Cool it? My thoughts on Lomborg’s book

I’m only about half way through reading Bjorn Lomborg‘s (blog here) “Cool It” and thought I’d share my “half-way thoughts”.

Premise of the book:

“Bjorn Lomborg argues that many of the elaborate and expensive actions now being considered to stop global

warming will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, are often based on emotional rather than strictly scientific assumptions, and may very well have little impact on the world’s temperature for hundreds of years. Rather than starting with the most radical procedures, Lomborg argues that we should first focus our resources on more immediate concerns, such as fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS and assuri

ng and maintaining a safe, fresh water supply-which can be addressed at a fraction of the cost and save millions of lives within our lifetime. He asks why the debate over climate change has stifled rational dialogue and killed meaningful dissent. ”

Agreed – I do think that we have lost some of our rational thoughts when it comes to the climate change discussions. Bjorn’s got a point.

But while reading the book, I can’t help but be irked at some of his own points…

1.  Not everything can be measured by economic cost-benefit analyses

He quite often brings in the economist’s favourite tool – the cost-benefit analysis. Not bad, we need to use it sometimes.  However, and this is a big HOWEVER – economic thinking is not always rational (interesting choice of words i know) because you:

A. can’t put a price on the environment . Sometimes it’s possible, but nature provides us with trillions – remember, our continuous production of “stuff” usually relies on nature’s (not so) infinite supply of resources.

B. How do you know you’re measuring everything that needs to be measured in that C-B analysis? Environmental issues are holistic and most often include externalities that we haven’t even thought of.  i.e. it’s not just about temperatures rising! So, lining up items on the right and left side may show vastly different results depending on who’s making the analysis.

2.  Not everything should just be measured by human death tolls

As sad as this sounds, I don’t think that the goal is to just increase our human life expectancy. One of the major points that Lomborg points out is that more people have died from cold deaths than heat deaths – eliminating the major scare-tactic that global warming will cause more people to die of heat stroke etc.

Interesting and likely valid point. But, when I think of climate change (and more aptly put, environmental issues on the whole) – I don’t think of just people dying.  First of all, we do share the planet with other species, of which, are very important for our sake as well. But, moreover, “deaths by heat stroke” is only one tiny measure which he hits on the head over and over… Human happiness, on the other hand, is important – and even though we’re living, a life without clean water and fighting for natural resources isn’t  such a good life.

3.  Using scientific facts in the climate change talk deserves attention to references

Not saying I don’t believe the stats in his book (and likely his other book- which is sitting on my bookshelf untouched at the moment), but one of the major issues with the global warming talk is that everyone is using numbers and everyone is countering those numbers.

Especially for Lomborg who is really going against the grain on this thesis (and constantly challenging the other facts out there)  – without telling me where you’re getting those facts, it’s hard to know who to believe. UPDATE (next morn): Oops, he has 40 pages of references. I guess I’m just use to footnotes – I can then check at least where it came from.

This is one of the major reasons that I wrote the “My thoughts on global warming: I don’t care.” post last year.  “Let the scientists debate about the actual science, but just look at the issue with common sense…. I’m not saying don’t question, just don’t be ignorant. “

3. Solving world poverty is not the end goal

Lomborg says that we should look after the more pressing global issues such as HIV/AIDS, malaria etc. first. I can’t completely disagree. (Like everyone else in his consensus, how do you rank these?) However, economic development (the goal that he’s suggesting) won’t help fix our problems.

… These 50+ years can give the societies breathing space to tackle many of their more immediate concerns and grow their economies so that they will be better able to afford to build water-storage facilities.

p. 58 in regards to the melting Himalayan glaciers as the supply to India.

Umm.. the long term water supply is important – and won’t be solved by investing in new facilities. Money can’t buy us “new” water.

But anyways, we need to address AIDS, malaria etc., but more importantly we need a long term plan on sustainable development. (Read previous post on full thoughts on this). This is real, long term planning – something that economists have a hard time with…  Answering “What to do now that we’re not poor?”, remembering that our western way of living won’t suffice for the planent.

Although I disagree with some of his points – at this half way stage – I value the different perspectives. It’s true, we have lost a lot of the meaningful dissent in this debate and surely, we’re spending ridiculous amounts on certain strategies which don’t have as much merit as others.

But again, let’s use our common sense.  Sticking crap in the air is bad. Using a resource that we know won’t be there later is bad. Enough said. Time for bed.

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5 thoughts on “Cool it? My thoughts on Lomborg’s book

  1. Jay Godse says:

    Interesting post. Here are my responses.

    Although you can’t put a price on the environment, the folks supplying the money to preserve/save/improve it will want to know if the benefit to them is worth the cost. i.e. There is a price, although not directly.

    Human death tolls don’t play a part until you have lost somebody who was “taken before their time” by some preventable scourge. Of course, since we don’t live close to the poor black and brown people in poor countries that usually get whacked by malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, etc, we don’t perceive the value of their life. However, they are as valuable as the neighbour’s kid that was taken away by a preventable illness or accident.

    Although we in the rich western world don’t see solving poverty as an end goal, globally about 1 billion people worldwide are begging to differ, if not begging for food.

    Methinks Lomborg is on to something.

  2. janeporter says:

    I was sure that you would agree – economists at heart:)

    more thinking going on as I keep reading the book.. will likely address this in another post.

  3. katia says:

    just read Jane’s post and that is freaky that it is the 3rd day cannot stop thinkink about putting price tag on teh environment… few posts on the news whereas clobal climate change is compared with currient crisis crunch as well as ideas of estimating environmental issues in economic terms, about giving environment legal right… + some lectures when one professor speaking about social responsibility told very clearly that you cannot push manager to deal with environmental and social responsibility unless there is financial benefits, and it sounded as ‘you should brush teeth twice a day’, that is, like getting profit from CSR is common sense! smth you do not need to go further to explain (and he did not indeed)… today’s seminar on the topic of climate equity (though has not bring out novel ideas), still inspiring and have touched the issue of how to evaluate environment in economic terms! it seems like beinh Nobel prize worth idea to invent economic model (like cost-benefit analysis) and put it into practice :)) on behalf, do agree that we cannot rank problems related to sustainable development as well as do need to agree that probably the only effective way to take environment into account is to put price tag! well, rising awareness through education and changing values still can inspire if you are a good speaker, but in a debate would hardly overweight the need to start evaluate in monetary terms environmental services…

  4. janeporter says:

    Katia & Jay

    You are right in the sense that we have to put monetary value on some parts to just make sense of all of this.

    it’s too much to take in that the only way we quantify it is the only way we know how: money.

    yeah… something I still need to think about more. I don’t like agreeing to that notion, but i know that’s how you can push forward the agenda.

    geesh. You kind of wonder if our generation will be the same in this sense or if values will change and looking after the environment will be a given .

  5. Jay Godse says:

    Jane…if you step back for a second, you’ll realize that the societies and peoples who have treated the environment the best are the “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies. They live in the present, and do not act for the future, except when they build homes and have kids.

    Their existence was premised on having a predictable source of food, clothing, etc. As soon as these sources become unpredictable, the notion of saving for and investing in the future becomes much more important. That is where you get things like literacy, schooling, saving for schooling, saving for a better house, saving for a better vacation so that you can get away from your house and job that you are not totally satisfied with, etc.

    When there is a notion of saving for the future, the next concept that emerges is money, which is nothing more than an IOU to do something in the future.

    The next concept that emerges is that to get ahead, you need to invest your money to make more money. If you can’t invest yours, you borrow. The problem with borrowing is that if you show signs of not paying back good returns, investors get very demanding. That leads borrowers to do all kinds of things such as over-fish fishing grounds, farm without reinvesting in fertilizer, terracing, crop rotation, logging without investing in re-forestation, etc. These practices enable borrowers to “make their numbers” without practicsing good stewardship. Such practices are no different than companies cooking their books to “beat the street” by a penny a share as was common 10 years ago.

    One other practice done by companies is to lay off people to satisfy investors. This then causes displaced workers to have unpredictable sources of income, and they then start borrowing or doing other things to “make their numbers”, whether that is maintaining a lifestyle, avoiding taxes, or making money by unethical means.

    From what I have seen, when people have a predictable income and are not excessively in debt, they behave in ways that are transitively more friendly to the environment.

    Unfortunately, in today’s society, there is little chance of that happening on a mass scale.

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