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Cool-headed

Environment | A thoughtful Danish author says the Gore stress on global warming is not the way to help poor people

Issue: "Don't fence me out," April 21, 2007

As the 38th annual Earth Day approaches on April 22, many who care about both the poor and the environment are listening to calls for radical measures. The fear is that flooding in coastal regions could displace millions, mostly the poor; heat waves could kill many who are elderly or diseased; and decreased crop yields could lead to starvation in developing nations.

So does compassion require the federal government to require immediate and drastic cuts in CO2 emissions? Enter Bjørn Lomborg, a Danish academic, author, and founder of the Copenhagen Consensus, a group devoted to economic analysis of policy proposals to solve the world's toughest problems. Lomborg's congressional testimony last month systematically deconstructed the much-hyped testimony by former vice president Al Gore.

Lomborg argued that the high economic costs of emissions-cutting proposals would deliver meager global benefits compared to what such funds could accomplish elsewhere. He cited his organization's global priority list (see table), a ranking of the world's most cost-effective opportunities to improve the human situation. A panel of top-tier economists, including four Nobel Laureates, constructed the table in 2004 based on their analysis of areas where the most good could result from the least economic harm.

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The panel ranked various measures to control the spread of disease and alleviate food and water shortages as top priorities. Climate-change solutions, such as carbon taxes or the Kyoto Protocol, scored at the very bottom, delivering minimal gains relative to their costs.

Lomborg elaborated to Congress: "To put it very bluntly, the Kyoto Protocol would likely cost at least $180 billion a year and do little good. UNICEF estimates that just $70-80 billion a year could give all Third World inhabitants access to the basics like health, education, water, and sanitation. More important still is the fact that if we could muster such a massive investment in the present-day developing countries, this would also give them a much better future position in terms of resources and infrastructure from which to manage a future global warming. What would we rather do first?"

That question, and the approach it underscores, debunks stereotypes of global warming skeptics and moderates. Lomborg is not some heartless free-market conservative in the pocket of "big oil." He readily affirms that climate change is occurring and that human industry is contributing to it-but he explains that addressing other global issues first will prevent more deaths and improve more lives.

Nevertheless, his decision to break rank from global-warming orthodoxy has garnered him considerable scorn. Lomborg's first book, The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001), provoked accusations of scientific dishonesty. His forthcoming work, Cool It (Knopf Publishing Group), will likely draw similar charges when it debuts early next year.

In an interview with WORLD, the controversial author said he is neither surprised nor upset by such attacks: "I've had people call me a species traitor, which I don't even know quite what that means. But I'm sure it's bad."

Lomborg has made conciliatory efforts, opening his congressional testimony with praise for Gore's accomplishment of "making global warming cool again." Though unconvinced that climate change represents a planetary crisis, Lomborg considers it a serious concern worthy of attention and public discussion. His appeals against CO2 restrictions stem from the same heart of compassion that those who advocate emissions cuts claim. The difference: math.

Lomborg calculates that Gore's call for a Kyoto-like tax on greenhouse-gas emissions would cost the U.S. economy about $160 billion per year and would reduce national emissions by half. That may seem a reasonable investment, but the real-world impact on global temperatures proves otherwise. Such drastic cuts in U.S. emissions would foster a reduction in warming of only one-tenth of a degree Celsius over the next 90 years. (One Celsius, or centigrade, degree equals 1.8 Fahrenheit degrees.)

That miniscule temperature difference is irrelevant and cannot justify the accompanying economic burden. Similarly, the Kyoto Protocol, even with the United States and Australia joining its ranks, would decrease temperature rise by just 1 degree Celsius at annual costs of $180 billion if extended out to the end of the century. The European Union's latest promise to cut emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 fares no better when extended out 90 years, costing $90 billion per year for a difference of less than one-tenth of a degree Celsius.

Such numbers result from projections that developing countries like China and India will soon pass the West as the world's greatest emitters of carbon dioxide. Gore argues that the United States must set an example for those emerging economies, no matter how costly or impotent the U.S. carbon-cutting actions may be in controlling actual temperature rise.

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