Review: False Alarm: How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet.

Bjorn Lomborg (New York, NY: Basic books, 2020)

For a long time, there has been no real centre ground politically on climate change: either you are a believer in green activism and its policy platform or a denier, it seems. This is nowhere more demonstrably seen than in the US, where stance on climate change has become another front in the partisan politics and news coverage. In between the cries of imminent apocalypse and outright denial that seems to be the daily fare of the mainstream and alternative news outlets on the issue of global warming, Bjorn Lomborg sounds a rare note of sanity and moderation in his new book, False Alarm: How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet.

Lomborg’s achievement is in providing a much-needed broader context to the climate debate, based on years of researching and writing on the topic. At the start he states categorically that climate change is real and that it is a problem, which must be mitigated; however, it is also the outcome and sign of growing prosperity and, therefore, is inevitable as long as we wish for progress– progress that paradoxically ensures mitigation is possible. Although Lomborg doesn’t specifically use the term, he is arguing that climate change is a form of “revenge effect” whereby every advance made and every problem solved always gives rise to a new set of problems. As such, he sees climate change as just another in the challenges that humanity has faced in adapting to survive, to live better and more comfortably in a fundamentally hostile environment. We are as capable as a species of meeting this challenge as we have others that we have faced before.

Lomborg is an economist and, as such, that is predominantly his approach to climate change. As well as the many strengths of the economic approach, there are weaknesses that open his argument to criticisms from experts in other fields, who can claim that this big-economic picture approach tends to overlook the real and immediate documented effects of a warming world on individual species and their habitats, as well as on marginalized human communities. Unsurprisingly, he and others like him are sometimes referred to by their critics as “lukewarmers”.

Lomborg discounts many of the fallacies perpetuated by the climate lobby and argues convincingly that an economic approach, based on pricing harm and the cost of remediation is the only viable long-term policy that rational government can follow, particularly if the alternative is to make unrealistic pledges in the face of hysterical claims and then do nothing; or pursue a policy of ruination, something that the Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus has shown in his analysis of the UN’s attempt to limit warming to 1.5°C, a source that Lomborg explicitly relies on. The message to politicians is clear: do not act on the panicked advice and pressure of activists, for this will do far more harm than good.

This book consists of five sections: 1) Climate of Fear; 2) The Truth About Climate Change; 3) How Not to Fix Climate Change; 4) How to Fix Climate Change; 5) Tackling Climate Change and All the World’s Other Challenges.

In the first section, “Climate of Fear,” Lomborg dissects the problem around the discussion of climate change. He sees a number of problematic areas, though each of these imply a range of issues in themselves. The main area seems to be that of how the media functions in the information age, by leveraging crisis and outrage as much as possible in order, presumably, to gain commercial advantage and revenue. The public and even politicians, who should be better informed, are then relying on bad or misleading information. This seems to be the root of all other misapprehensions about climate change. As a result of misinformation, the general public tends to overinterpret all types of unrelated, or only indirectly related, events to being the consequences of climate change.

As an example, he cites the “bullseye effect” in which the expansion of human populations and increased property wealth in susceptible regions give the false impression that extreme weather events are more common and are causing vastly greater damage, whereas human behaviour is largely the cause. Lomborg convincingly decouples many natural disasters from global warming, which many assume, from media reports, are their direct cause. For example, the evidence that hurricanes are getting more powerful or more frequent is weak or tenuous and there is none that droughts are getting longer or more widespread.

A second source of problems seems to be politicians under pressure asking the wrong questions of scientists and thereby getting the wrong – at least unhelpful and even harmful – information in return. Lomborg says that asking how we can achieve zero carbon emissions, which is essentially what environmental campaigners are pushing for, is like asking how we can achieve zero traffic fatalities. In both cases the answer is essentially the cessation of the activity giving rise to the problem, whatever the cost to society.

The inextricable link between prosperity and climate warming is further developed in section 3, “How Not to Fix Climate Change,” which first looks at the so-called “rebound” effect. This is the well-documented effect whereby money saved by virtuously renouncing carbon-emitting activities, such as driving, travelling by air, or eating meat, is instead spent on other carbon-emitting activities, underlining the inescapability of carbon emissions in a prosperous world. Lomborg’s point is that individual decisions to forego certain pleasures or opportunities, if simply undertaken for the sake of the planet, are virtually meaningless, such is the miniscule contribution they make. This is even true for major carbon-generating activities. He cites a particularly arresting example that if nobody in the world travelled by air between 2020 and 2100, it would delay predicted climate change by less than a year.

In this section Lomborg also begins to outline an economic analysis of various paths forward. He considers five paths to the future based on the UN’s economic forecasts up till 2100. Two are the best-case scenarios, one the expected scenario and two worst-case scenarios. Under all five there is increased prosperity overall, but otherwise the difference between best and worst-cases are stark. One of the best-case scenarios is “fossil fuel development,” which forecasts a 1000% increase in GDP, virtually no poverty, low inequality, but the highest temperature rise. The other is  ”sustainable development,” which forecasts many of the same benefits, but a lower temperature rise and a GDP increase of 600%. The two worst-case scenarios see the lowest temperature rises but still predict overall GDP increases, but the benefits are unequally distributed. Of these, the worst case sees an overall rise of just 170% in GDP, increased poverty and illiteracy, poorer health, and conflict over resources. This would be the consequence of following the implementation of policies advocated for by climate alarmists (most of whom are from the rich world.

Lomborg outlines his approach to tackling climate change and his critique of the climate lobby, particularly the approach taken in the Paris climate agreement in section 4, “How to Fix Climate Change.” He lays out five approaches: a carbon tax, innovation, adaptation, geoengineering, and prosperity, all of which make a contribution. However, he emphasises innovation as the only long-term prospect for controlling man-made climate change. There are going to have to be alternative and better fuels, new generations of nuclear power with the possibility of nuclear fusion, and various technologies for carbon capture. In order for that to happen there needs to be prosperity to fund Research and Development. The problem with alternative energy sources and technologies at the moment is that they are expensive and inefficient. They are only taken up to any significant degree when there are subsidies. As soon as cheaper and more efficient technologies appear, they will naturally be taken up by consumers.

In the concluding section of the book, Lomborg deals with “Tackling Climate Change and all the World’s Other Problems”, criticizing the tradition of apocalyptic environmentalist prophecy, and showing that each predicted doomsday scenario was solved through a combination of adaptation and technological innovation. This is also how the many other problems faced by humanity that have triggered alarmist reactions have also been solved. According to surveys taken across the world, climate change is now considered by the public and the intellectual and cultural sectors to be the number one global crisis. However, most economists see it as a long-term problem and one fairly low in their list of priorities, being less pressing than inequalities of health and literacy in terms of its contribution to human well-being.

False Alarm is a very readable book. It does not overwhelm the reader with jargon or difficult technical terms. Graphs are kept to a reasonable number and are pertinent and self-explanatory. The sectional approach allows the gradual development of his argument, although there is a lot of overlap between them. Lomborg also uses interesting, sometimes surprising, and occasionally amusing examples to illustrate his points. He has a straightforward thesis that captures a central dilemma with climate change, that it is a concern principally of wealthy countries. He has provided a good answer as to why, for all the rhetoric, little to no progress has been made in actually addressing climate change. The dilemma is that even a rudimentary grasp of the scale of the problem shows it to be intractable, but non-rational public sentiment makes a rational response to dealing with climate change as a long-term issue difficult.

Lomborg has not gone on the offensive against the climate alarmist lobby but simply explains reasons for its existence and nature. Apart from a rebuke of advocacy groups that pressure people into having no children, he makes no attack on the irrationality and ideology prevalent among climate and environmental activists. Lomborg’s message is simply that the solution to global warming is increasing prosperity and investment in research and development of new technologies that can combat climate change, and that this is also important for reducing social inequality and improving human health and well-being.  

Although Lomborg does not denounce the Paris Agreement of 2015, it appears that many of its policies correspond to the worst-case scenarios that he has identified: by aiming for the lowest possible temperature rises, there will more human suffering than his recommended approaches.  As a professional problem solver, Lomborg, does not engage in political polemics regarding impending climate catastrophe, but lays out the facts, the options and the associated benefits, costs and risks. One hopes that this book will bring to the attention of the general public, specialists and policy-makers, not just the scale of the problem of climate change, but the most positive steps that can be taken by governments to address it.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.

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