TCS Daily

Science, Economics, and Morality

By Duane D. Freese - April 9, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: Click here for all of TechCentral's coverage of the controversy surrounding Bjorn Lomborg.

Accept all but the most extreme environmentalists' claims about climate change and you still come down to the question: What ought to be done about it?

That was the core of the debate Monday between Bjorn Lomborg, Danish statistician and author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," and Rafe Pomerance, a former deputy assistant secretary of State for environmental affairs under the Clinton administration and a co-author of the 1997 United Nations' Kyoto Protocol for capping carbon emissions.

The event - "Kyoto: Costs vs. Benefits," sponsored by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Policy Studies and moderated by American Enterprise Institute scholar and Tech Central Station host James Glassman - drew a standing room only crowd, thanks to Lomborg. The former Greenpeace member has become the target of pies in the face from scornful environmental extremists for exposing exaggerations about environmental degradation and calling for prioritizing environmental improvement by weighing policy costs against benefits.

In the debate, Pomerance, now director of Americans for Equitable Climate Solutions, argued that radiative forcing, primarily from carbon dioxide (CO2) released by human fossil fuel use, was increasing and had the effect of warming the planet, potentially triggering catastrophic problems in the future.

To combat future problems, Pomerance advocates reducing emissions. He favors a system that provides a cap on carbon emissions and allows for trading emissions credits among nations. Although he would put a cap on the price that a country or industry would have to pay to keep costs from getting out of line.

Lomborg accepted Pomerance's assertions about rising CO2 levels over the next few decades leading to an increase in warming, but asked "What is going to happen in the long run?"

He noted that developed nations likely would be better off from moderate warming of 2 degrees C forecast in the UN's climate models over the 21st century. Developing nations, however, would bear the brunt of the costs. And meeting the emissions targets outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, he pointed out, would delay the likely warming effects for just six years, he said.

Meanwhile, the precipitous action to curb emissions would yield benefits valued at about $5 trillion over the century. But the curbs themselves would cost much more than the benefits - anywhere from $4.5 trillion to as high as $37 billion more depending on the severity of the carbon restrictions.

"For less than just one year of [the cost of] meeting Kyoto," Lomborg said by way of comparing the costs involved, "we could provide clean water and sanitation for all the developing world forever."

Furthermore, Lomborg wondered whether global warming might be a problem that in time would take care of itself. He said price trends for renewable energy - wind and water - were such that it was likely by mid-century that people would be putting "much, much less carbon" into the air.

Lomborg said that modest carbon taxes designed to internalize the environmental or security costs carbon emissions create might make sense. He also said that the U.S. government might tweak renewable energy development by increasing current spending of $200 million a year on it tenfold. But heavy carbon taxes or other drastic measures would not be cost effective.

For his part, Pomerance said that a cap on prices paid for carbon emissions permits could limit the costs of implementation, although he did not estimate what effect that would have on global temperatures.

Some audience members, including S. Fred Singer of the non-profit Science & Environmental Policy Project and Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, questioned the underlying assumption of both Lomborg and Pomerance that the climate is actually warming and that warming is bad. Singer asked whether warming might actually increase human well-being.

Lomborg said he was accepting the models presented by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (although imperfect and open to question) as the best data available at present. Pomerance said the issue of concern was how much warming, how fast. "What happens to be cool for Europe" at 2 degree C won't be if temperatures warm much beyond that, he said.

But Lomborg believes that advances in technology will lead to a decline in fossil fuel use over time, so less attention is needed to solving global warming - which current technology won't permit now anyway. That would free up more resources to improve the lot of billions of people in the developing world now, he argues.

In short, Pomerance calls on the world to act now on global warming and that even more than the Kyoto Protocol must be done in the future to avert catastrophe. Lomborg urges the world to act now to fight poverty and reject costly schemes, such as severe carbon emission restrictions (a la Kyoto), that provide very little benefit in the near term and are inefficient means to the end of alleviating suffering for the poorest members of society.

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