Bjorn Lomborg:


"False Alarm - How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet" (2020)

(Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )
Bjorn Lomborg already published two pamphlets that criticize climate policies and climate science, "The Skeptical Environmentalist" (1998) and "Cool It" (2007), both best-sellers. He is now a visiting professor at Stanford's radical right-wing Hoover Institution. The theme of the new book is the same: money spent to mitigate climate change is a waste, whereas money could be better invested in adapting to it; but this is probably his best articulation of the thesis yet.

The title of the book is misleading because it may give the impression that Lomborg doesn't believe in human-caused climate change, in particular that climate change is driven by emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities, such as the use of fossil fuels. He does believe in it, and says so on page 6, a sentence that will get him in trouble with the nonbelievers because it is actually stronger than what most believers claim (human activity is not normally considered the main cause of "global warming", just enough to tilt it towards a catastrophic problem, but not necessarily the main cause, and in any case the problem is "climate change", not specifically "global warming", where "change" can happen in either direction, although predominantly towards higher temperatures).

Lomborg's mission is to figure out the most effective way to spend money for the goal of relieving poverty worldwide, and he has reached the conclusion that "green" policies to mitigate climate change are not cost-effective, and will actually cause harm to the poorest people. Lomborg's book criticizes climate alarmists (like, indirectly, teenager Greta Thunberg and her followers all over the world) who are calling for government policies whose economic consequences, in his opinion, will be worse for ordinary people than the effects of climate change. In a nutshell: if you stop the world as it is because you don't like where it's heading, you will get a poorer world and you'll arrive at a worse destination.

His whole argument is economic in nature: climate policies that are expensive will cause the poor to suffer more, while there are cheaper policies that could help us adapt to climate change. Allow me to push his ideology to the extremes. Forget the forests, the glaciers and fresh air: we can adapt to live on a planet with no trees, no ice and no fresh air. Saving the forests, the glaciers and the air would cost too much and cause widespread poverty. Adapting to a planet with no trees, no ice and no fresh air will be cheaper and allows us to invest in helping the poor today. There's also a hidden message there: adapting to new conditions is something that free markets will naturally do and tend to do well, whereas trying to save forests and glaciers would require "big government", and that usually fails. There is an original idea behind his stance: that we should exploit the carbon-based economy (which so far has made the world richer and safer) to adapt to a carbon-heavy world. If the carbon-heavy economy has given us our modern cities, appliances, cars, rockets, smartphones and air conditioners, chances are that it will also create the things that humans will need to live in future climates. Richer countries can spend more on protecting their citizens from natural disasters: in fact, fewer people die today in natural disasters than in the past, pretty much anywhere in the world. The carbon-based economy made countries rich enough to build whatever is needed to adapt to natural threats: fire-resistant roofs, earthquake-retrofitted homes, the Dutch dikes, and lots of electricity to power lots of air conditioners in hot regions. Hence why not continue the trend towards making all countries richer, no matter what the damage to the environment? Rich countries will always find a way to adapt. That is Lomborg's position. Nothing in his book contemplates the case that some acceleration of climate change could make it impossible in the future even for the richest countries to adapt.

Preamble. I am not a climate-change fanatic, and in 2001 i even sided with a president that i strongly disliked, George W Bush, when he refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. I think that most climate science is bad science: it can't predict what will happen next year, let alone next week. In fact, all of its past predictions have been wrong if you define "wrong" in a mathematical way: the climate scientists claim success when there are more fires than usual or stronger hurricanes or temperature increases in the oceans, but the numbers are just not what they predicted. Sometimes the numbers are worse and sometimes they are better, but they are never exactly what the climate scientists predicted. It's like sending an astronaut to the Moon with the message "You'll get somewhere in the neighborhood of the Moon, maybe a little to the left of it, maybe a little to the right of it, and oh by the way if you do accidentally land on the Moon, the landing might be a little faster or a little slower than we told you" (in which case either you crash or you never land). That wouldn't be considered good science, would it? And probably not many astronauts would volunteer for the mission if that was the state of rocket science. I am not a skeptic about climate change: the climate is changing and human actions are a big cause of the change. But i am a skeptic of climate science: bad science can do more harm than superstition and ignorance. In 2006 Al Gore, who had studied the literature, estimated that within ten years the world would reach a point of no return: greenhouse gases have gone up (mainly because of the economic boom of China and other poor countries) and, yet, the point of no return keeps moving further ahead in the future. John O'Sullivan wrote that "the strategy of climate mitigation" has been "successfully transformed into the world's largest secular religion". And there is some truth to is: sometimes the discussion on climate change, promoted by zealots who are no less fanatical than the Christian evangelicals and the Taliban, sounds more religious than scientific. Just witness the stubborn opposition to nuclear power and desalination plants, despite the fact that one would generate a lot of electricity with very low emissions and the other one would give enough water to restore our forests (if global warming puts more water in the oceans and causes more wildfires, why not use the extra water to water our forests?) This preamble is to prove that i am no climate-change fanatic.

The first problem in Lomborg's book is the central argument: that economic considerations should be the basis of any discussion of climate policies. Well, economics is an even worse science than climate science. The predictions of economists tend to be grotesquely wrong. They never predict an economic crisis or a market crash until after it has happened. Lomborg is basing his forecasts of the future on the predictions of economists: it's like trusting the captain of a ship whose previous ships have all sunk (and a captain who always jumped ship abandoning the passengers). For example, economists assume that future generations will be richer and will have access to better technology based on the fact that "we" lifted one billion people out of poverty in just 40 years. The problem is that "we" is actually China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party: they lifted almost one billion people out of poverty in 40 years. Unfortunately, the number of poor people in the Indian subcontinent, in Africa, and in Latin America has not changed much. On the other hand, the population of the planet has increased and keeps increasing, and every person would like to have a car, kitchen appliances, and air conditioning. Last but not least, we all want to live much longer lives than previous generations and want to have nonstop access to better health care. Lomborg quotes an economist who predicts that global GDP will increase by about 450% between now and the end of the century, but economists can't even predict this year's GDP increase so i don't understand why anyone should trust their prediction for 2100. For example, most economists predicted worldwide GDP growth of about 2-3% in 2020 and instead the world economy is in a steep recession: if they are off by so much in 2020, by how much will they be off in 80 years? How many pandemics, wars and unpredictable events will impact the GDP of the next 80 years? It is pure folly to base a discussion on the predictions of economists.

Lomborg should have started the book with the honest premise that all our extrapolations of economic growth are based on unbridled optimism. (Worse: most of his economic models have one common source: William Nordhaus of Yale University. In other words, Lomborg is putting most of his eggs in just one basket. Nordhaus' estimates are far from representing the general consensus. The High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices, an international panel chaired by Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz, reached very different estimates about the costs of climate policies.)

Lomborg's second shaky premise lies in the fact that he assumes (correctly) that climate science is bad science, but he doesn't realize that a bad science is bad in both directions, not only one: it may be overly pessimistic, but it could also turn out to be too optimistic. It may err in both directions. Lomborg mostly uses two sources about the estimated impact of climate change: the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC), and the US National Climate Assessment. I don't think either is reliable: it could be that they exaggerate the coming apocalypse, or it could be that they don't fully grasp its magnitude. It is Lomborg who, indirectly, trusts climate science. It would be more honest to admit upfront that the impact of climate change is difficult, if not impossible, to calculate. Period. We do know that human activities have an impact, but we can't claim to know what the exact impact is.

The book comes out in the middle of the covid pandemic. That's a good example in which an unreliable science that had long predicted a pandemic (but in the distant future) failed to predict that the whole world would be attacked by a deadly virus in 2020 (not 2100). In October 2019 the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Gates Foundation, simulated a global pandemic killing millions worldwide, but it wasn't able to predict that one such pandemic would start two months later. The science of predicting pandemics was wrong, but in the sense that it had been too optimistic, not realizing that the catastrophe was around the corner. Likewise, climate science may be erring in either direction: maybe it is exaggerating the impact, or maybe it is underestimating the impact.

I think it would be more honest to start the discussion with these two premises: 1. Our economic models tend to be very bad at predicting the future other than to tell us what has already happened; 2. Our climate models are equally unreliable.

Lomborg's book also fails to prove his estimates of the economic damage caused by "green" policies, an economic damage that he takes for granted based, again, on economic models that never worked. Just like climate-change fanatics may exaggerate the negative impact of climate change, Lomborg may wildly exaggerate the economic damage caused by green policies. After all, the country that has virtually eliminated gasoline cars is China, where all new cars are electrical: where's the evidence that the Chinese economy has been damaged by the super-fast transition to electrical cars? The Chinese leadership seems to think the opposite. The Chinese people seem to be happy with a policy that has contributed to cleaner air and more (not fewer) jobs. And to Western visitors it seems amazing that today the streets of Shanghai are quieter than the streets of San Francisco: electrical cars are also less noisy.

There are also subtle assumptions behind his logic that actually defy logic. For example. He claims that a massive investment in renewable technologies would only reduce the rise in temperature by 2100 by a small amount (and therefore in his opinion it is not worth the trouble) but a) his calculation is done using the very same science that he attacks as unrealiable; and b) who said that such small amount is not crucial? A mild increase in your body's temperature is called a "fever" and a bit more may kill you. Is it worth calling an expensive doctor and buying expensive medicines to calm a fever? Sometimes it is. In fact in 2018 the IPCC issued a study that showed how much worse a tiny rise in temperatures can be for the planet. And, again, climate science is a bad science which means that nobody knows what is going to happen when global temperatures increase even by just one degree. Lomborg seems comfortable with a level of global warming that is 3.75 Celsius degrees above pre-industrial temperature, but the last time that this happened was several million years ago.

Another example. The tenth chapter, "How climate policy hurts the poor", calculates how many deaths amongst the world's poorest are already caused by existing green policies, but he doesn't have a chapter about the lives saved by such green policies. Let me take a different example: it's easy to prove that cars killed millions of people (literally millions have died in car accidents) but we still buy and drive cars, and almost everybody wants one. Are we suicidal? No: there are benefits to having cars that offset those millions of lives lost. To start with, we have ambulances and we can drive to the doctor in a few minutes instead of having to ride a horse for a few hours or days. How many lives have been saved this way? There is virtually nothing that humans do that doesn't cause some deaths; and saves some lives. It's the balance between the two that ultimately matters. So when are we going to see a chapter titled "How climate policy benefits the poor" in a Lomborg book?

The title of the book, "False Alarm", implies that we are overreacting on climage change and rushing to pass all sorts of green policies. The reality is the opposite: the top polluter of the world (the USA) is reversing its course on climate policies, while the second one (China) is rapidly becoming as much of a threat as its economy becomes the largest, and while the other countries are doing little or nothing that can seriously change the current course of climate change. Are we overreacting? Yes, "we" probably are, but the reason is not a religious belief in climate change: it's the rational fear that politicians like Trump, out of stupidity and corruption, are doing absolutely nothing about it. If your spouse refuses to admit that there is a plumbing problem in the bathroom, you get angry and probably exaggerate the problem. The anger is over-reaction, but it is a method to convince your spouse that the plumbing needs to be fixed, not ignored.

It is clearly ridiculous to treat amateur environmentalists such as Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg as respectable authorities on climate science; but they are a sort of "weapon" of last resort when one feels that governments are not taking the problem seriously, especially at a time when some of the most powerful men in the world (obviously the Russian-appointed president of the USA) conspire against you. Lomborg attacks the news media for spreading climate panic, but, again, it's a reaction to inaction: if and when governments will spend too much on this, the media will probably start attacking the spending.

In interviews Lomborg keeps repeating "It's not going to be the end of the world": that's precisely the kind of answer that irritates you if the toilet is overflowing and your spouse refuses to admit it.

Lomborg contributes to the "anger" when he tries to prove with dubious science and dubious data that today's natural disasters are not linked to climate change and that they are not any worse than in ancient times. Again, it's bad science in both directions: it could be they are not as bad as we think, but it could also be that the situation is much worse than we think it is. He keeps saying "It's not the end of the world" but he never proves it: what if it is the end of the world and the climate-change fanatics turn out to have always been too optimistic?

Lomborg has a history of attacking the academics (and now also some politicians) for creating a self-reinforcing loop of climate thinking that benefits their academic careers (and now also some reelection campaigns); but he is guilty of the same sin: he clearly benefits from a self-reinforcing loop of climate-skeptics.

There is another problem with all the books that criticize green policies: they rarely discuss the Chinese experiment, possibly because there is no way for them to stop the Chinese from doing it. China has already invested massively in nuclear power and electrical vehicles and in September 2020 China announced a plan to be carbon neutral by 2060: Lomborg doesn't tell us what he thinks of that colossal investment. But when it comes to Western countries, Lomborg and all the critics of green policies jump to the conclusion that a net-zero carbon-emissions policy (such as the one endorsed by California) will lead to disaster, and they seem more intent in stopping these experiments than in waiting to see the results. They cannot stop China, though, and so China ends up being the only large-scale experiment of greenhouse-gas reduction. China now produces most of the world's lithium-ion batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines and sells the biggest share of electric vehicles. According to Climate Action Tracker, China's massive investment in green technology will shave 0.3 celsius degrees off of global warming. A massive investment to achieve a modest climate goal: precisely what Lomborg tells us that will not work. It's like all the discussions in the USA about high-speed railways: opponents come up with all sorts of models to prove that high-speed railways would be economic disasters while China keeps building them and enjoying a 40-year boom.

As an ancient Chinese proverb goes, "the people who say it is impossible to do it should not stop the people who are already doing it".