Thursday 18 May 2006
Johann Hari: Time to bury the high priest of fossil fuels
Where are the Bjorn-again 'sceptical environmentalists' now? Over the last few years, global warming has swept away New Orleans, dried up western Africa, and caused the deserts of China to spread like a fungus across the country. But one man who died in these disasters - alongside his posse of petrol-scented followers- has not been added to the casualty lists. His name is Bjorn Lomborg. In 2001 he flared to public attention with his book 'The Sceptical Environmentalist'. In 2006, it is time to bury him.
Lomborg does not look like the lackeys of the fossil fuel industry who usually represent the sceptic tank. He is a young, gay vegetarian Dane with tight t-shirts and a sweet smile. He came with a simple argument: sure, it's getting hotter in here, but chill baby, chill. Global warming is happening, he admitted, but he said environmentalists were being unduly "hysterical " about it. His case rested on a few simple arguments. "The climate models", he said, "show there is very little we can do about it." He added up how much it would cost to restrain our carbon emissions, and compared it to how much he thinks allowing global warming to happen will cost us. He concluded, "It is far more expensive to cut CO2 emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures." Instead of trying to stop global warming, he said, we should prepare ourselves - and especially the global poor - to cope with it. Spend the money we would have spent on Kyoto on providing clean drinking water for everyone.
When I picked up his book, I wanted Lomberg to be right. I wanted the unravelling of our climate to be a simple problem, a small problem, something we could deal with by increasing aid to the poor as we fly to a warm beach in Malibu. But Lomborg's argument lay on a plush bed of factual errors and misrepresentations from the beginning, and the events of the past few years have killed off any lingering slivers of credibility they might have had.
The problems start with the fact that - contrary to how he is presented in the media - Lomborg is not a scientist. He is a statistician with a degree in politics. He has never produced any original research in the fields of biology, ecology, or environmental science. He has never written a peer reviewed scientific paper, and there's a reason for that. Nor is he an environmentalist. He claims to have been a member of Greenpeace, but the organisation says he was never active in their campaigns. The two central planks of his public image - here is a green guy who has reassessed the scientific evidence and come up with a new reading - are false.
You can see this if you read his work carefully. He gleefully tears up straw-men, selectively quotes sources, and ignores inconvenient facts. He waves aside the findings of most biologists, claiming that biologists systematically skew their findings (and peer-reviewers do not expose their lies) because "there are many grants at stake." Instead he offers a statistical reading, working on the assumption that you can measure the destruction of global ecosystems in the way you measure commodities traded on the stock-exchange, by putting a financial price on them and plugging them into a spreadsheet. But given the extreme complexity of these natural systems, we often don't know their value until they are gone. With ecosystems, one event can cause a spiral that leads to places nobody could have predicted. For example, increased CO2 emissions have caused the Siberian peat-bogs to melt, releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere - and causing even more warming. What price can we put on the collapse of the Amazon and the melting of the Arctic? What will be the consequence of their loss, and can it really be reduced to a predictable lump sum?
But even if we could, Lomborg's proposed solution has been drowned by events. He argues that developed countries can deal just fine with global warming, and the only problem is to lift the developing world up to our standards. But when Hurricane Katrina - almost certainly a product of global warming - hit the richest country in the world, even they could not protect nearly a thousand of their own citizens from its force. Hundreds of thousands are still homeless. (Lomborg, in a typically environmentally illiterate statement, was claiming just last year that global warming " probably will not increase storminess"). What hope is there that we can equip Malawi or Peru to do better than the US?
Lomborg perpetually points to the relative ineffectiveness of Kyoto (even if the US did adopt it) as an argument against restrictions on gas emissions. But real environmentalists have always argued the Kyoto is a feeble first step, valuable only because it would demonstrate our ability to make baby-steps together before we get to the serious jogging necessary. The pathetic impact of Kyoto is an argument for doing far more to hold down CO2 emissions, not for junking the whole idea of restraint and opting for climatic anarchy.
A report from Christian Aid this week, 'The Climate of Poverty' has further sawn the legs off of Lomborgism. They have shown how global warming is actually making it far harder to achieve the goals - like clean drinking water and long-term development - that Lomborg claims to want. When I was in the Democratic Republic of Congo recently, one of Christian Aid's agronomists, a sober, melancholy man called Sampson Cherwa, took me to meet farmers who are going hungry because of global warming. We stood in a battered banana field where the trees lay, flaccid and dying, all around us as he explained, "There has been a dramatic change in the weather here over the past decade, for the first time in living memory. We have always had two rainy seasons, one in winter when we do the planting, and one in spring, when we harvest. Since there is no irrigation here, we are totally dependent on them. But now the rainy seasons have suddenly changed. They have always lasted three months, but now they last only two. The same amount of water falls, but instead of coming as rain that irrigates the fields, it comes as hail or torrential rain that destroys the crops."
Jiamungo Danasie, the Congolese farmer with seven children who owns this field, told me tearfully about the day his field was destroyed by the Weather of Mass Destruction. He rubs his stomach and says in English, " Hungry." As I stand listening to him, I think of all the SUVs on our streets and all the plane journeys we have taken (including, yes, the one that brought me here) and thought - we did this.
The report shows that this is happening all over Africa. In Kenya, the watering holes are dying up and disappearing. As a result, the pastoralists in the North of the country are starting to kill each other in a fight to seize the remaining water. Christian Aid has calculated that 185 million people will die in sub-Saharan Africa alone - equivalent to three Britains - this century as a direct result of global warming. Tens of millions more will be made homeless. How can Lomborg advocate development as the solution to global warming at the very moment when global warming is making development near-impossible? How can you get clean drinking water to Tuvalu and Bangladesh when they are going to disappear below sea level in this century? How can you get clean water to Lima, the capital of Peru, when their only source of water comes from glacial run-off - and the glaciers will be gone in twenty years? Calling for clean drinking water while arguing we should do nothing about run-away global warming is like telling everybody to get on the down escalator and then run up it as hard as they can.
But Lomborg's arguments have allowed a subtle, surreptitious shift in the argument about global warming to take place. For years, the sceptic tank declared that global warming was not happening and that environmentalists were wild-eyed Chicken Littles. Now they have shifted - in a spare second - to airily declaring, yes, it's happening and it's terrible, but it's too late and there's nothing we can do now except prepare for it. Lomborg provides the defenders of pumping even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with something to say that sounds nice and compassionate - give money to Africans - without incurring any costs to themselves. Lomborg likes to play on the idea that he is standing against the mainstream, like all great scientific innovators. But he is not a Gallielo; he is a representative of the fossil-fuel Vatican, obscuring and obfuscating about the plain truth.
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