Skeptical Environmentalist—Still Skeptical of Carbon Rationing—Never Skeptical of Warming

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Lomborg: warmist or realist?

Yesterday, the Guardian ran a puzzling article claiming that Bjorn Lomborg, the self-described Skeptical Environmentalist, has now accepted that man-made global warming is a problem. The subtext being that if this prominent climate change skeptic has come over to the side of alarmism, then surely everyone else must too.

The Guardian (a newspaper that is always careful to make sure the facts never get in the way of a good story) is misleading its readers. Even in his first book, Lomborg clearly acknowledged that man-made global warming is a problem. But Lomborg concluded that other more immediate problems loomed larger for humanity than climate change, i.e., problems like hunger, disease, sanitation, high infant mortality rates, etc. Evidently, Lomborg tried to make this point to the Guardian which does report:

Lomborg denies he has performed a volte face, pointing out that even in his first book he accepted the existence of man-made global warming. "The point I've always been making is it's not the end of the world," he told the Guardian. "That's why we should be measuring up to what everybody else says, which is we should be spending our money well."

Just so. Since the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg has organized a series of Copenhagen Consensus Conferences that aimed to prioritize spending on important global problems. Basically, Lomborg's new book (Disclosure: I blurbed it) is reporting the conclusions reached by the economists and other researchers who particpated in the most recent conference which focused on climate change.

The panelist's top two picks for addressing global warming were: (1) spend money to research geoengineering, specifically a project that would whiten marine clouds to reduce warming by reflecting sunlight, and (2) spend money on researching technologies to produce low-carbon energy cheaply. As Reason TV viewers know, Lomborg said all this last year: 

So from where did Lomborg get his $100 billion per year on energy R&D figure? From two McGill University economists, Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green, who outlined that proposal in a paper commissioned by Lomborg for his Copenhagen Consensus conference last year. To give you a flavor of the proposal, let me quote at length my reporting on it from my article, "What's the Best Way to Handle Future Climate Change," from last year:

Climate change is a technological problem. After all, the goal of all carbon rationing schemes—limiting permits or imposing taxes—is to encourage the development of low-carbon and no-carbon energy technologies as substitutes for fossil fuel energy technologies. So why not aim directly at fostering the development of advanced energy technologies? In a fascinating recent report, two McGill University economists, Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green, look at the benefits and costs that an energy technology research and development push might yield.

In the report done at the behest of the Danish think, the Copenhagen Consensus Center, Galiana and Green argue that climate change negotiations are engaged in what they call "brute force" mitigation strategies (e.g., carbon markets and/or taxes), and that those strategies have already proven to be losing propositions. "Attempts to directly control global carbon emissions will not work, and certainly not in the absence of ready-to-deploy, scalable, and transferable carbon emission-free energy technologies," assert the authors. "The technology requirements cannot be wished, priced, assumed, or targeted away."

Why won't brute force mitigation strategies like carbon markets and taxes work? Galiana and Green point out that current proposed emission targets imply vastly faster rates of reduction than have been the case in past decades. Consider a global emission reduction target of 80 percent by 2100. That would require carbon emissions to fall by 1.8 percent per year. But say economic growth averages 2.2 percent between now and 2100: That implies a 4 percent average annual decline in the amount of carbon-based fuels used to produce goods and services.

To date, Galiana and Green note, the annual global average rate of decarbonization, the amount of carbon that is emitted per unit of goods and services produced, has been 1.3 percent. To illustrate the economic consequences of trying to boost the rate of decarbonization through brute force mitigation, they generously assume that the decarbonization rate could rise to 3.6 percent annually. But this would still entail a cut in global economic growth from 2.2 percent annually to 1.8 percent. Such a reduction in economic growth would cost an undiscounted $86 trillion in 2100 alone and add up to an undiscounted $2,280 trillion over the next 90 years. And without new low-carbon energy technologies, the authors argue that the assumption of 3.6 percent rate of annual decarbonization is just a fantasy. So the likely economic damages will be even larger. "Climate change is a technology problem," Galiana and Green conclude, "and the size of the problem is huge."

Their solution is spending $100 billion per year on energy research and development financed through a $5 per ton tax on carbon dioxide emissions that would be funneled into Clean Energy Trust Funds. The tax would be scheduled to double every ten years as a way to give a forward price signal to encourage the deployment of the new low-carbon energy technologies that they hope will emerge from the labs. They calculate that every dollar spent on new low carbon energy R&D would avoid $11 in climate damages.

"It is much easier to spend on R&D than assure the monies are well spent," Galiana and Green admit. They also acknowledge that much current government R&D funding is politically directed and largely wasted. Robert Fri, a former deputy administrator of both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Research and Development Administration, told Chemical & Engineering News: "The government is very good at starting energy projects that it believes will solve energy problems, but it is not very good at generating the intended results."

To overcome this problem, Galiana and Green somewhat naively suggest creating a system of research competition overseen by a panel of independent experts. Oddly, they do not consider deregulating energy markets so as to provide greater incentives for private R&D and investment in new energy production and improvements in efficiency. In any case, Galiana and Green make a very strong case that current energy technologies cannot meet the ambitious emissions reductions goals being advocated by the Obama Administration in the U.S. and by the United Nations bureaucrats at the Copenhagen climate change conference without clobbering the global economy.

So to recap: Lomborg has always thought man-made global warming is a problem, but not the biggest problem facing humanity in this century. Lomborg is still against the ruinous carbon rationing schemes of the sort embodied in the UN's Kyoto Protocol. Instead he is advocating that the world spend $100 billion per year on energy R&D which would add up to $9 trillion by the end of the century. Contrast this amount to the more than $2,000 trillion that Galiana and Green calculate that carbon rationing would cost.

But acknowledging and reporting all this would have spoiled the Guardian's sexed up global warming heretic converts to climate change believer storyline.

Many commentators were misled by the Guardian's reporting, but Jonathan Adler over at the Volokh Conspiracy was not among them.

Disclosure: The Copenhagen Consensus Center has paid my travel expenses to cover one of its conferences. The Center exercised no editorial control over my reporting. Also, I personally like Bjorn.