Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, the founder of the think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus and author of the book “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” delivered a talk to a Calgary audience last week. His message was ”Yes, there is a climate change problem…and there is also a problem with how we discuss it.”
To demonstrate, Lomborg, who was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, quoted some of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres’ dire climate pronouncements including:
“The world is facing a grave climate emergency… every week brings new climate-related devastation. Floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, superstorms… We are in a battle for our lives… climate change is the biggest threat to the global economy.”
Lomborg identified the problem with how we discuss climate change is that the above type of exaggeration of climate concerns creates panic. As the words on the cover of his book state … “ climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet.”
So how do we have measured discussions about climate issues? Even more importantly how do we get people to at least consider the necessary elements of an informed discussion? Lomborg answers that we have to look at the data. He quoted U.S. data on “superstorms”, pointing out that his choice of U.S. data was not because his focus is U.S.-centric. They simply have the best long-term data. His graph of hurricane data showed that they are actually becoming less not more frequent, despite media claims to the opposite. He identified a phenomenon that is characteristic of our era. With increased technological abilities, media has been able to deliver more live video coverage of events- in even the most remote areas of the planet. This has created a false perception which Lomborg calls “the CNN effect”. In his words, “Seeing lots of coverage of hurricanes doesn’t mean that they are more frequent.” He described “the CNN effect” as how a media personality, talking to the camera while standing in a hurricane, is much more compelling than footage of a reporter standing in mild weather where nothing is really happening. He pointed out that in 2022 the global frequency of hurricanes was actually lower than previous years and doesn’t support Guterres’ dire predictions of “superstorms.”
Why do we get it so wrong on climate?
Lomborg noted that when media quotes data, it doesn’t take into account the effect of human adaptation and bolsters alarmist views of climate change. In the case of data on the global cost of climate change quoted in the New York Times, the modelling didn’t include data on the adaptations that humans have made. The result is unrealistic models that underplay the effects of human adaptation and contribute to climate panic which in turn, leads to unrealistic climate policies. He noted that the high costs of net zero policies will mean developing countries will abandon those policies. In his words “Climate change means costly damages but so does climate policy.” He notes the cost of climate policies is not being assessed and discussed.
“You should not do nothing but you should not do everything either”
Lomborg’s identification of climate policies may have surprised a few. He advocated for a “smart global carbon tax” which he qualified by saying it “means you don’t do anything else.” He also noted that currently, Alberta’s trade-exposed industries have issues because the carbon tax they pay is not employed globally by other countries. He doesn’t advocate for border adjustment taxes as a mechanism to remedy this imbalance as those taxes simply transfer Canada’s climate policies into costs for developing countries. In the end, Lomborg concluded, “Carbon tax becomes an extra revenue and states are less effective at spending revenue than people.”
Why don’t climate types want a stepped approach like switching from coal to gas?
Lomborg’s closing remarks during the question period addressed the cognitive dissonance of climate policymakers.
“The best thing we could imagine over the next couple of decades would be to have China and India switch from coal to (natural) gas. There’s no doubt it’s the only realistic alternative to cutting a lot of CO2. So is nuclear. But people routinely say no to them. But if you think this is the end of the world and if you’re not willing to consider all policies, then clearly you don’t actually mean it.” he said.
“I think there is a sort of trade-off that people will tell you they believe it’s the end of the world- but we can’t use gas or nuclear. It shows that there are certainly a lot of other things at play behind the scenes. My sense is the only way to deal with it is to go back to the data and say ‘Sorry, I’m trying to reduce the amount of CO2 in an effective way that actually works with the world and also respects there are lots of other problems that many of the countries and peoples want to deal with… What’s your goal?’ Why would you want to say ‘No -I support poor and ineffective, very expensive solutions that we never can sell to most of the world’.”
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.