Weird Consensus on Global Warming Emerging?

Are the arguments about global warming getting weirder? Last week Bjorn Lomborg opined in the New York Times, as he has elsewhere, that cutting emissions of greenhouse gases is a waste of time. Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” which argued against the idea that global warming was getting worse, seems now to acknowledge “the long-term benefits that would come from reducing warming,” however. What he takes issue with is the best mechanism for achieving the reduction in warming.

Rather than mandating emissions caps, he says, a better option is “to make low-carbon alternatives like solar and wind energy competitive with old carbon sources.” There are two ways to make low-carbon energy competitive with high-carbon energy: make low-carbon energy cheaper, or make high-carbon energy more expensive. Making high-carbon energy more expensive is precisely the effect that cap-and-trade (and carbon taxes) have.

But Lomborg cites the underwhelming results of the Kyoto Protocol to brand cap-and-trade as a waste of time. And he cites the failure of Kyoto to spur increases in low-carbon energy R&D as another dimension of its failure. (Though in the U.S., at least, clean tech of all sorts was the single biggest category to attract venture capital last year.)

Lomborg’s solution: a global agreement to fund clean energy R&D, which he says will speed the arrival of cost-effective low-carbon energy and do so at a lower cost than emissions caps.

To summarize the building elements of Lomborg’s thesis:

  • global warming is real and needs to be mitigated
  • clean sources of energy must replace carbon-based energy, as soon as possible
  • vast amounts of spending (to the tune of 1/20th of a percent of global GDP) should be dedicated to mitigating it

I don’t see anything here that advocates of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, or government subsidies for clean energy usage or R&D would disagree with. The disagreement is about what mechanism, when facing the realities of politics and the mysteries of macroeconomics, would bring about the desired result most quickly and reliably at the lowest cost.

I wish I knew how to answer that. Lomborg gives me an idea, though: a problem with any of these emissions reduction schemes is getting the big polluters in the developing world on board. Even if that remains difficult, perhaps we can get those countries to contribute to a global R&D fund, as Lomborg suggests, in exchange for access to whatever technology it might bring to life. Whatever works…

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6 responses to “Weird Consensus on Global Warming Emerging?

  1. It would help if all revenues from cap-and-trade and carbon taxes were funneled into lowering CO2 emissions. Either R&D, or direct assistance (preferably loans) where capital costs are the barrier.

    Large and small scale — loans to homeowners to replace lights with LED lights. I spent a couple thousand on my LED lights, and only did the most heavily used ones, because of cost. Even these will take 3-5 years to pay for themselves.

    (The results are great, though! Much better light, instantly on, lower maintenance, especially important over the stairs — replacing those bulbs was something I’ve had to do a few too many times with CFLs, an adventure I’ll gratefully never have to repeat! I love the CREE LR-6 downlights!)

    Loans to cover capital costs also help R&D and help to lower the prices of clean tech by increasing the market for the product. And they allow that to happen sooner. The downside is that we end up paying a higher price to accomplish this sooner rather than later. But that’s good, because we can’t easily take back the CO2 that’s already emitted in the meantime.

  2. “which argued against the idea that global warming was getting worse”

    Not sure what you mean here. Lomborg said man-made global warming was real. Do you mean Lomborg said that global warming was not as bad as others made out?

    “What he takes issue with is the best mechanism for achieving the reduction in warming”

    Not just that. Whether reducing warming, at the costs that many cite, is desirable at all compared to adapting to the changes with flood barriers etc.

    • David Schatsky

      Hi Chris,

      I guess I misrepresented what he said about man-made global warming in the book. He did say it was real but not as bad as others made out. In the op-ed I linked to, though, he seemed to suggest that spending almost any amount to reduce global warming would generate an extremely high pay back: “Economic estimates that assign value to the long-term benefits that would come from reducing warming — things like fewer deaths from heat and less flooding — show that every dollar invested in quickly making low-carbon energy cheaper can do $16 worth of good.”

      • Thanks for the clarification, David.

        I’m not sure what to make of Lomborg. I personally find his arguments very convincing although many, many other people are not convinced and attack him on all sorts of points over data etc.

        So I sit here being taken in by the rationale of a man bombarded with accusations of data bending.

        But now I see many people misrepresenting Lomborg and it’s making me doubt the attacks on him if people need to resort to clearly misrepresenting. The BBC did it yesterday implying he is a global warming denier. It’s just stupid.

  3. David,

    Take a look at some relevant comments from the FuelQuest blog regarding Cap & Trade, Electric Cars, and the climate change measures that are working their way through Congress. I think there are some alternative views worth reading – some may interest you:
    – Ted P.

    • David Schatsky

      Thanks, Ted.

      The post Politics + Science must be what you are referring to. The “alternative views” of the Wall Street Journal are well known, as the largest circulation daily newspaper in the country.

      As the post’s author, Matt Tormollen, has no standing as a scientist, I wouldn’t consider his observations about the science of climate change germaine.

      His claim that attempts to mitigate climate charge will be damaging to national security and our economy do not seem to have any basis either.

      I haven’t studied the economics extensively, but a few studies I have seen suggest that the impact of cap and trade on the the growth rate of U.S. economy would be so small as to be almost neglible. See this post, for example.

      As far as security is concerned, I haven’t seen a reasoned argument for why diversifying the country’s energy supply would be harmful for national security. The opposite is far more likely to be true in my opinion.

      A company like yours, which plays directly in the energy and transportation industries, will inevitably be seen as advocating for its own narrow commercial when commenting on energy and transportation policy. Your company is of course free to comment on anything it likes. But considering the firm’s special interest in those matters, it might be more persuasive if it confined its analysis and commentary about energy and environmental policy to their effects on your own business and left the broad statements about the national consequences to others.

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