Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist gave a lecture this evening (this was posted after midnight but still that same evening – ed) at the Adam Smith Institute in London. A number of the Samizdatistas were there. Lomborg’s arguments are familiar to those who have read his book, but it was a rapid, powerful, to the point speech in which he demolished many of the arguments of the “The world is facing impending environmental collapse” school of Greenery with ruthless efficiency. His ten minute demolition of the case for the Kyoto accord was particularly impressive.
Lomborg walked on stage wearing a pair of jeans and a polo shirt, and looked just like the thirtysomething Greenpeace member and quintissential Nordic person of more traditional environmentalist views he once apparently was. He spoke with a rapid intensity, clearly wanted to get a lot out in the relatively short time he had for the lecture. And perhaps the rapidity of speech was covering up a certain natural shyness, but if so this was mixed in with what was clearly a burning desire to get his message out.
Lomborg told the familiar story of how he found himself in this position. In 1997 he found an article in Wired magazine profiling the American economist Julian Simon, who argued that in most ways the Earth’s environment was improving and not (as conventional wisdon suggested) getting worse. It explained that Simon had studied a great many environmental trends, and observed that in most instances things were getting better and not worse. Pollution was a much less serious problem than was the case 100 years ago, for instance. While we were using mineral resources, our technological abilities to extract the same resources were advancing at a faster rate than our resource use, so that the level of untapped resources available to us was increasing, rather than us running out. And many other similar things.
Oddly enough, I read the same article myself in 1997, and it helped me to clarify these kinds of issues in my mind too. My response was to buy and read some of Simon’s books, particularly his impressively researched and argued The State of Humanity, which addressed many of the most important trends in great detail.
Whereas I merely used the article to clarify my own views, Lomborg went further. He initially thought that Simon’s work was “right wing crap” but was sufficiently moved by it to make an honest attempt to disprove it. As it happened, though, the opposite happened, and he ended up becoming a convert instead. Simon was in most instances right. Lomborg set his students on the problem, studying monumental amounts of environmental data and ending up with broadly the same conclusions himself. Environmental trends were generally positive. And having done this, Lomborg felt the need to tell the whole world, so he wrote his own book, covering many of the same issues as Simon’s earlier works, but more up to date and covering even more ground.
Lomborg has been attacked by many people since then. The perception that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is widespread in people’s minds and in the media, and this perception is very hard to shake, regardless of how well you argue the point. Lomborg has been criticised, mocked, physically attacked, denounced by the slightly Orwellian sounding “Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty” (in a decision later overturned by a higher Danish authority) and more, but what his opponents have singularly failed to do is to engage him in any kind of serious argument. In many cases he has simply been treated as being beyond the pale, which has of course simply meant that his opponents have then felt no need to argue with him.
Which in a way is curious, because what Lomborg argues is actually extremely moderate. For one thing, he only uses data from widely accepted sources, often the UN and generally the same data used by environmentalists themselves. He does not argue that there are no environmental problems and that we should rape and pillage the environment with impunity, but instead argues simply that we should apply intelligent cost and benefit analysis before spending money on environmental issues. We should not assume that technology will remain static. It will continue to improve, and our ability to solve environmental policies, and to find and exploit resources, will improve with this.
Much environmental policy is based on the idea that (as Lomborg puts it) there is a metaphorical gun to our heads. The environmental situation is perceived as being so bad that we must do anything and everything that we possibly can immediately and that this is too important to even think about the costs of our actions before doing them. This would be fine if we had an infitite amount of money, but we do not. If we spend them in one place, we then don’t have them to spend somewhere else. Like with almost anything else, our resources are finite and we shoud spend them where spening them will do the most good.
The aforementioned arguments on Kyoto are of this form. Lomborg does not attempt to argue that global warming is not real, or that it is not caused by mankind’s carbon emissions. However, rather than going from there to assuming worst case scenarios, he then looks at the foundation of those worst case scenarios. These are based on the assumption that we will continue to use fossil fuels for almost all our energy needs. However, this is not likely, as technology is evolving. Relatively modest technological improvements in the efficiency and cost of other energy sources (principally solar cells) will ultimately lead to substitution and the result will be a worst case increase in temperature of perhaps 2 degrees Celcius (before temperature begins to decline again) rather than the five to ten degree increase that comes from cruder assumptions, and which is often quoted. The net effects of this on humanity will be moderate, as there will be benefits of increased temperatures in temperate parts of the world as well as negatives in hotter parts of the world. And the effects of these negatives on agricultural production for instance are likely to be small compared with dramatically improved agricultural production due to better agricultural technology.
As a response to this, the Kyoto Protocol is incredibly expensive in the short term, but relatively ineffective. Rather than prevent global warming, all it is likely to do is to delay what global warming will occur slightly rather than prevent it. And very slightly. By 2100, all that will be achieved is to delay global warming by six years.
If Kyoto was completely implemented, the costs of this in the short term will be around $150bn to $350bn per year. For one year of this, we could provide clean drinking water for everyone in the world, which would save millions of lives per year. Then we could solve another problem the next year, and another the next. For instance, we could instead spend the money on better research into renewable energy sources. A relatively small increase in such spending would likely reduce global warming in the long run by far more than the simple cut in energy consumption dictated by Kyoto. The point is that our technology level is not stable. Technology improves, and this dramatically improves our ability to deal with environmental issues. And before we do such a thing as implement Kyoto, we should at least consider these issues. What are the costs? What are the benefits? How much does each likely life saved cost? Is it possible to save lives somewhere else more cheaply? Rather than panic, this sort of analysis is surely necessary.
But ultimately this is not the place to exhaustively discuss Lomborg’s arguments directly. If you haven’t read his book, do so. The point is simply that Lomborg is arguing that this kind of cost and benefit analysis argument is necessary to best solve our environmental problems. Sound economic analysis should be applied to environmental policy, as it should be applied to many other things. When you do this, even with the possibly pessimistic data provided by environmentalists, handling our environmental problems appears well within our capabilities.
As Lomborg explained in the question and answer session after the lecture, his opponents have singularly failed to address what he as said on its merits. The report of the ‘Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty’ simply declared him to be guilty, without providng any reasons. Nobody has been willing at all to go through his arguments point by point and attempt to refute them, either because they know they can not, or because they are already so certain of their sense of environmental doom and gloom that they consider it unnecessary to try. In short, none of his opponents have been willing to attempt to do to Lomborg what he himself attempted to do to the arguments of Julian Simon. They do at least owe him that, although they do not seem to realise this at all.
Lomborg seemed actually quite encouraged by this. He was asked whether he thought he could win the argument, and he said that he thought that the shrill quality of his opponents, and their unwillingness to argue facts was beginning to show. I hope he is right. Certainly he has been more successful than Julian Simon ever was at getting his argument out. And when you see him, you can tell why. Lomborg is not a ‘scary right wing American’, but has precisely the quality of sincerity and genuine concern that a lot of his opponents like to believe that they have a monopoly on. And this, more than anything is why I think they find him so threatening.