Thursday, August 30, 2007

Cool It! Interview with Bjorn Lomdborg

A terrific interview with one of the best thinkers on global warming.

Bjørn Lomborg feels a chill
Global warming doesn't faze the infamous author, who argues that polar bears are doing fine and Al Gore is way too hot under the collar. But can the "skeptical environmentalist" back up his rosy views?
By Kevin Berger

Aug. 29, 2007 | Bjørn Lomborg drives people crazy. The tale of the controversy that swarmed his 2001 book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," in which the native Dane argued that many environmental problems were overblown, has been widely told. With a few clicks you can read all about his skirmish with the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty and his protracted battle with Scientific American. In a flash you can find his defenders strafing his critics from their libertarian bunkers or congressional offices. When Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., wants to back up his claim that global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," or invites somebody to Washington to debate Al Gore, he calls on Lomborg.

Lomborg, 42, rose to infamy by way of a Ph.D. in political science and a love affair with statistics. Today he is an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, where he strives to devise economic solutions to the world's pressing problems. Next week he will storm back into the cultural fray with "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming," a highly readable asseveration that global warming is not so bad and that Al Gore is an inconvenient truth-stretcher.

Lomborg is such an iconoclastic figure that you are inclined to scrutinize his every remark. (Eban Goodstein, a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College, reviews "Cool It" in an accompanying article.) But I used the question-and-answer format to give Lomborg his say because, like it or not, he is an internationally popular voice. A prestigious publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, has seen fit to publish and promote "Cool It," and the book has already racked up impressive orders on Amazon, rising to the top 10 on the site's Environmental Science list. I researched critical passages in "Cool It" and presented Lomborg with studies that challenged them. I looked at some of the reports that Lomborg used to make his key points -- "Polar bears aren't facing extinction" is one -- and read him passages from those same reports that he ignored.

Lomborg himself is a fascinating guy, a gay vegetarian lionized by rigid conservatives. In person, the tan and blond author appears to have just strolled out of a Jamba Juice in Malibu. He has a naturally friendly manner and speaks most of the time without sounding didactic. While he can be open and curious, I wouldn't rush to nominate him for a humility award. He has such a singular economic bead on the world that he can sound arrogant as he deflects any other point of view about global warming. But I enjoyed talking with him. We spoke in a conference room at Knopf, where out a panoramic window we could watch the beleaguered Hudson River flow to the ocean on a clear and hot New York day.

Why did you write "Cool It"?

Because we're stuck in this unproductive question, Is global warming a hoax or a catastrophe? Left-wingers say it's a catastrophe and we need to change our entire means of production and society. Right-wingers say we shouldn't bother with it all. If they were right, those conclusions might follow, but that's not what the science tell us. The science tells us that global warming is problem but not a catastrophe. On the other hand, it's not a hoax. I'm trying to make a middle ground for arguing that this is not a problem that will be solved within the next five or 10 years. This is a problem that will take a half or full century, and we need to be sure we have good ways of dealing with it.

You write, "Doing too little about climate change is definitely wrong. But so is doing too much." Why?

Doing too little is obvious, but let's say it anyway: If you don't do something about global warming, of course it will become a bigger problem. So obviously we need to address it and in the long term fix it. On the other hand, doing too much about it means we are focusing too much effort on climate change and forgetting all the other things that we have a responsibility to deal with, like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and malnutrition. If we spend too much time and resources focusing on climate change, then we do the future a disservice because we say, "Hey, we fixed climate change but we let all the other things slide."