Op-Ed: Government Money Wasted On Climate Change

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Scientists and climate activists gather this week in Cancun, Mexico for the U.N. Climate Change Summit. Activist Bjorn Lomborg argues that most government spending on climate change is wasted money and we still have a long way to go to find sensible solutions for halting climate change.

TONY COX, host:

Time now for the Opinion Page. The United Nations' climate change conference began today in Cancun, Mexico. Scientists, climate activists and government officials will gather to talk about possible solutions to climate change. Writing in The Washington Post earlier this month, activist Bjorn Lomborg argued that while global warming is a serious problem, humans are adaptable. There are many inexpensive and cost-effective measures we could be doing now that would slow global warming, he says, but we are losing sight of that by focusing so much on cutting carbon emissions. We'll hear more from Bjorn in just a moment.

First, we want to hear from you, as well. Should governments and businesses focus more on cheaper immediate measures to cope with climate change? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. That's the number. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Bjorn Lomborg is the author of "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming," and he joins us now from our New York bureau.


Mr. BJORN LOMBORG (Author): Tony, it's good to be here.

COX: Nice to have you on, as well. Let's begin with this: You argue that human beings are already adapting to climate change. What do you mean?

Mr. LOMBORG: Well, fundamentally, we need to recognize that there are two different ways we can tackle global warming. Let's just get it out of the way. Global warming is real. It's manmade, and it is an important problem. But it's not just about cutting carbon emissions. At the end of day, it's also about making sure that both people - but also nature - actually find ways to adapt. And so let's recognize the fact that many cities around the world are much, much warmer than the surrounding countrysides because we've built them up with lots of black surfaces - essentially, asphalt and very little trees and water features.

Now if we care about the fact that temperatures are going to raise over the century, why don't we talk about some cheap and simple ways to reduce those heat islands in big cities - like, for instance, painting rooftops white? Now, this is not a perfect solution or not the total solution to global warming, but it certainly is a good start. And the point is it's very cheap. It's very effective. And so it's about widening the discussion in global warming, not just focusing on the very hardened, ultimately, very, very difficult promises of carbon cuts. But it's also saying other ways to move forward.

COX: This is what you call, I believe, heat island effect...


COX: ...in the urban areas, and your suggestion is to paint the rooftops of buildings in urban areas white and to paint the streets as well, if I read...


COX: ...you correctly.

Mr. LOMBORG: And again, this is - we should just point out this is not my proposal. It's, you know, I'm basing myself on a lot of different researchers. I've been looking at a lot of different things, and this is one study group that's been working across the world, both in New York and Los Angeles and London, many other big cities, and indicating how we could - for very cheap -actually achieve a lot of reduction in temperature where most people live.

COX: Now, you wrote in The Wall Street Journal earlier this month something that - it had a pessimistic tone to it, I think would be fair to say. When you talk about the history of these climate conferences, you go back to Rio. You mentioned the Kyoto Protocol, and you suggest that - I don't know if debacle is too strong a word for what happened in Copenhagen last when this climate summit was held. You seem to feel that we - those summits are on the down stroke in terms of their effectiveness and participation globally.

Mr. LOMBORG: Well, Tony, I don't think it's my feeling. I think everybody recognizes this. We've been trying for the last 18 years to structure a global deal where we get major nations, especially major emitters, to promise to cut their carbon emissions. Now, they have made promises quite a bit, but they haven't actually lived up to these, except for a little bit in the European Union.

So fundamentally, one of the arguments that I've been trying to advocate is we need to recognize that such an approach is probably is very unlikely to work.

Basically, you're asking all governments to make grand expenditures, namely expensive cuts right now, to cut to temperatures just a tiny bit in 100 years. To give you one example, the EU has promised to cut its emissions 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. And the cost is estimated at about $250 billion per year. Yet the net benefit by the end of the century will be to reduce temperatures by one-tenth of one degree Fahrenheit. That's just simply incredibly hard to justify, spending $20 trillion on achieving something we can't even measure in 100 years. And that's why we need to start looking for other and smarter ways forward.

COX: How much do people care - and when I say people, I mean the average person. How much do people care about global warming and climate the heating of the climate when they are faced, day to day, with what some would argue are more pressing kinds of concerns, like finding a job.

Mr. LOMBORG: That's a very good question. I think the honest answer is not very much. If you look at the Gallup polls that we've had since - I think it's 2003. They've asked people to rank, also, global warming among their big issues in the U.S. It invariably ranks at the very bottom and that tells us something. It doesn't tell us that people are not good people. I think most people, when you talk to them, also want to help dealing with global warming, but they just recognize there are much more immediate and much more obvious problems they want to focus on first. And so we need to find ways to tackle global warming, because it's a real problem, but much cheaper and much more effectively.

I help organized something called the Copenhagen Consensus On Climate where we gathered some of the world's tough climate economists to say, where do you get the most bang for the buck in terms of talking about climate? And what they found was, instead of making these expensive promises which eventually don't happen, we should be focusing on spending less money, but more smartly, on investing in research and development into green energy.

Fundamentally, the problem is that green energy is expensive now, which is why it's expensive to cut carbon emissions. But imagine if we could innovate the price of solar panels, for instance, down below fossil fuel costs, then we would have won. Everyone would switch, not just rich, well-meaning Westerners, but also the Chinese and the Indians.

So this is really about finding a smarter and more efficient way. And the climate economists actually told us, that way forward will be about 500 times more cost-effective per dollar spent.

COX: Our guest is Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank in Denmark. We are talking about global warming.

One of the things we did in the introduction to this story and your appearance on the show today was to say or to ask the question, Bjorn, who's listening? So here's my question to you, who's listening to this, to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOMBORG: Well, I think a lot of people are listening to global warming in the sense that we were very worried. I think most people remember Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth." We were very riled up about that. And certainly, if you look on the rest of the world, there's lots of people concerned about global warming. But you're absolutely right. They have other and more immediate priorities, both in the Western world and certainly in China and in India where they're trying to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

But I think most people want to do good, but they also want their leaders to do better. That is not promises grand - but ultimately ineffective and very costly carbon cuts. And that's why, I think, there is a willingness and an understanding that we need to find a new way forward, instead of just meeting up as everybody is doing right now - we're meeting in Cancun - to do another take on the same problem that we haven't solved for the last 19 years.

COX: Here's an interesting question. It comes from State College, Pennsylvania. It's Pat(ph). Pat, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAT (Caller): Hello?

COX: Hello, Pat. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

PAT: Yes. Thank you. I have a question about cities. I understand what you're saying about white roofs and white roads. But I understand that the cost of heating is even worse than the cost of the air conditioning. So what do you do with the cities that are in the northern hemispheres that really need the black roofs (technical difficulty) heat (technical difficulty). Which is more expensive, to air condition or to heat?

COX: Pat, thank you very much. You broke up a little bit, but I think we got the gist of her question.

Mr. LOMBORG: Yes. And the point, of course, is you should not do this in the Arctic Circle, for instance, because their heat wave and heat deaths really are is not your concern.

COX: Or in Minnesota?

Mr. LOMBORG: Probably not in Minnesota either. But the point is - for instance, if you look at Los Angeles, where they have looked at the cost, it is true you will have slightly higher heating costs, but you will have much reduced air conditioning cost. So, again, this is a partial solution. This is a solution where you're very concerned about the idea that rising temperatures also are going to give rise to more heat waves and, hence, more heat deaths. But remember, this is a while global warming is a global problem, it'll have very different impacts in different places.

And for instances, my hometown, Copenhagen, will probably not mind it getting a little warmer. But it's very clear that there are many places on the planet, and especially in the Third World, where that would be a burden, some problem. And there is certainly one of the places where we could look at making cooler cities.

COX: Bjorn, let me take you back to the idea of solutions and alternatives, which is sort of the crux of what we are talking about today, with the attempt to attack global warming in a way that people can relate to. You mentioned the idea of painting roofs and painting streets. What else is there that is specific, pragmatic even, that people can wrap their minds around and begin, perhaps, to do right away, that would be effective?

Mr. LOMBORG: Well, I would love to be able to give you a long list of what people can do. The problem is, really, that this is much more of a global issue. If you're going to change the engine, the fossil fuel engine that has brought us wealth over the last 200 years, it's not something you or I can do.

There are a number of smart things that we, as communities, can do. That is ask our leaders not to make these empty promises, but actually start investing in research and development of green energy technology. Likewise, if you look, for instance, in the polar bears, which have become, you know, this icon of global warming - I'm always very surprised by the fact that, yes, polar bears will have problems with diminishing and eventually disappearing, some of our arctic ice. But remember, if everyone did the Kyoto Protocol, which is 20 times more than what the world has actually managed to do, we would save about one polar bear a year for a cost of a couple of hundred billion dollars in lost GDP growth per year.

I like polar bears, but that's a steep cost. Compare this to the fact that every year, the world shoots somewhere between 300 and 500 polar bears. And I simply point out, why don't we stop shooting 300 polar bears first? I mean, apart from the fact that it would be a couple of hundred billion dollars cheaper, it would also be better for 299 polar bears.

COX: But let me stop and ask you this question, about the very thing that you're talking about - first, let me say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. When you start talking about saving polar bears, is that not the point when people's eyes begin to glaze over with respect to talking about climate change and something that affects them personally?

Mr. LOMBORG: Hmm. I actually think it's one of the most interesting parts of global warming. It's certainly the one that people emotionally respond to the most. But you're absolutely right - it is hard to get people worked up about global warming. That's why we see, you know, movies like Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth," showing you 20-foot sea level rise, which is essentially going to flood all of Florida. And you remember those clips where it showed flood in New York or San Francisco Bay Area, along with Bangladesh and Holland and Beijing. But the real point, of course, is - the sea level rise is going to be about a foot, or, somewhere between half and two feet is what the U.N. climate panel tells us.

And that's a very different story, because that is a problem, but it's definitely not a catastrophe. Actually, over the last 150 years, sea levels also rose about a foot. And I doubt that most people think of that as one of the most important issues that happened in the last 150 years. So it underscores your point, that global warming is not a predominant issue for most people. And that's why I think we need to recognize we're never going to solve it if it's going to be these multi-hundred billion dollar solutions that are very ineffective. We need to find smarter and cheaper ways where we can spend little money but spend it very effectively to eventually get green energy going.

COX: To that point, we have from Miami, Florida, joining us, Amanda. She has an interesting question about trying to get jobs, create green jobs in a bad economy. Amanda, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

AMANDA (Caller): Hello?

COX: Hello, Amanda, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Go ahead.

AMANDA: Thank you. Yes, the question I was pointing - and being from Miami, Florida, of course, you know, the sea level rising is very important to us. But just in a job-racked and deficit-concerned America, the greatest idea, I think, would be take these factories, factory cities and factory towns - wherein, you know, many automakers have removed themselves and thus depleted - and instead create solar and green jobs, creating perhaps, like, cheap, as you said, cheap solar panels, cheap - other cheap things. And how would you go about, like, proposing this idea to a Republican House and increasing, like, in a stimulus sort of effect the debt?

COX: Thank you for the call. What about that?

Mr. LOMBORG: Well, Amanda, first of all, we have to recognize what we need to invest in is the research and development to get these solar panels and many other green technologies to become so cheap - we dont actually have to support them. Because right now, what is happening, especially in places in Europe -Spain is a good example - they supported these green technologies by very high subsidies. That essentially means they ended up supporting each job created in Spain for about $700,000 per job, per year.

That's an incredibly bad investment. And of course, it also turns out that thats one of the reasons - not the only, by any means - one of the reasons why Spain is in such a bad place. So it's not about creating very ineffective, subsidized jobs now, it's about creating the knowledge so that we can actually make great economics later on by simply selling these green technologies below fossil fuel prices.

So I'm afraid it's not going to help right now in Miami, but it is going to help both in creating a new green economy in the long run that's based on smart economics rather than subsidized economics; and it'll also actually solve global warming.

COX: Bjorn, our time is up. I think I have enough time for one really quick question for you, and it's this: Given what you have said about the climate conferences that have been held and the one that is going on right now, do we need this? Do we still need it?

Mr. LOMBORG: We definitely need it. And I think we are starting to realize most people saying, why on earth are meeting in Cancun and then next year in South Africa just to do the same failed strategies? Most politicians have made grand promises - also Obama - and they need to find a way out of this corner that they have painted themselves into. I really think a lot of people are starting to look around for smarter solutions and investment and research and development in green energy. And the smart solutions, like the cool cities we talked about, could be some of those ways out.

COX: I appreciate the time that you have given us today, an interesting conversation and a challenging topic, one that you have to deal with on a continuing basis to try to educate the public.

Bjorn Lamborg is the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think-tank in Denmark. His op-ed: "Cost-effective Ways To Address Climate Change," appeared in The Washington Post. You can find a link at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, we will pick up again on the WikiLeaks story and the ethical and legal questions around the disclosure of the secret government document.

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