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The Sceptical Environmentalist - part 2

1st April 2011

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And so the trick here is to say there’s a much greater leverage if you focus on innovation because if you innovate the price down below fossil fuels you solve the problem, where as if you subsidise you’re essentially making an unsustainable solution.”

Bjorn LombergWhether it’s made a priority or not, research into green technologies will continue, eventually making cheaper and more efficient solar panels and the like, but, “We are not going to be able to cut carbon emissions dramatically in the next 20 to 40 years.”   What we need, Bjørn says, is something with a more immediate result and a way to, “Insure ourselves for something really bad happening,” and the only way to do this is via geo-engineering, that is: engineering projects on a planetary scale.  In the case of climate change it means, “Essentially, being able to set the thermostat of the world.”

“We looked at some of these proposals,” he says of the solutions put forward at the Consensus on Climate, “and what they basically told us was there’s potentially an incredibly cheap way of avoiding most of the climate problems.”  He explains the basic science of marine cloud whitening, which is ‘making clouds a little whiter.’  The idea is to enhance the natural process of ocean spray by using fleets of ships or unmanned watercraft to spray ocean water into the air.  This acts on low-level stratocumulus clouds and, basically, enables the clouds to reflect more solar radiation, “amplifying essentially a really natural process,” and hence cool the planet.

While the solution seems mind-bogglingly simple to implement, its cost is even more surprising.  “The beautiful thing about this is that they estimate that for about $6billion in total we could avoid all of the global warming of the 21st century.  Compared to every other solution, we’re talking about something that’s 1000 to 10,000 times cheaper.  That’s certainly something that ought to make us sit up straight in our chairs and think about this.“  To drive the point home further he adds that, “this is actually so cheap that Bill Gates could do this by himself.”  And while he doesn’t think the world’s richest man will, he thinks it’s likely that someone, even just a single nation might decide to take action themselves.

“I certainly think where we’re at now we would want this to be something that everybody could get together and decide on,” he says on the idea of a single nation or a small group of nations taking the initiative by themselves.  “Whether that’s actually going to happen and whether we might stand in a very different position in the next 50 years, I think it would be premature to make that call, but certainly we should try to get everybody together.”


Bjørn is also quick to point out that this solution, as great as it sounds, isn’t something that should be rushed into either, emphasising the need for caution.  “We want to take a look at whether this would actually work, whether it would be feasible to implement and whether it would have negative side-effects,” and that the research could give us a backup in the event of worse-than-expected global warming effects.  He also points out that while cooling the planet would be beneficial for many countries, “it would probably not be good for Canada or Russia, or Denmark for that matter.”  He also notes that marine cloud whitening isn’t a silver bullet to fix all climate and environmental damage.  “It will not, for instance, deal with ocean acidification.”

Once the research is complete though, be it in the next few years or next few decades, is when the political scene will become more interesting.  One of the fundamental problems of global warming policy, Bjørn says, is that,  “Right now it’s about feeling good. It’s about saying stuff that sounds good or looks good on a page or gets you into the news paper.”  While he thinks the likes of Al Gore and Barak Obama are genuine and above board in their beliefs on climate change and how they can solve it, he says it’s easy for them to say so because they know they’ll never have to really act on it.


“Remember, nobody had any problem in Rio in 1992 to say that, in principle, we should get back to pre-industrial levels.  Remember that everybody felt very comfortable saying that because everybody knew that nobody was ever going to actually do that.  So in a sense what we’re saying is, ‘Oh yeah, we’d like to change the thermostat of the planet because we know we can’t do it.’

“Presumably, what this should be about is doing good. I doubt that future generations are going to think kindly of us because we spoke beautifully about the problem; the issue is whether we actually did something that would fix the problem.”

The hindsight of future generations is something he also thought about in 2005 while giving a TED talk in California about the inaugural Copenhagen Consensus.  He discussed how current UN models predicted that in 2100, people in developing nations will be at least as rich as people are presently in the west and changed the question of, ‘Do we want to spend a lot of money now to help a poor Bangladeshi a small amount in 100 years?’ to ‘Do we want to spend a lot of money now to help a rich Dutch guy a little in 100 years?’

“We went out and talked to a lot of individuals around the world of their problems with climate change but also other issues they might have,” he tells me after mentioning the Copenhagen Consensus Center’s website, “and what was very clear was that many of them said that, yes, I worry about global warming but when my kids are likely to die from water poisoning, they don’t have enough food to eat, I don’t think global warming in 100 years is going to be my main priority.  I think there is a strong point in recognising that for most people around the world they have other more immediate problems.”

Such examples help to focus Bjørn’s views on current policy and thinking and the application of his economic rationalism, knowing that money frivolously spent now not only has no impact on our great grand children 100 years from now, but it also means those in need now go without, even though their problems could be eliminated with only a fraction of the money being spent.  But it’s also his belief that we should stop and think about our problems and their solutions, even if it means the production of more pollution and climate damage in the short term, that garner negative views of him from more reactionary people.

He also concedes that the success of a geo-engineering project is a double-edged sword: “It will make more nations use fossil fuels longer with good conscience,” but says we need to remember that, “it’s not like the alternative is that they wouldn’t; they’d just use the same amount of dirty fuels with a bad conscience,” and reiterates that until there is a cheap alternative we can’t expect anything different.  “That’s a little bit like talking to people and telling them they should be driving carefully, and we know that people know that, but if we give them seatbelts then they’re probably not going to be as careful,” he says drawing an analogy between the ecological safety net of geo-engineering and the cheap access of fossil fuels over current green technologies.  And he says it’s a very awkward argument, knowing how to save people (either through seatbelts or geo-engineering), but holding back the solution because you want to ‘teach them a lesson.’

He draws another analogy between bypass-surgery recipients and green technologies.  He says everyone gets told they need to eat healthy but we can’t deny them bypass surgery because they ate a pizza because we know that, the fact is, people do eat somewhat unhealthily.  “Our real trick is to develop a new kind of pizza that’s actually healthy but that tastes really good,” referring to the development of new green energy sources that everyone will want to use, not just to give them a clean environmental conscience, but because they’re the best and cheapest option.


“I think that also underscores one of the points I think is missing in this entire conversation: If people have this idea that we emit CO2 because we’re bad people in some way, that we emit a lot of CO2 just to annoy Al Gore, that’s not actually the case.  We emit a lot of CO2 because we burn a lot of fossil fuels because that basically powers everything we like about civilisation.  Think about civilisation without fossil fuels.  It does an incredible amount of good things: it powers you, it keeps you warm, it keeps you clothed, it keeps you fed, it does virtually everything you like and we’re not going to get off of that.

“What we need to tell people is that you will get all those things but you’ll get them without the CO2 emissions, and that’s about technology.  It’s recognising you’re not going to get people to not have all the great things that fossil fuels provide us.  What we can do is come up with technology that means you can have all those things but not emit the CO2, hopefully though very cheap green energy technologies.  And that’s a little bit like making pizza healthy.”

In numerous talks he’s given, Bjørn discusses peoples’ use of green consumer technologies such as energy saving light globes, and in his documentary ‘Cool It’ states that if every person in the US started driving a Prius instead of a regular car it would only impact needed CO2 emission reductions by 0.5% by mid-century.  “By all means, do it,” he says of using these technologies, “just don’t believe that this is what’s going to save the planet.”  He says it’s hard to recognise, but if you save money on your power bill because you use energy efficient light globes, you’re just going to spend that saving somewhere else like entertainment or taking an extra holiday overseas, “and hence you will actually likely emit that CO2 somewhere else. So you don’t actually emit less, you simply emit it elsewhere.  It’s still good in the sense that you get more out of it, and you should definitely do it for that sense, but don’t believe that it has any climate impact.

“The real and important point that I try to make and that I also hope gets through is to say it’s not about you and me making some small personal changes,” he says, saying again that these are all about making ourselves feel better and having a clear conscience when we ask ourselves, ‘Did you do a good thing today?’

“It’s about making sure we make societal changes, that we ask our politicians instead of making these empty promises to come out and make significant promises,” he says of cheaper and more effective ways of making green energy, and ensuring it’s much more affordable in the future.  “That’s more about investing dramatically more in research and development, and if we do that we can solve this problem.”

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