Kyoto Protocol: Chill Out

Skeptical environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg questions the Kyoto Protocol's effectiveness

The article was an evisceration, to which Lomborg responded at length.

"I'm very willing to have an argument, and I think I've proven that fairly well by engaging a rather large number of people in how we should think about these issues," he said. His critics claim he plays fast and loose with the numbers. He insists that he does not, and counters that his critics like to revel in catastrophe. World-threatening climate change is sexy. You're not likely to see Brad Pitt "digging latrines in Tanzania" in the next Hollywood disaster epic. Doomsday must always be right around the next corner.

When asked why we find the threat of imminent disaster so compelling, Lomborg offered a cautious appraisal.

"It's very important to say that I'm totally outside my area of expertise now, so I'm just giving you my gut sensation," he said. "It's because a lot of people are making a lot of claims, and the ones who are making panicky or catastrophic claims simply have better press. At the end of the day, the other things that I talk about — prevention of HIV/AIDS, prevention of malnutrition, prevention of malaria — those are just boring things."

In 2004, Lomborg organized the Copenhagen Consensus, a collection of economists, including four Nobel laureates, to weigh the costs and benefits between such competing claims for limited public funding. A second Consensus last year was composed of ambassadors from around the world, including India, China and the United States. A key topic that has emerged from the Consensus concerns the inequality of incomes between the developed and developing worlds.

"At the end of the day, even if we end up convincing, by 2050, Europe and the U.S. to cut their emissions, the vast majority of emissions in the 21st century are going to come from developing countries," he said. "They're not going to care very much about climate change before they've fulfilled all their other discussions about getting a meal and getting education and getting health and also fixing their local environmental problems before they'll start worrying about the global environmental problem."

So what can we do about global warming from Lomborg's perspective?

"Let's focus on research and development. Let's focus on non-carbon-emitting technologies like solar, wind, carbon capture, energy efficiency, and also, let's realize the solution may come from nuclear fusion and fission," he said.

Lomborg cited the prohibitively high price of solar power — presently ten times the cost of fossil fuels — to illustrate his point. Currently, only a few relatively rich people in the developing world can afford to place solar panels on their houses. For poor people in the developing world, especially those who are already in close proximity to an electrical grid, it simply isn't an option economically.

"Imagine if we could make solar panels close to the price of fossil fuels by mid-century," Lomborg asked. "It would be much easier to get everyone to commit to drastic reductions. Imagine if we could make it cheaper than fossil fuels. The discussion would be over. Everybody would switch. We wouldn't have a problem."

Is Lomborg right? Is the Kyoto Protocol destined to fail? Can we get more bang for the buck by focusing on R&D and providing more aid to the developing world? Only time will tell. Perhaps the contrary Dane's most important contribution has been to show us that there may be other ways besides Kyoto to do something about global warming. A far worse prospect than Lomborg being correct is the notion that nothing we do will matter at all.

R.V. Scheide is a senior staff writer for SN&R in Sacramento.

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