On the bright side

Bjørn Lomborg tells climate-change worrywarts to chillax in Cool It


The most masterful crafters of fiction depend on the deliberate omission of details. Ernest Hemingway, in a 1958 interview with the Paris Review, called it the iceberg of a story, an eighth of which pierces the surface, known and visible, while an untold reality remains submerged beneath the narrative. This art of absentia served Hemingway well, layering his stories with nuance and mystery. The icebergs in Bjørn Lomborg's Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming serve their author's purposes too, but they're likely to melt under the glare of critical scrutiny.

Lomborg, a Danish statistician and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, examines the problem of climate change through the lens of expense, and according to his calculations, the public benefits of cutting carbon dioxide emissions aren't worth the cost. If we really want to improve future conditions, he contends, we should pay more attention to social problems like hunger and disease, causes that have been relegated to the status of ugly stepchildren by the new hype around saving the climate. Early in the book he concludes that, calculated in purely economic terms, the Kyoto Protocol is a "bad deal." Every dollar spent cutting carbon emissions translates to 34 cents of "good" — a term he neglects to define.

Whatever his definition, it demands investigation. Lomborg is, after all, "the skeptical environmentalist," as he first made plain in 2001's The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, which was roundly debunked by scientists and Lomborg's avowed fellow environmentalists. The Union of Concerned Scientists got concerned with his optimism about the state of the natural world and convened a panel of leading experts, including biologist Edward O. Wilson, water expert Peter Gleick, and climate modeler Jerry Mahlman to delve into the details of his data. They determined that his conclusions were drawn from an artful manipulation of facts disguised by a narrative deftly criticizing other artful manipulators of facts.

In Cool It, Lomborg attempts to defame the doomsday scenarios presented by respected environmentalists and thinkers such as Al Gore, Bill McKibben, and James Hansen by focusing on their offal: the potential positive impacts of global warming. He points out that more people die from cold-related deaths than heat-related deaths and wonders why no one's talking about the fact that fewer people may freeze to death in 2050.

Lomborg never denies that climate change is occurring, but he proffers interesting statistics to show that things aren't as bad as has been reported, and he blames the media for distorting facts by employing easy iconography — hurricanes, Mount Kilimanjaro, polar bears, Antarctica. And it's true: the media often go for the easy image — such as Time's cover photo of a polar bear bereft on a chunk of ice, which played a role in bringing the term "global warming" into the common vernacular. Lomborg, by the way, made that same magazine's "100 most influential people" list in 2004.

This influential person writes with cool-headed assurance that global warming will not adversely affect polar bears any more than hunting them does, that some populations of them are actually increasing, and that evolution will equip the fittest for the future.