Climate Skeptic - Now with less Skepticism! : Lomborg Changes Tune

For those who – like me – missed the news on Monday: the world's most well known climate change skeptic has done a dramatic about face.

Bjorn Lomborg's 1998 book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” has been a pillar for critics of climate science and policy.  He has made a high profile for himself by taking a strip off of pretty much anyone – from the media to the IPCC – who has called for rapid action on climate change.  But on Monday in an exclusive interview with The Guardian, he called  climate change "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and proposed a global carbon tax to help address the issue.

If that all seems a bit fishy, it's worth remembering that Lomborg never argued that man-made climate change was a fiction. His point has been that, if you do a cost-benefit analysis, dealing with climate change is just too expensive.  You get more bang for your buck by focusing policies and money on poverty, disease, and development aid.  These in the end give you more immediate positive returns both in terms of human welfare and the environment.

"Energy Miracles" Part 2
Lomborg isn't the first high profile figure to shift his focus from global inequality to climate change.  In  February Bill Gates announced that the new mission of his foundation (whose core focus is on development and disease) would be to reduce human carbon emissions to zero by 2050.  At the time that was a surprising and inspiring move.  As was pointed out earlier on WorldChanging, simply by saying “zero carbon by 2050” Gates has helped mainstream what is really our only sensible target.  Lomborg's new position may have a similar impact. 

Also like Gates, Lomborg is calling for a dramatic investment  (to the tune of $100bn per year) in research and development of  new renewable energy technologies – an argument that he makes in more detail in an upcoming book.  (Gates proposed a $10 billion-a-year U.S. government R&D program to pursue “energy miracles.”)  And like Gates, I'd say, Lomborg has (again) got his priorities wrong.

More Results - Less Sex Appeal
Looking for a silver-bullet breakthrough energy technology is romantic and adventurous.  But the boring truth is that what we need to focus on right now is market and regulatory barriers. 

Not so sexy, I know.  I'd rather be driving a Tesla roadster too.  But as it stands, new energy technologies enter the market at a snails pace. Royal Dutch/Shell estimates that it takes “25 years after commercial introduction for a primary energy form to obtain a 1 percent share of the global market.” As Joe Romm, excellent climate blogger and energy expert, argued in response to Gates -- we just don't have that kind of time.  Rapid effective action depends on getting existing technologies into the market as quickly as possible.  It's from that point that practical experience drives innovation  and costs really begin to drop.  (See Romm's full post for a detailed look at this).

Pushing Deployment: North & South
For those of us working closer to the ground on these issue, the need to focus on getting rid of barriers to implementation is no surprise.  Established technologies and established institutions can have a lot of inertia – especially in a sector like energy where the market and infrastructure already in place heavily favours outdated carbon intensive energy sources.  

The extensive subsidies and financing options available in the US (but not in Canada) for home efficiency and renewable energy are one example of a way to deal with that.  Municipal programs in cities like Berkeley and Portland offer other paths. Passing comprehensive federal clean energy legislation would be another.

But there is another reason why Lomborg's narrow focus on research makes little sense.  Energy poverty, the lack of access to affordable reliable energy, is  a key factor that keeps people in poverty world wide.  Energy availability influences everything from health, to educational performance, to economic opportunities.  From an urban perspective, the search for reliable access to energy is one of the factors that drives people into informal settlements around cities in some of the world's poorest countries. 

A rapid roll-out of renewable energy technology is an affordable way to provide durable infrastructure to these communities.  The push to deploy renewable energy in developing countries has been led both by governments and NGOs; two inspiring examples can be found in the Indian Solar Cities and Barefoot College programs.

There, just as much as in North America, what we need to focus on is doing more with what we've got -- and quickly.


2 Responses to "Climate Skeptic - Now with less Skepticism! : Lomborg Changes Tune"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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