False Alarm

How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet

[Amazon Link]

I know the front cover says the author's name is "Bjorn Lomborg". I'm going with Bjørn, because my knowledge of how to deal with funny characters was hard-won. And still imperfect; so I need to practice when I can.

Lomborg has been lumped in with climate-change "skeptics". That's not really accurate; he thinks climate-change is real, due to our greenhouse gas emission, and likely to cause problems in the future. He has long been off the "alarmist" train, however (as long as we're slinging simplistic, semi-invidious labels around). He updates and extends his argument in this book.

I think he clarifies the argument quite a bit with an analogy in the introduction:

Imagine a similar discussion on traffic deaths. In the United States, forty thousand people die each year in car crashes. If politicians asked scientists how to limit the number of deaths to an almost impossible target of zero, one good answer would be to set the national speed limit to three miles per hour. Nobody would die. But science is not telling us that we must have a speed limit of three miles per hour—it only informs us that if we want zero dead, one simple way to achieve that is through a nationwide, heavily enforced three-mile-per-hour speed limit. Yet, it is a political decision for all of us, to make the trade-offs between low speed limits and a connected society.

That's an important, and very generalizable, observation about social risk management. The collective "we" have decided that 30K-40K annual deaths are worth it, in order to have a convenient, flexible, vehicle-based transportation system. Sounds more than a little cold-blooded when you put it that way, doesn't it? Yet it's true.

I think this applies a lot more generally, illuminating a number of public issues: the COVID-19 response, gun control, the war on drugs, and more. But Lomborg is talking about climate change, and we'll stick to that from here on out.

Lomborg argues that holding humanity to unrealistic climate goals is equally wrong-headed, even dangerous on net. Despite the doom-saying hoopla, of which there is no shortage, most actual scientific evidence says that climate change will be managable. Not without problems aplenty, mind you. But we would be far better off to have a richer world to deal with those issues. Instead of giving in to panic, totally shutting down the fossil-fuel economy, making us all poorer.

I said "making us all poorer" above, but that's not really accurate. Yes, most of us would be worse off, but in rich countries, we'd probably muddle through. But a successful fossil-fuel shutdown would really sock it to the poorer parts of the world, dooming them to (almost certainly) eternal deprivation and early death.

All the more reason why we need to come up with a panic-free realistic approach. Lomborg first advocates a carbon tax, one set optimally. Set too high, it will wreck the overall economy. Set too low, and it won't get much carbon reduction. Set juuust right, it will discourage low-hanging-fruit emissions and incentivize shifts to renewables while letting high-value fossil-fuel uses continue. That's why we have green-eyeshade economists: to play Goldilocks.

Realistically, the whole world won't go along. Lomborg realizes this, and discusses how that changes things.

In addition to a carbon tax, Lomborg recommends directed R&D on further innovation. That's tough, because innovation is notoriously unpredictable. But energy storage is a pretty vital thing we could (in theory) get a lot better at. (So we could save up the solar/wind energy abundant on sunny/windy days, and release it as needed.) Also: nuclear energy. And if there were some way to suck CO2 out of the air economically at scale, that would be pretty neat too.

But we should also bring thoughts to bear on adaptation. If we forget about chasing unattainable temperature-increase "goals", then we'll have a richer would in order to implement various methods of dealing with increased warmth. It's likely (for example) that flooding will increase; but flood control already works in rich countries, avoiding death and mitigating economic damage. It's not cheap, but probably worth it.

And then there's geoengineering: manipulating the environment on a macro scale to increase overall albedo. Lomborg examines the various schemes, and recommends that we keep those in our back pocket in case things get really bad.

But finally, Lomberg returns to the best tool for dealing with climate change: prosperity. We need to encourage worldwide economic growth through free trade (and, I'd add, free-market capitalism). That's the magic dust that will allow us to deal with climate problems as they occuur, and provide a cleaner environment overall.

If I had a quibble, it would be with Lomborg's (relative) optimism. I get that he's advocating a path forward, but it relies on many governments doing the "right" thing. Something they've so far shown minimal interest in doing on this issue. But maybe if enough movers and shakers read this book…