Book Review: Cool It
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Speaking to you from from no man's land

Review of : Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming
By: Bjorn Lomborg
Knopf Publishing, 253 pages USD $21 ~ CDN $27

Review by: Jason Hayes, M.E.Des., Communications Director, American Coal Council

Originally web-published:

Mon, 2007-12-10 15:54

Bjorn Lomborg, the Skeptical Environmentalist, has returned, and with his new book, he is once again raising hackles on all sides of the political and environmental spectrum.

In his first book, Lomborg attempted to “measure the real state of the world.” However, policy suggestions from a self admitted “old left-wing Greenpeace member,” who was upbeat about humanity's prospects and unafraid of their impact on the environment proved to be a conundrum to many.

Conservatives were often rankled by his liberal political leanings and environmentalist connections, as well as his calls for government management of the environment and public funding for research and development. He was, at the same time, profoundly unpopular with the left-of-center environmental movement as he refused to buy into the pessimistic, Malthusian narrative that the natural world and human populations were teetering on the brink of collapse. (In fact, in his first, massively footnoted tome, he actually demonstrated that the world was in good shape and that many human activities were actually helping to make things better.)

In his latest book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, Lomborg maintains the same confounding belief in the need for government-driven research and environmental management, coupled with a stubbornly optimistic outlook on humanity's future. In Cool It, he argues that while climate change will have negative impacts on humans and the environment, restrained and measured policy approaches will mitigate those impacts and end up producing far more beneficial outcomes than rushed attempts to “stop” climate change at all costs.

It is Lomborg's ability to produce attacks from both sides of the spectrum that makes his work so interesting. In a world often marked by pitched battles on either sides of a policy issue, Lomborg remains a lone voice, coming to you from a no man's land of climate change and environmental policy.

When you consider Lomborg's arguments in Cool It, you see that he posits the following. 1) Global climate change is currently occurring. 2) Humans are the cause of – or at least a significant factor in – the development of the current warming trend. 3) To slow global climate change, we must immediately implement measures to reduce our CO2 input into the atmosphere. 4) We must impose a $2 to $14 per ton carbon tax to discourage the use of fossil fuels. 5) Despite all of the above, we must not become so enamored with addressing the climate change issue that we forget about, or make ourselves incapable of, addressing the many other issues we also face.

To demonstrate his agreement with the popularly termed “consensus” view, Lomborg states early in the book that “global warming is real and man-made” and later notes the issue is “beyond debate.” He even cites approvingly the statistics and findings of the IPCC. Those arguments place him in the path of the so-called skeptics or “deniers,” who argue that climate change is not happening, or that it is happening, but is caused by natural factors beyond our control.

His refusal to move from his acceptance of the “consensus” to demanding massive – economically crippling – cuts in CO2 emissions, puts him in the sights of the so-called true believers, who doggedly attack him for not going far enough in his policy suggestions.

For example, in a September, 2007 Washington Post editorial, Tim Flannery, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, referred to “Lomborg's flawed grasp of climate science” and admonished Lomborg for making “glib, misleading associations” and “broad accusations.” In his closing Flannery moved beyond the bounds of reasonable discourse attacking Cool It as a “stealth attack on humanity's future.”

Undeterred, Lomborg chooses to stand back and weight the challenge of climate change against other challenges, like HIV/AIDS, sanitation and water supply, and malaria. He recognizes that, in terms of global human morbidity and mortality, there are other, more pressing concerns that we currently face. Addressing those issues, he argues, will require our focused attention and ample funding. Lomborg argues that these issues, which are currently killing millions each year, deserve the attention and funding that we are aiming at the estimated impacts of climate change that might potentially occur in 50 to 100 years.

It is this calm, measured approach to the situation that has typified Lomborg's work from the first pages of The Skeptical Environmentalist. While admitting that a problem exists and should be addressed, he eschews the more radical and hysterical claims of some academics, commentators, and politicians. To cut back sufficiently on the carbon emissions that they argue must go, we will radically impact our economical and social well-being. That regression will result in a decreasing inability to mitigate the effects of climate change and will also heavily impact our ability to help developing countries address the pressing concerns of malaria, sanitation, and HIV/AIDS. As he notes in his introduction, "our ultimate goal is not to reduce greenhouse gases or global warming per se but to improve the quality of life and the environment."

Further setting his arguments apart is his assertion that implementing drastic cuts in CO2 emissions will not only damage our economic well being, it will actually have little to no real impact on climate change well into the future. Pointing out the simple truth that the centerpiece and foundation of most climate change policy discussion over the past decade, the Kyoto Protocol, was essentially a symbolic, first step, Lomborg noted,

Even if all countries had ratified (Kyoto and had) ..., lived up to their commitments ... throughout the twenty-first century, ... the expected temperature increase of 4.7°F would be postponed by just five years from 2100 to 2105.

He does not limit his review to Kyoto, however. He also looks at how climate change is predicted to impact other aspects of the natural environment and then attempts to provide some methods for weighting the relative risks and harms that each of those impacts pose. Beginning with the recent poster child for global climate change – the polar bear – Lomborg suggests that reports of decimated populations, shrinking habitat, and impending extinction are “vastly exaggerated and emotional claims that are simply not support by data.” He notes that,

Of the 13 populations of polar bears in Canada, 11 are stable or increasing in number. They are not going extinct, or even appear to be affected at present.

It is this type of scholarship that peppers Lomborg's work in Cool It. He listens to the concerns expressed over numerous outcomes of climate change, including atmospheric carbon levels, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, flooding, the spread of disease, and agricultural production, among others. In each case, he methodically reviews the scientific literature and then points out how the impacts of climate change have been (often drastically) overstated. He then moves to calm the discussion; pulling it away from hyperbole and hysteria. In each case, he also demonstrates how humanity will be best served by maintaining strong economies and, active research into clean energy sources. Essentially he attempts to show how our best defense against environmental concerns is our ability to think and produce our way past the concern.

If we manage to stay cool, we will likely leave the twenty-first century with societies much stronger, without rampant death, suffering, and loss, and with nations much richer, with unimaginable opportunity in a cleaner, healthy environment.

As seen in his previous works, Lomborg's strongest suit appears to be his skepticism. He doesn't simply accept either side of the argument. Instead, he delves into an issue and pulls it apart, questioning each new strand of thought as it appears. As he puts the puzzle pieces back together, he attempts to keep a steady, measured pace, and retain a rational outlook.

Many will disagree with his scholarship. Many will find other publications, experts, and opinions with which to challenge his findings. However, those challenges appear to be Lomborg's second strongest suit. He is able to pique the interest of commentators on both sides, thereby renewing the discussion on issues that are widely described as “settled.”

Of course, anyone who has been around the climate change discussion for long, has heard that phrase before. We are often informed by one expert or another that, “the science is settled" and that, "we need now only concern ourselves with how to best mitigate impacts.” Despite his agreement with the ideas about the science his relentless refusal to blindly accept the policy options offered by most in the “consensus” views forces people to consider new ideas and options.

Some will resist his calls for increased government funding. Some will strive against his optimistic outlook on our environment. Regardless of their positions, all that are involved with the discussion would do well to at least consider what he says.

With this latest foray into the discussion, Lomborg has once again reappeared from the no man's zone in this difficult and confusing discussion. He has refocused people's attention on issues and thoughts that many others have glossed over as no longer worthy of our consideration. In doing so, he has given us all something to think about.