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Bjorn Lomborg
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Bjorn Lomborg

Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which brings together some of the world's top economists, to set priorities for the world. ALL POSTS

The Science is Clear... So is the Economics

Looking at the big picture, there is very little doubt. The vast majority of climate scientists tell us that increases in carbon dioxide cause higher temperatures over time. We know that this will mean changes in rainfall, melting of snow and ice, a rise in sea level, and other impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans.

There is still meaningful and important work going on looking at the range of outcomes that we should expect--it is wrong to suggest that "all of the science is in"--but I think it is vital to emphasize the consensus on the most important scientific questions.

With some people drastically under-playing the effects of warming and others significantly exaggerating them, my view is that the careful research of the United Nations panel of climate change scientists, the IPCC, is the best guide to what we can expect from global warming - expecting a temperature increase by the end of the century between 1.6 and 3.8oC (or 2.9-6.8oF) higher than today's temperatures.

I think we must acknowledge, though, that the most relevant, significant dialogue today is not about interpretations of natural science, but about the different possible solutions to global warming, and what their costs and benefits would be.

The relevant questions today are those like: What can we achieve through geo-engineering the climate? Are we on the right path to achieving the technological breakthroughs needed to shift away from reliance on fossil fuel? How much can we achieve through adaptation? How much global warming damage can be prevented if we focus first on cutting methane or black carbon emissions, or if we put more emphasis on expanding forests?

To get answers to these questions, we need to turn to economic scientists for answers. And, the majority of those scientists are pointing to problems with our very expensive, ineffective current approach of attempting drastic, short-term carbon cuts.

By Bjorn Lomborg  |  October 14, 2009; 9:17 AM ET Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg     Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The Cost of Being Wrong | Next: Can We Stop Global Warming?

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I am especially stuck on Bjorn's question number 2 above (shifting away from fossil.) I am concerned about very concerted efforts from moneyed interests to PREVENT this from happening at all cost.

I recently read a comment on another blog that struck me as supremely naive regarding economics with solar energy: "Market forces will dictate when solar becomes financially correct." Yes, we very much do have to bend like a reed to economic larger forces - but not surrender. Will market forces determine when stratospheric temperatures in temperate climates cease to nucleate ice (rain)?

One problem that I worry greatly about is the petroleum/ethanol complex striving ever harder to maintain a de facto global cartel - whatever it takes: And this would include subversion of new technologies. Buying them up to eliminate them, tying them up in court - whatever it takes. I believe the dryer oil reserves become the harder this industry will push to survive.

I am also very optimistic that a spate of new technologies are truly poised with the answer....I believe that one problem that needs to be seriously thought through is the protection/nurturing of new technologies from subversion. If the tobacco industry would collectively outright lie about marketing to teenagers and feeding addiction, how much harder would the collective petroleum complex work to constrain the world's energy flow through its select channel? It's not evil....It's plain old-fashioned competition.

Understand this: the ultimate objective of the strongest players in any capitalist game is to skate as close to being a monopoly as possible without getting broken up. Get yourself into antitrust court a little bit, just don't get hammered there.. Microsoft managed very quickly to evaporate Netscape (among many others) simply by claiming it needed to compete.

The problem is: once energy sources truly become renewable (sun, wind, tide), all bets are off on controlling energy channels and they (big oil) know it. E.G. Once MIT gets the super-capacitor down and dirt cheap they could be finished off by one successful technology alone. Warren Buffett refuses to invest in new technology precisely because of the unpredictable nature of markets when new technologies spring up (throughout recorded history.) The point here is simply HUGE uncertainty even though we are SO close to answers.

I think your economics panel needs to pay special attention to tactics that big players in fossil fuel industries will use to subvert new technologies and erect artificial barriers to market entry. Here's just one example: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/09/eli-20090918.html

Posted by: SevenCell | October 24, 2009 10:31 PM
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I applaud the premise and look forward to seeing your exciting progress. Your work is important. As a non-academic, it occurs to me that one of your biggest challenges would seem to lie in extrapolating technologies - evaluating the economic impact of technologies that do not even yet exist in full form. Is this a problem for you? If so, how will you deal with it?

Posted by: SevenCell | October 23, 2009 7:23 PM
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nuzreporter, Please also educate us on how much radiative forcing occurs from that less than 1/2 of 1% of CO2 in the atmosphere?

Posted by: GD1975 | October 18, 2009 1:31 PM
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Any economic analysis of gobal warming must take into account the cost of not doing anything. Most comments concerning the economics of addressing global warming ignore that, simply because they are difficult to predict. It is easy to estimate the cost of a tax on carbon emissions, more difficult to predict the economic benefits.
But it is ludicrous to make decisions considering only one side of the equation.
That is the approach of those opposed to any sensible action on economic grounds.

Posted by: serban1 | October 18, 2009 11:28 AM
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The science is clear? No, it's not. CO2 is less then 1/2 of 1% of the atmosphere. Anyone who tells you anything else is a fraudster and pathological liar.

Posted by: nuzreporter | October 18, 2009 8:51 AM
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"To get answers to these questions, we need to turn to economic scientists for answers. And, the majority of those scientists are pointing to problems with our very expensive, ineffective current approach of attempting drastic, short-term carbon cuts."

What? No citation or reference? Where's the evidence?

Antispy has a point about the burning of forest for agriculture - but much of the CO2 released is taken up again in the growth of gardens and the regrowth of forest. Burning forests for ranchland is another matter.

A small temperature change can be very significant. We hear "2 degrees" and we think of the difference of temperature from on day to the next, in which 2 degrees is scarcely noticeable. But on a global level, when you think of the trillions of tons of atmosphere, it is a massive increase in the amount of heat - and our climate is a heat-driven engine. Also, climate is not a linear system, like a car with an accelerator where giving it a little more gas gives it a little more speed. It is non-linear, meaning that small changes in inputs can change the behavior of the whole system when a "tipping point" is reached. The scientific debate is less about whether climate change is occurring than where the tipping points are.

Posted by: j2hess | October 17, 2009 4:42 PM
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ALANCE is wrong. There is a huge amount of evidence from different measurement techniques that the temperature of the biosphere has risen significantly and the rate is increasing. Anecdotal observation of temporary, localized (on a world-wide scale) phenomena (i.e., snow this October in part of the US) does not refute this. Furthermore, The temperature rise is correlated with the burning of CO2-emitting fuels (i.e., the industrial revolution). That this correlation is a signature of causation is based on the chemistry of CO2 (and other GHG) and the physics of solar radiation. There is also plenty of evidence of the results of rising temperatures; e.g., world-wide sea-level rise, glacial retreat, and disappearance of arctic ice. Refusing to accept this is more than naive, it is dangerous.

ANTISPY is mistaken to think we have hundreds of years. A 2 C rise does not sound like much, but it is not simply the temperature of the air that is important, but the effect is has on our environment, which has already caused, is causing now and will cause drastic changes.

The question is not the science; its our action (or inaction) that will decide our fate.

Posted by: NCindependentthinker | October 17, 2009 1:07 PM
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According to P.T. Barnum there is a sucker bjorn every minute. There is no valid evidence the earth is warming, especially when the northern part of our nation is covered with snow in early October.

We need to stop using scare tactics - like rising sea levels - and other unproven projections to justify cap-and-trade and energy taxes.

This is not to suggest we should allow global deforestation, slash and burn or corporate clear cutting of forests. This is not to suggest we should we shouldn't make cars and trucks more energy efficient and develop affordable solar energy.

We are sitting on huge reserves of gas, oil and coal. It is pure stupidity not to drill for offshore and onshore gas and oil and not to develop cleaner and more efficient ways to use coal.

Posted by: alance | October 17, 2009 10:24 AM
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Mr. Lomborg has nailed it. The politics of "It's the economy, stupid" will derail efforts to curb ghg emissions in every nation.

The other factor that will doom efforts is that the international political establishment is quite inadequate to deal with global problems. The global problem of overfishing of the oceans is a much more tractable problem than global warming yet that goes uncurbed.

Posted by: edbyronadams | October 17, 2009 8:10 AM
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Exactly... yes, we want to change the warming trend, but the fact is that we have a lot of time. 2 degrees C / 100 years gives us a few hundred years before the earth changes enough to seriously threaten mankind or most of the species on the planet. That's plenty of time to find solutions which are practical and economical.

The best solution I can think of to help right now is to forget the plant-a-tree carbon neutral crap, and start providing food and jobs to rural people in third world countries like Indonesia. These poor people still practice slash and burn farming and, once a year, the sky over Kalimantan (Borneo) is darkened for a month during the dry season as each family cuts and burns about 1-2 acres of tropical forest to plant their crops. $200 a month is enough to support a family and will save a few acres of tropical forest and will do more to make you carbon neutral than anything else.

Posted by: antispy | October 17, 2009 7:34 AM
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Bjorn L has nailed it!

Posted by: DorothyfromColumbus | October 17, 2009 3:11 AM
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