I have just read an article by Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, the well-known – some might even say infamous – author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. He is one of the few people I have read who has presented some startling facts and figures about climate change that just might change my mind.
First, he says that almost certainly global warming is real, and almost certainly mostly man-made. At that point, however, he parts company with the politically correct view.
First of all, he says, let us stop claiming that at this point, global warming is about to end human life as we know it. Over the next century, more people will die from excessive heat, but an even greater number of people will not die from exposure to cold. Global warming will reduce the yields on some crops but the higher levels of CO2 which acts as a fertilizer, will significantly increase yields on other crops. Economists estimate that global warming will cost more than it saves beginning about 2070. Assuming nothing else changes, global warming is predicted to cost about 1.5% of global GDP in the next two centuries. A problem to be solved, then, but not utter disaster.
So how should we solve this problem? Lomborg argues that the Kyoto agreement has had almost no impact whatsoever. Countries like Britain which are producing less greenhouse gas have simply exported its production to countries like China. So has Denmark. So has much of the European Union. America, as you may recall, declined to join the Kyoto agreement.
I’ve been reading for years that renewable energies simply were never going to be able to take the place of fossil fuels. For one thing, we haven’t figured out how to get renewable energies to do a lot of the heavy-duty things fossil fuels do. Secondly, even assuming we can and want to dedicate hundreds of square miles to solar panels and wind and wave farms, it is hugely expensive. Here is the central fact that the Green Lobby must address:
The cost of CO2 for the next 200 years is projected to average about £3.50 a ton – that’s about $5. Reducing CO2 emissions through the use of renewables today costs £26 a ton in China, in Britain and much of the developed world it costs £81 a ton.
Okay, maybe this huge cost would be worth it if renewables could do the job. But on current form, the most optimistic forecasts are that renewables can reduce the use of fossil fuels by about 8% total in the next hundred years.
That’s just not going to solve the problem, is it?
Lomborg argues that rather than putting money into expanding our present-day renewables, we should instead invest much more in research and development to find ways of producing the energy we need that is both clean and affordable.
He gives some rather tantalizing analogies. We did not, he said, get better computers by subsidizing the vacuum tubes on which early computers were based. We didn’t get them by taxing typewriters either, or provide grants so that every home and school had at least one computer. We got better computers because IBM and Apple invested in human ingenuity – that is, in research and development that produced both better and cheaper computers.
Lomborg believes that global warming is indeed a potentially very serious problem. If global temperatures rise by an average 4 degrees Celsius (about 8 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists simply don’t know how bad the flooding, the droughts, and extreme weather events will be.
But Lomborg also points out that research is showing that we have a little more time to deal with it than we thought just a few years ago. Okay, he says, let’s take advantage of this. Let’s learn from the mistakes we’ve made for the last 20 years. Let’s plug in to that great reserve which has been our greatest force for the last two hundred thousand years – human creativity.
Will it work?
Well, one can’t be sure. But the evidence is suggesting that what we’ve tried so far hasn’t succeeded and isn’t going to.
Personally, I’m inclined to bet on human creativity. If we’re willing to put the money and effort into it, I think we have the brains to do it. If we do, we could save the planet as well as ourselves.