“Smart Solutions to Climate Change” Edited by Bjorn Lomborg

ISBN 978-0-521-13856-7. “Smart Solutions to Climate Change – Comparing Costs and Benefits” edited by Bjorn Lomborg was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. From a layman’s perspective this work is a genuine attempt by some egg-heads to apply some original thinking to the problem of climate change. This was working under the assumption that a way of working personified by the Kyoto Accords was no longer effective. New solutions were required beyond simple targets for cutting Carbon emissions. This book gathers together 36 leading economists with some expertise in the field to weigh up the pros and cons of the alternatives. As you can imagine this is not a book for the feint-hearted. Note that Lomborg only “edited” it which largely means he book ends the papers with an Introduction and a Conclusion.

Nothing is more likely to wind up the hard-left deep-greens than the topic of Bjorn Lomborg. You can imagine them foaming at the mouth at the thought of such a work being taken seriously. Afterall, is not Lomborg the great Satan? Well, no, not exactly. The dislike of him extends from his ability to dredge up some inconvenient truths about environmentalism. Truths that were not self-evident, truths that, as often as not, were only half-truths. Like a man shooting in the dark he missed as much as he hit – but the fact that he did occasionally hit the target got him much attention. It doesn’t mean you have to like him but you sure as hell cannot ignore him anymore. Some of the attention he got was unwelcome – he has been courted by right-wing America who have used his work as justification for doing nothing about climate change. No doubt he is uncomfortable about this so this work appears to be his reply. Doing nothing is not an option. His work is well documented and thorough. Despite the best efforts of many in the scientific community to debunk him he is still taken seriously. The loathing for him is quite remarkable when you consider that he isn’t even a climate change denier – far from it. Like every economist in this book he accepts the reality of man-made climate change and the need to do something. What he does not accept is that there may be only one solution – so is willing to explore others. These “solutions” are: climate engineering, CO2 mitigation, forestry, black carbon, methane mitigation, market- & policy-driven adaptation, technology-led policy and technology transfer. But does this amount to stalling?

The concept of ‘stalling’ boils down to the economic concept of “discounting”. It is what marked out the differences between the work of Stern from other economists. The discount rate applied to an economic model is an estimate how civilisation in the future will have MORE capability to deal with a problem than we do. It estimate how much the economy will grow and hence how much extra income our children’s children will have to spend of climate mitigation. Of course this is highly controversial. It gives objectivity to a model but the decision (about which rate to choose) is subjective. So subjective that, although all the economists in this book chose positive discount rates it is arguable that it should be negative, ie, our children’s children will be poorer than us. Certainly there are many voices in this book that argue that positive feedback loops in the climate system may yield uncontrollable climate change beyond which no amount of money will solve the problem. Many of us even find the idea of greater wealth being helpful curious. Afterall, didn’t wealth generation cause the problem in the first place? And how exactly do we pay-off God to put this Genie back in its Bottle?

Now a note about the authors: they are not scientists. They are economists. You get a warning sign early on when one of them describes wind power as “unpredictable” – clearly he lives in a world where they have no weather forecasts. The language suggest lazy assumptions about future developmental paths. It suggests political baggage. What sort of baggage? Go to the section on “Contributors” and read about who they are. There are people here who have worked for RAND and edited the Cato Journal. This presents an issue: how was this team assembled? If you wish for a conservative outcome, with high discount rates, then you choose conservative economists who believe that serious mitigation will damage the current economy and will conclude likewise. It can all become a self-fulfilling prophesy. They may be very clever but they may not be the right people. So, who are the “right people”? I was once told by my Economics Teacher (when I was 17 years old) that you could put all the Economists in the world end-on-end yet never reach a conclusion. This is a serious point: it is the dismal profession because it isn’t science. It is elaborate conjecture. Much of the internal arguments you see in this book have to do with just how BIG that conjecture is. The truth is we do not know and may never know. Even these writers know this to be true and none more so than Roger A Pieke Jr who wrote the first alternative perspective on climate engineering. (Worth a read!)

This brings us to a second point. A disturbingly high number of the “solutions” are NOT solutions. Climate engineering is a case in point. Whilst extracting carbon from the atmosphere is a solution, seeding the atmosphere with sulphur is not. That is a “sticking plaster” that does nothing to relieve the increasing acidification of the oceans. It might keep temperatures down but it does nothing more than buy a few years (at enormous cost) before a real solution can be conjured up. In fact, if you fast forward to the back of the book to see the final rankings of the solutions you will find that out of 15 “solutions” the top ranked 5 are ‘climate engineering’ or ‘research’. Arguably only the measures ranked 6th (air-capture of carbon) and 8th (reforestation) actually resemble solutions. So although all the others look like good-value for money they could be implemented and actually solve nothing.

Why did this happen? The goal of the project was to attempt to answer this question:

“If the global community wants to spend, say, $250billion per year over the next ten years to diminish the adverse effects of climate changes, and to do the most good for the world, which solutions would yield the greatest net benefits?”

You see that the conclusions to stem logically from how the question was framed. Was it even the right question? Maybe this is unfair. Certainly it is the right thing to do to be asking these sort of questions and to try to rank the mitigations by their value-for-money ratings and effectiveness. But this is so very broad-brush – does it do any more than provide interesting talking points? Is it dangerous to give the exercise any pseudo-scientific validity by ranking anything. Surely the only conclusion would be that there can be no conclusion? We simply do not know enough to know what we don’t know.

Does any of this have a human-face? Anyone who considers themselves to be interested in the welfare of humanity may shudder at the cold judgements of economists. They talk about the concept of “willingness to pay” as a valid way of valuing environmental services that are otherwise intangible. They assess that the net cost to human life in the global south is more than offset by the economic gains in the minority (rich) north simply because a billion poor people have less worth financially than a million rich people (where those rich people are a thousand times richer – wonderfully parodied on page 389 by Thomas C. Schnelling from the expert panel: “because they are poor they don’t count!”). But there is a human side to this work. You can find it in the pages devoted to Baron, Montgomery and Tuladhar’s work on black carbon mitigation. Page 153 actually talks about the positive contribution of communities but then page 154 talks about replacing biomass stoves with “clean-burn” versions using fossil fuels. Somehow this isn’t joined up. Which leads us to the next point.

Depletion of resources does not feature in this work of economics. (The exception is reference to the price rises in fossil-fuels mention on page 306 by Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green in their paper on technology-led climate policy.)

So what kind of economic damage does climate change cause? We learn this on page 168:

“Stern views climate change as a major threat to the global economy and estimates the damages at $310 per ton of carbon. Nordhaus estimates a far lower value at $35 per ton”

Clearly they cannot both be right. To this point we have to look closely at the work of David Anthoff who wrote an alternative perspective on methane mitigation. On page 203 we read this:

“For a 6% discount rate, overall optimal spending in NPV terms is always lower than the NPV of the spending schedule of the Copenhagen Consensus project because, with such a high discount rate, climate change is not a problem almost by assumption

[Emphasis added.] Does this mean that the ground rules of this project were already setup to assume that climate change was only a minor inconvenience? Did we misunderstand? No, Anthoff makes the same allegation on the next page as well. He also goes on to talk about the validity of the work in driving policy when outcomes were so uncertain. He suggests a portfolio of measures to spread the bets. As such the ranking is a useless exercise, you don’t know what will work so you may well have to do EVERYTHING. This is echoed again in the conclusion to Frank Jotzo’s perspective on market- & policy-driven adaptation. On page 290 he wrote:

“The Copenhagen  Consensus exercise places heavy emphasis on BCRs {Benefit Cost Ratios}. These ratios come about as a result of highly contestable assumptions about climate change impacts, economic damage functions, and societal valuations and preferences, with interactions between them shaped  by assumptions about behavioral relationships in economies decades in the future. Consequently, the estimated BCRs are highly unreliable as a guide for policy.”

[Emphasis added.] Given that this work was an exercise to be used as guidance for policy then Jotzo appears to be saying that it is value-less. We may as well toss a coin. Toss in some naivety here and there (like the reference on page 318 by Galiana & Green to oil companies investing in renewable energy to “diversify their portfolios” – so they will stop funding climate change denial dirty tactics? – we think not) and you have to question the value of this work.

This book is very long and often impenetrable to the layman. In plain English it is incomprehensible and dull. The 413 pages take a long time to wade through. At times you wished for the Reader’s Digest synopsis of the plot. But maybe not. Maybe this work deserves to by left in the halls of academia. It was a useful thought-exercise but that is all. Certainly we welcome some effort to make this sort of thinking more accessible to the general public. It is right to raise vital questions but it works off of faulty reasoning: the idea that if we simply thought very hard about the Kyoto replacement then we could come up with a cunning plan. Somehow this book assumes that if we frame the problem in the language of economics that various hi-tech solutions could be peddled as answers. But it isn’t that simple. What we have is an intractable dilemma that has no solution. There is no rationale, no form of words, no reasoning that overcomes it. We are an argumentative species. The best we can hope for is leadership from above and a massive groundswell of positive action from the grassroots of our communities. We can no longer only look towards politicians to agree something they cannot agree to. There is no magic bullet.

All credit to Lomborg in attempting this exercise. He is at pains to point out that this work was only intended as an exercise. It was about talking around the options. He invites his readership to join the debate. Indeed, we can be a lot smarter – so we must try. This is a very dry read for a tiny minority but it covers the sort of topics we should ALL have on our lips. The problem is we do not. Something this book review’s author knows of by personal experience. We are simply ill-equipped to get clever about climate change. To even attempt it is to go over the heads of the very people who are meant to be handling the resulting decarbonisation of their economy. And that’s everybody. Thus we are accused of being elitist and out of touch. Getting smart is frowned upon in favour of passion and empty-rhetoric. This is wrong-headed. Smart is cool. Let us hope that we all get a lot smarter. And quickly.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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