Environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg debunks some myths about climate change during a conversation with Shoma Chaudhury
Shoma Chaudhury (moderator): For most of us, the climate change debate seems distant from our lives. Some people tell us 2020 is doomsday but most believe it’s going to be 200-300 years before climate change catches up with us. Bjørn Lomborg is a green prophet but somebody who is trying to wean us away from the fervour of that religion. So Bjørn, what are the facts and myths of the climate change debate, according to you?
Bjørn Lomborg: First, I think it’s important to get a sense of what the climate debate is really about. A lot of people say it’s the end of the world. There’s equally a lot of people who say: “Oh, it’s all made up.” I think it’s important to be able to voice that middle point where you say, “Yes, global warming is real. We are putting more and more CO2 in the atmosphere mainly by burning fossil fuel.” That will eventually increase temperature and it will actually have a negative impact on the planet. We also need to scale back the fear factor. If any of you have seen Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, it was a great example of scaring the pants off people. Now I understand why you want to do that — because you want to get people’s attention — but it doesn’t work in the long run because global warming is a 100- or at least a 50-year problem. So what’s inevitably happening is that people get bored with the whole topic and now we have stopped talking about it. We are much more concerned about an immediate breakdown in the economic system. So yes, global warming is real, it’s going to have these dramatic negative impacts, but we need to fix it smarter.
SC: So your argument is: we are in the panic room when we don’t need to be. But you are also saying that we are spending the money in the wrong places. So why are you saying that we are spending the money wrong?
BL: We don’t burn fossil fuels to annoy Al Gore. We burn it because it fundamentally powers everything we like about civilisation and that’s why we use more and more of it. As long as green energy is much more expensive than fossil fuels, we will never get a revolution going. Remember, the biggest users in the world per capita of solar panels is Germany, which spends the equivalent of $75 billion subsidising solar panels. The net effect will be to postpone global warming by the end of the century by seven hours. Well, congratulations. Instead of focussing on making subsidies to inefficient technologies, we should focus on spending lots more money on research and development into green energy.
SC: As journalists, we often write against thermal plants, coal plants, energy, dams. We are anti-everything — we are anti- nuclear power, we are anti-wind energy as it takes up too much land. Of all these alternative forms of energy, which one do you think should people spend money on?
BL: I don’t think we know which technology is going to win. We need all the avenues explored. I run the Copenhagen Consensus Center, where we get some of the world’s top economists to understand what are the smart ways to spend. They told us cities are incredibly warm because there is lots of asphalt, very few trees, very few water features. Make rooftops white, make the asphalt in a lighter colour. These are very simple and sensible things.
SC: Who is going to invest in this long-term turnaround?
BL: This will have to be fundamentally government money, like we do with Blue Sky Research in the medical sector. You don’t expect medical companies to come up with stuff that’ll give you Nobels, that’s going to give you vital long-term insights. This is going to have to come through the government think tanks and state-run universities. But, of course, we need to ensure that we finally get those medications out through those medical companies.
SC: Where do you stand on this extremely fractured debate on whether it’s the First World that has heated the planet beyond bearing or is it the Third World?
BL: One of the reasons all these debates have broken down is because that’s an unsolvable question. You are never going to have either the rich world or the developing world cut their carbon emissions as long as it’s going to be costly. It’s the real truth. And that is what Al Gore and many others seem intent on ignoring. Remember, almost 20 years since the first Rio summit, we have been promising to cut carbon emissions and yet we have done no such thing.
SC: What are the priorities that you have been backing at the Copenhagen Centre?
BL: We asked some of the world’s top economists: where do you get the biggest bang for the climate change buck? What they found was we should invest in micronutrients. We all know about malnutrition — about two-and-ahalf billion people lack just one constituent, which is iron. And that’s very, very simple to add, just like we add iodine to salt. We could add it to some basic staple foods. It will be very, very cheap and has a huge impact. The solution would cost about $200 million, not $200 billion. There are many other problems that have cheaper solutions.
SC: But I don’t think it’s the absence of funds that really stops the world from spending on malaria, malnutrition, micro nutrients. I think the big thing is about making good causes sexy. How do you catch people’s fancy? How do you catch the people who have money? That again brings us back to the question: has there been a criticism of your stopping the climate change debate from escalating, because at least it’d become sexy. Nobody is scared about malaria because it is not really affecting the rich. So how do we make all these issues that you just spelt out ‘sexy’ enough for money to come to them?
BL: It’s very telling that this question comes from a journalist because in some ways, we love to make it sexy, but unfortunately that’s exactly the problem. We are now spending a lot of money on things that look sexy. But what we have to ask ourselves is if we want to be remembered by our kids and grandkids for having focussed on sexy or would we have rather solved things. So I think it’s about scaling things back to say: “Let’s talk about what actually works rather than what’s sexy.” You could say we’re the defenders of the unsexy problems, boring but important problems, and we’re defenders of boring solutions. The most participated climate change event in the world is World Wild Fund’s ‘Switch off your light for an hour’ held every year (in which) about two billion people participate. It’s a beautiful event: they turn off the lights of the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building. It makes for great news and makes everybody feel really cool. Of course, it’s about turning off your light, not your computer or your TV or your dishwasher or heater. All the other things could actually be inconvenient. It also makes you feel that solutions to climate change are easy — switch off your light for an hour and that’s all. What we have to tell people is that it’s not the sexy solutions that work.
SC: I don’t want to be remembered as someone who called HIV, malnutrition, tuberculosis, micronutrients boring. I was just wondering how to get people to spend money on that (laughs).
BL: We have to prioritise. One of the beautiful things about the Copenhagen Consensus is that it is a process that you can use anywhere, to any problem, to HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, essentially asking where do you get the most bang for the buck. We have done it in the Danish healthcare system. We know that we are going to run out of money in the healthcare system. Then what must we do? Where should we spend our extra money? And wouldn’t it be exciting if there could be a way of helping future generations to have that same conversation about India? Imagine asking: how are we going to make India a frontier civilisation in another 20 years? What will it take? Get the analysis of how you spend money. You clearly cannot do everything. Should we be focussing on infrastructure, on education, on healthcare, on social benefits, what kind of things should we be doing? Have a national conversation. Let’s start thinking about where we should be spending our money. Because if we spend it badly on one place, we cannot spend it in another.
SC: Thank you, Bjørn. We should start a national conversation about it.