Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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October 8, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BREAK THROUGH....Bjorn Lomborg took to the pages of the Washington Post Sunday to tell us — yet again — how to react to global warming. Answer: don't worry about it. We have lots of much bigger problems, and we should spend our money on those instead.

Personally, I'm pretty tired of Lomborg. He has a history of cherry picking his statistics. His whole schtick is based on the disingenuous notion that if Bangladesh gets flooded because of rising sea levels he'll be the first one banging the drums for Western countries to spend trillions of dollars to help them out. (Sure he will.) And he ignores the small but definitely non-negligible possibility of catastrophic change if global warming enters a positive feedback loop bigger than current models predict.

On the other hand, it's interesting to see him say this:

Proponents of pacts such as Kyoto want us to spend enormous sums of money doing very little good for the planet a hundred years from now. We need to find a smarter way. The first step is to start focusing our resources on making carbon emissions cuts much easier.

....We need to reduce the cost of cutting emissions from $20 a ton to, say, $2. That would mean that really helping the environment wouldn't just be the preserve of the rich but could be opened up to everyone else — including China and India, which are expected to be the main emitters of the 21st century but have many more pressing issues to deal with first.

The way to achieve this is to dramatically increase spending on research and development of low-carbon energy. Ideally, every nation should commit to spending 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product exploring non-carbon-emitting energy technologies, be they wind, wave or solar power, or capturing CO2 emissions from power plants. This spending could add up to about $25 billion per year but would still be seven times cheaper than the Kyoto Protocol and would increase global R&D tenfold. All nations would be involved, yet the richer ones would pay the larger share.

Why is this interesting? Because last night I started reading Break Through, by "bad boys of the environment" Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, and that's pretty much their message too. Environmentalists should quit guilting everyone out in an effort to accomplish the impossible, and should instead devote their energies to promoting paradigm-busting new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases without hurting economic growth.

So does this mean that N&S will be teaming up with Lomborg in an all-star global warming tour soon? They don't mention him in the book, so I don't know. But it's an interesting thought.

The book itself, by the way, is pretty good so far. N&S have an in-your-face style that, I imagine, has made them plenty of enemies, but that also makes their writing considerably more entertaining than your usual environmental tome. Plus they don't like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. much, which is a plus in my book. I won't say anything more about Break Through until I've finished it, but at the halfway mark it's a good read.

Kevin Drum 7:13 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (82)

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Comments

Ok, this notion is all well and good, but as countless examples have shown, you can't just ask taxpayers and investors to risk enormous sums on R&D of this sort if there isn't a broad consensus that it's necessary. Lomborg's argument refutes itself: global warming is not really a big deal, but we should massively increase investment in new technologies to cope with this not-terribly-significant future threat. The only way people are going to do what it takes to invest in high-tech, low-carbon energy alternatives is a massive realization that global warming is a huge threat to human civilization as we know it and if we don't get on top of this now, it's going to be too late. American taxpayers weren't terribly interested in investing huge sums in science education in the 50's either until Sputnik jolted them out of their misconceptions about Soviet technology.

Posted by: jonas on October 8, 2007 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

Ideally, every nation should commit to spending 0.05 percent of its gross domestic product exploring non-carbon-emitting energy technologies, be they wind, wave or solar power, or capturing CO2 emissions from power plants.

Arguments like that without citations typically belong in books that aren't serious.

Posted by: Old Hat on October 8, 2007 at 7:40 PM | PERMALINK

spending money doesn't guarantee breakthroughs, and there are some limits, e.g. the ultimate efficiency of a heat engine, that aren't going to change for any amount of it. R&D is good, but so is doing what you know you can do now instead of always waiting for the next big thing when it may never happen.

Posted by: supersaurus on October 8, 2007 at 7:41 PM | PERMALINK

Lomborg is just following the standard wingnut trajectory of first denying GW, then claiming that we can't afford to do anything about it, to arguing that if we pray hard enough to Prometheus, that technology will save us from our sins. Nothing new to see here.

Posted by: Disputo on October 8, 2007 at 7:43 PM | PERMALINK

I think R&D is key to dealing with global warming and the best way to jump start that R&D is a carbon tax. It is odd that people who consider themselves pro-market like Lomborg, since he wouldn't recognize a market based solution if he tripped over it. A carbon tax might cause a huge expansion of solar or wind power, sales of hybrid cars, or more insulation or just turning thermostats down. People with faith in capitalism assume that, with a tax, the most cost efficient way of reducing emissions will emerge. People like me, who aren't fanatics, bet that tens of thousands of engineers and millions of consumers seeking profits or cost savings will find a better solution than Lomborg can while on his book tour.

I see no reason to guess that Lomborg or any single person can do better than the market at solving the problem at the lowest cost. I can only assume that he is both totally mind boggling arrogant and not really interested in reducing global warming.

Of course, I have believed both for years.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on October 8, 2007 at 7:46 PM | PERMALINK

ive heard all this nonsense before and it hasnt worked out so well for "the world" in the past. ive heard "let big pharma loose and cheap vacines for all the third world will be the result" hasnt happened. "let big agri run loose and gm foods will feed the third world" hasnt happened. "let big energy make cheap nukes and drill anywhere for oil and the world will be given light" the idea that technologies can save is is scetchy at best, and very dangerous at its worst. which mega company will spend zillions of dollars to develop "clean air" (something we used to have lots of until technology started helping us out) and then give it a away? any corporation that develops scrubbers or portable re-breathers or whatever sci-fi solution you want to imagine will be selling them to the rich an everyone else will lump it.

Posted by: mike adair on October 8, 2007 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

Proponents of pacts such as Kyoto want us to spend enormous sums of money doing very little good for the planet a hundred years from now

That's funny, asshole, because I, for one, care about my future children.

Pigs like Lomborg are the major obstacle to doing something about global warming, not uninvented magical Technology X or an amazing carbon tax scheme.

Posted by: Old Hat on October 8, 2007 at 7:52 PM | PERMALINK

I'm curious what your beef is with RFK Jr.

Posted by: bruce on October 8, 2007 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

Spare me.

He is acknowledging the concensus estimates on the impact of global warming, describing several of the likely impacts on humanity, and pointing out that those impacts are better mediated than confronted directly at this point in time.

Regarding Kevin's rather petty dislike of Lomborg:

1) As a rhetorical technique, there is no difference between citing a theoretical concern about positive feedback effects of unspecified magnitude and saying that if we don't bomb Iran now there will be mushroom clouds in manhattan. They both represent a "One Percent Doctrine" approach to policy.

2) Lomborg's arguments seem fact-based. If he is being as selective in his presentation as you say, then what facts do you have to counter his?
Your response was very "I'm-taking-my-ball-and-going-home".

3) It is strange that you piss all over lomborg, then celebrate the other two -- who are basicly saying the same thing. Is your problem with the message, or the messenger?

Posted by: Adam on October 8, 2007 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

People like me, who aren't fanatics, bet that tens of thousands of engineers and millions of consumers seeking profits or cost savings will find a better solution than Lomborg can while on his book tour.

I think you have a quaint religious faith in the free market, but I know of no fundamental law dictating this as truth.

From the consumer's point of view, I see lots of other factors that keep me from buying the best possible return on my investment, namely the barrier costs of switching, ie., e.g. the price of a Prius compared to the cost of keeping my gas guzzler working.

From the engineer's point of view, I see lots of promising technologies NEVER invested in. This tech is not favored by management. That tech isn't interesting -- it would be great if it existed, but it requires an enormous distribution chain/customer education/customer support/logistics/... that we can't force on the market place.

Some changes can only be made by government fiat, or produced by taxpayer funded research and will never be made by the market place. I think the market is path dependent.

Posted by: jerry on October 8, 2007 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

Environmentalists should...devote their energies to promoting paradigm-busting new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases without hurting economic growth.

I'm all for minimizing the impact on economic growth that will be involved in combatting global warming. But three things should be stated upfront:

1) We've got to stop the buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Period.

2) There may be some costs associated with that. Sure, we can do a lot to reduce and mitigate those costs, but we need to accept, going in, that a solution substantial enough to deal with the problem may well slow down economic growth over the next couple of decades.

3) Global warming, in addition to its potential as a humanitarian catastrophe, will almost surely hurt economic growth as well. That part almost never gets mentioned.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on October 8, 2007 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

Why is a plus to dislike RFK? And because we are talking about the environment, I am going to assume you mean junior?

Posted by: Scu on October 8, 2007 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah. I'm not a fan of RFK or anything, but I'd be curious to know what Kevin's beef with him is. Kevin?

Posted by: KC on October 8, 2007 at 8:06 PM | PERMALINK

Environmentalists should quit guilting everyone out in an effort to accomplish the impossible, and should instead devote their energies to promoting paradigm-busting new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases without hurting economic growth.
—Kevin Drum

Sure the should, but that reminds me way too much of the old Monty Python routine.

* * * * *

Alan Hello.

Noel Hello.

Alan Well, last week we showed you how to become a gynaecologist. And this week on 'How to do it' we're going to show you how to play the flute, how to split an atom, how to construct a box girder bridge, how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, but first, here's Jackie to tell you all how to rid the world of all known diseases.

Jackie Hello, Alan.

Alan Hello, Jackie.

Jackie Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvellous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be any diseases ever again.

Alan Thanks, Jackie. Great idea. How to play the flute. (picking up a flute) Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here.

Posted by: JeffII on October 8, 2007 at 8:07 PM | PERMALINK

Robert Waldmann: I think R&D is key to dealing with global warming and the best way to jump start that R&D is a carbon tax. ... tens of thousands of engineers and millions of consumers seeking profits or cost savings will find a better solution than Lomborg can while on his book tour.

I half agree. People see this as an either/or, but what's really needed is a hybrid approach (pun intended).

In support of your argument, the Nordhaus and Shellenberger Apollo project analogy is seriously flawed. Apollo, while one of the great achievements in human history, was a project for a handful of moon missions at almost any cost. By contrast what we need are reasonably inexpensive sources of non-fossil-carbon energy. We already know how to do the cost-no-object variant.

This is a key distinction. Government funded research is typically very good for long range, basic science (or at least basic engineering) projects. It has a miserable record though for development work that's closer to production (Synfuels Corp. anyone?). Government and academic research labs typically don't have the expertise or the inclination to bring things to production or large scale deployment. Furthermore, the incentives are wrong. This sort of thing is best done by industry where one's continued livelihood depends on meeting cost goals. Direct subsidy of industry R&D is even worse - it invariably becomes a gravy train.

So yes, a carbon tax is necessary to provide a financial incentive for companies to provide non-fossil-carbon energy, and for people to buy it. Let the market work, with a tax to compensate for the externalities.

OTOH there's still a gov't role for the long range research. For example, the algae to fuel approach that's now being tried by industry relies on algae strains originally developed by NASA for this purpose, and know-how gained from the DOE's pilot program.

There may also be a place for gov't to invest in large scale infrastructure projects. For example, France's electricity is 70% nuclear, and it's a gov't utility.

Posted by: alex on October 8, 2007 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

@low-tech cyclist

I think Lomborg, the other two, everyone posting here all agree with you on point one. Point two is the difference.

Lomborg's thesis, which is to some extent testable, is that the best long-run policy for dealing with global warming is to focus on mitigation in the short run and new technology in the long long. The longer you can kick the can down the road the richer the world will be when you finally have to do something.

I'd throw in some regulation to eliminate the worst offenders in the US and promote conservation (maybe through a carbon tax) as well as fund R&D, but those are details.

The antithesis of this viewpoint is the Global Warming is the Wages of Sin argument, where The Whole Earth Hangs in the Balance and people find Purpose in their fight against Consumption.

That viewpoint is crap.

Posted by: Adam on October 8, 2007 at 8:13 PM | PERMALINK

I don't get the point that "there are more important things to spend money on" than GW etc. Even if GW wasn't such a big threat, most of the things we could do to alleviate it are good conservation measures anyway, like using less carbon fuels, more energy efficient appliances and cars, etc. What the heck do they think the spending is going to be on? Not that much of it would be "wasteful" in any other sense, anyway.

Posted by: Neil B. on October 8, 2007 at 8:18 PM | PERMALINK

Two words:
Carbon Tax

Posted by: barney on October 8, 2007 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK

What and where is that recent study, saying that the destructive cost of GW would be more than the expense of all but the most extreme countermeasures? IOW, if that was valid, the argument that it's "too expensive" to fight GW is crap. I think I saw some mention in Scientific American, maybe New Scientist etc.

Posted by: Neil B. on October 8, 2007 at 8:27 PM | PERMALINK

I'm far more conservative than you, but even I can see right through the "Let's do nothing and wait for technology to save us" story.

The reality is that the cost of controlling all forms of pollution over the last 40 years was:
1) Much, much cheaper than industry, or anyone else estimated.
2) Made even cheaper, not by research, but by the pressure of the market forcing companies to find the least expensive remediation.

If waiting for technology is such a good idea for climate change, why not apply it to health care too! Let's not bother trying to reform the US health care system. Wouldn't it better to just invest in research to find a new way that makes everyone healthly?

There are no two ways about it. Putting a price on carbon will find cheaper ways to reduce carbon a whole lot fasetr than throwing a bunch of cash at beltway connected research programs.

Posted by: Jack on October 8, 2007 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: what's your problem with Robert F Kennedy? I saw him speak once and it was riveting. I'm curious to hear though why you don't like him.

Posted by: Andrew Slack on October 8, 2007 at 8:41 PM | PERMALINK

Scu: "Why is a plus to dislike RFK [Jr.]?"

Beats me. Perhaps it's his radio voice, which sounds like he's had one too many espressos. But I like him anyway.

Posted by: Donald from Hawaii on October 8, 2007 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

So, Kevin, when are you going to answer the real question everyone is asking: What's your beef with RFK?

Posted by: KC on October 8, 2007 at 8:53 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: " And he ignores the small but definitely non-negligible possibility of catastrophic change if global warming enters a positive feedback loop bigger than current models predict."

Everything I read concerning GW emphasizes how positive feedback loops (notice the plural) are already having a large effect on climate change. Models that include the feedback loops (more discovered on almost a monthly basis) indeed point to catastrophe. The chance is not small but instead very, very large that positive feedback loops will make any conservation or technology efforts far too little and far too late.

Posted by: nepeta on October 8, 2007 at 9:16 PM | PERMALINK

So how much does it cost to switch from a beef-based diet to a plant-centric one? That alone would have about as much impact as giving up cars for mass transportation. How much more cost effective can you get?

Posted by: John de Hoog on October 8, 2007 at 9:22 PM | PERMALINK

How can a gay vegetarian be such a tool for the right.

I really hate that he is one of the most famous Danes abroad.

Posted by: Mike In Denmark on October 8, 2007 at 9:26 PM | PERMALINK

I must say that in Pennsylvania in the second week of October the heat factor is significant as the trees have not changed to color for fall, and this morning, geranium buds were evident outside the door of my castle. It has been sunny, in the 90's and very summerish.
It is with reservation that I put the hard top on the car and swear off summer in a realistic manner. I have had the top off the car for 7 straight months.

Posted by: consider wisely always on October 8, 2007 at 9:26 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe blue-state liberals should stop using plastic shopping bags so we use less petroleum, and red state Republicans (yee-haw!) won't have to look like wussies by being the ones who start it. Then we can put off using up all our petroleum / produce less carbon emissions.

Seriously though:

I think we should stop doing whatever it is that causes global warming and find ways to replace those things that don't cause global warming. Arguments that ignore part of this seem to be excuses for interests that won't benefit from stopping global warming inducing practices to me.

Posted by: Swan on October 8, 2007 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps it's his radio voice, which sounds like he's had one too many espressos. But I like him anyway.

Kennedy apparently suffers from spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder that makes speech difficult and causes the voice to sound quavery.

Posted by: AJ on October 8, 2007 at 9:37 PM | PERMALINK

I hadn't heard before that Lomborg is a vegetarian. That means he is actually doing a lot to counter global warming, much of which is related to meat eating. If we really care, we'll have to change our diet, not just the types of cars and light bulbs we use.

Posted by: Neil B. on October 8, 2007 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

Perhaps it's because RFK Jr. propagates pseudoscience about autism.

Posted by: amk on October 8, 2007 at 9:50 PM | PERMALINK

Few things have been more thoroughly researched than energy. That's why we use oil and gas.

We even have a branch of science called "thermodynamics."

Calls for research mean "don't make me drive a small car."

Posted by: Luther on October 8, 2007 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

McKibben nails Lomborg to the wall. Lomborg says we should spend money on x rather than doing somethinga about climate changes, x being malaria, poverty, etc. He is setting up a false dichotomy. Why not spend money on malaria instead of new weapons, bridges to nowhere and other highways, etc.

Posted by: Eli Rabett on October 8, 2007 at 10:08 PM | PERMALINK

it occurs to me that a species that won't save itself if the process is expensive probably isn't worth saving in the first place.

Last one left turn out the lights.

Posted by: Tlaloc on October 8, 2007 at 10:13 PM | PERMALINK

I really hate that he is one of the most famous Danes abroad.

I hear that Lomborg is out-polling Hamlet now....

Posted by: Disputo on October 8, 2007 at 10:17 PM | PERMALINK

Disputo: I hear that Lomborg is out-polling Hamlet now....

A more appropriate comparison would be how he stacks up against Denmark's King Canute.

Posted by: alex on October 8, 2007 at 10:23 PM | PERMALINK

@neil B

Its amazing! All we have to do is use less carbon fuels! Then we can win the war on drugs by Just Saying No and prevent teen pregnancy by advocating Abstainence.

Seriously -- go read JeffII's comment at 8:07

Also - that study you mention, if it is the british one put out last year, was flawed. The authors basicly assumed that a dollar of mitigation now was as "costly" as a dollar of mitigation in the future. They also made a few other assumptions (the analysis is on the guardian unlimited website somewhere) that effectively preclude any kind of investment. Including investment in economic growth. I wouldn't say they knew the conclusions they were after - but they made some pretty contradictory assumptions.

Posted by: Adam on October 8, 2007 at 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

Look, folks, like all the wingnuts, Lomborg has been consistently wrong about GW. Paying any heed to his latest book on the subject is roughly the equivalent of listening to Cheney's latest ideas where the WMDs are.

Posted by: Disputo on October 8, 2007 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

@eli rabbett

"Why not spend money on malaria instead of new weapons, bridges to nowhere and other highways, etc."

You have a finite pool of money. How do you allocate it? You may not like the current level of military spending, pork barrel spending, etc (I'm right there with you, btw), but for the sake of an honest argument you have to take it as a given.

When you allocate your first global warming dollar, where does it go? To migitation or prevention? Lomborg's argument is that first dollar is better spent on migitation.

Posted by: adam on October 8, 2007 at 10:33 PM | PERMALINK

@disputo

Google Lomborg, Ehrlich, and metal

This guys been right before.

Posted by: Adam on October 8, 2007 at 10:37 PM | PERMALINK

Lomborg has it backwards. Once we are forced to start spending $20 a ton to cut carbon emissions, it will get a lot of attention and there will be a lot of incentive to developed breakthrough technologies. Scheduling cuts in carbon emissions to start just as soon as we achieve a "miracle" technological breakthrough is just plain wrong (not to mention dumb). Why would anyone spend a dime on developement to meet more of less "volentary " standards? (I know, to save the earth and all that, but read Garett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" to understand why this is not enough.)

Posted by: fafner1 on October 8, 2007 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

and that was "mitigation or prevention" in the post above -- sorry. And that was Dr. Simon - not Lomborg :)

Posted by: Adam on October 8, 2007 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

For anybody who wants to get the executive summary of N&S thesis (albeit a bit slanted), Wired Magazine has a story about them in the current issue, already online:

http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/15-10/mf_burning

Posted by: AC on October 8, 2007 at 10:43 PM | PERMALINK

Three low/no-cost proposals, some repeated previously:

1) reduce meat in diet, especially beef.

2) drive smaller cars

3) bike for short trips, especially if you are overweight

Ignoring carbon issues, these might even be net positive, because of greater transportation and parking density, and improved health from the additional exercise and reduced saturated fat.

No R&D necessary, no distribution channel necessary, either. What is needed is a lot of marketing and advertising to change minds, so that people don't think they need a fatmobile, and don't need to drive for each and every trip, and don't need their daily helping of dead mammal.

(It would help if the bicycle manufacturers sold something a little more practical than what they are so often selling now. It's instructive to look at what sort of bikes people ride in places where 35% of the population rides bikes. Not many mountain bikes or triathlon bikes there.)

Posted by: dr2chase on October 8, 2007 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

If you assume GW is a long term problem, but there is little harm in waiting a quarter century before tackling it his argument makes sense. The problem is serious climate risk has already been incurred, and waiting for the silver bullet only compounds the risk. I for one believe that better tech will be biggest part of the solution, but we gotta encourage the uptake of the best available technology available in any given time frame. For instance we have much better tech for lighting (compact florescents, and LEDs), but most people are still buying the old incandescent models. We gotta work on getting best available stuff into widesread usage. This will require some sort of regulation and/or taxation, either of which is anathema to libertarians. Most resistance to doing anything about GW seems to come from libertarians.

Posted by: bigTom on October 8, 2007 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

Global warming ... Heh!
Populatin as in 'over' is the problem. You confuse the symptoms with the disease.

Posted by: jay boilswater on October 8, 2007 at 10:53 PM | PERMALINK

Even mild climate change is very bad. It is important to understand what is happening with wildlife ecosystems. Even the very mildest climate change is already accelerating the process of a large species extinction period that is just beginning. These extinctions are set-up to occur, originally because of habitat reductions and fragmentations. Climate change -- even MILD climate change -- makes it all much faster, and worse. Both terrestrial and marine ecosystems are starting to crash.

There IS no more time. Lomborg has refused to understand this through three books. Mild climate change may not affect the rich people; and we may be able to "mitigate" some of the effects upon the poor; but the rest of creation is about to start looking very, very different. The people who tend to think that humans are the end-all and be-all of the planet, should think very carefully about what they believe.

We need all kinds of efforts, across the board -- there is no single silver bullet on climate. Unless someone invents an atmospheric sequestration technique very fast. There is no doubt that we could use an international treaty. Kyoto was only supposed to last for another 5 years or so before an evaluation. Inveighing against it has been a politically opportune straw man.

I don't know who these environmentalists are, who are accused of wanting to stop major R&D investment for technological change. We never hear them named, never read any of their stuff. We hear instead about people who cry NIMBY about windmills. But they are simply not a major problem. Nordhaus and Shellenberger are (or were; I haven't seen the new book yet) aiming specifically at the tactics of the big D.C. environmental lobby, which started running into roadblocks after some early legislative successes. It's a fascinating story about the kinds of environmental damage, kinds of activist tactics, and kinds of corporate counter-tactics. But I don't know of any concerted effort against funding for new technologies by the environmental lobby.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on October 8, 2007 at 11:13 PM | PERMALINK

Silly humans, your chance to do something about global warming is long past. Better figure out how you're going to survive the scavenging hordes, drought, flood, and plague.

Good luck with that.

Posted by: Cave Dweller on October 9, 2007 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

Except in the space program technological innovation has historically generated profits. Economic growth is to a large extent a function of technological innovation. Making technological innovation a profitless part of the economy by throwing dollars at pie-in-the-sky schemes undermines economic growth. What government best do is is fund new eletricity generating devices at the working scientific model level. Working scientific models are often expensive and require government support but just throwing dollars hoping for a technological breathrough is counterproductive. Via 'diffusion' of the working scientific model corporations techologically innovate generating profits. Of course pollution standards have to be such that less pollution is mandated. Less expensive (less expensive in the short run) but more polluting electricity generating devices are too be avoided.

Posted by: zed on October 9, 2007 at 12:30 AM | PERMALINK

I think there's a lot more for us to do here than just killing off these kinds of arguments. Sure, it's easy to see that if these guys want us to go at it the way they want us to go at it, that's going to be hopeless. But there's more to it than them just giving up. We also have to spark the public awareness to this problem to do more. We can look at these guys, and see that they are tresspassing on the forbidden, and when you set foot on the forbidden, you have to be hurt-- there have to be consequences. But we also have to be thinking about where we're going to be building when these temporary obstacles have gone the way of the Dodo, and that takes awareness and focus.

Posted by: Swan on October 9, 2007 at 12:44 AM | PERMALINK

I just built a 4 unit condo building using SIPs and geothermal for the HVAC. It cost 4% more than building conventionally. Occupants will pay about half for their energy bills. The building will put off 65% less greenhouse gasses than a new conventionally built home. The systems will pay for themselves in 5 years.

If you want immediate payoffs conservation is "impossible". In 30 years this building will have used at least $90,000 less energy. The greenhouse gas reductions are huge. And you know what? IT WAS EASY. Too bad most Americans are so stupid.

Posted by: Richard Harrod on October 9, 2007 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

(It would help if the bicycle manufacturers sold something a little more practical than what they are so often selling now. It's instructive to look at what sort of bikes people ride in places where 35% of the population rides bikes. Not many mountain bikes or triathlon bikes there.)
Posted by: dr2chase on October 8, 2007 at 10:46 PM
------
Thanks for the link with those pictures. I noticed one thing right away: Fenders and chain guards. It seems like Americans only ride bikes when it is sunny and pretty I guess. If you have to depend on one when the weather isn't perfectly dry I suppose you have to live with a big stripe on your back when it rains.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on October 9, 2007 at 1:35 AM | PERMALINK

There's a root problem with the whole "cost of reducing emissions" argument, and it's moral, not economic:

It doesn't "cost" money to consume less of something. Driving a honda civic instead of an SUV behemoth does not cost society, unless you insist on driving said behemoth *and* not having it consume so much gas. That would cost plenty, requiring a great deal of advanced technology, or not even be possible. But consuming less fuel generally saves individuals money if you pick the most straightforward path, which is to just spend your time and attention on less consumptive items.

The right order of events is for emissions budgets to be set at the national level, tune market incentives and infrastructure investments such to meet those budgets, and comb over regulatory systems for backwards incentives. Then the budget is gradually reduced. Incentives-then-accept-results is the reverse of the correct order.

Yes, production and consumption of many classes of goods will not survive that. No, that's not a dire human tragedy. People will simply consume other things, that are less resource intensive. It doesn't have to be lentils and hemp clothing. It can just as well be biotech-derived medical treatments and iPhones (although I for one will not be missing the bayliners, jetskies, and SUVs).

The tremendous economic costs to emission reduction are usually based on the assumption that we live exactly as we do now, and apply existing technology to maintain that static pattern of consumer choice. No other societal or cultural shift is expected to work that way, why is this one?

Preferences can and should adapt to circumstances and relative costs. What provides social status will change to reflect reality.

Posted by: beta_nickname@hotmail.com on October 9, 2007 at 1:39 AM | PERMALINK

Population is the problem, and no one except, strangely, the reviled Chinese have dealt with it in a real way. Weisman's book, After We Are Gone says it is already too late, but he reluctantly concedes that if everyone adopted a one child policy the global population would be back down to 1 Billion + by the turn of the century (I'm writing this from memory and don't have the book with me).

I'm teaching International Environmental Law in an LL.M program overseas now. The last guest speaker I had was a Canadian businessman/venture capitalist/climatologist who is working on a long shot carbon credit conversion scheme here in this 2nd world country. He thinks it may already be too late to change the future, but like the good person he is, and we all should be, he is doing everything he can to go in the right direction as fast as he can.

What on earth other choice is there...put head in sand and do not watch as we get run over? Actually, it is clearer than this: as long as my house is not under water, my child is not starving to death, my wife can still breathe the air, it's not my problem. America is a long, long way from the rest of the world.

Posted by: christine on October 9, 2007 at 2:45 AM | PERMALINK

I saw another misuse of King Canute lately.

I remember it as the reverse of the king with no clothes as he was demonstrating to his courtiers that unreasoned flattery would get them nowhere.
========================

Lomborg is fairly selective as to how widespread and expensive the mitigation might become. Almost all the problems facing humanity at this time, from malaria to literacy to hunger, arise from lack of will rather than cost or impossiblity, and have been around in the spotlight for 40 years without resolution, so I think we can dismiss his specious either/or , or better-this-than-that argument.

On climate change I rather feel that those who believe we can wait to spend money on mitigation are either really global warming deniers, or lack the imagination to foresee the huge costs that may result as positive feedback accelerates change -- not only direct economic losses but environment change: desertification, erosion, habitat loss, species extinction, agricultural difficulties, ocean change.

Unfortunately, it is very possible we won't know we've reached this point for sure until it is too late. That's science, rather than religion, for you. Slowing the rate of change now makes complete sense in allowing science and modelling to catch up for better prediction and better targeted developments.

Fundamentally we need less people consuming fewer resources in a more efficient and sustainable way. We arrived here because of exponential population growth -- even though it is a minority who so far consume the most -- and unfettered capitalism that, unless forced by society, has never apportioned waste disposal or any other avoidable costs to product pricing.

The way that western society is programmed, and what we have exported to the rest of the world's population, requires more than just persuasion to effect change. To modify behavior requires a stimulus that prods us in the "correct" direction. A gradually rising carbon tax or declining tradable carbon credits, apportioned variably between devloping and developed nations, would achieve what is required while allowing the market to apply the best solution.

I can see a place for government in infrastructure or long-term and fundamental research, however, if the present day energy companies wish to retain their very priviliged and subsidized positions, it would probaly be worth their while getting on board and investing their billions in their own and our future.

Posted by: notthere on October 9, 2007 at 2:56 AM | PERMALINK

None of the proposed schemes will have the desired outcome if population growth isn't halted and then reversed.

The bottom line is that the world is in what ecologists call an "overshoot-and-collapse" mode. Demand has exceeded the sustainable yield of natural systems at the local level countless times in the past (see Collapse by Jared Diamond). Now, for the first time, it is doing so at the global level. Forests are shrinking for the world as a whole. Fishery collapses are widespread. Grasslands are deteriorating on every continent. Water tables are falling in many countries. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions exceed CO2 sequestration.

In 2002, a team of scientists led by Mathis Wackernagel, who now heads the Global Footprint Network, concluded that humanity's collective demands first surpassed the earth's regenerative capacity around 1980. Their study, published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, estimated that global demands in 1999 exceeded that capacity by 20 percent. The gap, growing by 1
percent or so a year, is now much wider. We are meeting current demands by consuming the earth's natural assets, setting the stage for decline and
collapse.

Talk is cheap. What we need is the political will and leadership to make the necessary changes in time to avoid a catastrophic suffering.

Posted by: DevilDog on October 9, 2007 at 3:25 AM | PERMALINK

Burning Lomborg's books will provide carbon neutral energy in your wood stove if you should need to stay warm on a cold morning.

Posted by: slanted tom on October 9, 2007 at 8:20 AM | PERMALINK


Second verse same as the first: nuclear energy is the only way around whatever it that AGW has in store for us. One would think that the double whammy of Peak Oil and AGW would goose us enough to move. But you'd be wrong.

Posted by: Jeffrey Davis on October 9, 2007 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

Burning Lomborg's books will provide carbon neutral energy in your wood stove

But a cord of wood is much more cost-effective.

Posted by: dr2chase on October 9, 2007 at 9:33 AM | PERMALINK

It is entirely possible that doing nothing about global climate change will be the most economically ruinous course possible. Complaints that environmental regulation will be absurdly expensive are as old as environmental regulation, and they have been consistently wrong. The global warming denialists have been wrong about everything, and there is just no reason to listen to them any more.

Posted by: Marc on October 9, 2007 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK

This issue is a religion to you folks. It provides an expression for your alienation. Capitalism to Competition to vegetarianism to cars to class and culture - an overarching critique of everything about our society that makes you uncomfortable.

Global warming exists. Dealing with global warming is an economic and engineering problem. It will have economic and engineering solutions.

Posted by: Adam on October 9, 2007 at 10:18 AM | PERMALINK

paradigm-busting new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gases without hurting economic growth.

Like what? There is no "silver bullet" that will magically absorb all the CO2. You're telling us to give up on trying to change the absurd, unsustainable usage regime and bank everything on a pipe dream.

I'm sure David Broder is on board.

Posted by: scarshapedstar on October 9, 2007 at 10:25 AM | PERMALINK

Happy motoring, happy motoring
French fry oil or hydrogen cells
liquified coal, corn or sugarcane
or a nuke plant in my trunk
I'll consume the planet if I have to
I don't care if foreigners starve
as long as I can keep on
happy motoring, happy motoring

Posted by: Oblivious on October 9, 2007 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

Adam @8:13pm: Lomborg's thesis, which is to some extent testable, is that the best long-run policy for dealing with global warming is to focus on mitigation in the short run and new technology in the long long. The longer you can kick the can down the road the richer the world will be when you finally have to do something.

Kicking the can down the road? That's all we're talking about doing. And it's going to take a great deal of action to get to the point where we can do that.

The current push is all about getting atmospheric carbon levels to level out at a level just below the point where it would likely cause dramatic and irreversible (on civilization's timescale, that is) changes.

Once it's leveled out at whatever the magic number is (550ppm? can't remember), "kicking the can down the road" equates to keeping the carbon levels constant. We aren't able to kick anything down the road yet.

The antithesis of this viewpoint is the Global Warming is the Wages of Sin argument, where The Whole Earth Hangs in the Balance and people find Purpose in their fight against Consumption.

Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion just called - they want their strawman back.

The "Whole Earth Hangs in the Balance" part might actually be true - but very few people are saying we'd need to make substantial lifestyle cuts in order to save the world as we know it. We're going to have to learn to make more efficient use of the energy we currently burn, but that shouldn't be hard, because we make tremendously inefficient use of energy in this country. So we ought to be able to make substantial cuts in the use of energy, without much in the way of lifestyle consequences.

We've done this once already, btw. We were using a lot less petroleum in 1989 than in 1979. Were we any the worse off in 1989 than in 1979? Hell no - we were considerably better off by then.

I can't dispute that addressing climate change may mean our lifestyles might improve less rapidly than if we do nothing. But that's what we're talking about, not Wages of Sin nonsense.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on October 9, 2007 at 11:28 AM | PERMALINK

beta_nickname@hotmail.com: It doesn't have to be lentils and hemp clothing.

But I like lentil soup. Really.

Posted by: alex on October 9, 2007 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

@low tech cyclist

Number 1. The whole earth does not hang in the balance. The whole earth has been around 4 billion years and will be around 4 billion more. We are not the gaurdians of the earth. Should our existance prove as disruptive as the largest mass extinction to date, in 70 million years or so it would require a palentologist to determine we were ever here (which means the whole cycle could repeat itself 40+ times before the sun swallows the earth and ends the game).

You claim that I'm setting up a straw man, but if you look at the majority of the posts on this thread they express the quasi-theologicial sentiments I discribed.

Number 2. Stabilizing carbon emissions does not mean stabilizing carbon emissions at pre-industrial levels. The former is necessary, the later is not. If one seeks to maximize the benefit to humanity then a higher level of CO2 might be optimal (because of the costs involved).

Why are you so fixated in minimizing the excursion in CO2 levels (or global temp, etc)? Human well-being is the final measure.

Posted by: Adam on October 9, 2007 at 12:51 PM | PERMALINK


This issue is a religion to you folks.

Uh, no. Lomberg, and others, make the assertion that doing something about global warming now would harm economic growth. I offer, as a counterexample, less meat-eating (not vege-anything -- just less), smaller cars (not no cars), and bicycling (not always, just when convenient). These changes are not costly, and most of the uses of large cars that I see (people commuting to/from work) are not economically superior to the use of a small car. We could do these things now, if the changes were effectively marketed (just as fatmobiles were effectively marketed to us for the last few decades). Reducing our footprint, NOW, would give us more time to find and deploy our re-vo-lu-tionary new technologies.

A carbon tax would make these changes more financially attractive, but the push would be more individual/social, and less entrepeneurial. We know how to build smaller cars, we know how to buy less meat, we know how to build and ride bicycles (and a lot of cargo-carrying innovation has already occured in the Netherlands and the third world; why innovate when you can steal?)

Posted by: dr2chase on October 9, 2007 at 1:00 PM | PERMALINK

Adam: unlike you, I'm a scientist. We have a place for skeptics in science, but they lose their credibility when they continue to deny what is obvious. It is right-wingers - like you - who have transformed this into a political football. To then claim that people who have studied this issue treat it like a "religion", or that we hate progress, etc. is just projecting your prejudices onto us (with the opposite sign, naturally.)

Human activity is changing the atmosphere.
The planet is getting warmer.
There is very well-understood physics linking the above two facts.
We are seeing clear evidence that the conservative scientific estimates for climate change are underestimating positive feedback effects, which means that things are changing more rapidly than we thought.
We see historical evidence for phase transitions, opening the possibility for radical changes occuring over human timescales.

This isn't religion; it's science. The people who complain that doing anything is too expensive tend to be the same folks who exhibited poor insight and judgement on the issues above. Their complaints are extremely similar to those about addressing water and air pollution. Folks like Adam assume that there are no costs associated with continuing on the present course, and only costs associated with changing it. This isn't even good economics.

You mention religion as if it's a bad thing, Adam. Do you want a moral argument? Happy to oblige. It will take a millenium to undo what we are doing now to the air we breathe. We don't know how long it will take to melt the Greenland and Antarctic ice, but we do know that they will melt if we continue on our current path. We will also have exhausted billions of years worth of fossil fuels within a couple of hundred years, and we are radically reshaping the planet in ways that will impact generation upon generation down the road. You may prefer "I've got mine, Jack." I like to think on a somewhat longer baseline.

Posted by: Marc on October 9, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

We've done this once already, btw. We were using a lot less petroleum in 1989 than in 1979. Were we any the worse off in 1989 than in 1979? Hell no - we were considerably better off by then.
Posted by: low-tech cyclist on October 9, 2007 at 11:28 AM
------
Yes, that's true-I remember it very well. The CAFE standards made a big difference. Builders were going out of their way to properly insulate homes. People were looking at EER ratios on air conditioners, etc. When there were structural changes, there was a substantive response. There even was a side benefit of lower fuel costs, which left more money in people's pockets to buy other things. The share of GDP that went to energy dropped significantly and the economy boomed. Then the '90s happened and the auto industry found a way to sell SUV's as commercial trucks and we went on a big binge and now look at the result. In debt, overweight, and gas prices through the roof.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on October 9, 2007 at 3:23 PM | PERMALINK

"It's a worldwide issue. We've had growing economies everywhere, we're still basing that economic activity on fossil fuels. The metabolism of that economy is now on a collision course clearly with the metabolism of our planet." - Tim Flannery

Posted by: MsNThrope on October 9, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

@Marc

You're a scientist? Nice, so am I. As for your screed:

1. Human activity is changing the atmosphere.

I agree.

2. The planet is getting warmer.

I agree.

3. There is very well-understood physics linking the above two facts.

Yup. Notice btw that the right wing strawman
you built up seems to be at variance with the
facts.

4. We are seeing clear evidence that the conservative scientific estimates for climate change are underestimating positive feedback effects, which means that things are changing more rapidly than we thought.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
says we can expect a 3 - 8 degree C increase
in over the next 100 years. It also says
there is a 1 in 10 chance of greater change.
This is higher that previous estimates.
However, there is no reason to believe that
future concensus estimates for the same CO2
concentration will be higher.

5. We see historical evidence for phase transitions, opening the possibility for radical changes occuring over human timescales.

As I said above -- this is a "one percent
doctine" approach to climate change. You can
justify anything with it. Also, what do you
mean by "human timescale"? 50 years? The
bulk of our infrastructure lasts about that
long. The US interstate system was born 50
years ago. If climate change happens on a
timescale of 50 years we'll change with it.

You mention religion as if it's a bad thing, Adam. Do you want a moral argument? Happy to oblige.

No. I don't want a moral argument. Unless you
want to talk about how you justify denying
poor countries the fruits of economic
development.

Yes, I do think religion is a bad thing. It
replaces reason with piety. There seems to be
an excess of piety on this thread.

I am also amused that you think a timescale of
1000 years is significant. And that you
manage to assign moral values to average
temperatures. 125,000 years ago it was warmer
than it is right now. Was it less moral?

If the benefits from growth outway the costs
of global warming then it is moral to pursue
growth. Determining the likely effects of
global warming is the job of the climate
scientists. Determining the costs associated
with those effects is the job of other
researchers. Like Lomborg.

Your argument requires major revisions. But a
resubmission within 30 days will be reviewed :)

Posted by: Adam on October 9, 2007 at 8:31 PM | PERMALINK

Adam, as a scientist you should know better. #4 refers to things like the unpredicted extent of melting of the Arctic ice and the Greenland sheet this year, which clearly indicates that we have underestimated at least some positive feedback effects. I ddn't think anyone questioned this anymore, except maybe people glued to Fox News. And you needn't believe in any god at all, to suppose that eradicating wildlife ecosystems around the planet is a very bad thing. Indeed almost all SCIENTISTS are on the side of preserving things we didn't create, in order to study them better. We also need functioning biodiversity economically, since it turns out that regular ecosystem services, for things like water purification, flood mitigation, agricultural pollination, etc. etc. is worth around $35 trillion a year globally. Here again, you fail the science. You predictably divert the egotism in your argument, to a concern for the economic development of the poor countries -- this tactic never fails to appear: it's always to really to benefit someone ELSE -- even though economic growth it is NOT an issue in climate mitigation, (was this fear always an oil company canard? -- certainly, as soon as economists started to study it, it began to fall apart...) Moreover, people in poor countries poll just as high as the people in the rich countries on mitigating climate change. Lastly, Lomborg is not a researcher on cost effects; he is a statistician without portfolio in any of the sciences he weighs in upon, reading the secondary literature. It has been aptly said of his first book that "What is good isn't new, and what is new isn't good." And it's been downhill from there. He has every right to become a policy entrepreneur in the area (Nordhaus and Shellenberger, as well) but some real study is required. Growth can happen in many ways -- so besides science and religion, both you and he may be flunking economics.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on October 9, 2007 at 9:49 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin: what's your problem with Robert F Kennedy? I saw him speak once and it was riveting. I'm curious to hear though why you don't like him.

I also saw Kennedy speak and he was great. Maybe Kevin should elaborate a bit on his hatred for Robert Kennedy Jr.

Posted by: Moonlight on October 9, 2007 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

@Lee A Arnold

1. 35 Trillion? Nice try. The entire world GDP is 65 Trillion.

2. You claim that other development paths are open to developing nation that don't result in as much CO2 emission. That is a common claim and a pretty stupid one.

Here is a graph of the carbon emissions of China over time.

http://cdiac.ornl.gov/trends/emis/prc.htm

Kinda seems like development is tied to using more energy. Coal is the cheapest form of energy out there. So they use coal. A lot of the CO2 emissions come from the cement industry - which is kinda involved in building their infrastructure.

China has 1.3 billion people and emits ~1.4 MT/person. India has 1.1 billion people and emits ~1.2 MT/person.

Europe has 728 million people and emitted 8.40 MT/person in 2002 and 4.4 MT/person in 1950.

Doubling the carbon output of China and India alone - to per captia levels only half that of Europe in 1950 - would eliminate the effects of halving emissions in Europe. Those residual, halved, levels in Europe would still be twice as high as those in China or India (which suggests that levels in China and India would continue to grow). Notice I'm not even including the remaining 2 billion people in countries even less developed than China or India.

This is where I compare your policy perscriptions to Dobson's abstainance sex ed schemes. Great in theory - doesn't work in practice. To make prevention work, without remediation, mitigation, or R&D, would require the developed world to reduce emissions below the levels of the 1950's while freezing the emissions growth of the developing countries. That Not Going To Happen.

So you better come up with another idea. Unless all this posturing is simply about demonstrating personal virtue.

Posted by: Adam on October 10, 2007 at 12:33 PM | PERMALINK

You are right -- it's probably a little higher than $35 trillion by now. The figure comes from:

Costanza, R., et. al. (1997) "The value of the world's
ecosystem services and natural capital." Nature 387:253-260.

Someone who thinks energy use can never be re-engineered, is going to have a devil of a time making up for lost ecosystem services.

Posted by: Lee A. Arnold on October 10, 2007 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

i've drank over a liter today, and still hurt

Posted by: sameoldjeff on October 11, 2007 at 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

the earth's climate has changed constantly. follow the money

Posted by: sameoldjeff on October 11, 2007 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

or study some history

Posted by: sameoldjeff on October 11, 2007 at 10:49 PM | PERMALINK

try ridin a bike when yer legally blind, w/o glasses
iwas 101st airborne, but i'm not a a patriot, anymore.
russians can buy demerol over the counter. the concept of public drunk is totally foreign, to'em.

Posted by: sameoldjeff on October 11, 2007 at 10:56 PM | PERMALINK

Lomborg is a statistics guy. What does he know about climate change?

Of course, Gore deserved that prize, as a co-laureate along with the IPCC, it is a nice combination, the PR guy and the statistics working in tandem. Bravo to the Nobel people for using their heads on this one.

One thing we need to think about, and I realize nobody is going to like what I am going to say, is this: at some point along the road we, humankind, are going to need to think about “polar cities” to house the potential survivors of global warming events, possibly by the year 2500 or so. Some people tell me sooner. I am just using this date as a modest guessimate.

What are polar cities? And why I am proposing them now? Google the term, or Wikipedia it, and you will see. So far the mainstream media has shied away from writing anything about my idea, a few letters to editors published and a few bloggers have posted items about this, but it will be a long time before the New York Times get around to printing the words “polar cities” in its august pages. I hope it’s not too long. I am waiting to be interviewed, with both pro and con quotes from climate change experts part of the story too.

I hope we never need polar cities. James Lovelock hopes we never need them (I got the idea from him, of course!) But we just might need sustainable polar retreats (SPRs) or “polar cities” Far-fetched? Global warming catatrophic events are far-fetched too. But it’s time now — NOW! — to at least start talking about, thinking about, planning, designing and even pre-building some model polar cities in the northern regions.

Mainstream media, do you read me? It’s just an idea. It’s not the end of the world!

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