Photograph by Claire Martin for Bloomberg Businessweek
Bjorn Lomborg has a plan to help poor low-lying countries from Kiribati (featured above) to Bangladesh threatened by rising seas and worsening storm surges. Delay real climate action, but invest in R&D to develop artificial floating islands for them to live on.
OK, that isn’t literally his plan, but it is figuratively. Lomborg argues that: 1) there is a trade-off between efforts to fight poverty and efforts to fight climate and 2) the best way to fight climate change is to let emissions keep rising while spending gazillions of public dollars on R&D.
Both are false. When unrestricted carbon pollution forces tens of millions of people to flee rising seas and Dust-Bowlification, who do you think will suffer the most — the rich or the poor? Worse, when unrestricted carbon pollution makes it all but impossible to feed 9 billion people post-2050, who is going to suffer the most malnutrition — the rich or the poor? One analysis just of the impact of temperature rise on food security finds “Half of world’s population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100.” Which half of the population do you think will be in crisis, the richer or poorer?
But the sub-hed in Lomborg’s latest USA Today op-ed asserts, “The recent storm in Philippines was not a result of global warming, but about poverty.”
No, I’m not going to link to the piece because the only possible reason USA Today keeps running op-eds from someone as widely debunked as Lomborg is to get page views. Worse, while the paper is embracing Lomborg, they have let go one of the top climate reporters in the country, Dan Vergano. That’s the worst trade since the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000.
For Lomborg, climate change doesn’t actually cause the climate to change or raise sea levels or anything that might make extreme weather events more and more devastating the longer we ignore the problem. For a good response from actual scientists, see the UK Guardian piece on super typhoon Haiyan by Dana Nuccitelli and John Abraham, which explains, “The strongest hurricanes are becoming stronger, fueled by warmer oceans caused by climate change.”
Worse, Lomborg has a second piece on why we should stop supporting renewable energy deployment and shift the money to “investments in research and development into new energy sources.” He writes:
The economics show that the smartest long-term solution is to focus on innovating green energy through R&D, rather than merely subsidizing its use. Such innovation would push down the costs for future generations of wind, solar and other amazing possibilities.
Huh? Lomborg’s do-little strategy doesn’t merely reflect a complete lack of understanding of energy technology and markets. His “strategy” would strangle the renewable energy transition in the cradle.
You’d never know from reading Lomborg that thanks to a quarter-century of deployment policies that he criticizes, photovoltaic panels have dropped in price a staggering 99 percent and can compete with grid power unsubsidized in many countries around the world.
The R&D-only strategy was first advanced publicly by GOP strategist Frank Luntz and then embraced by Pres. George W. Bush as a way for conservatives to seem like they care about the issue while continuing to do nothing serious about it (see Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah”). It’s probably why Lomborg’s calls for inaction are so widely reprinted by climate science deniers.
Former Carbon War Room CEO Jigar Shah, a solar-industry rock star who founded the pioneering solar company SunEdison, told CP in 2011 why doubters of today’s renewable energy technologies are so wrong:
It depends on the person … but often they’re just too ignorant to know better. For some people, technology is not their sweet spot. They have other skills. And so when someone tells them, “technology is not ready,” they just eat up those words … hook, line and sinker and then decide that’s what their talking points are going to be. And with those people it’s just sad that they don’t read more.
Then there are actually people who are diabolical … This is by far the most interesting way to foil the progress of new technologies. That is, by saying that they’re not ready. You know, you see this with the big oil companies. They’ll say: “we need all of the above.” Or they say: “we are huge supporters of solar and wind if only their costs would come down by 20 percent. Then, you know, if there were big breakthroughs in the technology, we’d be huge supporters.”
No, that actually just means that they don’t love solar and wind. It actually means that they hate those technologies and that, in fact, they are trying to figure out, using white lies, how to undermine those technologies. So we just have to call their bluff, as opposed to saying: “Oh my god, they’re our friends because they said something that seems to resonate with me.” They’re not your friend. They’re actually trying to figure out how to play a nice PR trick to marginalize you.
At the heart of Lomborg’s diabolical argument is the false choice that we can’t fight climate change and poverty at the same time, that somehow money spent on climate action comes at the expense of money spent fighting poverty. There’s no evidence that’s actually true, but there is an abundance of analysis suggesting that delaying investment in clean energy is the costliest possible strategy for responding to threat of catastrophic climate change.
The tragedy of Lomborg’s campaign of inactivism is that the cost of climate action is so low, one tenth of a penny on the dollar, not counting co-benefits (see “Introduction to climate economics“) — while the cost of inaction is nearly incalculable, hundreds of trillions of dollars.
As far back as 2009, the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned, “The world will have to spend an extra $500 billion to cut carbon emissions for each year it delays implementing a major assault on global warming.”
Then in 2011, the IEA explained November that on our current path, “rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change” — warming of an almost unthinkable 6°C [11°F] — whereas
“Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”
It’s hard to think of a better two-word summary of Lomborg’s entire argument than “false economy.”