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Let’s Keep Our Cool about Global Warming


Bjørn Lomborg

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.2, March / April 2008

Given the recent debate in our pages over global warming and climate change, we invited Bjørn Lomborg, author of Cool It! The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, for his perspective. — Editor

When it comes to climate change, we need to cool our dialogue and consider the arguments for and against different policy options. In the heat of a loud and obnoxious debate, facts and reason lose out.

There is a kind of choreographed screaming about climate change from both sides of the debate. Discussion would be on much firmer ground if we could actually hear the arguments and the facts and then sensibly debate long-term solutions.

Man-made climate change is certainly a problem, but it is categorically not the end of the world. Take the rise in sea levels as one example of how the volume of the screaming is unmatched by the facts. In its 2007 report, the United Nations estimates that sea levels will rise about a foot over the remainder of the century.1 While this is not a trivial amount, it is also important to realize that it is not unknown to mankind: since 1860, we have experienced a sea level rise of about a foot without major disruptions.2 It is also important to realize that the new prediction is lower than previous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates and much lower than the expectations from the 1990s of more than two feet and the 1980s, when the Environmental Protection Agency projected more than six feet.3

We dealt with rising sea levels in the past century, and we will continue to do so in this century. It will be problematic, but it is incorrect to posit the rise as the end of civilization.

We will actually lose very little dry land to the rise in sea levels. It is estimated that almost all nations in the world will establish maximal coastal protection almost everywhere, simply because doing so is fairly cheap. For more than 180 of the world’s 192 nations, coastal protection will cost less than 0.1 percent GDP and approach 100 percent protection.4

The rise in sea level will be a much bigger problem for poor countries. The most affected nation will be Micronesia, a federation of 607 small islands in the West Pacific with a total land area only four times larger than Washington, D.C.5 If nothing were done, Micronesia would lose some 21 percent of its area by the end of the century (Tol 2004, 5). With coastal protection, it will lose just 0.18 percent of its land area. However, if we instead opt for cuts in carbon emissions and thus reduce both the sea level rise and economic growth, Micronesia will end up losing a larger land area. The increase in wealth for poor nations is more important than sea levels: poorer nations will be less able to defend themselves against rising waters, even if they rise more slowly. This is the same for other vulnerable nations: Tuvalu, the Maldives, Vietnam, and Bangladesh.

The point is that we cannot just talk about CO2 when we talk about climate change. The dialogue needs to include both considerations about carbon emissions and economics for the benefit of humans and the environment. Presumably, our goal is not just to cut carbon emissions, but to do the best we can for people and the environment.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York City. Photo credit: Janet Mayer/Splash News. [Photo via Newscom]

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York City. Photo credit: Janet Mayer/Splash News. [Photo via Newscom]

We should take action on climate change, but we need to be realistic. The U.K has arguably engaged in the most aggressive rhetoric about climate change. Since the Labour government promised in 1997 to cut emissions by a further 15 percent by 2010, emissions have increased 3 percent.6 American emissions during the Clinton/Gore administration increased 28 percent.

Look at our past behavior: at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, nations promised to cut emissions back to 1990 levels by 2000 (UNFCCC 1992, 4.2a). The member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) overshot their target in 2000 by more than 12 percent.

Many believe that dramatic political action will follow if people only knew better and elected better politicians.7 Despite the European Union’s enthusiasm for the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change—and a greater awareness and concern over global warming in Europe than in the United States—emissions per person since 1990 have remained stable in the U.S. while E.U. emissions have increased 4 percent (EIA 2006).

Even if the wealthy nations managed to reign in their emissions, the majority of this century’s emissions will come from developing countries—which are responsible for about 40 percent of annual carbon emissions; this is likely to increase to 75 percent by the end of the century.8

In a surprisingly candid statement from Tony Blair at the Clinton Global Initiative, he pointed out:

I think if we are going to get action on this, we have got to start from the brutal honesty about the politics of how we deal with it. The truth is no country is going to cut its growth or consumption substantially in the light of a long-term environmental problem. What countries are prepared to do is to try to work together cooperatively to deal with this problem in a way that allows us to develop the science and technology in a beneficial way. (Clinton Global Initiative 2005, 15)

Similarly, one of the top economic researchers tells us: “Deep cuts in emissions will only be achieved if alternative energy technologies become available at reasonable prices” (Tol 2007, 430). We need to engage in a sensible debate about how to tax CO2. If we set the tax too low, we emit too much. If we set it too high, we end up much poorer without doing enough to reduce warming.

In the largest review of all of the literature’s 103 estimates, climate economist Richard Tol makes two important points. First, the really scary, high estimates typically have not been subjected to peer review and published. In his words: “studies with better methods yield lower estimates with smaller uncertainties.” Second, with reasonable assumptions, the cost is very unlikely to be higher than $14 per ton of CO2 and likely to be much smaller (Tol 2005).9 When I specifically asked him for his best guess, he wasn’t too enthusiastic about shedding his cautiousness—as few true researchers invariably are—but gave the estimate of $2 per ton of CO2.10

Therefore, I believe that we should tax CO2 at the economically feasible level of about $2/ton, or maximally $14/ton. Yet, let us not expect this will make any major difference. Such a tax would cut emissions by 5 percent and reduce temperatures by 0.16?F. And before we scoff at 5 percent, let us remember that the Kyoto protocol, at the cost of 10 years of political and economic toil, will reduce emissions by just 0.4 percent by 2010.11

Neither a tax nor Kyoto nor draconian proposals for future cuts move us closer toward finding better options for the future. Research and development in renewable energy and energy efficiency is at its lowest for twenty-five years. Instead, we need to find a way that allows us to “develop the science and technology in a beneficial way,” a way that enables us to provide alternative energy technologies at reasonable prices. It will take the better part of a century and will need a political will spanning parties, continents, and generations. We need to be in for the long haul and develop cost-effective strategies that won’t splinter regardless of overarching ambitions or false directions.

This is why one of our generational challenges should be for all nations to commit themselves to spending 0.05 percent of GDP in research and development of noncarbon emitting energy technologies. This is a tenfold increase on current expenditures yet would cost a relatively minor $25 billion per year (seven times cheaper than Kyoto and many more times cheaper than Kyoto II). Such a commitment could include all nations, with wealthier nations paying the larger share, and would let each country focus on its own future vision of energy needs, whether that means concentrating on renewable sources, nuclear energy, fusion, carbon storage, conservation, or searching for new and more exotic opportunities.

Funding research and development globally would create a momentum that could recapture the vision of delivering both a low-carbon and high-income world. Lower energy costs and high spin-off innovation are potential benefits that possibly avoid ever stronger temptations to free-riding and the ever tougher negotiations over increasingly restrictive Kyoto Protocol-style treaties. A global financial commitment makes it plausible to envision stabilizing climate changes at reasonable levels.

I believe it would be the way to bridge a century of parties, continents, and generations, creating a sustainable, low-cost opportunity to create the alternative energy technologies that will power the future.

To move toward this goal we need to create sensible policy dialogue. This requires us to talk openly about priorities. Often there is strong sentiment in any public discussion that we should do anything required to make a situation better. But clearly we don’t actually do that. When we talk about schools, we know that more teachers would likely provide our children with a better education.12 Yet we do not hire more teachers simply because we also have to spend money in other areas. When we talk about hospitals, we know that access to better equipment is likely to provide better treatment, yet we don’t supply an infinite amount of resources.13 When we talk about the environment, we know tougher restrictions will mean better protection, but this also comes with higher costs.

Consider traffic fatalities, which are one of the ten leading causes of deaths in the world. In the U.S., 42,600 people die in traffic accidents and 2.8 million people are injured each year (USCB, 2006, 672). Globally, it is estimated that 1.2 million people die from traffic accidents and 50 million are injured every year (Lopez, Mathers, Ezzati, Jamison, and Murray 2006, 1751; WHO 2002, 72; 2004, 3, 172).

About 2 percent of all deaths in the world are traffic-related and about 90 percent of the traffic deaths occur in third world countries (WHO 2004, 172). The total cost is a phenomenal $512 billion a year (WHO 2004, 5). Due to increasing traffic (especially in the third world) and due to ever better health conditions, the World Heath Organization estimates that by 2020, traffic fatalities will be the second leading cause of death in the world, after heart disease.14

Amazingly, we have the technology to make all of this go away. We could instantly save 1.2 million humans and eliminate $500 billion worth of damage. We would particularly help the third world. The answer is simply lowering speed limits to 5 mph. We could avoid almost all of the 50 million injuries each year. But of course we will not do this. Why? The simple answer that almost all of us would offer is that the benefits from driving moderately fast far outweigh the costs. While the cost is obvious in terms of those killed and maimed, the benefits are much more prosaic and dispersed but nonetheless important—traffic interconnects our society by bringing goods at competitive prices to where we live and bringing people together to where we work, and lets us live where we like while allowing us to visit and meet with many others. A world moving only at 5 mph is a world gone medieval.

This is not meant to be flippant. We really could solve one of the world’s top problems if we wanted. We know traffic deaths are almost entirely caused by man. We have the technology to reduce deaths to zero. Yet we persist in exacerbating the problem each year, making traffic an ever-bigger killer.

I suggest that the comparison with global warming is insightful; we have the technology to reduce it to zero, yet we seem to persist in going ahead and exacerbating the problem each year, causing temperatures to continue to increase to new heights by 2020. Why? Because the benefits from moderately using fossil fuels far outweigh the costs. Yes, the costs are obvious in the “fear, terror, and disaster” we read about in the papers every day.

But the benefits of fossil fuels, though much more prosaic, are nonetheless important. Fossil fuels provide us with low-cost electricity, heat, food, communication, and travel.15 Electrical air conditioning means that people in the U.S. no longer die in droves during heat waves (Davis, Knappenberger, Michaels, and Novicoff 2003). Cheaper fuels would have avoided a significant number of the 150,000 people that have died in the UK since 2000 due to cold winters.16

Because of fossil fuels, food can be grown cheaply, giving us access to fruits and vegetables year round, which has probably reduced cancer rates by at least 25 percent.17 Cars allow us to commute to city centers for work while living in areas that provide us with space and nature around our homes, whereas communication and cheap flights have given ever more people the opportunity to experience other cultures and forge friendships globally (Schäfer 2006).

In the third world, access to fossil fuels is crucial. About 1.6 billion people don’t have access to electricity, which seriously impedes human development (IEA 2004, 338–40). Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people rely on biomass such as wood and waste (including dung) to cook and keep warm (IEA 2006, 419ff). For many Indian women, searching for wood takes about three hours each day, and sometimes they walk more than 10 kilometers a day. All of this causes excessive deforestation (IEA 2006, 428; Kammen 1995; Kelkar 2006). About 1.3 million people—mostly women and children—die each year due to heavy indoor air pollution. A switch from biomass to fossil fuels would dramatically improve 2.5 billion lives; the cost of $1.5 billion annually would be greatly superseded by benefits of about $90 billion.18 Both for the developed and the developing world, a world without fossil fuels—in the short or medium term—is, again, a lot like reverting back to the middle ages.

This does not mean that we should not talk about how to reduce the impact of traffic and global warming. Most countries have strict regulation on speed limits—if they didn’t, fatalities would be much higher. Yet, studies also show that lowering the average speed in Western Europe by just 5 kilometers per hour could reduce fatalities by 25 percent—with about 10,000 fewer people killed each year (WHO, 2002, 72; 2004, 172). Apparently, democracies in Europe are not willing to give up on the extra benefits from faster driving to save 10,000 people.

This is parallel to the debate we are having about global warming. We can realistically talk about $2 or even a $14 CO2 tax. But suggesting a $140 tax, as Al Gore does, seems to be far outside the envelope. Suggesting a 96 percent carbon reduction for the OECD by 2030 seems a bit like suggesting a 5 mph speed limit in the traffic debate. It is technically doable, but it is very unlikely to happen.

One of the most important issues when it comes to climate change is that we cool our dialogue and consider the arguments for and against different policies. In the heat of a loud and obnoxious debate, facts and reason lose out.


  1. (IPCC, 2007b:10.6.5). Notice that the available report (IPCC 2007a) has a midpoint of 38.5cm.
  2. Using (Jevrejeva, Grinsted, Moore, and Holgate 2006), 11.4 inches since 1860.
  3. 1996: 38–35cm (IPCC and Houghton, 1996:364), 1992 and 1983 EPA from Yohe and Neumann 1997, 243; 250.
  4. (Nicholls and Tol 2006, 1088), estimated for 2085. Notice, low-lying undeveloped coasts in places such as Arctic Russia, Canada and Alaska are expected to be undefended. Notice that the numbers presented are for loss of dry-land, whereas up to 18 percent of global wetlands will be lost.
  5. “Micronesia” (CIA 2006).
  6. Labour has urged a 20 percent CO2 emission cut from 1990 in 2010 in three election manifestos (BBC Annon., 2006a); this translates into a 14.6 percent reduction from 1997-levels. From 1997 to 2004, CO2 emissions increased 3.4 percent (EIA, 2006).
  7. Take, for instance, both Gore’s “we have to find a way to communicate the direness of the situation” and Hansen’s “scientists have not done a good job communicating with the public” (Fischer 2006).
  8. Developing countries emitted 10.171Gt of the global 26Gt in 2004 (IEA, 2006, 513, 493) (OECD countries 51 percent in 2003 (OECD 2006, 148), Weyant estimates 29 percent from industrialized countries (1998, 2286), IPCC emission scenarios from 23 in the business-as-usual A1 to 36 percent (Nakicenovic and IPCC WG III 2000).
  9. Based on a cost of $50 per ton of carbon (Tol 2005:2071).
  10. From the Environmental Assessment Institute we asked him in July 2005: “Would you still stick by the conclusion that $15/tC seems justified or would you rather only present an upper limit of the estimate?” He answered: “I’d prefer not to present a central estimate, but if you put a gun to my head I would say $7/tC, the median estimate with a 3 percent pure rate of time preference” ($7/tC = $1.9/tCO2). This is comparable with Pearce’s estimate of $1–2.5/tCO2 ($4–9/tC) (2003:369).
  11. There are many advantages to taxes over emission caps, mainly that with taxes, authorities have an interest in collecting them (because it funds the government), whereas with caps, individual countries have much less interest in achieving goals with such an effort, because the benefits are dispersed (global) and the damages localized (to local industries).
  12. (Akerhielm 1995; Angrist and Lavy 1999; Graddy and Stevens 2005). Of course, this could be modified in many ways, such as by focusing on paying teachers better, more resources for books, computers, etc. It is also important that we should be saying “more teachers will at least not make schools worse and will likely make them better,” as most studies show some or no effect from extra resources but very few show negative results.
  13. E.g., (Fleitas et al. 2006; Gebhardt and Norris 2006). On the other hand, it is less clear that (after a certain limit) more doctors and bed space is the answer, since they may just make for more visits and increase the possibility of infections and harm (Weinberger, Oddone, and Henderson 1996; Wennberg et al. 2004).
  14. (WHO 2002, 129) puts it second, whereas (WHO 2004, 5) puts it third.
  15. This only looks at the marginal benefit of fossil fuels—which is the relevant one for our discussion. On a basic level, though, it is important to remember that they have fundamentally changed our lives. Before fossil fuels, we would spend hours gathering wood, contributing to deforestation and soil erosion—as billions in the third world still do today (Kammen 1995). We have electric washing machines that have cut domestic work dramatically. The historical economist Stanley Lebergott wrote only semi-jokingly: “From 1620 to 1920 the American washing machine was a housewife” (Lebergott 1993, 112). In 1900, a housewife spent seven hours a week laundering, carrying 200 gallons of water into the house and using a scrub board. Today, she spends 84 minutes with much less strain (Robinson and Godbey 1997, 327). We have a fridge that has both given us more spare time and allowed us to avoid rotten food and eat a more healthy diet of fruit and vegetables (Lebergott 1995, 155). By the end of the nineteenth century human labor made up 94 percent of all industrial work in the U.S. Today, it constitutes only 8 percent (Berry, Conkling, Ray, and Berry 1993, 131). If we think for a moment of the energy we use in terms of “servants,” each with the same work power as a human being, each person in Western Europe has access to 150 servants, in the U.S. about 300, and even in India each person has 15 servants to help (Craig, Vaughan, and Skinner 1996:103).
  16. Steve Jones, “Help the Aged,” said: “Many pensioners still agonize about whether or not to heat their homes in the cold weather. In the world’s fourth richest country, this is simply shameful” (BBC Annon. 2006b).
  17. The World Cancer Research Fund study estimates that increasing the intake of fruit and vegetables from an average of about 250 g/day to 400 g/day would reduce, the overall frequency of cancer by around 23 percent (WCRF 1997:540).
  18. Mainly from fewer deaths and less time use.


Bjørn Lomborg

Bjørn Lomborg, PhD, is an adjunct professor in the Copenhagen Business School and organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, a conference of top economists who come together to prioritize the best solutions for the world’s greatest challenges. He is author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and, most recently, Cool It! The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.