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Bjorn Lomborg makes sense

December 17, 2009

Bjorn Lomborg, scourge of climate scientists and author of two controversial books on issues of climate change and environmentalism, has been making the rounds. And he’s been making a lot of sense. He must be reading my blog!

Lomborg had an op-ed in the Australian the other day, and I just watched him debate Paul Krugman on CNN, where he touched on a couple of points I have made here recently.

The first relates to trade-offs, and the dominance of climate change relative to other pressing problems in the world. As Lomborg says:

Let’s be smart on global warming, but let’s not have it dominate everything else.

Krugman accuses Lomborg of posing false choices. In other words, if the US Congress fails to pass meaningful legislation, we can’t expect them to turn around and spend the savings on poverty in Africa or global health issues. True.

But Krugman is, unsurprisingly, focused on emissions policy in the US. Lomborg points out that the billions that would go to the proposed fund for helping countries to adapt to climate change would probably come from existing aid budgets. Linking a huge portion of development aid to climate change could have devastating consequences.

It seems to me that requiring development projects to have some sort of benefit related to climate change is not all that different from the Bush Administration requirement that funding for AIDS go to “abstinence-only” programs. It does no favors to people suffering now, and the organizations trying to help them. (There is probably an argument to be had here about how much new money might go to aid as a result of climate change, but that’s for another time.)

Lomborg’s second point is about the misguided efforts in Copenhagen to prolong the failures of the Kyoto Protocol. He argues that carbon agreements are putting the policy cart before the technology horse, and that the real focus should be on developing the technologies that can bring the price of carbon free energy down to a reasonable level.

Krugman seems hell-bent on disagreeing with Lomborg’s very reasonable position. I think this is partly because, like a good economist, he believes strongly in the potential of a cap and trade system. In theory, cap and trade works very efficiently to bring about the kinds of investment that Lomborg is arguing for (in energy technology). But Lomborg is a political realist who recognizes that politicians can’t get elected by raising energy prices, no matter how supposedly catastrophic the consequences may be for the people of 2050.

The other part of Krugman’s disagreement has to do with who Lomborg is, and how he got here. Notice the caption in the image above:

Krugman: Lomborg is being “insincere” when he recommends doing more research.

I’ll write more about this “appeal to motive” soon.

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