Bjorn Lomborg is like the Jaime Lannister of climate change politics: a square-jawed, towheaded, smooth-talking semi-villain who never seems to go away. Unlike the “Circes” of climate denial, he concedes that climate change is anthropogenic and poses a serious threat. But he thinks devoting substantial resources to dealing with it is a miscalculation based on mistaken priorities. He is a skeptic–not of the science, but of the policy. His latest, an Op-Ed in last week’s Wall Street Journal, “The Charade of the Paris Treaty” (paywall), rehashes the argument he’s been making for years.
You might be surprised to hear that Lomborg’s position on climate passes as liberal for the WSJ Op-Ed page. Despite being the most widely distributed newspaper in the world, and one of the most widely respected, and a bastion of center-right thought, count the Journal a skeptic when it comes to climate change.
Lomborg’s was the article that tipped me over the edge and led me to spend a morning penning a letter to the editor that, as it turned out, got published a week later (albeit substantially trimmed):
Arguments like Lomborg’s are actually more dangerous than those of climate skeptics or deniers because they threaten to sow doubt among those who are already on board with climate science.
Below, I re-print my original letter to the Journal. As you’ll see, its length is probably not the only reason they didn’t print the whole thing:
“Unlike the Journal, Bjorn Lomborg (“The Charade of the Paris Treaty,” June 17-18) laudably acknowledges the reality and gravity of anthropogenic climate change. However, his piece contains several fallacies.
First, Lomborg correctly notes that the first round of pledges will fall far short of the stated goal of 2 degrees Celsius, and cites the failed Kyoto protocol as evidence for Paris’ likely failure, but he misconstrues the long-term logic of the agreement, as well as the way in which Paris is importantly different from Kyoto. For one, every five years pledges are reviewed and ratcheted up, which aims to foster trust, cooperation, and peer pressure between parties and gradually build toward more ambitious targets. For another, Kyoto had binding emissions cuts, whereas Paris has voluntary commitments in order to allow flexibility to account for countries’ political and economic feasibility constraints.
Second, Lomborg erects a straw man: no one serious is claiming that we’re sailing into the solar paradise tomorrow. The global energy economy is an aircraft carrier, not a speedboat. The point of Paris is to create a sea change in how countries think about climate: to see it as deeply tied to their economic and geopolitical interests so that they begin to invest more in renewables and put a price on carbon. Lomborg ignores the geopolitical dimension of Paris. The Obama administrations’ most important strategic diplomatic achievement was to elevate climate to the same status as core issues in international cooperation, such as trade and security.
Take it from philosopher and policy analyst Andrew Light, who worked in the Obama Administration to craft and negotiate the Paris agreement:
Trump’s decision will damage U.S. integrity at the negotiating table and impede the ability of this White House to effectively pursue other international issues that require multilateral support. Nicholas Burns, under secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, put it bluntly: “I can’t think of anything more destructive to our credibility” than leaving the Paris Agreement. It will also make it difficult for other leaders to justify to their citizens sitting down with this White House to negotiate anything the U.S. wants, given the broad and deep recognition of the need for cooperative action on climate change among other major powers.
In the new reality, if you’re a bad actor on climate, countries can leverage this against you and make it harder for you to get what you want on a range of issues. Or punish you—France, e.g., has floated the idea of slapping a carbon tax on US imports.
Third, Lomborg descries subsidies for renewables. What he fails to mention is that fossil fuel subsidies far exceed the former. This should bother conservatives, since subsidies distort markets—the price of fossil fuels does not reflect their true cost, which leads to an inefficient use of resources. This is basic, uncontroversial, conservative economics. And he should know, from reading energy historian Vaclav Smil, whom he cites, that no major energy transition has ever happened without massive government support. Bizarrely, he concedes this toward the end of his piece, calling for increased spending on R and D; and indeed, one of the main goals of Paris is to stimulate such investment—hence billionaires such a Bill Gates rallying around the agreement and launching the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.
Fourth, Lomborg clings to the canard that action of climate is bad for the economy. However, in his work he relies on a morally and economically dubious value for the social discount rate. Even William Nordhaus, the dean of climate economics and a long time conservative on climate action, has conceded that he was wrong about the value he ascribed to the social cost of carbon. And others, such as economist Nicholas Stern, claim that the cost should be much higher, which makes the price tag of eventual climate change much, much higher than the investments needed to decarbonize the global economy. Again, the social cost of carbon is a fundamentally conservative idea: individuals and firms ought to pay the full costs of the byproducts of their economic activity. Economic growth is just one value among others, and it is unclear whether it is best fostered by weak climate policy. Prudent investors hedge against risk.
Lomborg is right to claim that we must approach action on climate in the context of global issues such as education, health care, poverty, etc., and that, in the short term, investments in these areas would have a greater impact on welfare. But he seems to assume that if we don’t direct resources to climate, they will indeed be devoted to these areas, which seems unlikely. Moreover, a number of these issues are entangled with and may be exacerbated by climate change. One reason e.g. that China and India are investing heavily in solar and decreasing their coal dependence is the costs of pollution to public health and their economies.
All told, Lomborg’s position—like the Journal’s editorial stance on climate in general and Paris in particular—is unserious, unconservative, and untenable.”
It seems to me that the winning strategy for climate advocacy is to craft arguments to appeal to 1) social conservatives and 2) economic conservatives. How, in other words, to explain why Christianity and Capitalism logically lead to action on climate?
Don’t talk about the “environment,” talk about “creation.”
Don’t talk about “ecological balance,” talk about “economic growth.”
Don’t talk about “ecological destruction,” talk about “job creation.”
The language is jobs, infrastructure, investment, insurance, energy independence.
More later on the psychology, culture, and communication challenges of climate politics.