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Greta Thunberg is a symptom of climate change alarmism – ‘skeptical environmentalist’

Global institutions are ringing the alarm over the ticking time bomb that is climate change. But President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center Bjorn Lomborg, who is also a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a skeptical environmentalist, believes the panic is unnecessary, or even groundless.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and sceptical environmentalist. It's really great to have you with us today, Bjorn. How'd you like my last part of your presentation – ‘sceptical environmentalist’? 

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, it's what I am. So it's great to be here, Sophie. And so look, what I’m really trying to do is to think about what are of all the things you can worry about in environmental areas, what are the things where you can actually make the most difference for every dollar or ruble or rupee that you spend so that we do the most good for the environment instead of just feeling good, but achieving almost nothing. 

SS: Oh, we're gonna go through this in detail while we're chatting. So the international movement to do something about climate change is currently battling the resistance of climate change deniers, conservative politicians, the fossil fuel industry, etc. In this clash of views, a lot of lobbying information is being spread and a little fearmongering is being done on the anti-climate side as well. And we're being scared into thinking our economies will collapse, scared into thinking that we are being scammed, right? How does one navigate this stream of conflicting and biased views, some of them having, you know, hidden agendas, actually? 

BL: Well, and some of them probably have not so much hidden agendas. You're absolutely right. Look, there's a lot of people out there who will tell you global warming is not a problem at all. And I think that's just simply wrong. We know that that's not true. That's what the best international data is telling us. But there's also a lot of people out there, as you pointed out, that that's telling you, ‘this is the end of the world’, you know, ‘you've got to do everything and the kitchen sink if you’re ever going to manage to make sure that we tackle global warming!’ And they are, unfortunately, often also exaggerating. I would argue that the right way to think about this - and that's what I try to present in my book and elsewhere - is really to say, look, the UN climate panel has come together for almost 25 years or so to look at what is the data on natural science. What they tell us is global warming is a real problem, it's caused by mankind burning mostly fossil fuels that emit CO2 that causes temperature’s rise. Overall, in the long run, that will be a net negative for humanity. So there's a problem, we should fix it. But we should also, of course, listen to the climate economists who are then looking at so what can we actually do about it and how much will it cost. We need to hear both of those conversations and we need to hear them without the denialism that this is not happening at all, but also without the alarmism that makes everything exaggerated. 

SS: So you claim that mainstream doom and gloom projections of what awaits our planet if we don't act on global warming are based on bad science. But the scientific community at large disagrees with you very, very strongly on your science, and your academic background is not in the field of climate research, right? So why should I believe you and not the climate scientists? 

BL: Oh, you definitely should not believe me, you should believe what the UN climate panel tells us. So the UN climate panel, as I pointed out, tells us global warming is real and it's a problem. But they also tell you, for instance, how big of a problem it is. So they expect that by, let’s say, 2075 the net impact of global warming will be equivalent to each person being somewhere between 0.2 and 2% less rich than he or she would otherwise be. That's an important fact. Because what that tells you is it's a real problem but it's by no means the end of the world. This is what the UN climate panel tells us and I'd be happy to show you that, I'm sure we can tweet that afterwards. You know, from the quote in the UN climate panel. So what it tells us is, it's a moderate problem, it's not a no-problem, but it's certainly not the end of the world. Remember, last year, a survey showed that almost half the world population now believes that global warming will lead to the extinction of the human race. That's just not what we're talking about. By 2075, humankind will be much, much richer. So the average standard scenario from the UN climate panel is that we will be 362% as rich as we are today, if the global warming was left unattended to in 2075, and instead of being 362% as rich as we are today, we would only be 356%. Now, that's a problem but it's by no means the end of the world. 

SS: So your idea is that treaties like the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement can postpone global warming for maximum five years. And I wonder if it's so inefficient, why are all these countries signing these agreements? I mean, I'm sure they did some research and homework before going for it, no? 

BL: Well, look, there's a lot of reasons why people sign up to a lot of this. Some of them are clearly virtue signalling, it's a nice way to say, you know, ‘Look, the world is going to end, vote for me!’ It'll help you politically, and you know, typically, the cost will only arrive 5, or 10, or 20 years later. So you get to get all the applause and then somebody else has to pay. It also sounds nice - ‘I want to help and save the planet’. But the reality is, most of what we do right now has very little impact. So I wrote an article on what's the impact of the Paris agreement by itself and this is also what the UNFCCC, so the guys who organised the Paris Agreement, tells us that Paris by itself will cut about 1% of what is needed to get to two degrees centigrade, which is what everybody talks about. So fundamentally, it'll do very little at very high cost, remember. That's why it's probably not a very effective target. Actually, some of my other research shows and this is also what many climate economists and perhaps particularly the only climate economist to win the Nobel Prize, William Nordhaus back in 2018, tell us that the current approach is actually a terribly inefficient way of spending lots of money and achieving very little. 

SS: You know, while disputing the mainstream opinion about climate change you’re saying that it is unnecessarily alarmist, right? Why the world's climate change researchers and policymakers need to be alarmist on this issue? I mean, what does anyone stand to gain from stirring panic? 

BL: So I think there's a lot of things that cause it. Let me take one example - sea level rise, which is an absolutely correct issue. As temperatures rise, the sea will increase in temperature just like everything else, when it gets warmer, it expands and that's why you see rising sea levels. So the typical simulation that you do, will tell you, all right, so if sea levels rise, let's say at the maximum perhaps a meter by the end of the century, close to a meter, how much will that matter? Well, the typical model will then just say, well, what of the world is below one meter above sea level rise, all of that will get flooded. So a standard estimate tells you 187 million people will get flooded by the end of the century. That was the headline in Washington Post, and many, many other papers. But the problem, of course, is that assumes nobody does anything for the next 80 years. Nobody erects any or increases the height of the dykes. And that's just absolutely unlikely, you would not sit here and watch the waves lap up over your knees and hips, and eventually you’ll drown or have to move, you actually adapt. And those very same researchers who say if you just see sea level rise about a meter, you’ll get 187 million people who have to move also show that if you assume realistic adaptation, you have not 187 million people who have to flee but about 300 thousand people, that, remember, is about half of the number of people that move out of California every year. So that's definitely something we can handle over the next 80 years. My point is that it's very easy to make these simple simulations and they make good sense in an academic argument. But obviously, they're not good information for policymakers, if you tell what's going to happen if we do nothing, because clearly, at very low cost, we will do something, we’ll namely adapt, and that leads to many, many fewer people actually been flooded. 

SS: Right, but the question is who stands to gain from the panic?  

BL: Media loves bad news. You know, if you wrote a story that says, ‘not much is going to happen with climate change’, not many people would click on it. If you say, ‘we're all going to die’, a lot of people will click on it. So you know, ‘if it bleeds it leads’. But also, of course, everyone who's pushing strong policies on climate change will want you to pay attention. And so they will always amplify the biggest signals if you read most of these press releases and stories, they’re typically littered with words like ‘may’ and ‘could’ and ‘might’ kind of thing. And so you could argue it might lead to 187 million people being flooded. That's true if we do nothing, but it's not very good information. But obviously, it helps make that particular point. Remember, if you talk to doctors, for instance, they will typically tell you, ‘if we don't get more money for COVID, we're going to get a catastrophe’. If you talk to teachers, they will tell you, ‘if we don't put more money into our schools, we might stand with a catastrophe that we haven't taught our next generation well’. It's in the nature of almost all people arguing for a particular case to overemphasize their argument. I'm not saying that's wrong. I'm simply saying we as decision-makers and voters for what our politicians should do, should be a little sceptical of some of those claims. 

SS: So figures like Greta Thunberg, do you feel like they're helping the issue or exacerbating it more? 

BL: Well, I have no doubt that Greta feels very, very strongly about what she's talking about. And I think when you talk to a lot of young people, they feel genuinely scared. If you keep hearing those stories, about 187 million people being flooded, you think that there's a good chance there's no future left for you. That's what she says, that's what a lot of young people say. So very clearly, if you think this is the end of the world, we should do everything to avoid that. So in some sense, I think Greta Thunberg is a symptom of us exacerbating and alarming everyone, mindlessly. And unfortunately, what that means is we end up picking solutions that cost a lot, but actually do very little. It's just the kind of feel-good solutions instead of the actual solutions that would fix global warming. So again, my point here is not to say that this is not a problem. My point is to say we need to spend resources so that we fix this problem smartly, not incompetently and very, very expensively.  

SS: Yeah. It's hard to argue with your point about the fact that the panic usually leads nowhere and it results in bad decisions. But, in your opinion, what decisions about climate change have been particularly bad? 

BL: If you look at most of the solutions that we have right now, they are typically very small that is they will have very little impact, but they're pretty expensive. So you know, the best example is the electric car, for instance. The electric car sounds like a wonderful idea, you know, you change over from these gas guzzlers and you get to places where you'll actually have zero emissions, and you'll be able to run it right on, you know, sun and wind. But the reality is that most of these cars, because the battery takes up much more energy to produce and typically, that's produced in China, and because most of these cars are charged at least partly with fossil fuels, that actually cut fairly few tons of CO2. The International Energy Agency estimates that an average battery car will conserve about 10 tonnes of CO2 across its lifetime, so about a third of its emissions. That's nice. But remember, most nations around the world- the incoming Biden administration is talking about spending upwards to $10,000 per car, they're spending an enormous amount of money to just cut 10 tons. Remember, on the US emission trading systems, you could cut that for about $50. So you could do this much, much cheaper, but we're spending this enormous amount of money because it feels virtuous, you know, it feels like we're doing something when you're seeing a Tesla. But the reality is you're doing fairly little at a very high cost. What we should be doing instead is get people to switch to hybrids, which is very, very much easier, they don't have any of the other problems, they actually cut just as much CO2 and typically people are willing to do that now, or at least with very, very little incentive. So again, take the solutions that are not quite as ‘sexy’, if you will, but actually end up doing a lot more good for every dollar of rupee spent. 

SS: Let's agree on the fact that the rise of temperature by two degrees won't wipe us, humans, out as species. But temperature rising for even a couple of degrees is critical for, let's say, coral reefs and plankton, and that's what all the marine life survives on, right? So no plankton means no food for fish and that means no food for bigger animal species. Do you see that a decline in biodiversity is actually the beginning of our decline as species? 

BL: So there's a concern there. And I think it's much, much harder to quantify. Because, again, what you typically hear is, you will have less productivity and people will show you these wide areas, that will be droughted or flooded. But actually, and I think this is important to recognise, and this is totally accepted in all science, what we see is, remember, CO2 is also a plant nutrient, that's why you know, most greenhouse growers will actually put an extra CO2 to get really big tomatoes, for instance. And what we've seen over the last 30 years, is actually a dramatic increase in the global biomass. So very unpublished, I mean, it's published, but it has not gotten a lot of press attention, it was in the New York Times and all these other papers, but it's certainly not getting as much attention, as you'd imagine. Over the last 30 years, the world has seen most of its areas becoming much more green to the extent that they estimate, it's equivalent to adding two Australias full of forest across the world over the last 30 years, because you've gotten many more leaves because of much more CO2. Again, my point here is not to say that global warming overall is not a net negative. But I think what we end up focusing on is parts of the story that are negative, and we should also look at those, but we forget that there's almost as much, not quite as much, that's why it's a problem, but almost as much of it that's an improvement, and we need both in order to make good decisions. 

SS: You also said that rich countries going carbon neutral is ineffective as long as poorer countries don't follow suit, and it's better to invest time and money in green energy research to make it cheaper. But do we have enough time to do that? I mean, what’s the problem with switching to carbon-neutral, while investing in green energy? Do you unnecessarily have to choose between one or the other? 

BL: Yeah, so the fundamental problem I see with the current approach is, if you're scared witless, which is also a little bit the underlying part of your question, then you think we got to do everything right now. So we end up with much of what the rich world is doing right now, namely, saying the rich world's got to switch over to go carbon neutral by mid-century. In any realistic scenario that is going to be phenomenally expensive, and hence, very unlikely to actually happen. Once you start seeing the cost roll in, you will get, you know, the kind of revolt that France, for instance, saw. Remember, France saw a yellow vest revolt when President Macron raised the gasoline tax by four euro cents per litre. Imagine, what will happen when you have to raise some several euros per litre. Now, people aren't just not going to sit still and accept that. What we see now is that cutting to zero without dramatic technological innovation will cost us a fortune. So the only country that’s actually done this is New Zealand, and much to their credit, they decided they were going to go carbon neutral by 2050 but they also asked that preeminent economic institute to say how much will that cost. The answer is 16% of GDP by 2050 and of course for the rest of the century. That's an enormous cost, that's more right now than what they're paying for the entire government budget. Of course, they're not going to accept that. My point here is simply to say, if you want a smarter way forward, look at how we solved problems in the past. When we were back in the 1960s and 1970s there wasn't enough food for everyone. And there was a lot of worry that, you know, China, India, Africa would not be able to feed themselves. The answer was not to eat a little less in the rich world, and then send some of the food down there to the poor world. The answer was, and that was also what solved the problem, the Green Revolution, they actually had a technology that allowed the developing countries to grow much more food in every hectare, hence making it possible for India now to be, you know, the world leading rice exporter. The point here is, in the very same way, we should focus on making sure that we get green energy to be so cheap, that it will out-compete fossil fuels. Imagine, for instance, if we could make, you know, geothermal energy, there's a huge amount of potential in geothermal energy. Right now, it's only really viable in Iceland and few other places. But with the new drilling technology that we have from fracking, there's a good chance we could actually make that competitive. If we could, you could get cheap and even cheaper than fossil fuel, permanent, so 24/7, energy from the ground, I'm not arguing that this is what's going to solve the world's problems, because I don't know. There are lots of those kinds of solutions out there. What we have to do is to drive the innovation, so that one of these many technologies become cheaper, because if that happens, everyone will switch, not just rich, well-meaning countries a little bit, but also China, India, all of Africa, Latin America, everybody else. And that's, of course, what's needed if you're actually going to solve this problem. 

SS: Well, if green energy is cheap, everybody will switch to it, even poor countries, right? This logic, what I'm thinking about it, doesn't consider the fact that many economies, for instance, Russia, or the United States or Australia, and many other countries, they've been on fossil fuels. How do you go around that? I mean, it's much harder for them, actually, I think. 

BL: Yes, and part of the challenge is, of course, for many of the oil and coal and gas producing countries to realise that this is probably not going to go on. I think, for most people, you know, they're sort of suggesting, ‘oh, you know, the changeover will come in a couple of decades’, I think that's entirely unrealistic unless we get much better technology. But remember, you in Russia, but also across the world, certainly in the US as well, will have to find a way to make sure that you get rich off fossil fuels. That's what most of the West has done for the last 200 years. But then also get to the point where you can actually transition because clearly, if you could have very cheap energy, also in Russia, yes, you would not get the same amount of dollars back in with exporting fossil fuels, but you would actually be able to have all the rest of your technology, all the rest of your industry powered much cheaper. So the point here is not to say that solving this problem is going to be costless or that it's going to be untroublesome. Of course it is. But I think the only way we're going to convince most people around the world to switch is when the alternative is much cheaper, not by telling everyone, ‘I'm sorry, you have to do with much less, much more expensive energy’. That's not going to win over most people in the long run. 

SS: During the Covid-related lockdowns, the world has seen an unprecedented drop in carbon emissions everywhere. And we're all thinking actually at that moment that this is probably the world we might want to have. But then you openly state that though these CO2 emissions cuts were impressive, they came at a tremendous economic and human cost, and now the economy needs to revive. Are you suggesting that actually going back to business as usual, without changing our old bad habits is our only way out for now at least? 

BL: No, I think there are two things you sort of have to separate. I think most people would definitely agree this was a terrible, terrible way to cut carbon emissions. It's a very typical way. I mean, what we've seen in the past is the only really surefire way of cutting carbon emissions is having a really good recession. We saw that certainly in Russia in 1991. We saw that in 2008. Most of this is correlated with enormous human pain. So no, this is not a long-term solution. Of course, we should take the positive things with us from Covid. You know, we're sitting and talking in Zoom, that's probably going to be much more in the future and that's wonderful. It means I didn't have to get in a plane and go over and visit you but we can still sit and talk almost as if we're in the same room. Wonderful. So we're going to keep some of this, but we should also be realistic about how much that's actually going to cut. Remember, the whole airline industry is less than 2% of global emissions. So this is not what's going to make the big difference. Yes, we've seen a dramatic drop. Most of this came from a dramatic drop in productivity and most people want to get back to their lives, and hence we're going to get back pretty much on the trajectory that we had before. I'd love for Zoom to become bigger but honestly, I don't think most people will want to go on Zoom for their holidays, for instance. 

SS: Bjorn, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for your interesting insight. I really hope that we all come together to an understanding which way is the better way out for us and for our planet in the nearest future, because it is in all of our interests. I hope for all the best in your future endeavors and I hope we'll speak soon again. 

BL: Thank you very much.

SS: Thank you. Bye.