Thanksgiving may bring many of us face to face with relatives we see infrequently and agree with even more infrequently. If their summer reading included Bjorn Lomborg’s blustery blockbuster False Alarm, this article is for you! I read the book so you don’t have to.
Before we go further, let’s review a few truths. All of us want the dignity of having our concerns considered. None of us wants the indignity of listening to someone convinced they’re morally or intellectually superior. And some of us might come across that way. Answer with anger when that uncle mentions Lomborg, and we look like the bad guy.
Headlines bad, growth good
Lomborg opens by blaming the media for stoking climate hysteria by publicizing extreme, headline-grabbing studies. This would be credible, truly credible, if it didn’t come from a book with the extreme, headline-grabbing title False Alarm.
Barring an asteroid, humans won’t go extinct any time soon. Among the hopeful notes, we’ve “bent the curve” on coal; we will never burn the amounts envisioned in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst-case pathways.
Here’s a recent emissions trajectory from the highly respected consultancy DNV GL, which argues human CO2 emissions peaked in 2019. To borrow a book title, it’s good news for a change. Making that news better, faster, is the calling of our generation.
Lomborg himself peaks when he makes the case for growth on behalf of the developing world. It’s one thing to hector First World one-percenters to make do with less. It’s another to demand the same of our working class or First Nations cousins, let alone our many relatives in the developing world. Everyone deserves the freeing comforts of prosperity. We just need to keep the long view that it isn’t true freedom if we’re still handcuffed to carbon.
It can help to acknowledge that the cheap energy from fossil fuels made our current living standards possible. If not for that cheap energy, most of us would still be farmers labouring in a world of high infant mortality without modern medicine. We simply need to move beyond them as fast as we can; like the line from the old Batman movie, fossil fuels have “lived long enough to see (themselves) become the villain.”
If we can give fossil fuels this much credit — even as we need to obsolete them — we create the space for others to praise climate solutions, even as they voice their own concerns.
In his new book, author Bjorn Lomborg blames the media for stoking climate hysteria. This would be credible, @ElectronComm says, if it didn’t come from a book with the extreme, headline-grabbing title 'False Alarm.'
There’s a rhetorical playbook for the contrarian “actually, I know best” genre. It goes along the lines of anecdote, anecdote, unjustified conclusion, refutation of counter-argument, repetition of unjustified conclusion.
Here’s an example: “Cheap solar panels and batteries are the biggest keys to stabilizing the climate. They’re cheap because of Chinese industrial policy. If only more countries were communist we’d have cured carbon pollution years ago. Yeah, the Soviet Union was a disaster, but they weren’t truly communist. At least not communist with Chinese characteristics.”
It’s effective because unless you know where the unjustified conclusion goes wrong, it’s persuasive. And to be fair, I’m using the playbook right now. But I’m writing a 1,000-word book review, not a 100,000-word manifesto that “the solution to pollution is evolution.” I also like to think my conclusions are justified.
Lomborg breezes through explanations that polar bears are doing OK, that cold weather has historically caused more chaos than hot weather and that storms only seem worse today because there are more people (with more property) in harm’s way.
Sadly, polar bears adapting to a 3-4 C temperature increase from mid-century to 1995-2005 doesn’t mean they’ll thrive with more of the same; as they say, “past performance is not indicative of future returns.” And worrying about cold-related crop failure in a warmer world is fighting the last war; that thinking brought us the Maginot Line.
As for Lomborg’s “more people” argument, how do I do this justice? Despots would love to argue that ethnic cleansing only seems worse today because global population growth means there are more people to sweep up than in past pogroms.
Some things are relative. I’m not sure human suffering is one of them.
Lomborg relies heavily on a calculation by Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus that temperature rise will have a negligible impact on global GDP, perhaps a four per cent reduction for a 4 C average worldwide temperature increase.
The calculation is really, really important to Lomborg’s argument. So we might expect a discussion of the calculation’s credibility in contemporary climate and economic modelling research, a review of peer-reviewed literature, even a cursory check for consensus or controversy. We would be wrong. Nordhaus’s calculation is presented as established fact, with as much context for its claims as a multi-level marketing brochure. Nordhaus, his many critics and climate science itself deserve better.
You know those investment commercials that explain that if you grow your money for a long time at eight per cent, you’ll get a million dollars — but if you can compound it at 10 per cent, you’ll have five or 10 million? On long timescales, a small difference in the key assumption makes a huge difference. While Nordhaus’s body of work has been greatly praised, his key assumption about the appropriate “social discount rate” has been consistently criticized for greatly underestimating the costs of climate change.
The big ship
The one-sentence summary for Section 3 is that spaceship Earth is a big ship, there’s a lot of inertia and nothing we do will really change things. We’ll assume it was written before Lomborg had heard of Greta Thunberg and Martin Luther King Jr.
The section does give us an amusing inversion. Lomborg spent earlier chapters scolding environmentalists for thinking only of climate change costs and not its benefits; he now expounds on the costs of climate solutions (such as solar and wind power) without consideration of their benefits.
To be even-handed, we should credit Lomborg with the valid criticism that climate policies in the First World can unintentionally harm developing countries. Even as they deploy as much wind and solar as possible, as fast as possible, our cousins will be supplementing renewables with some new fossil power plants (mainly natural gas) for many years to come. Our cousins won’t be choosing renewables or gas, they’ll be choosing renewables and gas.
But if we demand that all banks cut all funding for all fossil fuel-related projects, we would be slowing the arrival of 24-7 grids to developing countries. To insist we know what is best for them is no less than colonialism with climate characteristics. Closer to home, if a First Nations community supports a fossil fuel project, we have no moral grounds to oppose them from our perch of privilege. We can only work harder to reduce our own emissions faster.
A 'circular economy' of logic
In the book's final section, Lomborg advocates for research and development over “deployment-led innovation,” the strategy by which governments help industries scale up to drive cost reductions, thanks to which 600 gigawatts of solar panels are now deployed worldwide (600 gigawatts is the nameplate capacity of about 670 Site C hydroelectric dams).
Cataloguing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, he argues that subsidies for renewables would be better spent on growth. And yet in the United States, subsidies essentially are used for growth.
In America, the subsidies for wind and solar come in the form of tax credits for their owners (or in many cases, their Wall Street investment bank project financiers). That’s partly how Apple, Google, Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and others keep their tax bills so low. What do they do with these savings? Doing God’s work, as one Goldman Sachs CEO put it: pursuing growth.
So Lomborg, who supports growth, comes out against “subsidies” for renewables, which are one of the strongest levers for growth at America’s most profitable companies — the ones that can most powerfully induce growth (if they don’t waste it all on stock buybacks). It’s an ouroboros of an argument: a snake eating its tail, a “circular economy” approach to logic.
Lomborg does offer his preferred solution. After arguing that technology breakthroughs can’t be predicted, he proposes blue ribbon expert panels to predict the most promising breakthroughs and direct policy. It’s not that bad of an idea, really. It’s exactly how we wound up with the aforementioned 600 gigawatts of solar panels, so his opposition to today’s climate solutions in favour of tomorrow’s solutions is peculiar.
The book finishes with some salutary chapters on geoengineering, trade and development, clumsy efforts to compare climate activism with Enron and the military-industrial complex, and an apophasis about a grand conspiracy.
Wish as we might, Lomborg isn’t going away any time soon, so it’s worth scouting his ideas. There isn’t enough time over Thanksgiving to debunk all of Lomborg’s claims. When speaking with our uncle, a better use of time would be to pick at the claim he raises, then pivot to our own narrative, which is better. As wonderful as statistics may be, stories beat statistics every day of the week.
And lastly, offering some credit where it’s due — whether to economic prosperity, cheap energy or even fossil fuels — can thaw our right-wing uncle's feelings about climate solutions and melt the tension between you, too.