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The sceptical environmentalist

An interview with Bjorn Lomborg, speaking out on the misguidance of many 'environmental' campaigns.

Note by Teflon: Article shamelessly stolen from MSN During the "Live Earth" series of events; Bjorn's approach to environmentalism, and his attitude towards Eco-whores and Campaign Mercenaries, seems to echo my own. Bloke's empathy with ecological and environmental issues is immense, but at the same time, he is not blinded by propaganda, and looks to do good, rather than just sound good.

There are two sides to every story – and global warming is no exception. Thus far, much has been said via Live Earth about the potentially catastrophic dangers of allowing climate change to continue unchecked. But there is an alternative perspective. 

Bjorn Lomborg, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004 and author of the bestselling The Sceptical Environmentalist, is the poster boy for that perspective

An adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, Bjorn believes sweeping calls for action are little more than scare-mongering and insists that taking drastic, here-and-now measures is the worst way to spend the world’s financial resources. Live Earth UK caught up with him to take a long, cool look at global warming.

LE: You’re a self-confessed environmental sceptic. Does that mean you believe global warming is just an urban myth?

BL: To be sure, global warming is real, and it is caused by CO2. The trouble is that today’s best climate models show that immediate action will do little good. The Kyoto Protocol will cut CO2 emissions from industrialised countries by 30% below what they would have been in 2010 and by 50% in 2050. Yet, even if everyone (including the United States) lived up to the protocol’s rules, and stuck to it throughout the century, the change would be almost immeasurable, postponing warming for just six years in 2100.

Likewise, the economic models tell us that the cost would be substantial ¬ at least $150 billion a year. In comparison, the United Nations estimates that half that amount could permanently solve all of the world’s major problems: it could ensure clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education for every single person in the world, now.

LE: Why are you so critical of the emerging global efforts to control climate change?

BL: Making global warming the world's top priority means that we shuffle other major challenges down our "to do" list. Some climate change activists actually acknowledge this: Australian author Tim Flannery recently told an interviewer that climate change is "the only issue we should worry about for the next decade." Tell that to the four million people starving to death, to the three million victims of HIV/AIDS, or to the billions of people who lack access to clean drinking water. Human-caused climate change deserves attention, but the world faces many other vast challenges. Whether we like it or not, we have limited money and a limited attention span for global causes. We should focus first on achieving the most good for the most people.

LE: Does that really justify ignoring global warming altogether? Surely failing to take immediate action will only cause more acute problems further down the line.

BL: Of course, in the best of all worlds, we would not need to prioritise. We could do all good things. We would have enough resources to win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking water, broaden educational access, and halt climate change. But we don’t. So we have to ask the hard question: if we can’t do it all, what should we do first?

LE: So, assuming international attention should be focused somewhere other than reducing CO2 emissions, what should we be doing instead?

BL: The Copenhagen Consensus project in 2004 brought together top-class thinkers, including four Nobel Laureate economists, to examine what we could achieve with a $50 billion investment designed to "do good" for the planet.

They examined the best research available and concluded that projects requiring a relatively small investment - getting micro-nutrients to those suffering from malnutrition, providing more resources for HIV/AIDS prevention, making a proper effort to get drinking water to those who lack it - would do far more good than the billions of dollars we could spend reducing carbon emissions to combat climate change.

LE: But surely the effects of climate change, if it is allowed to continue unchecked, will do just as much damage to the human race as malnutrition or AIDS – if not more?  

BL: Carbon reduction activists argue that focusing exclusively on climate change will bring many benefits. They point out, for example, that malaria deaths will climb along with temperatures, because potentially killer mosquitoes thrive in warmer areas. And they would be right. But it's not as simple as the bumper sticker slogan "Fight climate change and ward off malaria."

If America and Australia are somehow inspired by the Live Earth concerts to sign the Kyoto Protocol, temperatures would rise by slightly less. The number of people at risk of malaria would be reduced by about 0.2% by 2085. Yet the cost of the Kyoto Protocol would be a staggering $180 billion a year. In other words, climate change campaigners believe we should spend $180 billion to save just 1,000 lives a year.

LE: Given that we’re talking about saving human lives, isn’t that a price worth paying?

BL: For much less money, we could save 850,000 lives each and every year. We know that dissemination of mosquito nets and malaria prevention programs could cut malaria incidence in half by 2015 for about $3 billion annually – less than 2% of the cost of Kyoto. The choice is stark. Indeed, the Copenhagen Consensus experts discovered that for every dollar invested in Kyoto-style battling climate change, we could do up to 120 times more good with in numerous other areas.

Here’s another fact to consider: the entire death toll from the Southeast Asian tsunami is matched each month by the number of worldwide casualties of HIV/AIDS. A comprehensive prevention program providing free or cheap condoms and information about safe sex to the regions worst affected by HIV/AIDS would cost $27 billion and save more than 28 million lives. This, say the economists who took part in the Copenhagen Consensus, makes it the single best investment that the world could possibly make. The social benefits would outweigh the costs by 40 to one.

And according to UN estimates, for $75 billion a year – half the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol – we could provide clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education to every single human being on Earth. Shouldn’t that be a higher priority?

Similarly, Europe’s deadly heat waves in 2003 lead Gore to conclude that climate change will mean more fatalities. But global warming would mean fewer deaths caused by cold temperatures, which in most of the developed world vastly outweigh deaths caused by heat. In the UK alone, it is estimated that the temperature increase would cause 2,000 extra heat deaths by 2050, but result in 20,000 fewer cold deaths.

Financial losses from weather events have increased dramatically over the past 45 years, which Gore attributes to global warming. But all or almost all of this increase comes from more people with more possessions living closer to harm’s way. If all hurricanes had hit the US with today’s demographics, the biggest damage would have been caused not by Katrina, but by a hurricane in 1926. Allowing for changes in the number of people and their wealth, flood losses have actually decreased slightly.

The movie invites viewers to conclude that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, with Gore claiming that the warm Caribbean waters made the storm stronger. But when Katrina made landfall, it was not a catastrophic Category 5 hurricane; it was a milder Category 3. In fact, there is no scientific consensus that global warming makes hurricanes more destructive, as he claims. The author that Gore himself relies on says that it would be “absurd to attribute the Katrina disaster to global warming.”

At the climax of his movie, Gore argues that future generations will chastise us for not having committed ourselves to the Kyoto Protocol. More likely, they will wonder why, in a world overflowing with inconvenient truths, Gore focused on the one where we could achieve the least good for the highest cost.

LE: So, are we to assume the global Live Earth events of July 2007 left you cold?

BL: It's honourable that the Live Earth organisers are so concerned about the far-off future, but you have to wonder why there is so little concern about the much-worse present. I don't want to stop anyone from caring about climate change, only to encourage a sense of perspective. There is a massive amount of good that we can do through practical, affordable approaches like HIV/AIDS education, malaria prevention, and the provision of micro-nutrients or clean water. This is the message I would like to ring out: we should focus on the best ideas first. At the Live Earth events, unfortunately, that is not what we heard.
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