On the bright side - Page 2

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

He writes, "Yes, it is likely that disappearing ice will make it harder for polar bears to continue their traditional foraging patterns and that they will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved." His back-of-the-book footnote to that statement reads: "The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment finds it likely that disappearing ice will make polar bears take up a 'terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.' "

And the hawks begin to circle. In a recent interview with Lomborg, Salon.com's Kevin Berger said, "But you edited the quote. The whole thing goes like this: 'It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.' " Lomborg defends himself by saying he talked to a different expert.

While it would be easy to discredit the remainder of the book based on this exposé, there is some worth in Lomborg's reminder that we've been asleep at the wheel on far too many social problems, such as clean water, hygiene, disease prevention, and hunger. He isn't wrong when he says that solving them would better equip populations for dealing with climate change. But further tugging at the roots of his footnotes is almost unnecessary because Cool It is virtually devoid of fully explored ideas.

For example, at a 2004 meeting the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a consortium of economists headed by Lomborg that think tanks on global challenges, drew up a global priority list of issues we should be addressing rather than shuttling cash toward cutting CO2 emissions. Ranking third is increased trade liberalization — code language for more NAFTA-type agreements, which have proved detrimental to developing countries. And what exactly is meant by number five, "development of new agricultural technologies"? Genetically modified organisms? Newer, stronger, somehow nontoxic pesticides? It's hard to believe an environmentalist might promote pesticide use, but in his chapter on eradicating malaria Lomborg writes, "Concerns from Western governments, nongovernmental organizations, and local populations make it hard to utilize DDT, which is still the most cost-effective insecticide against mosquitoes and, properly used, has negligible environmental impact."

Such a statement underscores Lomborg's priorities when it comes to health — both human and environmental. His definition of cost gives primacy to cold, hard cash at the "negligible" expense of humans and their environments. Likewise, when the discussion turns to ratifying Kyoto, which he claims — without much explanation — would cost the US economy $160 billion a year, the price tag refers solely to the cost of disrupting business as usual.

"If we try to stabilize emissions, it turns out that for the first 170 years the costs are greater than the benefits," Lomborg writes. But for the past 200 years we've been doing business on the cheap — and that shouldn't be our baseline cost of existence. What's the true cost of a species? Do we really know until it's gone? What about the other negative environmental impacts of business as usual? Or the positive impacts of, say, more public transit to reduce car trips to reduce emissions? Plus, a decrease in the burning of coal, oil, and natural gas means more than just a decrease in carbon emissions. It means less mining, less drilling, less invasion into remote or protected areas questing for new ores.