Kyoto Protocol: Chill Out

Skeptical environmentalist BjÝrn Lomborg questions the Kyoto Protocol's effectiveness

Ten years after the Kyoto Protocol first was introduced, the question remains: What can be done about global warming? For the 175 countries that have ratified it so far, the treaty goes into effect next year. While participants from the developing world have agreed to reduce anthropomorphic greenhouse gases by more than half of their total output, the majority of the nations covered by the treaty are under no obligation to actually reduce emissions, and the world's three largest polluters — the United States, China and India — aren't participating in the protocol.

Complicating the question of what can be done is the fact that global warming is by no means the only peril facing the planet. The U.S. occupation of Iraq easily could spill over into a larger conflagration. Trillions of dollars worth of bad loans weigh down the global economy. Increasing demand and decreasing supply have driven up the price of petroleum to nearly $100 per barrel, with no end in sight. Poverty, famine and disease plague the developing world. Nuclear proliferation remains a very real danger.

Against this backdrop, Bjørn Lomborg says chill out.

Lomborg, a Danish political-science professor, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and controversial author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and the recently released Cool It, argues that the Kyoto Protocol, after weighing its costs and benefits against his interpretation of the relevant research on the threat posed by global warming, is poor public policy. In the United States, the Lomborg perspective has been embraced by conservative sources such as The Wall Street Journal and universally shunned by environmentalists, a situation that perplexes the 42-year-old, slightly left-of-center Dane.

"I'm a little disheartened that many of the people who like me are the people who I'd be least likely to like, where a lot of people who ought to be my friends, who I think of as my friends, are the most likely to be my enemies," he admitted via telephone from Copenhagen, where he's an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School. "Sometimes I have the experience that some of my friends don't even read me, and will just sort of say, 'Oh, well he just doesn't care about the environment at all. He's just saying that we should go on and emit as much carbon dioxide as we can possibly get away with and it's no problem.' Which of course is not at all what I'm saying. I think both sides are in a sense making a caricature of what I'm trying to say."

Lomborg doesn't deny that global warming is a serious issue. He applauds Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth for drawing the "American right wing away from the 'Oh, it's all a hoax. It's all a left-wing conspiracy to raise taxes,' kind of thing." However, he adds that in doing so, Gore has "brought a lot of people far toward the panic side. That is to say, 'My god, this is a huge and humongous problem that we really need to fix right now.'"

By far the most controversial aspects of Lomborg's views — which he presented to Congress earlier this year, his blond, Scandinavian good looks and casual attire standing out like a surfer against a sea of button-downed bureaucrats and prominent environmental advocates such as Gore — concern what critics claim is his minimization of the crisis and the ultimate effectiveness of Kyoto.

"If no other treaty replaces Kyoto after 2012, its total effect will have been to postpone the rise in global temperature a bit less than seven days in 2001," he writes in Cool It. Eschewing high-end scientific estimates, such as the 20-foot sea-level rise by 2100 projected in An Inconvenient Truth, Lomborg instead focuses his claims on the more probable averages provided by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At an estimated cost of $185 billion per year, Kyoto just isn't worth it in Lomborg's opinion.

"The problem with the Kyoto Protocol is not that it's not well intentioned. It's not that it's not attacking a real problem," he said. "Climate change is a real problem, and it's definitely one that we need to fix in the long run. It's simply that it fails to realize that it will cost a lot, and do very little good."

Even if major polluters such as the United States, China and India signed on, there's no guarantee that any country will adhere to Kyoto's guidelines. When real limits are placed on the table, politicians back away, Lomborg said, citing recent experience in England. Members of Parliament just rejected a proposed annual emissions cut of 3 percent after being pressured by the energy lobby.

"It's very easy to make promises when you don't actually have to show the costs," he said. "Famously, Kyoto was agreed upon in 1997, but won't come into effect until next year, when politicians such as [Kyoto supporter] Tony Blair have left office. Likewise, Gov. Schwarzenegger is talking about cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, which conveniently will probably be when he's left office."

Lomborg's contrary assessments once earned him a literal pie in the face from activist and author Mark Lynas, who compares Lomborg and others who question climate-change orthodoxy to Holocaust deniers. Danish biologist Kåre Fog has devoted a lengthy Web site documenting Lomborg's errors and alleged deliberate fabrications. Indeed, most of his critics find it difficult to restrain invective when discussing the controversial Dane, even in otherwise well-thought-out responses, such as the unprecedented, four-part critique in the January 2002 issue of Scientific American, with separate sections written by climate-change luminaries Stephen Schneider, John Holdren, John Bongaarts and Thomas Lovejoy.

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