Saturday, August 28, 2010

Cool It, by Bjorn Lomborg

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, by Bjorn Lomborg. Vintage Books, 2008. 252 pp. 978-0-307-38653-6.

... in which an economist tells us to stop fussing over global warming because it's a good thing, and nothing we do will make a difference anyway, so let's spend all of our money solving something else.

Anyone who has taken any kind of class in environmental policy, philosophy, etc. has almost certainly read at least an excerpt from Bjorn Lomborg's many writings. As a professor at the Copenhagen Business School, Lomborg's writings are usually related to welfare economics and global human welfare. He is most famous for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, which has been hugely controversial and influential in environmentalism, both by enraging some environmentalists against him, and by forcing some people to stop and take a step back to evaluate the problem.

In Cool It, Lomborg's main point is this: yes, global warming is happening, but all of the proposed solutions will cost billions of dollars but the improvements will not be monetarily equal to the amount spent. In other words: don't waste your money on the Kyoto Protocol and other nonsense; accept global warming as an inevitability and put your money towards some other problem, like malaria and AIDS.

In Lomborg's praise, the book is an easy, fast read, and seems to be very well researched (the last ~90 pages are citations and footnotes). It's also refreshing to read a book that simply assumes that the reader understands the concept of global warming; Lomborg clearly states from the beginning that he is one of the people who does actually understand that it's happening. Instead, his argument is about what we should do about it. For the lay reader, I have no doubt that this book's arguments would prove to be very convincing. However, for those familiar with Lomborg's work, the fact that the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty proclaimed Lomborg's previous book (The Skeptical Environmentalist) to be scientifically dishonest makes it hard to always take his statistics and data seriously. But, as I am not an ecologist, or a statistician, or a global health expert, or an economist, there's not much I can do about proving the validity or honesty of his claims.

Lomborg's argument suffers from one crucial problem. His argument is predicated on the assumption that if an investment project doesn't bring back all the money put into it, then it's not worth it. In business, that might be true... why invest billions in a project that will only give back millions? A simple cost-benefit analysis doesn't work for a problem of this magnitude. As anyone who's studied the core issues in environmentalism will know, the inherent value of an unaltered ecosystem or landscape doesn't always translate literally into a financial value measured in dollars. As an extension of this argument, I reject his premise that global warming could be a good thing, since the number of people who freeze to death is greater than the number of people who die of heat exhaustion. Do we only care about humans in this argument? At the risk of sounding callous, isn't the skyrocketing global population one of the factors that put us in this pickle to begin with?

I do agree that a lot of the changes that are becoming popular now will probably make a minimal effect, and some may cost huge amounts of money. But for some people, if the only change they can make is by using just a little less electricity, I don't see the point in condemning their efforts. And yes, the Kyoto Protocol will cost huge amounts of money to implement, but it's an indicator that (most) major governments are willing to move in the right direction. And yes, malaria and food insecurity and lack of access to clean water are important issues and are deserving of significant amounts of resources, but I don't think we have to necessarily choose between problems to solve. Also, many of those problems are related, in some way, to climate change.

I will agree strongly with Lomborg that part of the issue with proposed changes is that legislators seem to think we need to solve the problem right now. Rushing in and trying to immediately axe carbon emissions down to a tiny fraction of their current numbers, and trying to immediately mitigate the effects of global warming, could probably end up being a waste of effort, since it's a global problem that will take decades and decades to fix. However, I don't think that means we should focus on other issues like global health, to the exclusion of issues like climate change. Economics are all well and good for exclusively human problems, but it won't help the other species that die out because we ignore them.

Overall, a well researched, well written, easy to read little book. I don't happen to agree with most of it, but I am glad I read it because his arguments are not without merit. For anyone who likes to keep abreast of the different viewpoints in environmental policy, it's probably an important read.


  1. Cost benefit analysis are definitely not always applicable. It doesn't seem like most causes would necessarily lead to equal or greater economic gains, not just fighting global warming!

  2. If putting money where there is a low probability but high risk is necessary, why aren't we worried about asteroids and, therefore, digging huge underground areas as shelters for people, animals, and plants be placed in case the unthinkable becomes reality?

    No, cost/benefit is a useful tool for prioritizing where to put our money. If we work at getting sub-Saharan Africa better clothed, better fed, and better off, we will go a long way to helping that continent not just survive global warming but to thrive in the second-half of this century.

  3. The likelihood of having an asteroid impact large enough to threaten entire populations is low. My issue with using purely CBA methods on an issue like that is that it's from a uniquely human perspective... how much money are humans putting into it, and how much financial gain to humans get out of it. With something like this, there are hidden repercussions that might not have a financial impact on humanity... like species extinction and the resulting loss of biodiversity.

    Putting money into communities that need it is vitally important, yes, but that doesn't mean we should just ignore other problems. Saving a bunch of people from malaria will be all well and good, until the ocean rises up and covers their cities. I think my point is that we shouldn't have to approach it as an either/or problem. We can, and should, focus on both problems.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...