The planet is heating up, the global weather is changing, and we human is responsible for it. This is pretty much the consensus now. And this is the story that we often hear on news media. The moral of the climate change story is that unless we actively do something about it, our descendants will have to face very unpleasant consequences.
But sometimes it’s also good to hear a slightly different story. In this book, False Alarm, the author Bjorn Lomborg, a director of a conservative think tank Copenhagen Consensus, sets out to make a case of how overreacting against climate change can actually cause more harm than climate change itself. Unlike many climate change deniers, Lomborg doesn’t deny that climate change is real, and that human is the main reason behind this change. The difference is that he doesn’t really think that we are fixing the climate in the correct way, with correct priorities.
First, the sensationalism in the news: news outlets have been using misleading facts and images in illustrating the problem. Take for example, the iconic frail polar bear on an ice cap.
The message is clear: global warming causes the disappearance of ice caps, which endangers the habitat and eventually, the survival of polar bears. They said a good image worths a thousand words, this image of a frailing polar bear on a thinning ice cap is just one of such good images, it might still be the best weapon to wake people up from their slumber and take their share of fight against climate change.
However, that the population of polar bear is not really shrinking; in fact, the number of polar bear is on the rise, so much so that its status as the endangered species is being called into reassessment. While the number of polar bear is still not great, using the frail polar bear image as the rallying cry to fight climate change is quite inappropriate.
Media also unfairly blamed climate change for a lot of mayhems. Hurricanes, wildfires, flooding and other natural catastrophes cause deaths and billions dollars of damages, and we are being told that “climate change did this”. But it might be due more to the expansion of human population into vulnerable zones rather than the climate change itself, AKA the expanding bull eye effect. The frequency of hurricanes may stay the same, but if we venture into more and more lands, then of course our encounter with hurricanes will increase. Same goes for other natural calamities. Blaming everything on climate change is not helping us to find the solution.
What about droughts and famines? Contrary to what most think, climate change doesn’t always bring droughts. Although It does increase drought in some area, but it also reduces it in others due to an increase in precipitation– remember, climate change causes ice caps to melt and the water has to go somewhere. There is no conclusive evidence that on the balance, climate change actually brings more droughts. What about the argument that climate change brings war and terrorism? The link between the two is tenuous at best. It’s might just be easier to argue that corruption, poverty and ideological extremism cause unrests.
One seldom-mentioned benefits of climate change is that it causes the earth to become more green, due to that Carbon Dioxide has the fertilization effects on the soil. What this means is that the land can grow more trees, and the upper hemisphere can free up a lot of lands for agriculture once the ice melts. The expansion of agricultural lands can reduce famine and hungers.
The book also discusses the Paris Agreement, an agreement that was negotiated by about 200 states in 2016 concerning greenhouse emissions in an effort to combat global change. The goal of Paris Agreement is to keep the increase in global average temperature to below 2C above the pre-industrial area. But Paris Agreement is being criticised for its ineffectiveness, even before Donald Trump pulled US out. For starters, those who pledged, and should take substantial emissions cuts look increasingly unable to meet their pledged goals in the specified time frame, and those who can meet their targets, do so by setting a bar so low that effectively they don’t have to do anything. In a nutshell the 2C target is not going to be met. Secondly, if we rely only on the commitments from the Paris Agreement, the temperatures is still estimated to rise to 3.2C this century. To keep the temperature in check we have to start reducing the global emission this decade, which is quite impossible given that a lot of developing countries like China and India and some developed countries like US would need cheap fossil fuels to power their economy. In short we are not doing enough, and our efforts are terribly misplaced.
So what should we do? Lomborg thinks that current strategies aren’t working. Current strategies like subsidizing solar panels, wind power generators and electric cars are too cost ineffective, technologically immature and too undependable that they have no hope of replacing the ever cheap and reliable fossil fuels. From economical point of view, it’s much better to spend the money on eradicating poverty and improving the standards of living of the people so that they and their government can fight climate change better. Climate change brings heat waves? Fine, just install more air conds. Rising sea levels and flooding? Build dikes and better channels — but how can a country build dikes and/or upgrade its drainage system when most of its population is illiterate and subsist on less than USD 1 per day? What about protecting your houses from wildfires? Use better fire resistance materials, or just don’t build near the wildfire zone! All these requires money, and a wealthy community can adapt better than a poor one. Even lifting people out of poverty can help combat deforestation, another catalyst of climate change. You can now earn a living by being a computer programmer sitting in your air-conditioned room typing all days, so why would you want to do logging under shearing sun?
Secondly, Lomborg suggests that we should spend more money on research and developing “new” renewable energies ( woods and hydroelectric are considered “old” renewable energies, they fell out of favor because of heavy environmental damages). New renewable such as geoengineering, nuclear power or even the exotic fusion powers ( the nuclear reactions that power the burning of the Sun)– these are the things that we should focus our research on. Compared to the subsidies lavished on solar panels and wind powers, the money spent on these “new” renewable energies is a pittance. Our new energy sources are likely to come from unexpected places, which makes R&D all the more important.
The cost of R&D may seem hard to justify, after all research is risky with no certain outcomes. But in the past our research had often yield unexpected, disproportionated benefits in completely unrelated area. One important example is car. Nowadays no one would think that car is designed to keep our air and street clean. But at the turn of last centuries the streets of big European cities like London and Paris were laden with horse feces due to the extensive use of horse carriages. Compared to carriages, cars are indefinitely cleaner. If Henry Ford were focusing on making the carriages more eco friendly instead of cars, the streets and the air would be more polluted than now. So in addition to getting a faster mode of transportation, the introduction of cars had the nice side benefits of “making the environment greener”. Another example: the “Population Bomb” scare in 1960s. Paul Ehrlich wrote an influential book “The Population Bomb”, arguing that the number of people was spiraling out of control, and to avoid worldwide hunger and wars, government needed to enforce artificial population control. However, the Green Revolution that happened also in that decade– facilitated by the adoption of new technologies such as chemical fertilizers, agrochemicals and controlled water-supply– helped to feed an additional 5 more billion people. On top of that we have so much surplus of food that instead of world hunger, we have worldwide obesity, which is a nicer problem to solve. All these examples underscore the importance of R&D and the branching benefits of it.
All in all, Lomborg agrees that it’s necessary to devote serious attention to climate change, but one has to make sure that our funds are spent in the most cost-effective manner. It makes no sense to spend more on the damage prevention than the damage itself. Paris Agreement and the touted renewable solutions are failing precisely because they don’t make economical sense, for if they were, we wouldn’t need the Agreement, and the government wouldn’t need to subsidize the renewable solutions.
The book is written in a clear and accessible manner. But there are two consequences of climate change that the book didn’t address, that I wish the author had: the CO2 runaway effect and the loss of biodiversity. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is the highest now since Pliocene Epoch about three million years ago, and we don’t know what will happen if the concentration keeps on increasing. We are entering into an uncharted territory here, will the extreme concentration of CO2 trigger an irreversible, negative feedback loop that ultimately turns our planet earth into another Venus? We don’t know, and since the earth will still be our only known home planet for quite a foreseeable future, we simply can’t take the risk.
And also the biodiversity. Human is the undisputed species killer. Mass extinction followed whenever we moved into new territory. When we moved into North America 12,000 years ago, we hunted big mammals such as mammoths, armadillos and American camels to extinction; when we settled New Zealand circa 1280, we wiped Moa, a large flightless bird endemic to New Zealand, off the map. But with the climate change, more animals and plants are expected to perish, the extinction will happen at an unprecedented scale. Human can adapt, and the impact of climate change to us can be made negligible, but other animals can’t. Can we allow those animals to just perish? A cold-blooded economist would say yes, after all they don’t factor easily into our cost-and-benefit calculation. But I can’t help but feeling that a world devoid of biodiversity is a much poorer world, regardless of how you look at it.
If the economists can’t estimate the contributing damage due to the loss of biodiversity, they should better figure out a way to do it.