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Bjorn Lomborg joins the show to talk about how climate change alarmism paints a false narrative of world ending proportions.

Hosts
Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies
Guests

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School. The Copenhagen Consensus Center is a think‐​tank that researches the smartest ways to do good. For this work, Lomborg was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. His numerous books include “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, “Cool It”, “How to Spend $75 Billion to Make the World a Better Place”, “The Nobel Laureates’ Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World 2016–2030” and “Prioritizing Development: A Cost Benefit Analysis of the UN’s SDGs”.

Climate change is real, but it does not pose the apocalyptic threat that we have all been told time and again. When you use bad science, and even worse economics, it creates a panic and that very panic is a problem we see with global warming.

What is the problem with climate alarmism? What’s the scientific value in making a model that assumes nobody will respond to incentives? Are there benefits to global warming in some places?

Further Reading:

Transcript

00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.

00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Dr. Bjorn Lomborg. He is President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School. His new book is False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet. Welcome to Free Thoughts.

00:25 Bjorn Lomborg: Thank you very much, Trevor and Aaron.

00:27 Trevor Burrus: I once happened upon this, for a very strange circumstance which I won’t get into, I happened upon a system of… Like a presentation of a bunch of papers by George Washington University Environmental Science grad students, and one of the papers presented this fact that, she said that the carrying capacity of the globe by 2050 will be one billion people. And it’s a pretty astounding fact, so I asked her after she presented, I said, “Did you account for changing behavior when you made that prediction?” And she was sort of confused and I said, “Did you just assume that people in Iowa will continue trying to farm Iowa, if Iowa becomes unfarmable?” And she didn’t really get the question, which kinda was disturbing, and that’s a big part of your book. So, how does that sort of story fit into this problem we have with climate alarmism?

01:21 Bjorn Lomborg: So I guess the main point here is, everyone is incredibly scared about climate change. We know our kids think this is the end of the world, and certainly they’re being presented as if it is the end of the world. There was a survey last year from YouGov on 28 countries that asked people, “Do you think it’s likely or not likely that global warming will lead to the extinction of the human race?” And almost half of all people believe it’s gonna lead to the extinction. So clearly we’re very scared. That is because we get these sorts of predictions that you just mentioned, you saw this presentation, we’re being presented with evidence that in some very narrow way is true, but incredibly misleading. Let me give you an example. So last year, Washington Post and lots of other papers across the country and really across the globe, led with this new story that told us, with sea levels rising from global warming, which was absolutely true, we will see 187 million people who have to move by the end of the century or yeah, not surprisingly, very quickly, that story became 187 million people are gonna drown.

02:33 Bjorn Lomborg: Now, the idea is, that as sea levels rise, which is true, you will then have the people who live close to the coast, they’ll sit there over the next 80 years, and first the waves will lap up over their knees and then hips, and then they’ll drown. But of course, that ignores the fact that most people will actually take action. I would probably bet all people will take action, and the very same paper that said, “187 million people will have to relocate if we don’t do anything,” also said, “And it’s entirely impossible that we’ll do nothing.” Actually, if we model what people realistically will do, it turns out that instead of 187 million people having to relocate, we will have to relocate over the world, over the next 80 years, 305,000 people. Just for sort of a reference, that’s half the number of people that move out of California every year.

03:28 Bjorn Lomborg: So very clearly, this is not the end of the world type of situation, this is a very manageable problem. It is a problem, which is why global warming’s real and it’s a problem, it’s something we need to fix, but it’s not this end of the world thing that we’re being told about. So I think your story really tells us, we need to remember to ask, did you put in all the sensible input into your model or did you just tell this because it’s a really scary fact, if you don’t think straight about it?

03:58 Trevor Burrus: Well, that’s part of the thing when reading your book, part of me was sort of thinking that there was a mass journalistic malfeasance that has happened for 20 years. Some of the stories that you talk about, the Vietnam one was a good example, that the reporting has just been bad.

04:17 Bjorn Lomborg: And just to give our listeners a sense of context, the New York Times showed a new research study, which is a very good research study, published, I believe, in Science, so really good, and what they basically showed was that our previous map of the height of land area has been influenced badly by, for instance, the tops of palm trees. So if you do this with a satellite, you might think that the ground level is actually the tops of some trees and obviously, that gives you a wrong input. And so they’ve re‐​done that, wonderful, great, and obviously that means there are more places that are vulnerable to sea level rise. That was the main story and that’s fine, but then they went on and said, “Ah, but if you then look at the areas that are gonna be underwater by 2050, because of this new study, it showed that pretty much all of South Vietnam would be underwater by 2050.” So basically they said, not only would they all have to relocate, they almost implied that they were gonna drown. That’s obviously terrible.

05:22 Bjorn Lomborg: What they forgot to tell us was, “Oh, wait, it’s exactly the same thing today, almost all of Southern Vietnam is already under water today, how did they… How do they handle that? How do almost 20 million people live there?” Clearly, under water, because they have built dikes. They have actually taken action and almost all of South Vietnam is already protected. What the story shows is partly that we’re a really inventive species and we can deal with many problems and we can live in places where in some sense, you shouldn’t be able to, and of course, Holland has been a model for that for a very long time, but it also shows that journalists will look at this result, “Oh, everything is gonna be under water in 2050,” and immediately jump to the conclusion that must be because of global warming, not because the model has already, is not taking into account that you have built up dikes.

06:17 Bjorn Lomborg: It is a very easy mistake to make when you believe everything is caused by global warming, but of course it’s phenomenally faulty, and it helps make everyone scared and helps make all our kids worried.

06:32 Aaron Powell: Why do people, when they’re making models of this sort of stuff, make them assuming no change? I mean, I was struck by, we’ve been seeing a lot of models in the news lately with the pandemic, and a lot of the, we expect this many millions of deaths; the models themselves then say that’s if we do absolutely nothing, if we don’t change our ways at all. What’s the value in making a model like that in the first place? I understand for the journalist it’s, these big numbers are exciting to report on, but what’s the scientific value in making a model that assumes nobody will respond to incentives?

07:12 Bjorn Lomborg: Well, I think there’s two answers to it. One is, it’s a lot easier model to build, and so if you have 10 models that’ll do stuff on sea level rise, nine of them will not implement adaptation, simply because it’s easier. And that’s fine for a scientific purpose, if all you’re trying to do is to increase the value of your predictive models, given that there is no adaptation, which has some value to it, but obviously, you should never give that to a journalist before you’ve actually included adaptation. The second bit is if you’re gonna compare models, if you have different adaptations, you might actually end up believing that what your model… The differences in your model is because of the adaptation bit and not because of some natural science, how much has the sea level risen or what’s the topography of coastal areas and so on. So a lot of researches will switch off the adaptation bit in order to make easier comparisons.

08:09 Bjorn Lomborg: So the, and this is a long way to say, there’s good scientific reasons for this if you keep it within the scientific community that is discussing this, but if you tell this to the general public, it is ridiculous to make that presentation without including adaptation. Obviously, you’re simply misleading people and you’re basically telling everyone you’re gonna die, although, oh, wait, no, actually, you weren’t.

08:34 Trevor Burrus: And you point out that some of the studies that are particularly alarmist actually say this in a footnote, but the journalists never pick this up. There’s one that took a range of, I think it was sea level rise from costs between $14 trillion and $100 trillion, which is a huge range, but, and but it actually, that paper actually said, this is assuming no one changes their behavior, but no one picked up on that.

08:57 Bjorn Lomborg: Yeah, and…

08:57 Trevor Burrus: Just weird, yeah.

08:58 Bjorn Lomborg: And look, even the paper itself, so the journal who issued the press release did not make the journalist aware of this, so I think there’s a combination of factors here. Partly, you’d rather just have the big number because then you get a lot of publicity and hopefully, many of your colleagues will say, “Wow, that was a really good paper,” and you’ll get more funding and more people will want to listen to you. I can see that happening for a wide range of different reasons. And then if you’re a journalist and you’ve heard all these other stories about how we’re all gonna die because of global warming, this seems like, yeah, that’s just another one of them, of course, it’s true.

09:37 Bjorn Lomborg: So I think we need to ask people actively to start thinking about, is this really true, is this really what the best science tells us? And that’s of course why it’s so hard for most people to understand when you actually read the UN Climate Panel report. First of all, they don’t talk about this is the end of the world or anything. The UN Climate Panel themselves estimate that by the 2070s, so let’s say 2075, the net negative impact of global warming, and it will be a net negative, so it is a problem, will be equivalent to each one of us losing somewhere between 0.2% and 2% of our income.

10:17 Bjorn Lomborg: So remember, by the 2075, the UN estimate on its standard scenario that each one of us on the planet will be 2.63 times richer than we are today. I’m sorry, I have to use these many digits in order to make my point, 2.63 times as rich as we are today, but because of global warming, it will feel like we are only 2.56 times as rich. And what that shows you is, it’s a problem. Yes, I’d much rather be 2.63 times, no, not much rather, I’d rather be 2.63 times richer than 2…

10:52 Trevor Burrus: Slightly, rather, yes.

10:55 Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, than 2.56 times richer, but it’s not the end of the world. And this is the exact point, if you think, if you hear every time we’re gonna… 187 million people are gonna get flooded, South Vietnam is gonna be washed away, all these stories, then clearly you must think that cannot be true, but indeed that is what the UN Climate Panel is telling us, 0.2% to 2% by the 2070s. That’s a problem. It is by no means the end of the world.

11:25 Trevor Burrus: What is the… In terms of temperature rise, what do you think is the… You assess the science, of course, like the most likely scenario of just temperature rise, and I think 2100 is often the date they use, I mean, it will be warmer probably, right?

11:40 Bjorn Lomborg: Yes. Oh, it’ll definitely be warmer, and again, remember, I’m a social scientist, so I just simply read off the charts of all the smart natural scientists who are saying this. So the UN Climate Panel and the main models will probably tell you if we don’t do anything and if things just go on like they’ve done before, we will probably see about, and I have that as one central estimate and that’s really from another Nobel laureate who’s done this model, but about 7.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than pre‐​industrial temperatures, so about, given that we’re almost two degrees up, so about five and a half degrees Fahrenheit higher than what it is today.

12:18 Trevor Burrus: And what would happen if we stopped, that’s one part of your book too, that let’s say every developed country, let’s say tomorrow, we just stop emitting, whatever that would entail, but we stop emitting any carbon, how would that change the prediction?

12:35 Bjorn Lomborg: Well, the surprising thing is it would only make a tiny bit of difference, and I think that’s one of the things that people just don’t get, and right now, I’m hoping that you’re actually sitting with a book right in front of you, because I remember I wrote that and now I can’t remember that number, but it’s… Do you have it in front of you?

12:49 Trevor Burrus: I do, I do, I can find it probably, I think it’s 6.8? I have to go back and find it.

12:54 Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, so that… Yes, so that sounds about right. I should of course have that number in exactly on the fingertips, but I don’t…

13:01 Trevor Burrus: It’s around that, it’s around that, yeah. 0.9 degrees, I think, yeah.

13:05 Bjorn Lomborg: So yeah, so, I mean, look, it’s, and that is an astounding number when you think about it. What it tells you is that even if we manage to get an entirely… Okay, now I’ve found it. Yes, so you’re right. So instead, if we imagine the entire rich world stops all its emissions tomorrow. Because we still will see a dramatic increase from all other countries around the world. We will instead of seeing 7.4 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, we will see 6.7 degrees Fahrenheit. So we’re literally talking about 0.7 degrees difference. That’s not nothing, but I think it’s a lot less than what most people think and believe. And of course, there’s nobody who’s actually making those arguments, people are making really exaggerated and very, very ambitious proposals, they’re expecting most of the rich world to have stopped by 2050.

14:00 Aaron Powell: How do the precautionary principle and epistemic humility fit into this? Because we know that the climate is an incredibly complex system and ecosystems are incredibly complex systems, and the economy is an incredibly complex system, and our models can’t be as complex as those systems. And as a result, if our models are off and global warming turns out to be worse than you’re telling us it is or even that most of the models tell us it is, we could severely break things in a way that we couldn’t recover from. So how do we factor in that sort of uncertainty without assuming that our models must be accurate or even accurate within a reasonable range?

14:52 Bjorn Lomborg: It’s a very interesting question. I think it takes you both to where a lot of climate campaigners are and I think it has much wider application to what we talk about in general of all our policies. So first, there’s obviously an argument of saying, look, the main models tell us, yeah, it’s gonna be a problem. No, it’s not gonna be the end of the world. But what if they’re wrong? What if there’s something really bad lurking out there and we basically unleash all the demons in the world and it’s gonna be terrible by the end of the century? Shouldn’t we just for precautionary’s sake have spent all of our resources on fixing this problem? And then we’ll fix poverty and disease and all the other stuff once we fix this one problem.

15:31 Bjorn Lomborg: That’s obviously not a silly way to look at it if you think the only thing I wanna make sure is I cover this one tail risk, you might say. This very, very unpleasant, very low probability but unpleasant factor. But the other argument, of course, is to say that’s true for every single thing you can think about out to 2100. Almost all decisions that we make today will have potentially very large impacts on what the world is gonna look like in 2100. So very clearly, how we deal with North Korea or Iran in terms of nuclear policy, that could be the difference between no nuclear world war and a nuclear world war.

16:17 Bjorn Lomborg: But that’s also true for do we tackle HIV in Sub‐​Saharan Africa so that there’s not an other failed state that when you throw in a little bio‐​terrorism opportunity will unleash a new pandemic that will eradicate the human race. So the idea here is to say, if you start saying, look, there is a tiny possibility that the world is gonna end, so give me all your money, you can make that argument in any area of political inquiry. So clearly, you should not make… You should make sure that you educate everyone to their fullest potential, because otherwise you might end up with some people who are gonna feel incredible resentment, grow up to be Hitler and take over the world kind of thing. And that’s true for healthcare, that’s true for everything single policy area you can think of. Which of course is why we don’t actually allow those kinds of arguments.

17:11 Bjorn Lomborg: What we do, and we’ve done this throughout history is we say, look, we’re gonna look at the most likely outcomes and then we will tackle the really bad things if they happen. I think we can do a little better, and I actually talk about that in the book, because we know how we could have a backup policy if things go really bad. And that’s called geo‐​engineering. So we basically have a way of saying if temperatures run off, we don’t believe that’s gonna happen, we don’t believe that that’s a realistic outcome, but it’s a non‐​zero probability. If that happens, we should have in our back pocket an opportunity to basically stabilize the thermostat of the world and we know how to do that. Volcanoes do this all the time.

17:52 Bjorn Lomborg: We should investigate how to do that, we should not start it right now, but that’s a potentially very cheap way of creating an insurance policy. But again, this is how you deal with extreme risks. You say very little risk, but there is a possibility, here’s a cheap way to moderate that possibility. But not say, there’s a little risk, give me all your money or at least not accede to that argument.

18:17 Trevor Burrus: What are the beneficial effects of global warming? ‘Cause we always just hear that it’s just catastrophe, catastrophe, bad, bad, bad, bad, but there are actually some benefits to it in some places.

18:27 Bjorn Lomborg: Well, look, like any issue in the world, there’s both gonna be pluses and minuses. And when people tell the story that global warming is gonna be bad for all good things and good for all bad things, that’s sort of a… That’s a Disney storytelling instead of reality. So global warming will also have positive impacts. It will net be a negative, certainly when temperatures have risen a little bit, but if you look at some of the positives, for instance, a lot of people will tell you there are gonna be more heat deaths because of heat waves, that’s absolutely true, but there are also gonna be a lot fewer cold deaths from fewer cold waves. And given the fact that cold deaths globally outweigh heat deaths about 17 to 1, that is certainly in the short run and in the medium run, likely to actually be bigger a benefit than the dis‐​benefit from extra heat deaths.

19:22 Bjorn Lomborg: Likewise, when you look at agriculture, agriculture is mostly gonna suffer from higher temperatures, but because the higher temperatures come from higher levels of CO2, CO2 actually acts as a fertilizer. So CO2 levels… We know that from lots of people, if you’re a commercial tomato grower, for instance, you often put in extra CO2 in your greenhouses because it simply makes more plump tomatoes. So that actually counteracts and probably has, at least until now, counteracted the drop in yields. So we’ve probably all in all gotten higher yields. But the fundamental point here is to recognize most places around the world are built on what their temperatures or what their climates were for the last couple hundred years.

20:10 Bjorn Lomborg: So if I can just take a European example, Helsinki. A northern city, well conditioned to pretty cold territories, and Athens at the south of Europe, well conditioned to pretty hot temperatures. They are both pretty comfortable where they are. But if it gets warmer, or if it gets colder from both of those places, both of them are gonna suffer because their infrastructure is not built to getting hotter or colder, and that’s basically the reason why we’re simply moving away from the equilibrium, and that mostly have cost, it has some few benefits but mostly costs, and that’s why net, we end up with 0.2 to 2% in the 2070s.

20:52 Trevor Burrus: One of the things you hear a lot about are natural disasters. And in America, where hurricanes seem to have become a bigger problem, especially since Katrina, the idea that we’ll have an increase in these hurricanes and an increase in their costs from these hurricanes is very prevalent. What does the data say about that?

21:13 Bjorn Lomborg: So there’s two things to this: One is, are there actually more and more strong hurricanes? And the short answer is, it does not seem that way now. So if you look at the number of land‐​falling hurricanes for the US, it’s actually been slightly declining, not significantly, but declining since 1900. Even the strong hurricanes for the US have actually been declining not increasing. But what you are seeing is that many, many more people get harmed, and much more goods get harmed. That’s simply a fact of many more people living where hurricanes hit with much more stuff.

21:48 Bjorn Lomborg: So, if you look, for instance, in Florida, you know, Florida was almost unpopulated in 1900. Now it’s incredibly densely populated. So, the Florida coastal population over the last 120 years increased 67‐​fold, while the US population only increased a little more than 4‐​fold. So add lots and lots of people, and with much more expensive houses, and of course you get that the same hurricane will now be delivering much, much higher damage costs. But, and this is the other important… So, fundamentally, no, we haven’t seen this increase in climatological parameters, but we will see dramatically increasing costs, simply because there are more people with more stuff.

22:35 Bjorn Lomborg: As we look into the future, most models indicate, for instance, for hurricanes, that we’ll probably see slightly fewer but slightly stronger hurricanes. Overall, that’s gonna be a net disbenefit because stronger hurricanes will demolish a lot more. So, in the future, we will actually see worse outcomes. But just to give you a sense, and it’s actually what we talked about at the very early outset, this is one model from Nature a couple years ago, that’s one of the most quoted models. It shows that right now globally, hurricanes costs 0.04% of GDP. If there was no global warming, by the end of the century, hurricanes would only cost us 0.01%. And that’s simply… Of GDP, and that’s simply because as you get richer, you get more resilient, and hence hurricane damage is less likely to influence your economy, or you’re simply much better able to bounce back and build strongly and build structures that withstand damage.

23:34 Bjorn Lomborg: Instead of assuming then assuming that there’s no global warming, if you actually say there’s gonna be global warming like we expect and nobody does anything about it, you will see a damage of 0.02%. So I’ve just said, you know, three numbers. So we have 0.04 right now. If we do nothing, we’re gonna go down to 0.02%. Had we not had global warming it could have gone even further down to 0.01%. So when people tell you by 2100 hurricane damage is gonna double, they’re actually correct, but they also should tell you that by 2100 hurricane damage is actually gonna be half of what it is today.

24:18 Bjorn Lomborg: And so this is the problem with communicating this correctly, what we’re basically seeing is it is a less better outcome by 2100, because of global warming, but it’s by no means the end of the world.

24:32 Aaron Powell: We hear a lot about what governments ought to be doing to address the threat of global warming, setting emission standards, switching to green energy, all of that. But the other thing that seems to be increasingly popular is steps that we as individuals can take, so you know trying to be carbon neutral, reduce our carbon footprint, buy hybrid cars, so on and so forth. Is that kind of behavior at all valuable? Like if we are concerned about global warming and we want to slow it down, do the things that we get kind of shamed into doing or the stuff that my elementary school kids get told they should be doing at home by their teachers, does that actually have any meaningful effect?

25:17 Bjorn Lomborg: It has a very tiny effect. And so I actually I have a whole section in the book that goes through all of the things that we’ve done to fix climate change that haven’t worked. And I think this is an example of what David MacKay, who’s the official advisor to the UK government, he once said… He said, “Look, if we all do a little, we’ll end up doing a little.” It’s not like if you drive a little less, if you eat a little less meat, if you heat your house a little, it will do a little.

25:49 Bjorn Lomborg: And to give you a sense of proportion, we’ve just seen that, because if anything has ever happened in the world, it’s the Coronavirus has basically shut down large parts of the world. And, in China, when they cut shut down most of their country, they still emitted 78%. On the day when they shut down the hardest in China, they still emitted 78% of what they normally do, because you still have to stay alive, you still have to keep your house heated, you still have to use electricity. There’s lots of things you still do. And so, cutting… By making these virtue signalings will typically have very moderate impact.

26:29 Bjorn Lomborg: To give you one example, right now, we probably subsidize electric cars to the tune of about $10,000. They do admit less C02 because they run on electricity, which is more effective, but much of the electricity is produced by coal. Also the batteries use more C02 to get produced, but overall over their lifetime, we estimate that they will emit about nine tons less than a similar non‐​electric car. So to give you a sense of proportion, we could have bought that reduction on one of the trading systems in the US for about $50, so right now we’re spending about $10,000 to cut what we could have cut for $50. That’s just a bad deal.

27:18 Bjorn Lomborg: And again, let’s make sure that we actually do smart stuff. People will tell you, go vegetarian, I’m actually… Personally, I’m vegetarian, and I think it’s a good idea. If you think you should do it, definitely look into this. But don’t believe that you’re gonna change the world dramatically. For two reasons, partly because it’s only gonna reduce your emission about 4%, but also because going vegetarian is cheaper, so you’ll end up spending other money elsewhere, which actually reduce your totally emission reductions to just 2%. And to give you a sense of proportion of that, you could have bought that reduction for about $1.50, so if you’re a vegetarian a whole year, you might as well just be a carnivore and pay $1.50 and you’ve done just as well. It gives you a sense of proportion, it’s not that this will do nothing at all, but this is not how we’re gonna solve the problem.

28:10 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned in the book that you were… I think you said you were a panelist on a BBC show that was about living an ethical life, and some family had done everything… We’ll tell that… You could tell the story. They’d done everything to reduce their carbon footprint. Yeah.

28:24 Bjorn Lomborg: Exactly. He was the named ethical man, I don’t think he was necessarily incredibly ethical, but he was really trying to cut their carbon emissions and they insulated their house, they sold their car, it was very honest. They would go around on public transport to and show how horrible that was when you have a family and the crying kids and all that, but they were really doing their bit. And then after this year was up, they then had experts look at how much he actually saved, and he had said a pretty amazing amount, namely 20% of his emissions and his family’s emissions, which is much, much more than most people would do it if they just try somewhat.

29:07 Bjorn Lomborg: But even then… They asked him then, so what are you gonna do now that you’re done being ethical man? Well, I’m taking the whole family on a vacation to South America. And he was gonna blow the whole savings two to three times, which I think is a very good example of what we actually end up doing. It’s called moral licensing, that when you do something good, you also feel more empowered to be allowed to do something bad. We know that if you diet, if you’ve dieted, and successfully dieted, you feel more like, okay, now I can have a chocolate sort of thing. And we see that same thing when people have done something like donate to an environmental group or something, they feel more virtuous, and then they feel more okay about taking the next trip to Mexico or something. So you may very well end up actually emitting more C02 because you feel so virtuous and now you can let go and do all the fun stuff.

30:03 Aaron Powell: I wanna pick up on a thread from your brief mention of vegetarianism. You said among the benefits of vegetarianism is that it’s cheaper. And a lot of what we talk about as far as these things that might mitigate climate change are about using energy more efficiently. If we can use energy, more energy with fewer emissions, we can lower costs in a lot of ways, or using resources more efficiently and so on. And so it would seem then that market pressures, namely, we want to get more stuff for lower cost ought to push us in a more environmentally‐​friendly direction, but at the same time, you hear particularly a lot of activists arguing that the incentives of capitalism run in the opposite direction, that one of the things that government needs to do is rein in capitalism, because capitalism is like produce and consume, produce and consume, produce and consume with no worry about the future and that that will lead to more resource scarcity and more pollution and all of the other things that could contribute to climate change. So which of those sides is right?

31:17 Bjorn Lomborg: It depends on what your goal is. So clearly, efficiency is a good thing because that means you can have all you used to have, but at a lot lower cost or impact and so on. But as you also point out, then you released some resources that you otherwise would have used on gaining those benefits and you can use those on other areas and actually make more emissions. So there’s this wonderful paper that actually shows, we have, throughout the last 300 years, basically every year as humanity spent about 0.7% of our income on lighting. Back in 1700, that gave you very little light for about 20 minutes a day at very, very high cost. But what’s happened as you’ve gotten the incandescent light bulb and then eventually the LED lights is that you’ve just lit up your garden and lit up your house and you have lit up everything and everything is incredibly bright.

32:17 Bjorn Lomborg: If you go back to some of these villages that are lit like they were 100 years ago, you’re like, I can’t see anything here. So we’ve simply used more as we have gotten more effective. So efficiency is good for human welfare, but it’s actually not gonna do very much for us to fix climate change, because we’re just gonna use more and more of it. The argument, though is, that, as you mentioned, that a lot of people say, oh, then we need de‐​growth, we need to have people become poor and do with less. And I think there is that sack and cloth, is that what it’s called? That sort of almost punishment culture in much environmentalism, we should do with less. That has never sold any tickets. You’re never gonna convince most people to actually go down that road.

33:07 Bjorn Lomborg: What you need to do is to have a technology that can make a breakthrough so you can do many of the things that you like, but without the disbenefits of the stuff that we don’t like. So a very good example in Los Angeles is back in the 1950s, terrible pollution. You could have told everyone to… “I’m sorry, you just gotta stop using those cars.” But of course, the technological innovation of the catalytic converter was a much better idea, because now people can actually drive more and pollute a lot less. There’s still a lot of other problems in Los Angeles, but air pollution is a much smaller, a much more of a problem than what it used to be.

33:47 Bjorn Lomborg: So technological innovation could do… De‐​growth, I think, is just politically impossible, and certainly it would lead to much, much less, a humanity that’s much less well off. But also that it’s not about efficiency per se, it’s simply about new technologies that allow us to do everything we like and more, but without the CO2 emissions.

34:11 Trevor Burrus: It seems sometimes that there’s a disconnect between some of the alarmist rhetoric, like for example, one of the claims that has recently in the last year or so been discussed as the sort of the world ends in 2030, which I think Alexandria Ocasio‐​Cortez kind of made popular. But there’s a disconnect between the people who seem to earnestly believe this, and then they also think that… They’re not asking for the sacrifices that if that was actually true, you should be turning off your refrigerator, you should not be using lights, you should not be driving. All these things that would make everyone extremely poor, and it’s an odd thing, ’cause there’s a taking for granted energy, the poor people of the world who don’t have lights, who don’t have refrigeration, all these things that we view as essential, that they’re the ones who need energy, and that sacrifices are not being really asked for if the catastrophe is as bad as it’s said to be.

35:10 Bjorn Lomborg: Yeah, yeah. If you’ll just allow me to unpack, because I think there’s actually three different answers in this. One is the, “We only have 12 years left,” which is now 10 years. So this comes from the UN Climate Panel report of 2018, which was a reaction, or a report produced for the politicians from the Paris Agreement who said, “What will it take to limit the temperature rise for the world to 1.5 degrees Centigrade or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit?” And that’s a political target, and that’s an almost impossible target.

35:43 Bjorn Lomborg: I think most people in the know would say this is just not a possible target. And so what the research has said was, if you wanna reach an almost impossible target it is gonna be almost impossible. You’ll have to do everything and the kitchen sink by 2030. And that’s where that timeline comes from, they basically said, if you wanna do the impossible, you gotta do the impossible. And if I can give you a metaphor, if you look at one of the big problems in the US, every year about 40,000 people die on the road. If politicians were to say, “We wanna get that number down to zero,” one good answer to that would be to say, “Well, set the speed limit at three miles an hour, nobody dies,” maybe except for boredom.

36:27 Bjorn Lomborg: But the point is, we don’t actually allow that discussion because nobody would be willing to sacrifice the fact that we have a continentally integrated economy that you can go and visit your friends and family, that you can have a job. It would simply block all the things that we like. And so the sensible conversation is one between, “Should we have 55 miles an hour speed limits or 85 miles an hour speed limit?” But it’s not, “Should we get down to three miles an hour?” And what the conversation about the 12, and now 10 years, is really about is, if you were to say three miles now, what would that necessitate? And that, of course, would necessitate to basically restructure the entire economy of the US and to a very, very large extent, make it a lot poorer. So the fundamental premise is just simply wrong, it’s not scientists telling us, “We only have 10 years,” it’s scientists telling us, “If you wanna do something almost unachievable, you will have to do almost everything,” and that’s a very different message.

37:27 Bjorn Lomborg: But you also mentioned then, should we somehow go in this direction? Should we allow ourselves to say, “Yes, we should be poor, and we should do a lot more”? I think it’s very telling that a recent survey in the Washington Post showed that a vast majority of Americans think that the global warming is a very important or even existential crisis, and that we should do something about it. But they also then asked people, “How much are you willing to pay?” And it turns out that more than half of the US population was not willing to pay just $24 a year to fix this problem. So I think we need to recognize that while people say they think this is a big problem, they’re not really willing to pay very much for it.

38:14 Bjorn Lomborg: And that of course tells you, unless you find a cheap way to fix climate change, you are basically not gonna get it fixed. And that’s what drives me out when AOC and many other… I think they’re very honestly, incredibly worried about global warming, but if you’re incredibly worried about global warming, why would you keep proposing that either just making promises that we’re gonna break later is gonna help, or that we insist to keep doing what has failed for the last 30 years?

38:43 Aaron Powell: It does seem like environmental issues in particular attract this kind of religious fervor, so you get the apocalyptic rhetoric of, “We only have a few years left and then the world ends.” You also get, as you described, the ethical guy. You get this, “I’m going to radically rearrange my life in order to cut back on, I guess, the original sin of my carbon footprint.” But we don’t see that sort of stuff in other areas that are worrying, like cancer kills a lot of people every year, and there are important things that we could be doing to mitigate it and to potentially solve it, and there are lots of people who dedicate time and resources to that, but they don’t seem to have this secular spirituality part of it. Is there something, so I guess on the one hand, am I misreading? Like, am I being unfair to environmentalism? But on the other, if I’m not, is there something about environmental causes that encourages that kind of thinking in a way that other things that we ought to worry about don’t seem to?

39:55 Bjorn Lomborg: My sense is, and again, this is not my speciality, so I’m just talking like an informed newspaper reader, but my sense is that most people will go as far as they possibly can with their different claims, but cancer is already killing a third of everybody, so you can’t really make it all that much more scary, but we have… And if you think back in the 1970s, there was this incredible worry that chemicals were basically gonna get all of our kids killed. In some sense, you could say that was the start of the environmental movement with Rachel Carson back in 1962, the idea that DDT was poisoning our environment and our kids, and basically most kids would get leukemia and die. So we’ve done this many, many times, and I think the basic factor here is environmentalism is mostly about predicting future catastrophes, it’s not about saying there is a big problem right now. Because big problems right now, we fix, or reasonably try to fix, but problems in the future are mainly ways of saying, “Let’s raise some funds to get something done about this.”

41:10 Bjorn Lomborg: And global warming is just so easy to raise incredible scares about as we talk about, it’s very easy to neglect the fact that there are many more people in Florida and all other places where close to the coast, so you can say ever bigger disasters, although that’s entirely predicated on socioeconomic development, or you can forget to say that there are dikes and that’s why a lot of people are gonna get flooded. It’s great for fundraising, it’s great for media that relies on clicks, and it’s also great for politicians, because politicians are basically in the game of buying votes, right? They’re coming out with stories to tell you why you need to vote for them, and with global warming, they actually get to say, you are doomed, but I can save you. If you vote for me, I will save you. And even better, and the cost will come in the election cycle after next. So you get all the best outcomes and that’s how I think why you get this fundamental sense of almost religious fervor. It’s also just… It’s much more fun to be on the winning side in the sense of, I am helping the world survive rather than I made an extra 10 hectares of land, make land preservation, so that we now have a more pretty park. Nice, but it wasn’t saving mankind, was it?

42:39 Trevor Burrus: One of the things you often hear is it’s sort of like a meme where people say, “Okay, let’s say global warming catastrophe is not gonna happen,” and of course, you say that there will be big significant problems, but the meme is that let’s say there’s gonna be no global warming catastrophe, but we restructure our economy, we create renewable energy as our main sources, we live cleaner, healthier lives. So what’s the cost? If we do all that and global warming doesn’t happen, then it’s just all benefit all the time. Well, what’s sort of wrong with that type of thinking?

43:10 Bjorn Lomborg: Yeah, the cartoon is, imagine if it wasn’t real and we just happened to make a better world, and that is a very, very good meme, it’s a very powerful meme. It’s also phenomenally wrong because what it really ignores is that making a world that survives on less effective, more costly, less predictable, that is, less reliable energy, is one that’s gonna be less well‐​off. And the UN actually makes estimates of what those kinds of worlds could be. So their two top outcomes in the world is one that is a sustainable world, basically a green world, and the other one is a fossil fuel‐​driven world. So the sustainable world, the green world, I think almost every commentator in the world would instinctively say, that’s the one that we should go for, and by the end of the century, each person in that world will be six and a half times richer. That’s amazing. That’s a wonderful world. We should definitely be happy to live in that world.

44:14 Bjorn Lomborg: But if we had gone for the fossil fuel‐​driven world, we would actually be almost more than… Sorry, we’d be more than 10 times richer instead, this is, remember the UN’s own estimates. What they’re basically saying is, because if we use much more fossil fuels, we would have much more drive in the growth, especially in the poor countries, so that we would end up in a place where everyone would be about $60,000 richer per person per year by the end of the century. But of course, it’s reasonable to say, but global warming’s also gonna be worse in those worlds, and that’s absolutely true. But what I just told you was, this was the benefit after you’ve deducted the differences in the global warming impacts, so we would have been even richer, but because global warming is gonna make more problems, we will only be about $60,000 richer per person per year.

45:09 Bjorn Lomborg: And I think we need to recognize just simply doing something because it does good, if it means we could have done much better if we hadn’t done it, is still a, certainly relatively worse outcome, one where we don’t leave as many people out of poverty, where we pull them out of poverty later, where they have less opportunity in 2100 that they could otherwise have had. Again, I’m not arguing that we should just go for it, those are two very sort of idealized worlds. I actually think we can go for a world where we both become incredibly rich and also fix most of global warming, but we need to do it smartly, and just simply saying, “Hey, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we have this green world?” If we end up leaving people $60,000 per person per year across the entire world less well off, I don’t think we’ve done a good deal.

45:57 Trevor Burrus: And that’s sort of part of the, there’s a sad part of the story which frustrates me a lot, where I kinda alluded to in a previous question, that we in the developed world take energy for granted and we forget about the, about two billion people who can’t take energy for granted, and you have an entire section about how this stuff hurts the poor, which is often who it’s championed to save, but ultimately, there are actually people in this world dying for energy, sometimes literally dying for the kind of energy that we take for granted.

46:31 Bjorn Lomborg: Yes. So… And that was why it was very important for me to get this into the subtitle as well, because this is not just about the environment, it’s really about the fact that for many people having better access to energy is life‐​saving. This is both true in rich and in poor countries. So just to give you one good example for the US, many people spend, especially very poor people, spend a very large part of their income on heating or cooling their houses. And so because they don’t have that much money, typically they will be less than ideally heated, so they’ll only heat a little part of it or it will be a little too cold all the way through the winter. And what that means is they actually have a slightly higher risk of dying.

47:18 Bjorn Lomborg: We know that, because when fracking happened, we saw a dramatic decline in the cost of natural gas, and people who use natural gas for heating, we could then see how they started being able to afford to use more gas, basically keep their houses better heated, and what that has done is that it’s actually saved 11,000 people from dying every year in the US. So there are real benefits to low‐​cost energy in the US, especially for poor people, and of course, if you do climate policies, which necessarily will have to drive up the cost of energy, you’re basically making more people die again. Again, you might say that there are other benefits that outweigh it, and there’s some validity to that argument, but at least you need to be honest and say, this is a real cost for poor people in US.

48:10 Bjorn Lomborg: But it is certainly true, as you mentioned, there’s two billion, three billion people who live with incredibly dirty energy, they basically cook and keep warm using dirty fuels, mostly wood, cardboard and dung. And that makes their homes incredibly polluted indoors. Actually, most huts in Africa and elsewhere are about 10 times more polluted than the most polluted days in Beijing and in New Delhi. We don’t get that sense because there’s no reporters there, but that’s how 2.5 billion of our people in the world live right now. They want to have access to better energy, and that’s why it frustrates me that we’re saying, no, no, no, I’m sorry. We got rich using lots of coal power, but you can’t. But here’s a solar panel. A solar panel can be nice, you can plug in your cell phone, you can have a single light, and that can actually have benefits, but it will not give you the opportunity to get rid of indoor air pollution because you can actually cook, you can have a fridge or you can have machinery that’ll actually help you both in agriculture and production to lift you out of poverty.

49:19 Aaron Powell: The message that you’ve given us today sounds pretty compelling, and you’ve mustered evidence and arguments for it. But if we look around at the climate debate, not just among journalists and laypeople, but among climate scientists and government people working in this area, the overwhelming majority of them disagree with a lot of your assessments. They think that global warming is gonna be worse than you say it’s going to be, or that there are at least more risks involved, or that the costs of mitigating it aren’t as bad, or that the trade‐​offs are worth it, or so on. Why…

50:01 Bjorn Lomborg: Why should you believe me?

50:03 Aaron Powell: Yeah, why should I believe you?

50:04 Bjorn Lomborg: Yeah, no, totally. And that’s a very good argument. Or a very good question. So you shouldn’t believe me. But what you should believe, and that’s what I pull out, is the UN Climate Panel, and also the world’s only climate economist to get the Nobel prize, which I have based much of the stuff that I’m showing you, William Nordhaus, is the guy who basically founded this whole area, saying, how much will it cost to do something and how much will we reduce climate damages? So the UN Climate Panel, not Bjorn Lomborg or anyone else, tells us that by the 2070s, the impact of climate change is gonna be similar to 0.2 to 2%.

50:44 Bjorn Lomborg: When people come and tell you, no, no, it’s gonna be almost the end of the world, they’re not referring to stuff in the UN Climate Panel, they’re not referring mostly to any research, they’re simply telling you, well, I’ve read a lot of newspaper articles and it feels that way. And so when you debate people, they literally do not have an alternative data to why this should be so enormously expensive. That is not what the evidence shows us. But the other part, namely, so what should we do, which is a whole third part of the book, is basically the question of saying, so how much should we pay for smart climate policies.

51:22 Bjorn Lomborg: So, Nordhaus, who got the Nobel Prize in climate economics and the only climate economist to get that, he points out, look, cutting a little bit of CO2 is very cheap, and it will cut the highest, that is the most damaging temperatures, so that’s a good idea. Cutting the last tons of CO2, basically making the US and everybody else go almost carbon neutral, will cut at the low end of the temperature, so will have fewer benefits and it’ll be fantastically expensive. That’s a standard economic argument, you should do some, but you shouldn’t do everything. This is what all climate economics shows us. He’s just the guy who got the Nobel Prize, but there’s lots of these models out there, and they all show us we should do some part of climate change, that is, we should cut some of our emissions, but we should by no means cut a lot.

52:11 Bjorn Lomborg: So they also showed that the Paris Agreement, the one that we’ve entered into and that Trump is trying to get out of, will do very little at very high cost, so every dollar spent will probably only achieve about 11 cents of climate benefits. That’s a bad deal. And when people tell you we should go carbon neutral by 2050, like Biden is now telling us, look, there’s only one country who’s actually asked for an independent review of what that cost would be, that’s New Zealand, the left wing, center left government in New Zealand. They actually asked their pre‐​eminent economic institution to estimate how much would that cost. And the answer is, go carbon neutral by 2050 will cost New Zealand in an optimistic case, about 16% of its GDP. At US size, if we can translate that and it’s roughly in that ball park, it would be $5 trillion a year in lost GDP just for the US.

53:08 Bjorn Lomborg: So, that’s more than what you spend right now on all federal government expenses. So, it gives you a sense of proportion. It would be a fantastically ineffective way to try to tackle global warming. There is just no discussion about this, that the impacts of trying to do something are gonna be very costly, that most of what we do will have fairly little impact, we should do a little of it, which is what Nordhaus got his Nobel Prize for, but we shouldn’t do a lot. When people tell you otherwise, it’s simply because it’s become commonplace to say, oh, it’s gonna be fantastically cheap, and then later on you realize, oh, no, it wasn’t. And it’ll have an enormous impact and then later on you find out, it actually didn’t. All the academic studies show it’ll have fairly little impact and it’ll have a significantly larger cost. And which is why, if you’ll just allow me to talk for one second longer, which is why, if you actually wanna find the smart solution, this has to be about technology as we talked about before, the catalytic converter. This is really about saying, invest a lot more in research and development into green energy.

54:21 Aaron Powell: Because fundamentally, as long as green energy sources like solar and wind turbines with back‐​up battery power is much more expensive than fossil fuels, you’ll get a few rich, well‐​meaning Americans do a little of this, but you certainly won’t get most people to switch. But if we could innovate the price of green energy down below fossil fuels, everyone would switch, not just rich, well‐​meaning Americans, but also the Chinese, the Indians, the Africans, everybody else. So the idea here is we have forgotten how to fix big problems when we talk about global warming. Everyone is so focused on solving it by brute force, simply saying, no, no, you gotta put up more solar panels, even though they’re very costly, we just gotta subsidize them until everybody has ‘em. That’s never gonna work, but if we invest a lot more in research and development, it’s gonna be much cheaper and it’ll have a much greater likelihood of actually working.

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55:27 Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.