How to think about climate change

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Throughout history there have been prophets of doom and prophets of hope. The prophets of doom are often more visible; the prophets of hope are often more important. The Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg is a prophet of hope. For more than ten years he has been questioning the consensus associated with global warming. Lomborg is not a global warming denier but is a skeptic and realist. He does not question the basic facts of global warming or the contribution of human activity to it. He does not deny that global warming will have some bad effects. But he does question the exaggerated claims, he does question whether it’s the only problem worth addressing, he certainly questions the intense politicization of the issue that makes rational discussion hard and he is critical of the measures being proposed by world governments at the expense of better and cheaper ones. Lomborg is a skeptic who respects the other side’s arguments and tries to refute them with data.

Lomborg has written two books on global warming, but his latest volume is probably the most wide-ranging. The title of the book is “False Alarm”, and the subtitle is “How Climate Change Panic Costs is Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet.” The book is about 225 pages, clearly and engagingly written, contains many charts and figures and the last 75 pages are devoted to references and a bibliography. The title sounds sensationalist, and while titles are often decided by the publisher, it succinctly captures the three main messages in the book. The first message is that panic about global warming leads people to think irrationally about it. The third message is that all the vocal fixes proposed for fixing global warming won’t make more than a dent in the actual problem. But the second message is perhaps the most important – that not only would global warming fail to alleviate the problems of the poor but it will make them worse. This puts the problem not just in a political but in a moral perspective. Lomborg’s book should be read by all concerned citizens interested in the subject, whether they agree with him or not.

The first part of the book describes the hype about global warming that has steadily appeared like a drumbeat in the pages of the mainstream media. Much of this hype is regarding extreme events like hurricanes and forest fires. Lomborg illustrates several cases where the media warped and greatly exaggerated observations and predictions reported in leading scientific journals. The problem that Lomborg points out is a more general one that has been pointed out by Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling and others: the media always reports bad news, and even when it comes to bad news, they present worst case scenarios because they get the most attention. For instance, global warming is usually represented by several models presenting best case to business-as-usual to worse case scenarios, but the media often reports only on the last kind. They also fail to add qualifiers that would allow readers to put the issue in perspective. A good example given by Lomborg is a widely publicized 2019 New York Times article on flooding due to global warming. The paper reported a study that showed that 20 million people in South Vietnam will be underwater by 2050. This sounds quite scary, but a further look at the study shows another graph indicating the excess number of people who would be underwater – it’s a very small number. What is conveniently forgotten is that millions of people in South Vietnam already live “underwater”, as do millions in Bangladesh or the Netherlands. Even in cities like London and New York which are built under the high-tide mark, a vast number of people live, work and thrive “underwater”. The article not only creates panic but is disingenuous since it doesn’t accurately convey these facts.

The problem with news reporting like this points to a running thread and key point in the book: people who report on the dire circumstances of global warming almost always fail to take adaptation into consideration. Human beings are the most adaptive species in the earth’s history. We have survived the last Ice Age, famines and pandemics killing a fourth of the population, prolonged periods of poverty and devastating wars that killed tens of millions. And we did all this even when we did not have antibiotics, computers, GMOs and vaccines. The populations in Vietnam, Bangladesh and Holland which have not been flooded thrived through simple innovative solutions like dikes and other flood barriers. Any model or prediction of global warming that does not take adaptation into consideration is not just a fundamentally flawed model but also one that betrays confidence in human ingenuity. And while the exact details of such adaptation cannot be predicted, the fact that we will adapt in the first place is almost a law of human nature.

The benefits of climate adaptation become clear in the case of large-scale flooding due to sea level rise, one of the biggest concerns of climate change proponents. The book talks about a report based on two papers that estimate the damage as a percentage of GDP caused by sea level rise. With no adaptation, the damage is worth 5.3% of GDP and will lead to 187 million people displaced by the year 2100 even after spending 24 billion dollars on dikes. But strikingly, by just doubling the spending on dikes to 48 billion dollars, the models predict that the cost of flooding will now drop to only 0.008% of GDP. Even the authors of the studies from which these dire estimates are drawn say, “Damages of this magnitude are very unlikely to be tolerated by society and adaptation will be widespread.” Even the earlier study reported in the New York Times said in its abstract that “coastal defenses aren’t considered.”

The example of dikes shows that not only will adaptation be inevitable but that it would be relatively cheap and lead to disproportionate benefits. Constructing dikes to minimize water damage is cheap. Putting better building and fire codes in place and discouraging people from living in dry forested areas is cheap for minimizing the impact of forest fires. If malaria caused by mosquitoes breeding in warmer areas because of climate change is a concern, making nets and spraying insecticide is cheap. Smog and air pollution have already been drastically reduced in major cities by local and national government action. All these things are vastly cheaper than large-scale cuts to carbon emissions which would be like trying to drive a nail in a wall using a bulldozer; the nail may possibly be driven in, but the entire house would likely collapse. If flooding is threatening your town or state, in general in seems foolhardy to try to address it by asking China or the United States to expensively reduce CO2 emissions over the next fifty years and much more sensible to cheaply build dikes.

The point that Lomborg makes is that even if we assume that extreme events are caused by warmer weather, it does not mean directly tackling carbon emissions is the best way to address these problems. An elephant in the room is the so-called “bullseye effect”. The bullseye effect simply says that as you expand a bullseye, the chances of hitting the target increase. In case of flooding, forest fires or hurricanes, a big reason why they are causing more damage every year is simply because more people are living in and building expensive assets in the areas in which they strike. So while adaption certainly will be valuable, the simple but perhaps challenging policy of discouraging more people to live in disaster-prone areas will also minimize the damage because of global warming.

The costs and benefits of climate change that Lomborg cites are based not just on his own estimates but on those of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Institute and other official bodies. One of the paradigms that Lomborg heavily leans on is economist William Nordhaus’s set of models that estimate the economic costs of global warming. The models try to include as many variables as possible, including impacts on biodiversity, personal health, agriculture and fisheries. They try to estimate both costs from damage and costs from policies. Nordhaus remains the first and only economist to win the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on climate change. In 2008 Nordhaus wrote a book titled “A Question of Balance” addressing various scenarios for climate change costs. A fundamental device in Nordhaus’s book is discounting in which a dollar invested in fighting global warming now becomes a certain amount of money that future generations can spend on fighting it. Nordhaus’s analysis allows him to put a price on carbon in various scenarios for climate change mitigation. It is an important part of Lomborg’s analysis as well, and I would recommend Nordhaus’s book as a companion volume to Lomborg’s book.

Nordhaus’s models estimate that in a business-as-usual scenario where countries don’t make any massive cuts to CO2, the average temperature will rise by about 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the year 2100. This is far more than the 2 degrees Fahrenheit global temperature increase seen since the industrial revolution. What will be the corresponding economic costs? About 3 percent of world GDP. To account for serious unforeseen events, Nordhaus added a buffer of 25%, bring the costs to 4 percent of GDP. These numbers in absolute terms are significant (3% of world GDP in 2020 is about 2.4 trillion dollars) but in relative terms are small. Now how does this total cost compare to individual costs from specific events, many of which are often portrayed by the media as end-of-humanity catastrophes? Lomborg considers two major ones – the putative collapse of the Greenland ice shelf and the extinction of the fish in the world’s oceans. In case of the Greenland ice shelf, a UN climate panel found that even in the absence of CO2 cuts, 60 to 70 percent of the ice sheet will be around in a thousand years. More importantly, Nordhaus estimates that the cost of the ice sheet melting will be a small 0.012 percent of GDP. The world’s fisheries are also regarded as being threatened due to climate change, not just because of warming but because of increased acidification due to dissolved CO2. Interestingly, and I was surprised to find this, two thirds of edible fish now come from aquaculture, so even the extinction of fish in the ocean – clearly a major and tragic event with unintended consequences – would not mean that we would starve from a lack of fish. In fact the cost of the loss of ocean fisheries is estimated at only 0.0075 percent of GDP in Nordhaus’s model. Thus, even seemingly catastrophic events contribute little to the cost of global warming in the Nordhaus models. The shift of fisheries from the oceans to aquaculture is another good example of adaptation and how technology can help us solve pressing problems.

One of the things that Lomborg does not focus on is that all these models – both ones predicting severe effects and one predicting mild ones – are ultimately models. They contain many assumptions that don’t always hold, they are simplified representations of reality and and they often don’t account for non-linear network effects. One of my concerns is that while Lomborg is rightly skeptical of models that portend catastrophe, he is less skeptical about models that forecast the low economic costs and relative benefits of climate change. However it is fair to say that it is precisely because of uncertainties like these that models of the kind Nordhaus uses have a 25% margin of error baked in. Lomborg’s argument is that even with these error margins, the impact is not half as bad as we are made to believe. Nonetheless, keeping that these are models in mind all the time can greatly finesse discussions on climate change and set the right expectations on both sides.

The media’s fascination with the doom and gloom scenarios arising from climate change also do a disservice because they fail to account for possible good effects of warming. No perturbation to the planet that is as large as that ascribed to global warming would have universally terrible impacts. A good example is the predicted frequency of droughts. It seems logical that increases warming will make areas drier and lead to more droughts. But it’s also equally logical that warming will lead to more precipitation and increased rainfall in some areas. If it causes drought in critical areas like California’s Central Valley which provides half of the United States’s fruits and vegetables it could be quite bad; if it leads to more rain in areas with drought that would be good. One of the dilemmas of discussing global warming is that while it’s challenging to create a balance sheet of good vs bad effects, even stating that there could be good effects can be a controversial statement. For instance, one of the indisputable effects of warming is that it causes heat waves, and the last few years have seen no end to the reporting of these heat waves in the media. But logically again, warming also reduces cold waves. As Lomborg points out, heat waves are quick and dramatic and newsworthy while cold waves are prolonged, insidious and boring to report. Heat can quickly kill by heatstroke, but cold can kill by long-term afflictions like flu and pneumonia. Not surprisingly, heat waves get reported more frequently than cold waves. But because cold has more chronic and more widespread effects, it kills more people, which means that global warming likely saves more lives lost due to cold than ones it takes due to heat. Once again adaptation comes to the rescue here. Lomborg cites several cases in which measures as simple as painting roofs white instead of black leads to a measurable decrease in the number of people dying of heatstroke. Over the last few years, as incomes have rose in the developing world, the increased prevalence of air conditioning has led to fewer people dying of heat waves, and yet ironically, those whose only solution to warming is to cut CO2 emissions would be depriving these people of a simple technological advance by insisting that air conditioning contributes to climate change.

In his famous 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”, former vice president Al Gore said that climate change is not so much a political issue as a moral issue. Gore was right, but not in the way he meant. The great irony is that while climate change impacts poor people disproportionately, the solution for climate change that is being proposed by the vast majority of concerned citizens would also hurt them disproportionately. This solution would be the massive reduction of CO2 emissions. One of the greatest success stories of the 20th century is how China and India climbed out of poverty by burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels continue to be the best way for a country to become rich. Not only do they directly provide heat and electricity, but many of the critical items related to national growth including fertilizer, cement and steel are directly dependent on fossil fuels. Unfortunately the advantages of fossil fuels lie in basic laws of physics which are almost impossible to circumvent. Because there’s so much oil and natural gas around, fossil fuels are cheap. Because they consist of the most reduced source of carbon (hydrocarbons), they are energy-dense. Mirroring what Gore said, depriving the average citizen of a developing country of fossil fuels would indeed be not just impractical but immoral. In fact this is one of the central problems rich countries like the US have faced in climate change negotiations in which they ask China and India to cut down on fossil fuels and growth while having enjoyed unprecedented growth from fossil fuel burning for decades themselves.

Sadly, most of the climate change negotiations until now have pushed this central fact about the basic energetics and economics of fossil fuels under the rug. The Paris Agreement is sadly the latest culprit in this parade of failed policy prescriptions. The Paris Agreement basically asks every country to voluntarily cut greenhouse gas emissions until 2050. Quite aside from the fact that shifting political and economic realities will make it impossible for most countries to keep these promises, many countries like Mexico are consigning their citizens to an impoverished existence by promising deep cuts. The costs of the agreement are huge – about a trillion dollars per year. However, this vast expenditure of money would result in a minuscule temperature drop of 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit. Note that this drop is vanishingly small compared to a 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius) reduction that is often considered by many to be a safe bet if we were to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. Even in a best case scenario where every nation continues to keep its commitment by the end of the century, the global temperature reduction would be 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. It goes without saying that a trillion dollars a year would allow any country in Africa or a country like India to improve its citizens’ welfare significantly. In other words, the Paris Agreement calls for very expensive and unrealistic actions resulting in a very small benefit.

It’s this last point that puts the moral problem in stark perspective. In 2017, UN experts teamed up with scientists around the world to come up with socioeconomic scenarios for the world under various models of greenhouse gas emissions until the year 2100. They looked at different forecasts, including ones in which countries simply go on emitting CO2 and ones in which they cooperate with each other in reducing emissions. They assumed that governments invest in education, healthcare and technology, probably the three most important pillars of progress. Not surprisingly, as the world gets richer, global GDP increases in every single case. What is surprising is that assuming a “green” scenario in which countries embark on sustainable development and use fewer resources with a smaller energy footprint, average per capita value will be about $70,000 less than in a scenario in which countries burn fossil fuels at current rates. Clearly sustainable development is a desirable scenario for all of us, but a poor person having an extra $70,000 a year will give that person an enormous advantage. Greater wealth usually translates to more sustainable living, with people investing in education, minimizing loss of productivity due to health issues and using energy more efficiently. Remember the example of people adapting to heat waves using air conditioning; an extra $70,000 per person would make such simple measures possible. The problem with cutting the kinds of emissions as stated in the Paris Agreement is that while their benefits will be minuscule, their costs in terms of stalling national and personal progress will be enormous. Rich people will not be impacted much because their losses will be small, but there will be more people left in poverty and less money for them to climb out of it through investments in education, healthcare and simple technological adaptation. It’s a good example of why climate change policy will hurt the poor the most.

The fallacy of keeping people poor by tying all their problems to climate change is a significant part of the issue. Poverty, air pollution, disease and a lack of educational opportunities are all critical challenges faced by a majority of the world’s population. These problems may partly be tied to climate change, but most of them are separate from it. Whether climate change is the best problem to spend a finite amount of money on is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, especially if some of these other issues can be tackled cheaply. I have always thought that a sizable part of most countries’ defense budget could easily be spent on climate change. Unfortunately many of these problems are often conflated with climate change and it’s made to appear as if cutting greenhouse gas emissions will suddenly solve poverty and cure disease. But what is much more likely is that curbing emissions significantly in the short term will severely throttle economic growth and make outcomes in these other areas like health and poverty worse, not better.

If at least some of the benefits of fossil fuels and the difficulty of getting away from them are clear, what are the solutions? Unfortunately many of the potential solutions to climate change are driven more by political posturing and virtue signaling rather than by sound thinking. Cutting emissions is considered the one and only solution. The issue is now so politicized and sensitive that if you are skeptical of some of it, you are assumed to be skeptical of all of it. If you disagree in degree, it’s assumed that you must disagree in kind. This is not very different in principle from the old political wars of religion in Europe where even minor differences of opinions about issues like baptism and predestination were regarded as heretical opinions that merited the harshest response.

Lomborg considers a progressive carbon tax which is a good measure, but even a carbon tax would be relatively expensive and will need to be uniformly applied while having a small impact on global temperatures. And it would need to be implemented in all countries since CO2 emissions don’t stay local. In his book, Nordhaus makes the point that anyone who talks about enacting climate policies without stating the change in the price of carbon is not serious about climate change, and it’s only when we see the large price tag of carbon for some of the most drastic emissions cutting that we realize how hard it can be. Lomborg also makes the same point; under some scenarios for instance, Americans will have to pay up to $4 extra per gallon of gas, a price that will be unacceptable to most consumers. A carbon tax is good middle ground, but even it runs into the problem of being impractical in many cases.

The biggest culprits in researching alternative energy solutions are solar and wind energy. When governments say they are funding “alternative energy”, it almost always means solar and wind energy. But the problems with both of these sources are well known and yet strangely persistent. Neither of these sources work when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, and baseline energy still has to come from fossil fuels. Wind farms take up land and both wind turbines and solar panels use significant energy from fossil fuels in their production. Efficient energy storage may provide a partial solution, but we aren’t there yet. The harm of pivoting significantly to solar and wind energy becomes clear when we look at Germany. Under a sweeping energy policy, Germany moved away from nuclear power to solar and wind energy. As a result, they pay the highest electricity prices of anybody in Europe. This might still be feasible for a German, but it’s not so for an average rural African or Indian. Lomborg gives the example of a village in India which was off the grid and which Greenpeace promised to provide electricity to by installing solar panels. Within a very short time, the villagers realized they weren’t getting enough electricity to even cook food and they protested and had the government put them on the fossil fuel-powered grid. Today “renewables” provide about 15 percent of electricity in the US, and most of that still comes from hydroelectric power, an old energy source. Unfortunately it’s fashionable especially among rich countries to proclaim that they are heavily investing in solar panels – having a picture taken next to one makes for a good photo-op.

These days it’s also fashionable for well-to-do people to proclaim that they are doing something to curb global warming by eating less meat or by driving electric cars. There are good ethical and practical reasons for doing both, but reducing global warming is not one of them. As Lomborg points, driving an electric car instead of a gasoline car will lead to a lifetime reduction in emissions of about 25 percent; the production of the electric vehicle still involves considerable fossil fuels (so does the production of wind turbines and solar panels). Going vegetarian leads to an even more feeble reduction in emissions of 2 to 4 percent compared to a meat eater; vegetarian food production is still quite energy and fossil fuel-intensive. The main problem is that when people try to reduce emissions, they are doing so only in the last step of a multi-step, energy-intensive process. Another problem which is more general is what is called the ‘rebound effect’ studied by psychologists. The rebound effect means that if we save on one thing, we are likely to spend that resource on another. For instance, people who drive electric cars or eat less meat re more likely to congratulate themselves and take a trip somewhere on an airplane, neutralizing their GHG savings. Virtuous behavior that saves resources in one circumstance often leads to profligate behavior that wastes the same resource in another. What would likely lead to much more significant savings in GHG emissions is more research into carbon-efficient fuels for transportation and artificial meat which is already making a dent. This again reinforces the point that the solution to curbing climate change is not to expect human behavior to magically change but to bring technology to bear on the problem.

Technology is in fact what might be the best solution to the problem of climate change, and this is what Lomborg focuses on in the last part of the book. Unfortunately many people are so obsessively focused on changes in consumption and behavior for reducing CO2 emissions that they don’t think of technology that would allow us to adapt as well as actually fight global warming. Even discussing technological solutions makes some people feel like we are giving up. But this is an odd response. We came up with technological solutions like GMOs for fighting hunger, technological solutions like vaccines for fighting disease and technological solutions like catalytic converters for fighting air pollution; we did not think that implementing these solutions reflected resignation in any way. It shouldn’t be any different for global warming. We have already implemented cheap technological adaptations for fighting floods, hurricanes and forest fires and should undoubtedly implement more of these. Most importantly, we need to have a more optimistic view of technology as an important part of the solution. One of the most spectacular stories of using technology to address climate change is fracking, and it was technology that was discovered serendipitously and deployed quickly. Embarrassingly for opponents of fossil fuels, natural gas obtained through fracking actually reduced CO2 emissions by about 7% during the Obama administration. In fact natural gas is often touted as the best “bridge fuel” to address climate change, being a relatively low-carbon source that still provides high energy.

Unfortunately as Lomborg points out, funding for renewables and green energy R&D had actually reduced in the last ten years. What is even worse is that both the government and the private sector pick winners and losers like solar and wind energy. As with most R&D, the best solution to combat climate change will be one which we cannot predict, so the best policy is to fund a wide range of options. Lomborg lists a few including algae that can produce biofuels by consuming CO2, better storage technology for wind and solar power, salt spray that can create whiter clouds that reflect sunlight and new kinds of nuclear fission and fusion reactors that can provide clean energy. I think one of the most promising avenues might be genetically engineering trees so that they can bury more carbon in their roots and in topsoil and less in their shoots. But like Lomborg I would be wrong in predicting what solution would work the best, so the best solution is indeed to not pick a solution and fund idea generation and diversity of opinions instead.

The current panic about global warming is not too different from previous panics. Thomas Malthus famously predicted in the early 19th century that humanity would run out of food soon because while food production increases arithmetically, human population multiplies geometrically. Perhaps the most spectacular failure of prediction was the 1960s book “The Population Bomb” by Paul Ehrlich that dramatically began with the statement, “The battle to feed humanity is over”. Ehrlich and his fellow doomsayers could scarcely imagine the amazing advances in food production enabled by Norman Borlaug and his genetically engineered strains of wheat and rice, an achievement that won Borlaug the Nobel Prize and increased India’s food production by 328 percent in 2020 relative to 1967. The same group of doomsayers also made predictions of a global cooling event in the 1960s that did not come to pass. The answer to these doomsayers’ predictions was technology and government policy.

Similarly, predictions about climate change don’t mean that global warming does not exist or that humans don’t cause it, but they do mean that its bad effects likely won’t be as bad as predicted, especially when we are now so capable of technological innovation. And it does not mean that it’s the only or greatest problem that we face to the exclusion of everything else. Unfortunately climate change has turned into a secular scientific religion. It is scientific because it’s based on the careful work of many good climatologists. It is a religion because people often believe in it way beyond what the evidence warrants and defend it with the zeal of the faithful. Decoupling the science from the religion will be salutary for all of us and will allow us to tackle the problem rationally. Lomborg’s book is an important contribution to the debate.