Is Bjorn Lomborg right to say fossil fuels are what poor countries need? | Graham Readfearn

Danish author uses low-ball estimates of climate costs and ignores fossil fuel subsidies

What do the poorest people on the planet –  those likely to be the hardest hit by human-caused climate change – need right now?

According to Bjørn Lomborg, the economist and self-titled skeptical environmentalist, what they need are cheap fossil fuels.

It’s one of the those arguments that seems so counter-intuitive – so crazy-balls nuts – that it might make some stop and think that it could just be true. But not for long.

Lomborg heads a think-tank called the Copenhagen Consensus Center which, as the name doesn’t suggest, is based on the outskirts of Washington DC in the United States.

For a decade, Lomborg has made films, written books and spoken all over the world with a message which has changed only slightly. Humans cause climate change but the economic impacts won’t be great and there are other things we should spend money on first.

His two recent high-profile contributions to the climate change debate – again making essentially these same points – came with a speech to Australia’s National Press Club and in a column for the New York Times.

Embarrassingly (or at least, I’d be embarrassed if I’d done it), Australia’s ABC News24 rolling television programme introduced Lomborg as a “climate scientist” which even he would admit is entirely inaccurate.

But he did have a view on climate change, to what one Twitter attendee’s picture suggested was very thin Canberra audience.

Lomborg spoke about a “recent hiatus” in global temperatures (that’s the same “hiatus” which has delivered the hottest decade on record and which continues to allow the planet to build up heat). This “does not mean global warming is not real” he said, but then came this.

It does probably indicate that the high temperature increases  – the very scary scenarios that get banded around – are much less likely simply because they are not nearly as likely to compare with the findings of the models compared to reality.

This was Lomborg’s only genuine venture into climate change science, but is it correct?  Does a “hiatus” in one observation of climate change “probably indicate”  that computer models that deliver scary numbers are “much less likely” to be right?

Professor Roger Jones, an expert on climate change impacts and risk at Victoria University’s Centre for Strategic Economic Studies, says Lomborg is dead wrong.

To show why, he sent me a graph which shows that a computer climate model which recreates a slow-down in surface warming (the one which Lomborg points to) goes on to project 3.5C of global warming by the end of this century.

Jones told me:

Lomborg makes the mistake of assuming that models do not reproduce recent observations because the results are often presented as smooth curves. However, this graph of results from a single model clearly shows a slight cooling between 1995 and 2015, yet warms by 3.5 C by 2100 from pre-industrial temperatures. This is sufficient to effectively destroy coral reef ecosystems, initiate the collapse of large ice sheets and have significant impacts of regional water supplies.

James Hansen, former NASA climate scientist, puts it another way in research published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice.

Doing moral good

Lomborg often talks about doing “moral good” in the world and he uses the simple metric of money to measure how this “moral good” should be shared out. Where does the most “bang for your buck” come from if you want to alleviate poverty, he asks.

He invariably comes to the conclusion that this bang does not come from the current approaches to cutting emissions. 

Instead, he says the world should invest billions in research and development to make renewable technologies cheaper. As he wrote in the New York Times:

But let’s face it. What those living in energy poverty need are reliable, low-cost fossil fuels, at least until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future. This is not just about powering stoves and refrigerators to improve billions of lives but about powering agriculture and industry that will improve lives.

Lomborg talks in the article about the 3.5 million deaths which a World Health Organization study has attributed to poor people dying from the indoor pollution caused from the smoke and fumes from the fires they use to cook with.

But the problem of poor people dying from indoor air pollution from cooking over open fires or in crude stoves isn’t solved by replacing dung and wood with a fossil fuel.Rather, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, it is the technology deployed.

Remember, plenty of people in rich countries also burn wood in their homes for heat (and because it looks all nice and cosy). They burn this wood using stoves that don’t let most of the nasty stuff escape into the room, but rather go up a flue pipe.

Low-ball Lomborg

To make many of his arguments stick, Lomborg uses a very low estimate of what’s known as the “social cost of carbon” – that is, how much economic damage each extra tonne of carbon dioxide delivers?

He puts this figure at US$5 per tonne, which he says if translated to a price on emissions doesn’t drive reductions in fossil fuel use. Except that the $5 figure is at the very, very bottom of a range of estimates that are out there.

For example, the United States Government puts the figure at around US$32. Roger Jones says a recent review of several studies into the cost per tonne of carbon gives a range between $15 and $74.

There are also a number of ways which economists try and arrive at this figure, using different modelling techniques (if you want details, the Yale Forum on Climate Change has a summary).

Also in the US, one economic study has found that even there – in a developed country – the coal industry costs the economy more in impacts from pollution than it gives back in economic gain. The study did not count the costs of the impacts of climate change.

Pick your subsidy

Lomborg is also not a fan of solar panels, which he described in an interview on Australia’s Radio National as being “inefficient” which he said was “why you have to subsidise them”.

Yet neither in the interview, nor in his speech to the National Press Club, nor in his op-ed in the New York Times, does Lomborg consider the more than $500 billion annually in subsidies which the International Energy Agency says is currently going to supporting the fossil fuel industry.

Now, on balance Lomborg sees fossil fuels as a morally acceptable choice for the developing world.

So that must mean that these subsidies fall into the suite of money which Lomborg says is being spent to try and do “good” in the world. Given Lomborg rarely mentions fossil fuel subsidies, we don’t know if he thinks these subsidies should go up (which they currently are) or go down.

Early in his talk to the National Press Club, Lomborg said that extreme weather events effect countries in different ways.  When a typhoon hits a poor country (he gave the example of Nicaragua) then it had the potential to kill many more people and to “destroy their economy”.

When extreme weather hits rich countries, those people have the resources to better cope and recover. So Lomborg accepts that the impact of climate change is disproportionate. Poorer countries get hit the hardest.

But then, when Lomborg talks about the economic cost of global warming, he chooses a globally-averaged figure that ignores this disproportionate suffering.

Lomborg cited a study from his think tank which he said concluded that “until about 2070 global warming is a net benefit to the world.”

What are the risks of waiting until 2070 to see if Bjørn Lomborg is right? In my view, they are way too high. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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