Former Skeptic Offers Ideas On Climate Change

Bjorn Lomborg, the controversial Danish economist, has pushed his way back into the global warming debate with a book that proposes "smart solutions" to climate change. Those promised solutions rely heavily on R&D aimed at making clean energy cheap, rather than attempts to shut down dirty energy sources. Lomborg says his views haven't changed, but more people are willing to listen to him because international negotiations on limiting greenhouse emissions have accomplished so little.

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Bjorn Lomborg, a controversial Danish economist, has pushed his way back into the global warming debate. He's done it with a book promoting what he calls smart solutions to climate change. The book has raised eyebrows because Lomborg - who's often considered a climate change skeptic - now supports a tax on greenhouse gas emissions.

But as NPR's Dan Charles reports, Lomborg is still making environmentalists very angry.

DAN CHARLES: Bjorn Lomborg made a big splash almost 10 years ago with a book called "The Skeptical Environmentalist." He was skeptical, for example, about evidence that humans were warming up the globe. He says those doubts got resolved.

Mr. BJORN LOMBORG (Author): I've said for many years: Global warming is real. It's man-made, and it is an important problem.

CHARLES: Yet Lomborg still believes there's no point trying to solve the problem by shutting down power plants or getting people out of their cars. It's not cost-effective. He cites an economic model which estimates the effect of using a big tax on coal and gas to drive down carbon dioxide emissions.

According to this model, you'd need a huge tax if you want to cut those emissions enough to keep temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, compared to preindustrial levels. The tax would be a hundred dollars per ton of carbon dioxide now, going up to $4,000 a ton a century from now.

Lomborg says no one will tolerate this - the costs far outweigh the benefits.

Mr. LOMBORG: For every dollar spent, mainly in GDP loss, you will avoid a couple of cents of climate damage.

CHARLES: So those U.N.-sponsored negotiations aimed at limiting CO2 emissions are a futile exercise, Lomborg says, and more and more people realize this. They're searching for a different approach.

Mr. LOMBORG: I think we do need to shake up our negotiators and start talking about are there other ways that we could potentially do this?

CHARLES: His latest book is full of these other ways. Actually, Lomborg only wrote the conclusion. Various experts wrote sections putting forward different ideas, and a panel of top economists, including three Nobel laureates, picked those they liked most. They didn't like the tax. But they did like some geoengineering ideas: cooling the globe by launching clouds of sulfur particles into the stratosphere, for instance, or spraying ocean water into the air to make more clouds.

And the best way forward, Lomborg says, is to pour money into research, so that down the road, it won't cost a thing to shut down those coal-burning power plants.

Mr. LOMBORG: Essentially, you make solar panels and all the other green energy technologies so cheap that everyone wants to buy them.

CHARLES: The money to pay for that R&D - a hundred billion dollars per year -would come from a global tax on coal, oil and gas, but just a small tax - $7 per ton of carbon dioxide.

Jonathan Lash, who's head of the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C., is not impressed.

Mr. JONATHAN LASH (President, World Resources Institute): It sounds like someone who did not think we should do anything about climate change now finding reasons why we shouldn't do very much.

CHARLES: The problem is urgent, Lash says. The warming we've seen so far amounts to just 8/10ths of 1 degree Celsius - much more is coming.

Mr. LASH: Siberia's burning, Pakistan is underwater, there's record heat in the United States. It just isn't the time to offer research as a substitute for action.

CHARLES: Lash also says Lomborg's claims about the disastrous impact of taxing fossil fuels are way off the mark. So I called the researcher who did those calculations for Lomborg's book, Richard Tol, at the Economic and Research Institute in Dublin, Ireland.

And Tol says Lomborg is only telling part of the story. It's true, he says, bringing global warming to a screeching halt just by taxing fossil fuels would be enormously expensive. But his model shows that a more modest carbon tax could be cost-effective.

Dr. RICHARD TOL (Research Professor, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin): If you reduce emissions by a little bit, it's fairly cheap.

CHARLES: And those first cuts in carbon dioxide emissions bring the biggest benefits, because they prevent the most extreme warming.

Dr. TOL: If you avoid the worst hit of climate change, it's going to bring a lot of benefits, but the benefits of reducing it further gets smaller and smaller and smaller.

CHARLES: Also, says Tol, much of that new clean technology that Lomborg hopes for may not appear without a carbon tax. Green technologies already exist, but they won't take over until dirty energy gets more expensive.

Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.

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