I've just been reading a profile of Bjorn Lomborg on the Times Online. Lomborg has recently published a book: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. Lomborg (there is a o with a cross through it in the vowel of his first name) seems to be talking a lot of sense: he accepts that global warming is happening and is caused by human activity but rejects the belief that we should place "stopping global warming" at the top of our list of priorities, because:
A: No one is actually really doing anything to stop global warming. If we are serious about reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and methane then we would immediately take certain steps. This simply isn't happening on the scale required to make a difference. Ergo, if no one really intends to do anything then there's no point doing anything, as the consequences of a full-blown global warming event will be equally devastating as a minor full-blown global warming event (i.e. one where we try to reduce our emissions somewhat).
B: There are much bigger problems in the world that we can see are causing suffering right now and that can be clearly and conclusively linked to various factors: the spread of AIDS in the African continent, the decreasing availability of crude oil and natural gas, wars in Iraq and elsewhere. All these are more immediately important than anthropogenic global warming and the problems are on a scale that makes it more plausible that we might be able to do something about them.
Lomborg suggests an annual $25 billion fund to study global warming. He also suggests that the problem can be solved through technological means.
As is observed in the profile the biggest criticism that can be levied against Lomborg is that of techno-utopianism. That he rejects what many environmentalists believe is the only workable solution to anthropogenic global warming: a harsh and sustained lessening of human ambition in terms of our industry and some elements of our standard of living.
Another criticism is that he underestimates the impact of global warming. I find it irritating when environmentalist charities publish images of natural disasters as "evidence of global warming" - as if natural disasters haven't always happened, and often aren't connected with the atmosphere (c.f. the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Majil Earthquake of 1990, the Landers Earthquake etc), or as if "climate change" hasn't occurred in the past. I suspect we'll never be able to accurately quantify the "impact" of climate change, but we've come up with some reasonable predictions of the impact and how the problem should be dealt with.
However the basic question is this: "Is there something humanity can do right now to prevent enormous and avoidable suffering in the future without unacceptable sacrifice now?"
I count creating an international superstate powerful enough to override the will of all other authorities in the pursuit of a reduction in emissions as an unacceptable sacrifice. I also count any reduction of development and industrialisation (if these are what is takes to improve the standard of living) in developing countries as an unacceptable sacrifice.
Another of my hang-ups concerning environmentalism is the refusal to discuss cost-benefit in terms of climate change. Environmentalists tend to view the Earth (a lump of iron and silicates with a thin outer layer of volatiles and light elements) as some king of spiritual being or godlike entity that must be worshiped. There hasn't been any mainstream discussion of benefit along the lines suggested by Freeman Dyson in this recent article at Edge.org.
Consider the following two scenarios:
1. Sub-Saharan Africa is given a certain number of carbon credits. The constituent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are each encouraged (by the USA, EU and China) to sell these credits to multinational corporations (based in the USA, EU and China) and also directly to the USA, EU and China.
The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa do this, and get a lot of money, which is spent on aid but cannot be spent on industrialisation, as the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are now required to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide. As a result there is some improvement but on the whole living standards remain behind those of the USA, EU and China.
Over the next century a series of environmental and ecological disasters that are strongly linked to anthropogenic global warming (largely caused by the emissions of the USA, EU and China) wracks Sub-Saharan Africa, millions die or are displaced. The EU struggles to cope with the influx of refugees. There is a humanitarian crisis of a scale unseen in human history.
2. Sub-Saharan Africa is given a certain number of carbon credits. The constituent countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are each encouraged (by the USA, EU and China) to sell these credits to multinational corporations (based in the USA, EU and China) and also directly to the USA, EU and China.
The countries of Sub-Saharan Africa do not do this, and begin the long and sometimes painful process of industrialisation. As a result there is a constant and sustainable improvement in living standards until Sub-Saharan Africa has parity with those of the USA, EU and China.
Over the next century a series of environmental and ecological disasters that are strongly linked to anthropogenic global warming wracks Sub-Saharan Africa, there is enormous suffering, but the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa are now rich and developed enough to take it on the chin. They invest in flood defences, irrigation, advanced farming methods, nuclear power, air conditioning, and continue to thrive and prosper despite the changing climate.
This is based on the assumption that little positive action is taken to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, and that the West represses industrialisation in developing countries.
I agree with Lomborg in his rejection of the idea that we should scale back human ambition in the face of global warming and climate change. I don't see why we should stand for it. I'm also increasingly uneasy about the lack of positive action being taken.
I feel if the nation states of the world feel that it is necessary to scale back industry, commerce, transport, and generally dismantle the machinery of globalisation (I have no clue as to whether globalisation is a good thing or not, let me finish, don't bug me...) then they should do it. I suspect this would be a Bad Idea, but I would be hard pressed to prevent them from doing so if they wished.
On the other hand if they're not going to do anything serious then they should stop wasting time and money on point-scoring commentary and pointless prevarication. I gather from what Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth et al are saying that action needs to take place now and it needs to be widespread and drastic. Anything less won't help, so why bother?
It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation in this respect: we can choose to promote technological and industrial development or we can choose to scale back industrialisation and the use of technology. In the first case we are better prepared to deal with climate change, in the second we're hoping it won't happen.
In conclusion I would say that I agree with Lomborg's arguments (as they have been reported, I haven't read his book) but suspect that he might perhaps be underestimating the scale of the problem, but I do believe it isn't beyond human ingenuity to come to an acceptable compromise between our ambitions and our prosperity or successfully deal with the consequences of inaction.
Note: I don't actually believe carbon trading is pointless (though it is potentially controversial) but I'll leave it in because I like the alliteration.