The Anti-Cassandra

Bjorn Lomborg's advice on global warming ignores so much bad news that it sounds like 'What, me worry?'

To the prospect of more killer storms like Hurricane Katrina, of rising sea levels that inundate coastal regions where hundreds of millions of people live and farm, of more frequent deadly heat waves, of alternating droughts and floods that will devastate agriculture, and of rampant insect-borne diseases, Bjorn Lomborg has the same taunt that President George W. Bush offered to Iraqi insurgents in 2003: bring it on.

Lomborg, a political scientist in Denmark, became a conservative darling in 2001 with the publication of his book "The Skeptical Environmentalist." Contrary to the apocalyptic pronouncements of green groups, he argued that human activities were not poisoning the air and water, driving species to extinction or dangerously altering the planet's climate. Scientists who had actually studied those issues begged to differ. A review in the science journal Nature called "The Skeptical Environmentalist" "a hastily prepared book on complex scientific issues which disagrees with the broad scientific consensus, using arguments too often supported by news sources rather than by peer-reviewed publications." Critics even accused Lomborg of scientific hanky-panky; in 2003 a Danish committee concluded that his research did "fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty" but that he had not "misled his readers deliberately or with gross negligence." Later that year, however, the Danish Ministry of Science criticized the conclusion of dishonesty, saying it was not documented.

Lomborg isn't likely to win any green stars with his latest book. In "Cool It," which reaches bookstores next week, he argues that if the climate really is changing, we would be better off dealing with the consequences directly, not making deep cuts in the emissions of greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Rising sea levels? Build sea walls. Heat waves such as the one that killed 35,000 people in Europe in 2003? Buy everyone an air conditioner. Sweltering cities? Paint the asphalt white so more solar radiation is reflected back into space. All of this will be cheaper and less disruptive than curbing greenhouse emissions through energy efficiency and conservation, let alone replacing coal, oil and natural gas with wind, solar and nuclear power, Lomborg argues.

Those who remember "The Skeptical Environmentalist" may wonder why Lomborg is making any recommendations at all for a problem that, he argued there, will be far from catastrophic. In his earlier book, Lomborg said that the warming temperatures of the 20th century are largely just a natural result of the planet's emergence from the Little Ice Age that ran from about 1650 to 1850, rather than greenhouse gases, and that the lack of warming in the lower atmosphere (according to satellites) indicated that warming at the planet's surface was either a measurement error or an indication that global warming would be extremely mild. It is noteworthy, then, that in "Cool It" he declares it "beyond debate" that carbon dioxide emitted from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is contributing to global warming. "Global warming is real and man-made," he writes.

Where he parts company with many others, from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to the CEOs of Dupont, General Electric and other industrial giants who have called for mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide emissions, is in saying we shouldn't get all worked up about attacking the cause of climate change. We'll be fine-indeed, we'll be better off-if we just adapt to the coming changes. Most important, he argues, in the greenhouse world the poor will suffer more than the rich (see New Orleans: Katrina). It therefore makes far more sense to keep world incomes and productivity high, and not reduce them by spending money on greenhouse cuts. The wealthier the world in 2030 or 2050 or 2100, whenever the worst of climate change kicks in, the better able it will be to cope.

Give Lomborg credit for cutting through some of the hypocrisy surrounding the climate issue. Take polar bears. If we're so upset that the melting of arctic sea ice threatens them, let's first stop polar bear hunting, which kills dozens every year. That is clearly cheaper than replacing coal-fired power plants with windmills. He also makes a reasonable case that some of the more apocalyptic visions of climate change ("The Day After Tomorrow," anyone?) are more science fiction than science.

But Lomborg is on shaky ground from the get-go in his estimate of what curbing greenhouse gases would cost. He assumes that the world will choose a carbon tax as its main greenhouse-fighting tactic, calculates how high that tax would have to be to cut greenhouse gases even to the levels called for in the Kyoto Treaty, and comes up with a figure of $7 trillion to $9 trillion. That, he says, is a lot of money for a tiny benefit.

There are any number of problems with this. The "tiny benefit" part reflects the fact that Kyoto, which calls for only small greenhouse cuts, will have very little effect on future climate. No one denies that; Kyoto was always seen as a first step. To say that it costs too much for too little is valid, but the cost per ton of greenhouse reduction is not linear. Think of it this way: you spend bushels of R&D money to invent an efficient windmill and use it to cut, say, 100 tons of carbon per year. The cost per ton would be exorbitant. But once the blueprints exist, you can build many more windmills to cut carbon further, exploiting economies of scale. That is, siccing windmills on 10,000 tons of carbon does not cost 100 times as much; the up-front R&D costs swamp the cost of manufacturing windmills. Similarly, if the world moves beyond Kyoto to institute stricter greenhouse curbs, the cost of doing more will not scale up in a linear way; cuts will become cheaper. Lomborg doesn't factor that in.

Some of the costs that he finds unsupportable will pay for themselves. How do you account for the $10 cost of an efficient light bulb that will save you $50 over its lifetime? Charging the whole $10 to the cost side of the ledger makes no sense. Along those lines, an engineering study by five U.S. Department of Energy laboratories concluded that policies that provide incentives to replace inefficient products with energy-efficient ones could cut emissions at below-zero costs-that is, you'd save money.

The other side of Lomborg's equation—the cost of letting the climate change and dealing with the consequences—is also problematic. He includes costs for climate changes that will affect people directly, like better water storage (so that once glaciers are gone, the water they periodically supplied to rivers can be obtained elsewhere), sea walls (to protect the 100 million people who'd be underwater if sea levels rose one foot, as is expected by 2085) and policies forbidding people to build expensive homes on vulnerable seacoasts (sorry, Miami Beach). But while these threats can, in theory, be engineered away at least in part, others can't be. Global warming is killing coral reefs, wiping out coastal ecosystems due to rising seas, and causing mismatches between crops and the animals that pollinate them (as the latter move to cooler climes; crops cannot walk or fly), to name just a few. All of these provide "ecosystem services"-pollination, water filtration and other benefits that human engineering cannot replicate. "The biggest likely effects of climate change, and the ones we can do least about, are on natural ecosystems," says Ian Burton of the University of Toronto, who has written widely on adapting to climate change. "The loss of ecosystem services will be hard to counteract. That's why adaptation alone isn't enough."

That said, climate experts have long recognized that curbing greenhouse gases is not the only line of attack on global warming. This week, at a United Nations meeting in Vienna experts laid out the options and costs related to climate change and to adaptation in particular. Lomborg is quite right that we are not sitting ducks when it comes to rising seas, spreading malaria and other effects of climate change. But to blithely contend that we don't have to do much to stave off global warming, because puny mankind can engineer its way out of its consequences, is the height of hubris.