The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming
by Bjorn Lomborg
Reviewed by Mark Bailey
January, 2011. With the shooting havoc recently in Tucson, there’s a lot of sad news in the press right now about divisive rhetoric and its possibly terrible consequences. When a politician like Sarah Palin uses bull’s-eye icons and language against her political opponents and the very opponent who presciently objects get shot, it’s getting to be time to cool it.
I don’t mean to stretch the segue too far, but climate change is one of those emotionally divisive issues. I’ve wanted to review Bjorn Lomborg’s analysis of global warming and what to do about it for a while, and his recent book’s summarizing title, “Cool It” brings the task back to mind.
I first became aware of Lomborg by happy accident while having coffee in a Salt Lake City Barnes and Noble with my friend Greig Veeder not long after I had retired from a 19 year career in investment management. Greig wanted to know what I was going to do next. I told him about my concern for the fragile American West environment and that I’d like to do something about it, maybe write. He asked why anyone should care, you know, he said, tell him the elevator pitch. Veeder does cutting edge work out of Denver on the management of sex offenders; he might have thought there were more pressing issues in the world. I was stumped. Concern for our gorgeous environment seemed self evident and I didn’t have a concise pitch formed yet. Greig said to get him another cup up coffee and got up and wandered into the nearby isles of books. When I brought the coffee back he was sitting there with Lomborg’s first book, the soon to be blockbuster “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” I’ve been a fan of Lomborg and his clean, objective thinking ever since.
Lomborg is a blond, blue eyed, 46 year old classic looking Dane, currently an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre and a former director of the Environmental Assessment Institute in Copenhagen. In the preface to “The Skeptical Environmentalist” Lomborg calls himself an “old left-wing Greenpeace member.” He says he was standing in a bookstore — God love them — in 1997 reading an article in Wired Magazine, a magazine I also admire, about an interview with the American economist Julian Simon. Simon maintained that much of our traditional knowledge of the environment was based on preconceptions and poor statistics. At the time Lomborg was working as an Associate Professor of Statistics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, and thought it would be easy to check on Simon’s sources. Lomborg decided to practice what he preached and check whether his venerable social beliefs stood up to scrutiny or turned out to be myths. I always like that moment when one realizes that what one knows to be true might not be exactly so. It turned out a lot of Simon’s claims held up to scrutiny and substantially changed Lomborg’s idea of what he knew to be true about climate change. He set out to publish his findings which started an ebullient global debate. In 2004 Lomborg was named by Time magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Lomborg is not a global warming denier. He acknowledges the planet is warming, that man has a role, and that the consequences are important and mostly negative. Without the use of even so much as a forklift, Lomborg wins me over with his calm and reasoned cost/benefit analysis. He argues that the costs and consequences may not be as great as sometimes hysterically claimed and that for the money–and often for much less money–we can have a much greater impact on the well-being of mankind and the planet. Global warming, according to Lomborg, “will cause more heat deaths, an increase in sea level, possibly more intense hurricanes and more flooding. It will give rise to more malaria, starvation and poverty.” No wonder we are worried. We should be. Lomborg’s point is that the most commonly prescribed solution of substantially cutting CO-2 is that it will not matter much for the problems on this list. He argues that from water scarcity to polar bears we can do relatively little with climate policies and a lot more with social policies. It’s well worth a read to find out how.