Speaking with a skeptical environmentalist

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB]

In the late 1990s, the skeptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg set out to disprove a claim by economist Julian Simon that, contrary to the pessimistic scenarios painted by environmentalists, conditions on earth have been getting better, and will continue to improve. Instead, his research indicated that Simon was largely correct. Lomborg published his findings in The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), and since then has been considered a heretic by many greens. An adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School since 2005, he is also the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. He is currently working on a book about climate change, which will be published by Knopf in August. ICIS Chemical Business Americas talks with Professor Lomborg on his controversial views


Why do you reach different conclusions from the green movements?

It's not so much different conclusions as the fact that I try to say we need to have the full data to make our judgments.

For example, it's estimated that well-regulated pesticides in the US cause about 20 cancer deaths per year because they leave residue on foodstuffs. That sounds bad, and maybe you think we should get rid of that by making all of the US organic, and that's predominantly the way we would want to see that. Yes, we would eventually avoid 20 extra cancer deaths. But you also have to consider that it would cost at least $100bn (€77.5bn) or more, in the sense that we would have to pay more for our food or buy other things for less. Perhaps most importantly, it would shift the consumption of fruit and vegetables because they are the foods that would take the biggest hits in product-ivity when we couldn't use pesticides. That's important because fruit and vegetables consumption is considered one of the best ways to avoid cancer.

So if you look at the econometric estimates, with the increase in the cost, especially in fruits and vegetables, and the restriction in income, most Americans would probably end up buying 10-15% fewer fruits and vegetables - and that would result in 26,000 extra cancer deaths. So you need both pieces of information. Yes, pesticides do cost 20 cancer deaths but, if we want to get rid of them entirely, it will probably cost at least $100bn/year and add an extra 26,000 deaths.

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There's nothing wrong in green movements' pointing out that there's a problem with some pesticides. We should be happy they are there to do so. But we should always ask ourselves: 'What's the full picture, what's the price tag involved in trying to solve this?' It doesn't mean we can't find smarter, better ways of dealing with pesticides, and there's nothing wrong with saying we want to minimise this number. But we need to have a sense of proportion, and we need to understand not only the benefit of regulating something, but also the cost.

Global warming is something you're often asked about. You've criticised the amount of attention devoted to it. Why?

Several reasons. One is a tendency to forget that there are several sides to the argument. I agree that we do have global warming, that it will become a bigger problem in the 21st century, and that it is going to become a problem overall. When you look, for instance, at temperature increases - people tell you it's going to lead to more heat deaths, like we saw in Europe in 2003. That's true.

But you also have to acknowledge that we will have fewer cold spells and fewer people dying from cold. In England, for instance, it's estimated that by mid-century, global warming will mean about 2,000 more heat deaths per year. That's important. But it's also estimated that it means about 20,000 fewer cold deaths. And not looking at both will probably give us an incorrect understanding of the problem and how we should tackle it. I'm not saying: 'Cool, let's go on and have more global warming,' but we should be much more careful when we talk about the problems with, for instance, global warming.

Likewise, when people say that hurricanes are getting much worse, and therefore we'll see something along the lines of Katrina - this is entirely out of order. The World Meteorological Organization recently agreed to a new consensus statement on what we know about this, and they say we still don't know whether hurricanes are actually increasing. By far the major reason why hurricane costs are going up is that more people live with more stuff closer to harm's way.

Even with the worst assumptions about climate change in the coming decade, for every extra dollar you will get from climate-related damage, you're going to get between $20 and $60 of non-climate-related damages, simply from social factors like more people and goods in harm's way. So again, the idea is to say that 95-98% of the problem that we are trying to solve here is not climate related why are we only talking about climate?

And that of course reflects well on this discussion. Look at the film by Al Gore. It centres very much on New Orleans, and how we should do something to avoid this. But basically Al Gore says he's going to campaign for Kyoto or something even bigger, which is cutting carbon emissions slightly. Presumably our goal is not to cut carbon dioxide per se it is to help people and to help nature. And there are many much better ways we can do that.

Let me just give you a sense of proportion. If the Kyoto Treaty was implemented also by the US, and if everybody stuck by it for the rest of the century, the cost to the US alone would have been more than $6 trillion. The total global cost - the US would have borne most of it - would have been about $150bn/year. It wouldn't bring us to the poorhouse, but it's certainly a lot of money. If we had paid that for the whole century, we could have postponed global warming in 2100 by five years. This everybody agrees on. The temperature we would have seen in 2100, we would see in 2105. The guy in Bangladesh who would have had to move because his house got flooded in 2100 will be able to wait until 2105. Which is a little good, but it's just not very good compared to what that money could do over the entire 21st century.

Most damages are going to hit the developing world. It's going to be hard where you're poor, and where it's already pretty warm. Of course these people already have many other problems. So the dilemma quickly boils down to this: do you want to help people far off into the future a little for a lot of money, or do you want to help people who need it now, much better, immediately?

That brings us to what you've been doing with the Copenhagen Consensus. What do you hope to achieve with those conferences?

To get people to have this conversation, we wrote a fairly popular book on the Copenhagen Consensus called How to Spend $50 Billion to Make the World a Better Place. The game we try to engage people in is to ask: What would you do if you had an extra $50bn over the next four years to do good for the world? Clearly you can't do everything, so you have to think about your priorities. Where can I spend the money, and how much good will it do? Of course you could cut carbon emissions for $50bn. Then you'd have done some good. You could also buy condoms for a fair number of places in the Third World and the distribution to go along with that, and you'd have done a lot of good. And there are many other opportunities in between.

That is what they came out with in 2004 for the globe, basically telling us [that] if we spend money on HIV/AIDS prevention, on micronutrient/malnutrition, on free trade and on malaria, we would do immense good. They estimated that, for every dollar spent on HIV/AIDS, we end up doing about $40 of good in the world - a good investment. At the other end they found climate change, at least doing very much about it, to be a bad investment. For instance, the Kyoto Protocol, for every dollar you spend, probably you do somewhere around 20 cents of good. So would you rather do $40 of good with your dollar or 20 cents? It's not that you don't do any good, it's that you could have done a lot better.

So it's all about prioritising.

Yes. We're going to do a Copenhagen Consensus for Latin America, also for Europe's environment and hopefully also for the US environment, essentially saying: What if you had €5bn ($6.4bn) extra to do good for the environment?

That would be an interesting discussion for the chemical industry, because, again, it's essentially asking, would you want to spend those billions trying to reduce pesticide pollution, or would it perhaps be smarter to focus on probably the biggest environmental problem in the First World, particulate air pollution? It probably still kills about 110,000 people in the US each year.

In interviews it seems you're saying that the most effective way to improve the environment is to raise the standard of living.

One has to be very careful about this. Because obviously when you get richer, you have a tendency to consume more. You also have a tendency to vote greener. So for the First World there's not a direct correlation, not one that I'm comfortable with. But for the developing world, there's a lot of truth to this. When you're poor, and you don't know where your next meal will come from, it's very hard to engage in thinking about the environment for the next 50 or 100 years.

If we approach these other problems first, when do we address global warming?

It's a question I'm often asked. What's the point in saving everybody from HIV/AIDS if we're all going to drown? It's a good metaphorical question, but the real point is, very many people are going to die from HIV/AIDS over the next 10 years. For about $27bn, we can keep 28m people from getting infected and thereby also dying in the long term. Investing the same money in climate change would postpone global warming for about four days. Notice it's not that we're going to drown if we don't do Kyoto, and we won't drown if we do. If you believe the hype, then we're going to drown whether we do Kyoto or not, it's just going to be a little later. Then I'd say, let's save 28m people. The whole point of course is not that we're going to die from all this, but it is going to be a harder world.

The question, then, is do we want to be a poor world that tried to do a little about climate change, so it ended up both with climate change and not being rich or would we rather be a smart world where we try to make people much better off. Notice if we actually dealt with HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, free trade, things that would cost a fraction of what it would cost when we talk about climate change, we would leave these countries much better off.

Now, it's important to say what we also need long term to fix climate change, but we have to be realistic. A lot of politicians, certainly Al Gore and a lot of British politicians, are promising that they can fix global warming. And that's just not going to happen. It's literally telling people something that can't be done. So my point is, instead of trying to cut carbon emissions now, something that is going to be very costly, will do very little good 100 years from now, and very likely will lead future negotiations to collapse when people realise how expensive it's going to be, let's invest in research and development (R&D) on non-carbon-emitting energy technologies.

I've proposed that, instead of Kyoto, make a deal where all countries spend 0.05% of their GDP on R&D in non-carbon-emitting energy technologies. This would be very cheap, about $25bn/year, a sixth the cost of the Kyoto Protocol. It wouldn't cut carbon, which makes us feel good right now, but we would leave future generations much better able to deal with climate change.

How can the chemical industry contribute to this discussion?

I think the chemical industry, as most industries, has to face up to the fact that it's very hard, in today's world, to go out and say: "Hey, we're actually doing more good than harm." Because most of the good you do is fairly invisible, whereas most of the harm is very visible and easily used in news stories, for instance. So, what I try to get people to understand, which I tried to show in my book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, is that things are generally moving in the right direction. We solve more problems than we create - which is evident in pretty much any record you look at.

Until people have that [relevant background information], it's going to be very hard to convince people that you're actually doing good things.

The second part is, to the extent that you want to do good, make sure you pick the right causes. Don't go for what you often feel criticised for. Support some of the things that came on top in the Copenhagen Consensus - things where you will end up doing a lot of good, rather than just a little. Constantly have this focus. If the chemical industry wants to get a better image, at the end of the day, it's not just about showcasing your little point, but trying in general to get the world to start thinking more in terms of both benefits and costs.

Do you agree with Bjorn Lomborg? Email clay.boswell@icis.com


The Copenhagen Consensus Center runs under the auspices of the Copenhagen Business School. By commissioning and publishing research, it works to improve the understanding required to prioritise what can be done to address the world's biggest challenges in the most cost-efficient manner.

The Copenhagen Consensus approach originated from a small group of people headed by Bjorn Lomborg in late 2002. During 2003, the idea turned into a formalised approach and an outline for a conference held in 2004.

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