October 11, 2007

October 11, 2007 | Commentary on Smart Growth

Skeptics needed

Being the voice of reason in a debate where emotions and political agendas have captured the popular imagination takes great courage. In discussions of climate change today, you will run into assertions ranging from the "fact" that the polar ice cap will melt and reverse the Gulf Stream to the "fact" that 80 percent of the world's scientists agree that humans cause global warming. Then there is the "fact" that skeptics of climate change are being paid by major corporations to produce fraudulent research.

In spite of widespread vilification and official investigations into his scientific credibility, Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has not given up his role as a voice in the wilderness on climate change. Mr. Lomborg of course first burst on the scene with "The Skeptical Environmentalist" six years ago. He derives from a proud tradition of contrary Danes, most notably the great curmudgeon Soren Kierkegaard, who once complained that debating with his fellow countrymen was "like being trampled to death by geese."

Mr. Lomborg's most recent work is a plea for a compromise on climate change, under the title "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming." Whether there is room for reason in this debate is very much in doubt, but it remains crucially important to keep the problem and its cost in perspective. Specifically, he asks that skeptics agree that the Earth is warming while believers accept that this is not the end of the world.

It makes the case that while global warming is real, it shows no sign of leading to the apocalypse, and that the money and effort invested in limiting the emission of greenhouse gases could be far better spent on saving human lives from other environmental threats. Mr. Lomborg estimates that the $180 billion spent on the Kyoto Protocol each year will delay the effects of global warming by four days by the end of this century. If the United States had signed on and every signatory nation had lived up to its treaty commitments (which they don't), the delay by the end of this century would be five years. And the consequences in terms of sea level would not even be that hard to live with. While European politicians now go on to pilgrimages to Greenland to pay homage to the supposedly melting glaciers, it seems to be the case that only some glaciers are melting, and that while the Arctic might be seeing some melting, the Antarctic is seeing its icecap grow.

The rise in sea level by the end of this century, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, will be about one foot. Other estimates are as low as three inches. This increase in sea level is something that economically prosperous nations can easy deal with, argues Mr. Lomborg. In fact, we have seen a one-foot rise in sea levels over the past century, which the world has managed to survive.

Interestingly also, Mr. Lomborg points to the positive side of global warming, which it is high time someone did. The fact is - as we would all acknowledge if we thought about it for five minutes - that more people die from cold each year than die from heat. Mr. Lomborg calculates that in Europe, where heating and air conditioning are not up to American standards, each year 200,000 people die from excessive heat, but 1.5 die million from excessive cold. In other words, global warming would save lives.

And he pleads for moving the focus away from greenhouse-gas emissions to something that we are far better equipped to deal with: Malaria eradication, for instance. For the relatively small sum of $3 billion a year spent on mosquito nets and medication, the instance of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa - a huge humanitarian problem - could be reduced by half within a decade. Of course, that involves "just" saving human lives, which is not nearly as glamorous or fun as pushing political agendas.

The ill-fated Kyoto Protocol is set to expire in 2012, having failed to achieve anything like its set targets. U.N. members will be convening in Copenhagen in 2009 to discuss the successor protocol - which at least should give them a chance to hear what Mr. Lomborg has to say. We could avoid another Kyoto-like failure on an international level if only they would listen and let reason prevail.

Helle C. Dale is Deputy Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times