"Cool It" Instead Fuels It

The title of the new movie featuring "skeptical environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg is of course an intentional pun: It refers at once to cooling the debate over global warming and finding a way to actually cool the planet. The second point may come as surprise to some, who may not be aware that Lomborg is not and never has been a climate change denier. What he has argued is that proposed solutions to global warming are too expensive and detract from spending on more serious global problems such as disease, ignorance, and poverty.

Cool It opens with a rather long and boring personal introduction of Lomborg and a defense of his controversial book. Only after 20 minutes do we arrive at the 1990 Rio conference, where the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted; it is subjected to an inadequate and tendentious discussion, along with the follow-on Kyoto Protocol and last year's Copenhagen climate conference. We see President Obama telling the assembled delegates in Denmark that we have been talking about climate chance for two decades "without much to show for it."

That's a falsehood, and the film does its viewers no service and Lomborg no credit in repeating and endorsing it. The Kyoto Protocol called on the advanced industrial countries to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 7-8 percent by 2008-12 by comparison with 1990. As of 2007, Germany had cut its emissions by 21.3 percent, the United Kingdom by 17.3 percent, France by 5.3 percent, and the members of the European Union that adopted the protocol by a combined 4.3 percent. In the United States, however, emissions increased by 16. 8 percent; in Australia, the other major country that declined to ratify the protocol, they were up 30.1 percent.

Had there been no Rio treaty or no Kyoto Protocol, it's reasonable to assume that European emissions would have climbed from 1990 to 1997 almost as much as U.S. and Australian emissions did. So to say we have "nothing" to show for the two agreements is as if five buddies pledged to stop drinking, four succeeded but the biggest guzzler of all relapsed, and we thereupon declared the abstinence program a total failure. The failure is the hopeless drunk, not the program.

Though the argument in Cool It is based on the relative costs of greenhouse gas reduction versus other strategies, the film is remarkably casual in the way it throws numbers around. It does not explain carefully where its major cost estimates are coming from, what their basis is, or put them in a meaningful context. Not surprisingly, the movie has left viewers confused. One reviewer came away with the impression that the combined industrial country cost of complying with Kyoto was said to be $280 million per year, an absurdly small number. The film's actual number, $280 billion sounds big but actually is not so huge: Assuming the combined annual GDP of the industrial countries is at least $50 trillion, $280 billion is a fraction of 1 percent.

The same kind of problem arises with the estimate of how much it will cost Europe to attain its 20-20-20 goals, which Lomborg puts at $250 billion. We don't really know what the basis of that number is, and to me it sounds rather inflated. But even if it's correct, let's remember that it represents about 1.6 percent of Europe's $15 trillion domestic product and about $500/person/year. Is that too much to pay for insurance against the long-term risks of dangerous global warming? Lomborg says, unintelligibly, that it would be like buying home insurance that only covers the doorframe.

Lomborg wants to think he's clarifying the debate about global warming, but he's not. What he proposes is that instead of spending $250 billion per year on greenhouse gas reduction the money instead should be spent on the development of futuristic gee-whiz energy technologies, which he continues to be amazingly credulous about. Where is the $250 billion to come from? One reviewer came away with the impression that it would come from a carbon tax, and that may indeed be what Lomborg is suggesting.

If so, the supposed maverick is saying essentially what just about every other serious advocate of action on climate is saying: We should either tax carbon or auction emission credits in a cap-and-trade system, and use the very large revenues to fund development of low- and zero-carbon energy technologies. Lomborg is purveying the conventional wisdom, but in claiming to be saying something distinctively different, he's only sowing confusion and tossing random kindling on what's already a blazing fire.

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