Saturday, January 19, 2008

Book Review: Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming

I became aware of the idea of climate change when I saw (I think) an Analog science fiction magazine cover that depicted glaciers filling Manhattan. The concept seemed horrible to me then, as now.

I first got on the global warming band wagon when I was a junior in high school, when a different magazine cover caught my eye. Discovery magazine had a front-page picture of Manhattan (again), this time with boats cruising up and down the avenues as a result of the ice caps melting. I took that image, imposed it on Chicago, and wrote a drippingly bad science fiction story using the flooding premise. Then I moved my politics to the right, and someone reminded me of the global ice age fears of 30 years before. Mirable dieu! The solutions for addressing the problem were the same as for a global ice age: restrict fossil fuels, raise taxes, change our lifestyles, etc. This was an important issue, dammit, and who the hell was I to question SCIENCE?!?

Well, maybe. But since high school, the rhetoric has only gotten more heated, so to speak, and sometimes hysterical and scary. Bjorn Lomborg, a professor of statistics and environmental activist, decided to take a serious look at the claims of his fellow travelers, found their facts subject to question, and wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist, which took the enviro movement to task for their overreach and hysteria.

The environmental movement has become entrenched as a movement of the left, and the left reserves a special hatred for apostates. Consider Leon Trotsky or, closer to our own time, David Horowitz. By questioning the environmental orthodoxy, which stated that the world was going to heck in a handcart and it is all America's fault, he has been roundly questioned or denounced in environmentalist circles. Lomborg has not backed down. His latest book is Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, which again takes on the environmentalists' orthodoxy by daring to suggest that global warming is, in fact, a problem, but not THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IN HISTORY! His attempt to moderate the language of the environmental debate ("cool it") is directed squarely at the enviros' new rock star, Al Gore. Lomborg has not made himself many more friends on the left, but his attempt at rational debate was welcomed by this gentleman of the right.

If you do not feel like reading the whole thing, here are some of his basic premises:
  1. Global warming is real and man-made.
  2. Statements about the strong, ominous, and immediate consequences of global warming are often wildly exaggerated, and this is unlikely to result in good policy.
  3. We need simpler, smarter, and more efficient solutions for global warming rather than excessive, if well-intentioned efforts [e.g. Kyoto].
  4. Many other issues are much more important than global warming.

...We need to remind ourselves that our ultimate goal is not to reduce greenhouse gases or global warming per se but to improve the quality of life and the environment.

Lomborg's biggest gripe with the Kyoto Protocol (also called the Kyoto Treaty) is that it imposes incredibly high costs--$180 billion a year--for very little improvement: just a .3 degree Fahrenheit drop in global average temperature. These figures are based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's and the United Nations' own numbers, so Lomborg is not just spinning for the oil companies. He is, rather, trying to get people to take a serious look at what else we could do to improve life on Earth without some magic, trillion-dollar bullet that doesn't do much anyway.

What Lomborg is advocating is a serious discussion of the potential impacts of global warming--rising seas, increased damage from hurricanes, heat-related deaths, and so forth--and suggesting that we look for other, less expensive ways to address these concerns. For instance, he notes that oceanic rising is only likely to be one foot over the next century, about what we've had since the end of the Little Ice Age 150 years ago--did anyone notice that? Instead of trashing our economy, which is politically infeasible as Al Gore and Bill Clinton realized, we could spend fewer billions improving levees, protecting homes, and ending government subsidies of insurance companies in the event of major events, like Hurricanes Andrew or Katrina. This is a social change rather than a technological change, but it would go a long way toward changing behavior on a micro- instead of a macro-level.

Another project Lomborg has been party to is a group called the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which is essentially a think tank of economists that was originally established to evaluate and rank the biggest societal problems on Earth--both by impact and our ability to fix them. The biggest problems the group identified were:

1. Unsafe water and lack of sanitation
2. Hunger and malnutrition
3. Lack of education

Global warming came near the bottom of the list. Water issues and malnutrition are much more easily resolved, as is education, though it requires more Peace Corps types of initiatives. Still: they're doable. Hunger could be reduced, Lomborg suggests, by ending subsidies to First World agriculture, opening the markets for Third World products. And one thing Lomborg makes clear, which is bound to drive the Marxists in the enviro movement crazy: the greatest way to reduce hunger, ignorance, and disease in the developing world is to increase free trade and make the citizens of those nations richer. And he makes the further point that Kyoto would create a massive financial drain on the West while in some cases making matters in the developing world worse.

This is activism of a sort that people of moderate or conservative disposition can accept. It doesn't require a great deal of money, from a Beltway point of view. Most of the proposals Lomborg suggests in his conclusion cost less than the NASA budget, such as HIV/AIDS education and condoms, vitamins, drinking water and sanitation solutions, levee improvements, DDT-based mosquito extermination, and agricultural reform. And each of these, I might add, would be more politically feasible, one by one, than the single, massive Kyoto Protocol. The end result of a series of smaller, less expensive and less "sexy" activities could do wonders for improving the quality of human life worldwide than a single, massive tax on the United States. If the choice was an increase in the foreign aid budget to accomplish all this in exchange for the wiping out of the U.S. economy, I'm all for it.

Lomborg does also address the need for alternative energy. But whereas Kyoto does nothing to encourage or develop new technologies, Lomborg would propose an increase of research and development funding to .05% of the West's GDP. Again, to use the NASA example, our nation spends .13% of its GDP on federal spaceflight activities--and many people think that's too much. Others question if the government should be spending money on R&D. There is a solution for this problem. In the 19th century, most of the money spent on R&D was spent by private foundations. The U.S. allowed a 70% tax break for businesses's R&D expenditures to expire. That is easily fixed, especially if such a tax break was targeted toward alternative energies, including my favorites: space solar power and Helium-3, both of which are "carbon-neutral," to use the buzzword of the day.

What I appreciate about Lomborg's book is its desire to get to workable, affordable, and politically feasible solutions. And all of this is done in tones of rationalism (we need to follow the data and do reasonable cost-benefit analyses) and civility (no strident screaming or name-calling). What a shame that sanity and politeness don't sell in the current political climate. It's amazing what we could accomplish if they did. Lomborg's book deserves serious attention if they ever do.

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