Thursday, July 9, 2009

Is the Sky Falling?

I felt the need to be controversial. I wanted to stir the pot, to get some argument going, to tick a few people off. But I just couldn't quite pull it off. Instead I read a controversial book. I thought perhaps people might glare at me in disapprobation while I read it during my daily commute. No such luck.

My controversial book was Cool It by Bjorn Lomborg. The Washington Post called it a “stealth attack on humanity.” Pretty strong stuff that. Must be awfully dangerous. What do you suppose Bjorn is talking about? Global warming.

Oh well, there you go. Probably one of those global warming deniers, right? One of those guys who say global warming is caused by trees or something, or that it's cold where I am so it's not really happening?

Nope. Lomborg accepts what the UN climate scientists are saying about global warming. He accepts the climate models, the predictions, the whole shebang. He agrees that it is serious and that something needs to be done. The problem? He's not hysterical, he objects to people overstating the problem, he doesn't think we should impoverish the world to address it, and he thinks that there are, in fact, higher priorities.

Lomborg take aim at scientists and politicians who distort the facts in order to gain support for carbon reducing public policy. He's found evidence that having the doom-o-meter turned up to eleven all the time is starting to produce a sense of climate fatigue among the public. This is something that has bothered me for a long time. The continual barrage of “we're all gonna die real soon” rhetoric, the images of flooding in New York, malaria in Vermont, Florida under the sea, and other dire predictions that are unsupported by serious research will serve to undermine public confidence in science. Science is supposed to be about truth. Hyperbole should be left to sports.

The sea is rising. The UN says that in a hundred years it will rise by about a foot. New York and Florida will still be there. A foot of water is serious, but it is not the most serious issue of our century. It's pretty bad news for island nations like Micronesia. If we do nothing those folks are going to lose most of their land mass. The question is, what should we do? That is the core question this book asks. Should we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a Kyoto-type agreement that caps carbon emissions? UN scientists say that such an agreement, if the terms are met by all signatories (those countries that have signed it are having having a very hard time living up to their promises), will slow the rising sea. Instead of a hundred years, the sea will rise by a foot in a hundred four years. And the world will be poorer those hundreds of billions of dollars, and less able to handle the problem. Suppose instead that a substantially smaller amount of money was used to mitigate the flooding problems caused by rising seas. In the last hundred and fifty years sea levels rose a foot, so we've dealt with it before (without panicking). Lomborg, being Dutch, knows a thing or two about holding back the ocean. Micronesia, and other vulnerable places, would be able to save most of their land mass, and the world would be that much richer.

That's just a little of the controversial stuff that Bjorn Lomborg is saying here. He takes a cold, hard look at the numbers, applying economics to the problem, and asking the question 'how can we do the most good with what we have?' That seems to be a pretty rational question. Does it make sense to impoverish ourselves and to make advancement that much more difficult for people in the developing world by spending a fortune to reduce carbon emissions when scientists tell us the the return on that investment will be so very slight? Would we save more lives and improve the lives of more people if we spent our resources to, say, controls HIV/AIDS, eradicate malaria, and provide better nutrition to people in need? Naturally politicians will always say that we can do it all. But economics is the study of limited resources, and it casts a pretty harsh light on such wishful thinking. Cool It asks if we should spend a fortune now to do a little good in the future, or spend less now to do greater good for people in need today, leaving us wealthy enough to deal with the predicted consequences of global warming.

These are pretty tough questions, and Lomborg is a much-needed voice of rationality in a debate that hasn't often been marked by that trait. In a time when our president is telling poorer nations that they need to spend more of their scant resources on emission reduction, it is a voice that should be heard.

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