Bjorn Lomborg: The U.S. Was Right to Withdraw From the Paris Climate Accord [Reason Podcast]


"The two things you need to know about the Paris [climate] agreement are, one, it is not going to do very much to tackle climate [change]…and it is incredibly costly." So says Bjorn Lomborg, the president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. Make no mistake, the Danish political scientist believes climate change is happening and that human activity is the main cause.

But as Lomborg stressed during an interview with Reason's Nick Gillespie, the Paris accord and the earlier Kyoto Protocol are terrible ways to tackle the problem and the United States was right to withdraw from the treaty. If you're interested in protecting the environment and helping the world's poor, says Lomborg, there are cheaper and more-effective ways to reach those goals.

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Audio production by Ian Keyser.

This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: Hi. This is Nick Gillespie, and this is the Reason Podcast. We're talking with Bjorn Lomborg. He is the skeptical environmentalist. He's one of the most outspoken people on the planet who is an environmentalist and who believes that much of the environmentalist community is off base. Bjorn, thanks for talking to us.

Bjorn Lomborg: My pleasure.

Nick Gillespie: Paris Climate Accord. Tell us why it's a good thing that the United States has decided to rethink its participation.

Bjorn Lomborg: Fundamentally, the two things you need to know about the Paris Agreement is one, it is not going to do very much to tackle climate. If you look at the UN's own estimate, if everyone had delivered everything they had promised, including Trump and the U.S., by 2030, the Paris Agreement would have delivered less than 1% of what it's promising, so a very, very tiny impact on climate.

Nick Gillespie: It leaves 99% of the problem it says it's going to solve in place.

Bjorn Lomborg: The second thing is it's incredibly costly. It's probably the most costly treaty ever to be signed in history. If you look at what is the likely cost across the main areas where we have good estimates, it indicates that it's probably around $1 trillion in cost if you do it in the most effective way. That means with carbon taxes in all the relevant regions. If you don't, which is typically the way you do a climate policy, it could easily be $2 trillion, so $1 to $2 trillion a year for the rest of this century, mostly in lost GDP growth, and the net benefit at the end of the century, even if you are very optimistic, will have been to reduce the temperature by about 0.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Spend $100 trillion to achieve virtually no climate benefit. That's a bad deal.

Nick Gillespie: Emmanuel Macron, the newly elected president of France, said, "There is no plan B for the Paris Agreement because there is no planet B." Assuming that it will only achieve what you're talking about, is that better than doing nothing?

Bjorn Lomborg: It depends on what the alternatives are, because you can always say, "We're doing a little bit. Yes, we know we're wasting an enormous amount of money, but at least we're doing a little bit." That money could have been spent much better at tackling global warming, which is basically about investing in green energy R and D, where we have a severe reduction or underfunding of R and D in many different areas. That's also true in green energy. That is one place where you could spend a lot more. Actually, this has been one of the things that Bill Gates and the Energy Breakthrugh Coalition has been working on, and this is something that many governments have even signed up to, partly because of some of the research that we've done showed this is an incredibly effective way to tackle green warming.

Fundamentally, instead of trying to make fossil fuels so expensive nobody wants them, which was always going to be politically very hard, try to make green energy and try to innovate green energy to become so cheap everyone will want it. That's a very effective policy, but the other part of that is, when you're spending $1 to $2 trillion, this would cost us $100 billion. You'd still be left with $1.9 trillion that you could spend on solving all the other issues in the world. It's not like climate is the only thing you need to fix. Wasting so much money that could have been spent on actually solving real problems for real people is I think important to recognize, as well.

Nick Gillespie: Is it right to say that renewable technology … Because one of the things, and people like Macron have said this, and a lot of people in the United States. They say, "The era of renewables are here. It's already cheaper in China to use solar power than coal-based to generate electricity and whatnot." Is that just wrong? Because you're saying that there's actually a huge amount of research to go in development until renewable non-carbon-based energy is really ready for prime time?

Bjorn Lomborg: The unfortunate situation is, this is a complicated question to answer very simply. The issue is, some places, when you put new solar or new wind, it can actually deliver a kilowatt-hour cheaper than, for instance, a new coal-fired power plant. The problem with that argument is, it can only deliver it when the Sun is shining or when the wind is blowing. If it's not, then suddenly it can't deliver it at any cost. The reality is, much of the wind and solar that you are talking about is much less worth because you actually have to keep standby options, either in terms of batteries or in terms of backup operations. Suddenly, that equation doesn't look as simple.

The reality, of course, is if you just look at what the International Energy Agency does, this is on the actual estimate of subsidies, right now we're subsidizing solar and wind at the tune of about $125 million a day. What they're expecting as we ramp up for the Paris Agreement, they expected that over the 25 years we will spend about $3 trillion just in subsidies. The simple answer to these people who are saying, "Green energy is already here. It's cheap," is to say, "That's wonderful. Then we don't need a Paris Agreement, because now everybody's going to switch because it's cheaper. Also, could we have our $3 trillion back, please?"

Nick Gillespie: What are some of the other problems that you would prioritize above climate change? Maybe not climate change, but I guess, what are the other issues beyond trying to halt a slow or maybe not so increase in world global temperatures that we should be looking at?

Bjorn Lomborg: What people generally point out is that global warming is mostly going to hit poor countries. That's because poor countries are typically where it's warmest and hence increased temperatures are going to hit them hardest. Plus, they also have limited infrastructure to handle temperature rises.

Remember, poor countries have lots and lots of other problems. The real issue here is, we're talking about trying to help poor countries very ineffectively, because we'll only help them a little, and in 100 years, very expensively. When you actually ask poor countries and people in poor countries, "What do you want? What do you care about?" The UN did that back in 2015, in the biggest survey we've ever done. It was about 10 million people. What they told us was, "We care about getting education, healthcare, jobs, get rid of corruption, and get food." Those were the top five of 16 opportunities that came out of a UN survey across the world. That is what people really care about. Not surprisingly, when your kids are starving, when they don't get a good education, when everyone has bad healthcare, those are the things that really matter. What came last of these 16 was action on climate change.

Very clearly, most people are telling us, which is also in accord with the economic evidence, that if you want to help the world, climate change is least effective and the most costly way of helping most of these people first. We're an advanced civilization. We can walk and chew gum at the same time, so while we should definitely be spending … I was talking about the $2 trillion that we were going to be spending on Paris every year. We should definitely be spending the $1.9 trillion on all these issues that would help much more effectively right now, but we should also spend perhaps $100 billion a year on investment in green energy R and D. This would be much less that what we're planning on spending on Paris. It would be much less than what we're spending right now on subsidies to, in effect, solar and wind. It would do a lot more good to actually tackle global warming.

Nick Gillespie: To be clear, do you believe that global warming is real, that an average rise in temperatures is happening, that it is an issue, and that human activity is part and parcel of that?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes. It's both temperature is rising, human activity is the main cause of this, and it will be in the long run a problem that we should face. I think we also need to be honest about this. The UN climate panel tells us even in the 2070s, when we see two degrees temperature rise more than what we have now, and remember those are degrees centrigrade, so around 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the net cost of global warming will be somewhere between 0.2% and 2% of GDP. That indicates it's a problem, but it's not the end of the world, as has often been portrayed. Remember, that means that the problem of global warming over the next 50-60 years is equivalent to one recession. It's definitely something we want to avoid, but it's not the end of the world, and it's certainly by no means the most important thing in the world. That's of course also why it ends up at the bottom of the list for the UN's priorities.

Nick Gillespie: Yeah. I was going to ask, though, because the rhetoric around global warming and the need for action now on the climate is nothing if not apocalyptic. Where is that coming from? Is that coming from just ideological zealots, or is it coming from a misunderstanding of what even the UN science, which is what is constantly being used to buttress the claims, that we need to radically transform the way that we produce energy, consume energy, and go about our daily lives, is it that people are mistaken, or are we in the stranglehold of ideological zealots?

Bjorn Lomborg: I think it's hard to tell. There's probably a little bit of all of that. What you just asked was actually also a good example of what happens. You were saying we really radically need to change our civilization. If you look at what it takes to get two degrees, which is what the Paris Agreement promised, that is actually true. You can work that out mathematically. If you say two degrees is your target, you have to radically change civilization and very quickly get off fossil fuels. Of course, that's going to have huge costs and probably be almost or totally impossible.

That's actually a true statement, but of course it just reflects the fact that nobody actually in their right minds believes the two degree target. It's just something people say because it sounds nice. The other part of it, when people are talking about apocalyptic results, we're going to see more floods, we're going to see more droughts, we're going to see higher sea level rises, more heatwaves, it's a combination of stuff that's real and a lot of stuff that's slightly exaggerated, and then the fact that you only work at one thing.

If you ask people who work in hospitals, "Is there an American healthcare crisis?" They'll say, "Yes." "Should we be spending more money on healthcare?" "Yes." If you ask teachers, will they say that there's a problem with teaching? They'll say, "Yes, and we should be spending more money on education." Everybody believes their own area is in a crisis. The problem is, in the climate area, you get so much more attention. Many of these things are just simply tiny truths and a lot of exaggeration.

Let me just give you one example. The UN, the UNICEF, which I have a lot of respect for normally, they came out and said, "One in four kids are going to live in countries with very little water. We need to address climate change right now." There's just so many things wrong with that argument. The main reason why people live in water-stressed countries is because there are more and more people and they use their water resources really badly. We actually know on average you're going to get about the same precipitation, but it's going to be slightly differently distributed, or possibly even more precipitation, from global warming. It's not the global warming thing that we should fix. It's the fact that people don't price water very well and they use it ineffectively.

Of course, the whole conceit of saying, "We're going to try to do something for climate change to help kids not be water-stressed in 10 or 20 years" is just simply. Whatever we do right now will have absolutely no impact in the next 10 or 20 years on climate change. It's only going to change a little bit and only in 80 to 100 years from now. There's this sense in which you take a little bit of truth and turn it into the end of the world for a variety of different reasons, partly because that's what we mostly focus on, partly because you can't see that there are other ways you can help much more.

Nick Gillespie: How bad is it for people who are environmentalists like yourself, and are skeptical of the political consensus on what we should be doing about the environment, particularly global warming, that Donald Trump has emerged as the champion of sanity in saying that the Paris Accord is not worth being part of?

Bjorn Lomborg: I think it's a hard conversation to have, because you definitely don't need to agree with everything else that Trump has done. I could also imagine Trump made this decision on a number of bad arguments, but the fundamental point here is to recognize that if you actually care about the environment, there's a much better way to tackle global warming than the Paris Agreement, much cheaper, much more effective, by focusing on research and development into green energy.

The other thing is to recognize there are much, much more important environmental problems than global warming. If you just take as a most incontrovertible indicator how many deaths do we see from different environmental problems, the UN estimates that we probably see around 141,000 deaths from climate right now, and by 2050, it might be 250,000 deaths. Compare this to the world's by far most deadly environmental problem, which is outdoor air pollution in the industrialized world, which kills about 3.5 million people each year, and indoor air pollution, which is basically poverty and Third World countries who cook and keep warm with really dirty fuels. That kills 4.3 million people each year. We're talking about problems that are in the order of 20 times bigger or more than global warming will be by midcentury, and problems that we can solve much better, much cheaper, much faster, and much more effectively.

There's a double impact. Partly we're not fixing climate change well. Partly we're not seeing that there are much bigger environmental problems. Of course, the third point that I would mention here, and that's not the environmentalist part, but just if you want to do good in the world, of course there are many other things, as we mentioned before, getting better education, getting better healthcare, getting more nutritious food to people. Those are much bigger issues for most people. Again, we can help them much smarter, much more effectively, and of course actually end up leaving a much better planet.

Nick Gillespie: That obviously is also part of the work of the Copenhagen Consensus which you've been putting together, where people with relatively little money come up with really good ideas that have a better cost-benefit ratio than climate change.

Bjorn Lomborg: Exactly. We work with lots of economists, more than 300 of the world's top economists and seven Nobel laureates, to try to focus where can you spend $1 and do the most good. We basically do cost-benefit across all these areas. What we've found is some things for climate are actually really good investments. For instance, stop subsidizing fossil fuels. A lot of people believe that's mostly in the West. It's not. It's in regimes like Venezuela and India and China and Russia, where they subsidize fossil fuels. That gives more congestion, more air pollution, and also more CO2, and it's bad news for resources.

Likewise, investment in clean energy R and D, but please don't just do the kind of Paris Agreement which probably has a benefit concentration of much lower than one. That is, you spend $1 and you avoid a couple of cents of climate damage.

Also then remember that there are many, many other things you can do both on indoor and outdoor air pollution, but also on these other issues like education, healthcare, nutrition, some of these big issues in the world where you can spend $1 and do $10, $20, $30 of social good.

Nick Gillespie: Are you optimistic that the conversation about climate change, and the need to aggress the negatives, the externalities of climate change, will move to what you or I might consider a more rational basis? Instead of talking about all of this as all or nothing, and talking about … Last night, there was much wailing, gnashing of teeth, rending of garments over the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Accord. Do you think we're going to get to a more sober rational discussion, or is it almost unstoppable to pull things back to having clearer conversations?

Bjorn Lomborg: I would so much like to be able to say, "Yes, I'm optimistic," but no, I'm not. I think if anything, we're seeing a replay here of how Kyoto played out. Remember, Kyoto was the solution to global warming back in the 1990s. It was signed by Al Gore, and never submitted to ratification in the Senate because they knew it was going to fail, but it was a rallying point for everyone. This was the thing, the treaty, that would save the world.

By any objective metric, it was an incredibly expensive way of doing almost nothing, so a very, very close parallel to Paris. Then George Bush canceled it, and then suddenly everything that didn't work in climate, which was just about everything, was George Bush's fault. I think we're going to see the same thing. It's going to get a lot of people very engaged and excited about we need to do everything we promised in Paris. We're going to waste lots and lots of money. We're not going to achieve our target. We're not going to make any meaningful in actual climate change. Now everyone can say, "It's Donald Trump's fault."

The reality is, this is a perfect setup for keeping this incredibly partisan. In some ways, I see most of the global warming conversation, although a lot of people who are engaged in it actually really do want to do good, a lot of people are also just there to feel good about themselves, which is one of the reasons why you'll drive around in an electric car that gets, what, $10,000 or thereabouts in subsidies, and yet perhaps emit three tons of CO2, which is probably worth about $15 less. That's just ridiculous.

There's a lot of that kind of stuff, and that is mainly because we're in a situation where this is no longer about doing what's best for the climate, but simply about aligning yourself with the rightful left and feeling good about your own actions.

Nick Gillespie: We will leave it there. We have been talking with Bjorn Lomborg. Bjorn, where is the best place for people to follow you, either on Twitter or on the web?

Bjorn Lomborg: On Twitter, on Facebook. I'm on LinkedIn. I'm an influencer there, and of course we have our website, both lomborg.com and we're also on copenhagenconsensus.com, where we work on prioritizing, for instance, Haiti. We just finished a big prioritization there, one for Bangladesh, and many other places where we're trying to, in small measures, help people think smarter.

I wish we could also do that in climate, but I think we're a little ways away from that.

Nick Gillespie: We will leave it there on that cautionary note. Thank you so much for talking. This has been the Reason podcast. I'm Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to this at iTunes, and rate and review us while you're there. Thanks for listening.