Climate Change 101 for Landmen and Lawyers: Uninhabitable Earth or False Alarm? (Part 5)
This is the conclusion of a five part series reviewing False Alarm, How Climate Panic Costs us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, by Bjorn Lomborg.
CRITICS, ROUND TWO
Another negative review of Lomborg’s False Alarm is by Joseph Stiglitz and appeared in the New York Times on July 27, 2020. Dr. Stiglitz, a professor of economics at Columbia University and Nobel Laureate (Economics, 2001), was the lead author of the original 1995 report of the IPCC. He has been an advisor to both Presidents Clinton and Obama and was Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Clinton Administration (1995-1997). Like Lomborg, Stieglitz has been selected by Time Magazine as one the 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Stiglitz says that Lomborg’s book is simple and simplistic. Like the first negative reviewer, Bob Ward of the London School of Economics, Stiglitz criticizes Lomborg’s reliance on the work of Stiglitz’s fellow Nobel Laureate in economics, William Nordhaus, and accuses both Nordhaus and Lomborg of bias.
Stiglitz, as a Nobel Laureate himself, certainly has standing to criticize Nordhaus, and who am I to say which economist is correct? But with due respect, Stiglitz’s criticism in his review that Lomborg implies “there’s not much we can do about climate change” is unfair, as is his assertion that Lomborg’s modeling suggests “we have invested all we wisely can in innovation. . . .”
Again, are Stieglitz and I reading the same book? To repeat, Lomborg devotes almost a fourth of False Alarm to a section titled “How to Fix Climate Change.” This includes a chapter discussing carbon taxes (which Stiglitz acknowledges but says Lomborg’s tax rate is too low), as well as discussions of many other possibilities that innovation, adaptation, and free markets might bring to bear on the problem. These include nuclear fusion, fission, carbon capture, water splitting, refining oil from algae grown on ocean surfaces, and in a pinch, geoscience engineering techniques like marine cloud brightening (following exhaustive research and experimentation first to better understand its effects). Stiglitz is of course very accomplished and is no doubt aware of all the possibilities that Lomborg discussed. But again, the fact that Stiglitz may disagree with or discount Lomborg’s solutions does not mean that Lomborg did not suggest them. Stiglitz accuses Lomborg of bias while demonstrating his own.
I have little doubt that Lomborg has other critics besides Ward and Stiglitz. Likewise, I have little doubt that progressive environmentalists and their media and political allies around the world take strong exception to Lomborg’s conclusions. Words like innovation, adaptation, and free markets do not come easily to the minds and lips of environmental extremists. Recall Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s quote at the beginning of this review: “The world is going to end in twelve years if we don’t address climate change, and your biggest issue is how we are going to pay for it?” After all, they say, we are dealing with the possibility of human extinction. Any means to combat climate change is of necessity affordable.
But is that true? Lomborg uses speed limits as an example. Car crashes kill about 40,000 people a year in the US. We could virtually eliminate all car crashes by lowering the speed limit to three miles per hour. But is the benefit worth the cost?
Shellenberger uses similar examples in his book, Apocalpse Never. What about asteroids? We could also spend billions more a year than the world is now on tracking 100% of errant asteroids. But NASA has done a cost-benefit analysis and has concluded that tracking 90% is good enough. Beyond that, the cost is not worth the risk.
As COVID-19 has highlighted, we could also spend billions if not trillions more each year researching cures to infectious diseases. The same can be said for a multitude of other problems—eliminating poverty, reducing infant mortality, providing infrastructure for cleaner air and water sources for all, and so forth. But even with expected increasing global prosperity, each dollar spent on climate change is a dollar less than can be spent on many other problems. All these examples get back to Lomborg’s central thesis that, since human extinction because of climate change is so highly improbable, moving too fast on climate change, without appropriate cost-benefit analysis, could be more damaging to the mass of humanity than not moving fast enough. As Lomborg said at the beginning of his book, “we need to calm down.”
CONCLUSION: “A MANAGEABLE PROBLEM”
Lomborg ends his book on an optimistic note. In his concluding chapter, Lomborg reminds that the world has been down the road of environmental alarmism before. For example, when Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, was published in the 1960s, the author predicted mass starvation would occur in the 1980s, resulting in the deaths of two billion people. Yet Ehrlich was off by a factor of 99%. So what saved the day? Research and innovation in the form of high-yield, disease-resistant wheat strains spearheaded by an American agronomist, Norman Borlang, earning Borlang a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Wallace-Wells also mentions Borlang but views him as an anomaly. Lomborg disagrees. Lomborg reminds that the past 150 years when compared to the centuries before have been a time of unbelievable technological innovation and economic growth, lifting billions of people out of poverty and immeasurably improving the quality of life for billions more. According to Lomborg, we will find a way to beat climate change without having to sacrifice global economic growth. “Global warming is real,” says Lomborg, “but it is not the end of the world. It is a manageable problem.”
False Alarm by Bjorn Lomborg is an engaging and cogent analysis of one of the great challenges the world faces today. Justice cannot be done to the book in even a lengthy review such as this one. Lomborg’s book, only 224 pages long exclusive of notes, is a relatively quick read that can greatly serve to better educate landmen and the lawyers who support them on the highly complex issue of climate change, something that is directly impacting our lives and our careers. I highly recommend it.