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Author Says Redirect Resources Against Climate Change

April 25, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: After two major reports this year detailed the problems and impact of global warming, there’s growing attention to the question of what countries can do to slow climate change.

Tonight’s guest looks at how we could adapt to a changing planet to blunt the impact of warming. He’s Bjorn Lomborg, author of the upcoming book “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming” and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. He joins us from Copenhagen this evening.

And, Professor, you’ve called spending several hundred billion dollars a year to combat global warming a bad deal for the people of the planet. How would you spend the money differently?

BJORN LOMBORG, Director, Copenhagen Consensus Center: Well, basically, Ray, the point is to say, we don’t care particularly about climate change, per se. We care about, what are its impacts? We care about the people who are going to get more risk in flooding, the people who are going to get more exposed to malaria, the people who are going to die more because of heat waves. And those are the people we actually want to help.

So the question is: Can we do better? And my argument is simply, if you look, for instance, at the Kyoto Protocol, even if everybody did the Kyoto Protocol, including the U.S., it would have very little impact. It would basically postpone global warming by about five years at the end of the century, at a cost, as you mentioned, of about $180 billion a year.

Now, if you look at some of the other things, you could do great good in the world. You could actually do amazing amounts of good to many of the people who are going to get hardest hit by climate change through focusing on HIV-AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, free trade, agricultural research.

And that’s actually what we’ve done at the Copenhagen Consensus Center, where we have some of the world’s top economists, including four Nobel laureates. Look at all the great things you can do in the world, and they put all of those things I just mentioned up at the very top of where you can do the most bang for the buck. And they said, climate change, through Kyoto Protocol, is actually a bad investment. Simply for every dollar you invest, you only end up doing about 30 cents worth of good.

Cutting emissions cheaply

RAY SUAREZ: So are you suggesting that the world shouldn't create strategies to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere?

BJORN LOMBORG: No, that's almost a rhetorical question. No, of course not. We should take climate change seriously. It is a big problem. It's only one of the big problems that we'll face throughout the 21st century, but it is a big problem.

But there is something fundamentally wrong about many of the approaches to climate change that we see right now. They're very much about saying rich countries should cut a lot of carbon right now. And part of it is that that's going to be very expensive, so probably a lot of it will actually not happen. But even if it did, it would do very little good, as we see with the Kyoto Protocol.

The point is that most of the impact that's going to come throughout the 21st century will come from emissions from third world countries like China and India. And the idea is to say, as long as it costs $30 to cut a ton of carbon dioxide, rich countries may do a little, but poor countries, like China and India, are not going to do anything. What we need to do is to cut the cost of cutting carbon emissions from $30 down to $3. If it costs $3, then maybe they would.

So this is about a long-term strategy. Instead of these, "Let's cut a lot now," that makes us feel good, but end up doing very little good, it's about making sure that we end up making much better technologies available to everyone in the world so that we can cut carbon emissions cheaply.

That's about investing in research and development, and that's why I'm suggesting spend perhaps $25 billion a year on research and development in low-carbon emitting energy technologies. That will likely do much more good than the Kyoto Protocol at a much lower cost.

Funding research and development

RAY SUAREZ: But you do accept the proposition that human activity is changing the climate of the planet?

BJORN LOMBORG: Absolutely. I think, as you also mentioned, we've seen huge U.N. climate panel reports come out, and they've been ever more certain that climate is changing. We do have an impact. And, therefore, it's also important that we address the question, what should we do?

But we've also got to remember, just like we know that it's CO-2 that causes a part, at least, of climate change, we also know that HIV causes AIDS. We also know that mosquitoes cause malaria. We know that lack of food causes malnutrition.

Now, we know a lot of these things. We don't fix all problems in the world right now. And so I urge people to start thinking, not just to go for the most fashionable problem, but to actually ask the very fundamental question of saying, if you can't do it all -- and clearly we don't -- where can you do the most good first?

RAY SUAREZ: As you've already noted, the polluters that got us up to where we are today are different from who's going to be doing a lot of the polluting in the future. How do you get a global solution that works with some equity?

BJORN LOMBORG: That's exactly the problem. If you go with cutting carbon emissions right now, you're essentially asking people to give up a fairly large amount of money to do very little good, virtually only for everyone else.

If you instead focus on investing in research and development, you will make sure that you both get a lot of benefits, you basically get a lot of research, you get a lot of patents, you possibly get a lot of income, but you also make it a lot easier for everyone else downstream.

That's how we deal with big problems, and that's how we've dealt with them in the long run. And I think that's a much smarter way of thinking about the future.

Problems with overstating the issue

RAY SUAREZ: You've warned in a lot of your writing against overstating the problem. But how do you get the world's attention? How do you get the governments of the world to work together unless you really ring the alarm bell over this?

BJORN LOMBORG: I think there's a problem in arguing that you should sort of overstate your case. It shows a fundamental distrust in democracy that people are just not going to take problems seriously unless we shout.

I would argue that it's very unlikely we make sound decisions if we are just scared witless. And as we are also seeing right now, there's a lot of schemes abounding of saying, oh, we're going to cut 20 percent, we're going to cut 60 percent of our carbon emissions.

I mean, look at the British government. They're arguably the most ferocious in climate change policies. When Labour came into power in 1997, they promised to cut carbon emissions by 15 percent. Since then, carbon emissions have increased 3 percent. It's just very, very hard to do something about in the short run.

So it is about talking people down, as my book is also called "Cool It," to try to stop having that hysteria, but start thinking about smartly, how do we deal with these propositions? And we also have got to remember there are many other problems in the world. And if we over-shout, if we over-focus on some problems, it inevitably means that we end up forgetting or under-focusing on some of the other major issues that we should also be concerned about.

Helping countries in near-term

RAY SUAREZ: So to close, give me a tour of some places like Dhaka, Bangladesh, or maybe Johannesburg, South Africa, in 10 or 20 years under a Bjorn Lomborg scheme. Would we see seawalls? Would we see mosquito eradication programs, instead of a strict concentration on cutting global warming, cutting greenhouse gases?

BJORN LOMBORG: Well, Bangladesh is a great example. Actually, nothing's going to happen within the next 10 or 20 years. But if we look 100 years ahead, a lot of people suggest, oh, we're going to see a Bangladesh where perhaps, you know, 10 percent or something is going to be flooded. And you could easily make those maps, if you take what the U.N. climate panel tells us, sea levels are going to rise, and then say, well, how much does that mean that Bangladesh will disappear?

But, of course, the point is that Bangladesh, just like everyone else, will actually deal with much of this because they'll be much richer in 2100 than they are today. That's certainly what the U.N. expects, and that's what most economists are expecting.

But the point is that Bangladeshis have lots of problems right now that we can fix easily and cheaply and make sure that they get much better off right now, but, of course, also, that they get much richer so they can deal with future sea level rises.

The thing we often forget is that sea levels rose about a foot over the last 150 years. That's what they're projected to rise over the next 100 years, and we didn't really notice the last 100 years. It's not to say it's not a problem, but it is to say it's something that technology, and especially wealth, does deal with.

RAY SUAREZ: Bjorn Lomborg, thanks for joining us.