Sunday, 10 January 2010

Book review: Bjorn Lomborg - Cool it: : The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming

“There is no plan B” was the mantra of the climate activists and politicians who gathered in Copenhagen in December 2009 to hammer out a new agreement to limit carbon emissions. They were wrong. There is a plan B and this book describes it.

Although often called a ‘sceptic’ the appellation does not really apply to Bjorn Lomborg. He doesn’t dispute that global warming is real and is caused by humans. What he does question is the assumption that reducing CO2 emissions is the best or only way of dealing with its effects.

The author set up the “Copenhagen Consensus” which brought together a group of eminent economists to examine ways in which, with a limited amount of money, it would be possible to do most good to most people. The top three were: control of HIV/AIDS, providing micronutrients to tackle malnutrition and trade liberalisation. The last of these three has the double benefit of providing agriculturalists in the developing world with higher incomes and lower food costs to people in the developed world. The three options relating to CO2 emissions came in last.

He also suggests that the benefits of reducing CO2, even if Kyoto had achieved its targets, would have been minimal and delayed the effects of global warming in 2100 by only a few years

His book starts with the iconic polar bears. He points out that in the few areas where bear populations are falling most of the reduction is due to hunting. Other topics he covers and his assertions include:

• Heat deaths. More people die of cold in winter than die of heat in summer. Global warming would reduce weather related deaths.

• Rising sea levels. The rate of rise predicted by the IPCC is not markedly higher than the rise observed during the past century and better sea defences are a cheaper solution. He accepts that the gates designed to protect London from flooding have indeed been closed more frequently in recent years but points out that this was to keep water in during low flow periods not to keep it out during floods.

• Water stress. In most of the world, the increase in rainfall will more than compensate for the extra evaporation caused by higher temperatures.

• Tropical storms. Whilst there had been an apparent increase in storms as monitored by satellites over the last 30 years, longer term data shows no upward trend. The storm which flooded New Orleans did so because of inadequate flood defences not because it was an extraordinary storm.

• Malaria. This is not a disease limited to hot countries, one of the worst epidemics was in Russia in the 1920s, and increased temperature will not necessarily lead to an increase.

In each of these cases, and others that he examines, he compares the costs of a targeted response to the cost of controlling CO2 emissions. However what he compares is the low cost of each specific solution to the total cost of reducing CO2. This is false. The cost of reducing CO2 will be shared between all the problems that will be alleviated by CO2 reduction. Whether adopting this approach would have changed his conclusions is a moot point but he should have examined it.

Despite this reservation I recommend this book.


Publisher: : Marshall Cavendish (2007)

ISBN 978-0-462-09912-5


Freda said...

It really does seem as if his star is in the ascendent.

PW said...

I'm new to this site, but your review seems less sceptical (in the true sense of the word) than many other articles here.

For example, you present without criticism the findings of the Copenhagen Consensus, which was very controversial, and you don't mention any other economic analyses which have come to different conclusions (the most famous of which being the Stern review).

An easy criticism of Lomborg's point about heat deaths is that there are many less destructive ways of stopping elderly people dying from cold than heating the entire planet. As I understand it there is a lot of uncertainty about the effect of heat on death rates in any case. It seems rather callous of him to suggest that fewer cold deaths "make up for" extra heat deaths when there are other ways to avert the cold deaths.

I don't know enough about the issues to say anything about the other points. I note though that a guy called Howard Friel has written a book called "The Lomborg Deception" claiming that Lomborg has misrepresented academic research. And of course there are many other reviews on the web, most of which seem to be critical.