Since the publication of his book The Skeptical Environmentalist in 1998, Bjørn Lomborg has been a thorn in the side of climate alarmists who call for a rapid decarbonization of the world economy to prevent apocalyptic global warming. His new book, False Alarm, drives that thorn deeper.
False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet, by Bjørn Lomborg (New York: Basic Books, 2020).
Lomborg is impossible to ignore. First, he believes humans are causing climate change and that it will have harmful impacts. So he cannot be attacked as a climate “denier.” Second, he couches his arguments against the apocalyptic claims in the data, assessments, and conclusions of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is the source that climate alarmists tout as the gold standard for understanding the threat of human fossil fuel use (I suspect without actually reading in full its comprehensive reports).
The major message of False Alarm is clear: 1) Evidence shows humans are causing climate change; 2). Climate change, over time, will have a net negative environmental impact that should be mitigated; 3) However, climate change is not the greatest immediate or long-term environmental or public health threat; 4) Policies proposed to rapidly restrict the use of fossil fuels will cause far more harm to the peoples of the world and its environment, than they will prevent—while at the same time having almost no impact on rising temperatures or associated climate changes.
Take Some of It with a Grain of Salt
False Alarm is informative and important. Anyone who wants to know about the history of failed environmental disaster predictions, understand the currently known facts about the lack of a connection climate change and natural disasters, or why neither green energy nor international agreements like the Paris climate agreement will prevent climate change should read this book. In addition, False Alarm exposes the high potential costs and limited benefits of solutions being proposed to fight climate change. However, as the reader will find, I don’t agree with every part of Lomborg’s analysis. In particular, I find his deference to climate model projections questionable in the light of their persistent failure to track actual climate changes thus far. And that leads me to also question his faith in econometric models that make benefit and cost projections hundreds of years into the future.
“The science shows us that fears of a climate apocalypse are unfounded,” writes Lomborg. “Global warming is real but it is not the end of the world. It is a manageable problem. Yet, we now live in a world where almost half the population believes climate change will extinguish humanity. This has profoundly altered the political reality.”
As Lomborg convincingly demonstrates, poorly designed climate policies that would reduce too quickly the use of fossil fuel, would have a devastating effect on the world’s poorest people, slowing their economic development by decades. “This singular obsession with climate change means that we are now going from wasting billions of dollars on ineffective policies to wasting trillions. At the same time, we’re ignoring ever more of the world’s more urgent and much more tractable challenges.”
Economic models show that life in developing countries will improve even if costly, ineffective climate policies are adopted, but they will result in slower economic growth. Generations of poor people will experience thousands of unnecessary premature deaths, untold numbers of children will die in infancy, and millions of people will suffer unnecessary hunger and privation, including from climate change-related harms. By contrast, Lomborg argues, focusing on adapting to climate change (rather than trying so hard to stop it) and, even more importantly, fostering rapid economic growth through education and technological innovation while continuing to use fossil fuels will deliver far more benefits and reduce far more harm, more quickly, than policies that force energy privation.
“If we don’t say stop, the current, false climate alarm, despite its good intentions, is likely to leave the world much worse off than it could be,” he writes.
In the chapter “Why Do We Get Climate Change So Wrong,” Lomborg details how past claims and prognostications of environmental collapse and human death and destruction due to overpopulation and looming resource shortages were consistently wrong. He also details the damage caused by politicians listening to the ‘expert’ false prophets of doom.
Lives Lost to Natural Disasters Have Declined
Among his most insightful discussions is his exploration of why people think natural disasters, like floods, hurricane’s, heat waves, and wildfires are getting worse, when, in fact, the data show just the opposite is true. The number and severity of these events is either trending downward or flat (the chapter “Extreme Weather or Extreme Exaggeration?” covers this thoroughly). Lives lost to natural disasters have declined dramatically over the past century-and-a-half during the recent period of warming This is due largely to economic growth, which has allowed societies to monitor disasters better and to adopt policies and adaptive technologies that reduce deaths and injuries.
At the same time, the absolute costs of these disasters have increased dramatically, due to the “expanding bulls-eye effect.” More and more people are moving into, and communities are expanding into, areas prone to natural disasters, like flood plains, forests, and coastal areas. They are erecting ever more expensive structures and infrastructure. When extreme weather events strike, more property, and more expensive property, is destroyed. Thus the higher costs are not due to climate change but occur because more valuable assets are at risk from demographic shifts in where people live and the lifestyles they pursue.
Even then, Lomborg shows, just as deaths have declined during the period of recent climate change and should be expected to continue to do so, the cost of natural disasters measured as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is also falling over time and should continue to do so.
Wishful Thinking about Renewables
“Why the Green Revolution Isn’t Here Yet” shows wind, solar, and batteries aren’t now and won’t likely be in the near future able to replace fossil fuels. They simply remain too expensive and intermittent. Thus, even as the absolute amount of renewable energy grows, largely due to government mandates, they will not become a large percentage of worldwide energy use. Fossil fuels, for now, will still be the dominant sources of energy driving economic development. Believing otherwise is extremely wishful thinking. After all, physics and costs, not government policies, dictate energy development, except at the margin.
The weakest portion of Lomborg’s book is the second half, where he explores the costs of different responses to climate change. As with the general circulation models that project climate change, Lomborg places a great deal of faith in the projections of econometric models and the views of the economists he has worked with concerning benefits and drawbacks of responses to climate change. The fact that climate-model projections of temperatures and other climate changes have routinely failed to match reality leads me to also mistrust the economic-model projections of how much various policy responses will cost and, more importantly, how much good they will do. In my experience, taken as a whole, economists’ projections about markets and the impact of public policies directing investments are about as accurate as the daily weather forecasts and sometimes more similar to the accuracy of weather forecasts weeks out. The farther out in time economic projections are made—and the cost and benefit estimates Lomborg cites go out to 500 years into the future!—the less likely they are to prove true.
Lomborg lists five different sets of policies to prevent the worst harms from climate change (although keep in mind that he considers those harms far less dire than the apocalyptic scenarios). He proposes 1) a carbon dioxide tax (carbon tax for short); 2) innovation; 3) adaptation; 4) geoengineering; and 5) greater prosperity.
Questions about a Carbon Tax
Lomborg says a universal ideal carbon tax would reduce the worst harms from climate change from $140 trillion to $87 trillion over the next 500 years, amounting to the prevention of $57 trillion in economic harm compared to what would occur under a business-as-usual scenario (in which no additional climate policies are enacted). Policies that include boosting economic growth, investing in R & D, and adopting a carbon tax would avoid a temperature increase of approximately 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit in 2100.
One problem, as Lomborg readily admits, is politics, including horse trading and efforts to favor some groups over others. Politics is likely to result in a suboptimal carbon tax, reducing the welfare gains to $18 trillion from the no-new-policy case in 2520. Eighteen trillion dollars in lost welfare sounds like a lot until one asks how much per-capita GDP is likely to have grown by that time. Lomborg does not project per-capita GDP under the different scenarios beyond 2100. However, the development pathway in which fossil fuel use is maximized will increase per-capita GDP by 1,040 percent. That would mean that income per year per person, after accounting for the costs of climate change, would be approximately $176,000.
By comparison, net GDP growth under the greener (but not radical green) sustainable development scenario Lomborg endorses is projected to be $103,000 per person. One should ask, even if one trusts economic and climate projections 500 years in the future, how much will that gap grow over the next remaining 400 years and will the world even notice the projected $18 trillion in lost welfare gain? What is clear under Lomborg’s own treatment of the subject is that the sustainable development scenario will slow growth in the poorest developing countries by at least a generation compared to the rest of the world.
Lomborg’s call for increased government support for research and development seems to me to be on shaky ground as well. The economists he worked with estimated that for every dollar spent on R & D, the world could avoid approximately $11 in long-term climate damages (left undefined is whether that would be in 2100 or 2500). I doubt this. I served on an EPA panel deciding what projects to spend money on and in my view it was a disaster, wasting funds on esoteric research—funds that could have been spent on proposals before us that would have delivered concrete benefits to people in developing countries today. I also know how R & D projects the government has funded have fared, especially in the area of alternative energy development. Billions of dollars have been squandered (with dozens of government-funded companies having gone bankrupt), with little or nothing to show for it. I am not as sanguine as Lomborg about government experts’ abilities to foster innovation by picking winners and losers in energy R & D. My suspicion is that non-optimal R & D projects will be funded, especially if those pushing them are politically connected.
Adaptation as a response to climate change is desirable, and, as Lomborg says, to be expected. People and governments haven’t historically stood idly by as natural disasters repeatedly struck. They undertake actions to mitigate and lessen the damage from future such events. There is little reason to think as societies become richer, they won’t implement policies that minimize future harms, such as developing better building codes, adopting more resilient construction materials and methods, constructing sea walls, and discouraging construction in areas where natural disasters regularly occur.
Lomborg sees research into and the possible development of geoengineering solutions as a possible backstop in case the worst climate change projections seem likely and emergency measures—measures that could have an almost immediate, significant impact on climate—, are needed. I would largely agree with this assessment.
Everyone Should Agree on the Benefits of Prosperity
Regardless of what one thinks of any of the other solutions proposed by Lomborg, any rational person who cares about human welfare and the environment should embrace Lomborg’s final proposal, which is to increase economic growth and thus prosperity as rapidly as possible, especially in the developing world, which is likely to suffer the greatest negative impacts of climate change. As Lomborg makes clear throughout his book, wealthier societies are healthier and better able to adapt and respond to weather emergencies, regardless of the type or cause. Although humans may never be able to control the weather, contrary to what climate alarmists seem to believe, or to anticipate or prevent all natural disasters, industrialized nations have shown that relatively wealthy societies and peoples can dramatically reduce the number of lives lost, injuries suffered, and misery experienced when natural disasters strike. They can get help to people faster than poorer countries with inadequate infrastructure and limited resources for emergency responses.
On the whole, False Alarm is instructive and educational. Read it, digest it, draw your own conclusions.
Above: Bjørn Lomborg. Image by John Englart (Takver). Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.