among other things, a moderate carbon tax to encourage abatement. But he questions the need for more radical measures to cut carbon, arguing that the costs would be great and the benefits limited. He says that the Kyoto protocol was expensive and ineffective: the resources that aggressive carbon cutting absorbs can be better used. He favours not death camps and a trans-European slave state, as Mr Pachauri may suppose, but a big expansion of aid to combat HIV and malaria in Africa. Admittedly, that could be just a front. The book’s discussion of rising sea levels is typical of the Lomborg approach. The latest IPCC projections talk of a rise of a foot by the end of the century, he notes. Mr Gore talks of a rise of 20 feet. The present science suggests that even under extreme assumptions about the rapid melting of Greenland’s ice, such a rise would take 1,000 years. If the IPCC’s projections are correct, the rise in sea level this century does not pose a catastrophic threat. Lomborg concludes that adaptation where necessary, such as the building of coastal defences, is a better investment than an immediate and costly assault on carbon emissions.

Reviewing the book for Nature, the economist Partha Dasgupta disdainfully highlighted what he saw as a critical flaw. “The earth system’s deep non-linearities” make it impossible to forecast what will happen if concentrations of greenhouse gases rise to the level Lomborg envisages, Mr Dasgupta says. There might be a sudden catastrophe or there might not be. This type of radical uncertainty undermines orthodox cost-benefit analysis. Hence, “Lomborg’s thesis is built on a deep misconception”. It is an important point – though it seems harsh of Mr Dasgupta to say “these truths escape Lomborg” as if they do not also escape the IPCC, Sir Nick Stern and anybody else who bases policy proposals on conventionally estimated projections of climate.

For the moment, after all, those projections are all we have. It may be true that carbon abatement should be approached as a question of insuring against an improbable catastrophe (rather than of avoiding lesser harms that are confidently expected to occur), but this insight sheds no light on the practical question of how much mitigation is enough. It points to a research agenda – one worth pursuing, to be sure – not a policy. If it skewers Lomborg, it skewers everybody else as well.

In the vast popular literature on climate change, Lomborg’s short book stands apart for its calm, civil, even-handed analysis. It is suffused with concern for socially beneficial priorities and for practical steps to do good. Almost uniquely in its genre, it understands the idea of opportunity cost. It provides some badly needed balance. You can see why so many people find it completely infuriating.

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