Let's Chill About Global Warming

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Emil Jupin

Danish statistician, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) and one of the TIME 100 Scientists & Thinkers of 2004, Bjorn Lomborg, 42, sat down with TIME's Laura Blue in London to discuss carbon cuts, his many critics, and his new book, Cool It: the Skeptical Environmentalist's guide to Global Warming, published in the U.S. in September 2007.

TIME: Why did you write Cool It?
Lomborg: Basically I think there's a need to have two conversations. One is what is the status of global warming. Is it a hoax? Is it a catastrophe? I try to say, well, it's neither. It's not a hoax, not a left-wing conspiracy to raise taxes or just natural variation, as many Republicans want to say in the U.S. On the other hand, it's not a not an unmitigated catastrophe, the end of civilization.

The other part is to get as realistic as possible about what we can actually do about climate change. Everybody seems to be so enamored by this idea we've got to cut emissions and we've got to cut them right now. And I understand why: because it makes us feel warm and fuzzy. We're doing something. Of course the real fact of the matter is we don't do very much. We promise a lot, but we don't actually do very much. And the honest-to-God reason is it's fairly expensive.

Rich people in rich countries will do a little, mainly for show. But most people in rich countries won't do very much, and certainly no one in the poor countries will do anything.

My point is — and this is very, very simple — instead of cajoling people into doing something that is very expensive, which is hard, why not actually make it much cheaper? Instead of convincing more and more people to buy expensive solar panels, for instance, why not invest in research and development so that these become much cheaper — competitive with fossil fuels, or maybe even cheaper. If we could get there, we wouldn't have to have this conversation.

You've talked before about the need to prioritize what we're doing — and that people set priorities implicitly even if they refuse to do it explicitly. What does that mean?
Well, obviously, in a perfect world we should fix all problems. We should fix climate change, and, preferably, tomorrow. We should also stop HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition, and give clean water and sanitation to everyone, stop all civil wars. There are a lot of things in principle we should do, and I agree with all of those.

But, of course, we don't. We've had most of these problems for 50 years and we haven't fixed all of them. It seems reasonable to me to have a conversation: If we don't fix all problems tomorrow, can we at least talk about where we could do the most good first? Not ignoring the fact we should be doing all these things — but since we aren't, shouldn't we have a conversation about whether we can do lots of good or a little good?

But we do need to fix climate change?
Yes, we need to fix it throughout this century. This is just a very, very slow process, and one where we have to start thinking.

There must be some global warming investments that are a good deal.
It's very unlikely that zero dollars [per ton] would be the right carbon tax, but it's also very unlikely that $1,000 would be the right carbon tax. Any economist would say you should tax it at the marginal damage: that damage the extra ton of carbon dioxide does in the environment. The estimates we have show that the immediate damage impact is $2, and 90% of all studies published say the damage will be less than $14 per ton. That's pretty much the same in cents per gallon, roughly, so about two cents per gallon or 14 cents per gallon.

Then why do R&D rather than, say, taxing gasoline so much in the U.S. that it would change consumption patterns now?
Taxing would obviously change people's behavior. But it still has positive benefits to drive around. We could stop all traffic tomorrow if we just put a $1,000/gallon tax on gasoline. You've got to remember that fossil fuels have a lot of benefits. That's why we use them.

The only thing that will really change global warming in the long run is if we radically increase the speed with which we get alternative technologies to deal with climate change. If we could increase that speed, we would make much more headway dealing with global warming simply because we would leave our kids and our grandkids, but especially the Chinese and the Indians, with much cheaper technology. Quite frankly right now they don't care about global warming because they care about feeding their kids and curing them from infectious diseases and stuff.

Are you surprised that your ideas have become so controversial?
In a sense, yes. Honestly, I think in 20 years we're going to look back at this and laugh. Not in the sense that we were on to something that wasn't a problem. But a little bit like people worried intensely about acid rain. Acid rain was a problem. It was not the end of the world, as it was very often said.

I'm making, I think, fairly simple points and they're not outrageous in any way. I'm simply pointing out we're promising a lot of stuff but we're not actually doing it. Maybe we should find a smarter way.

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