Bjorn Lomborg styles himself as the "skeptical environmentalist." The one thing that he seems most skeptical about is that environmental problems such as global warming are of paramount importance. He recently laid out his thinking in an interview on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer.
Lomborg's main point was that global warming is just one among many problems that we face in the 21st century. Since we can't address all of those problems with equal attention, we should prioritize. So far, so good. But instead of putting global warming near the top of his list, Lomborg places it far below other problems such as the spread of AIDS and malaria, malnutrition, agricultural research and strangely, free trade. (Lomborg, incidently, doesn't see free trade as causing some of the problems we face, but rather as a solution to those problems.)
Now, most doctors know that to cure an illness, one should treat the cause of the disease rather than merely addressing the symptoms. But even though Lomborg acknowledges that global warming will be a leading cause of the problems he seeks to address--problems such as reduced harvests and the spread of disease--he opts for focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause.
His reasoning is that it is far too expensive with current technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and that further research may help reduce the costs of doing so. His solution is to invest some money in research and see what happens. He also tosses out the disingenuous red herring that the Kyoto Protocol will do little to affect the trajectory of global warming even if everyone--including those currently opting out such as the United States--meets its targets. In this he is correct. But someone in his position certainly knows that the protocol will be renegotiated in 2012 and that all serious proposals now on the table call for far deeper cuts--as much at 80 percent--in greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.
Lomborg, who is a political scientist by training and fond of using statistics to make his point, seems to know just enough math to make him dangerous. What he assumes is that the gently sloping temperature curves implied by some models of global warming mean that world society will be able to adapt over time and that this adaptation will be less costly than addressing the problem directly. (Even if these curves are accepted as correct, the idea that it will be cheaper to address symptoms only is strenuously in dispute.) But what Lomborg doesn't seem to know is that natural systems such as climate are not as well-behaved as we'd like to believe. To use the mathemetician's term, such systems are nonlinear.
That means that climate could change abruptly. Even if abrupt climate change is considered a low probability, it would likely be a high-severity event. And, the most severe nonlinear outcome would be runaway global warming which could not be stopped by human action once it begins. Lomborg's proposed priorities simply don't take such possibilities into account. Keep in mind that many scientists who discuss such possibilities believe that if they come to pass, they will severely disrupt and possibly even destroy modern civilization over a period of just a few decades. Lomborg's priorities seem all the more confused given this context.
A third confusion seems almost laughable. Lomborg assumes that even as global warming proceeds, there will be far more wealth in places such as Bangladesh--an impoverished, low-lying country that could suffer greatly from rising oceans and reduced food harvest. Lomborg assumes that other great natural systems such as fisheries and water will not decline greatly even though they are declining precipitously in the present. He also assumes ample energy supplies to power economic growth worldwide over the next century despite the necessity to reduce fossil fuel usage and despite the peaking of oil and natural gas that even the most optimistic experts expect no later than mid-century. It short, he assumes that the disruptions caused by global warming and resource depletion will not greatly affect global economic growth. These are hardly surefire assumptions even if they reflect the wisdom of some unnamed economists at the United Nations which he cites.
Lomborg has organized a group called the Copenhagen Consensus to push his priorities. Perhaps, you may say, the people who participate in the group's various analyses know something we don't about the Earth's natural systems. Alas, no. They are all economists who seem to know little or nothing about natural systems and their dynamics. Beyond this, something seems awry when such economists simultaneously insist that the world economy will experience rapid economic growth in the coming decades, but also act as if we are living in a zero-sum economy that will severely limit resources available to address critical environmental and public health problems.
So what makes Lomborg's ideas so compelling? First, few people would disagree that we need to address AIDS, malaria and malnutrition. And, few people would disagree that we are currently not doing enough about each. In addition, Lomborg is a compelling messenger. He's articulate (in English as well as his native Danish), personable and good-looking.
For all of this Lomborg seems like a captain who, as his ship is being tossed in dangerously unstable seas, focuses on addressing the widespread problem of sea-sickness among the passengers rather than charting a course away from a storm that threatens to capsize his vessel. The reasoning he gives is that the medication for sea-sickness is readily available and cheap, while charting an uncertain detour away from the storm might result in costly delays for the shipping line.
Such logic on its face ought to make us exceedingly skeptical of the skeptical environmentalist and his methods.