Economically Speaking Is Climate Change A Priority?

Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, is roaming the halls of the U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen. While Lomborg believes climate change is real, he thinks the approach being taken to fight it is doomed to failure. Lomborg also famously led a team of economists who ranked climate change low on a list of priorities when compared to things like combating disease. Needless to say, Lomborg is not a popular figure at the talks.

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The scene outside climate talks in Copenhagen can be something of a circus. Outside those meeting rooms, environmentalists, lobbyists and protestors mill about talking on cell phones, tapping on laptops, chugging down coffee. And NPR's David Kestenbaum found one controversial figure in this crowd.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: I'll just say his name. Some of you may know him. Bjorn Lomborg. He wrote the book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist." And when he walks around here some people see him as the enemy.

Mr. BJORN LOMBORG (Author, "The Skeptical Environmentalist): I had to sit there the other day and I had my lunch and it was only, you know, a while later one of the girls realized who I was. And she was like my sister sent your TED Talk to me, and I hated it.

KESTENBAUM: TED Talks are these online videos of people giving short presentations. And Bjorn Lomborg's talk is about a list that economists put together ranking problems to tackle, putting them in order. And global warming comes out near the bottom.

Mr. LOMBORG: We ended up having a conversation like almost an hour. It was both good and a little scary, because there was almost tears came to her eyes at some point, until my son says there's a lot of people out here who very, very strongly believe and feel that this is terribly important and we got to do something. Now, I totally support that. My discussion is what.

KESTENBAUM: Lomborg believes global warming is real. But he thinks about things economically. And here's the question he asks. If you had, say, $50 billion to spend, why not spend it now to fight disease or save billions of lives. Climate change is a problem for future generations. But 100 years from now, everyone will be much richer, so who do you want to help?

Mr. LOMBORG: It seems to me the answer is very obvious, we want to help the poor people now.

KESTENBAUM: Now, there are things economics is good at putting a price on and things it is not so good at. I asked him. What is the economic value of the world's last polar bear?

Mr. LOMBORG: I'm not going to answer, you know, I'm not...

KESTENBAUM: I want a dollar figure.

Mr. LOMBORG: No. No. No. I'm not going to get into that argument. But if you're going to be very blunt about the polar bear, that's a very, very simple thing to say because we're taking about 22,000 individuals. If, if nothing else, you throw out food for them.

(Soundbite of protestors)

KESTENBAUM: At this point, a kind of spontaneous demonstration broke out around us in the convention center. This is the strange thing about the talks. You have high level diplomats from around the world walking past protestors wearing life preservers. We moved to a quieter place, and Lomborg says he understands all this passion, but these climate talks, he doesn't think they're going anywhere. The world has been at it for 17 years. So Lomborg has what he thinks is a cheaper solution: create a fund, 0.02 percent of global GDP, about $100 billion a year, and devote it entirely toward finding a technological fix, a silver bullet.

Mr. LOMBORG: And it would be much, much cheaper than a full-fledged Copenhagen deal. And, of course, in the long run this will actually fix climate change.

KESTENBAUM: What if they spend $100 billion a year and it turns out there is no incredibly cheap way to do solar power, for instance?

Mr. LOMBORG: Yes. There is that risk, and then we're screwed.

KESTENBAUM: Apparently our conversation was being watched, because after we finished I got an email from a P.R. person from an environmental group offering up someone to give the other side. I ended up talking with Tasmin Aesop(ph) of the World Wildlife Fund. She found Lomborg's arguments frustrating.

Ms. TASMIN AESOP (World Wildlife Fund): There's a lot of this debate happening on the periphery. And often you might have those sitting in their ivory towers completely not understanding what's happening on the ground. And that's when I feel frustrated. It's tough and real for millions of people in the world who, in fact, are dealing with their daily survival.

KESTENBAUM: Her basic take is this: Bjorn Lomborg, you are not helping. We need to deal with these and poverty and we need to deal with climate change and we need to be optimistic.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Copenhagen.

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