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Lomborg on the 21st century Part 6: The big picture

04 Oct 2023 | Science Notes

Closing out our review of Bjorn Lomborg’s massive analysis of 21st century we get to zoom out and put climate policy into the larger context of all the other challenges the world faces. Other than green zealots in wealthy countries, who thinks climate is really the top priority? And if we list the things we could be doing to try to make peoples’ lives better, and rank them based on likely payoffs, where does climate action appear on the list? Plot spoilers: almost nobody, and waaaay down low.

On the first point, a clue is found in the ranking of the environmentally related causes of death:

Look closely and you’ll see climate change down at the bottom, just above radon gas. Ordinary air pollution (indoors and out) is a far bigger threat to people, which is why it’s important to support poor countries that want to build modern power plants, including coal-fired ones, to electrify their homes and industries and improve air quality.

Then Lomborg asks a different question: how much better off would the world be if we solved problem X? As in if we solved global health problems, or inequality or lack of education or poor nutrition? Expressed as a percentage of annual income, the answer looks like this:

Again you have to squint to see climate change. It’s at the bottom on the right. All the damage estimates we talked about in previous weeks, even if they are not exaggerated as they may very well be, add up to a very tiny amount compared to other global challenges.

So why is everyone obsessed about climate change? Well, they’re not. It’s strictly a rich man’s game. Even though we’re told global warming hits the poor hardest, within and among nations, the poor themselves don’t agree. In 2015 the UN organized a scheme in which 10 million people around the world got to vote on their priorities for government action. Education and health were at the top, while action on climate change was at the bottom.

Climate change didn’t just rank below political freedom or corruption. It ranked below cell phone access. Some crisis this one is turning out to be.

So what should we do? Well, Lomborg then ranks public investment priorities based on the payoff ratio: what society earns for every dollar invested. Green energy and climate policy are big losers, earning about 11 cents for every dollar flung at them. Improvements to health and liberalization of trade are the best investments, returning significantly more than a dollar for every dollar put into them.

There’s the bottom line. And remember, Lomborg isn’t drawing on the analysis of fringe “deniers”. He’s using mainstream climate analysis by mainstream climate experts, and they are not telling us to crash the economy to try to eliminate fossil fuel use or carbon dioxide emissions. They’re telling us to do a little on climate but focus on other areas where the same investment could do far more good for human beings. Which is good advice, unless you are one of those climate zealots who has lost sight of the idea of pursuing human wellbeing, and instead you are keen to save the world from the climate crisis, even if you have to destroy the world to do it.

4 comments on “Lomborg on the 21st century Part 6: The big picture”

  1. It's interesting how peoples' rankings of threats to their wellbeing change over time. About 40 years ago, the Western world was obsessed with radon gas. This seems to have died a natural death. Now the top concern is outdoor air pollution, which I suspect is also on the way out. Anyone like to guess what the next top concern will be?

  2. Roger,
    I enjoyed your comments on this issue of Climate Nexus, well written and insightful.
    Had the opportunity during a previous life to work for a Federal Agency whose in-place infrastructure, public lands and waters could be at risk due to future changes in temperature and precipitation. After an extensive study (study used 27 climate models) across 13 states and involvement by numerous Federal and State agencies, universities and NGO's the conclusion was that some future warming of the atmosphere would be possible out through 2100 (natural or otherwise) with more variation in precipitation, but the study hardly forecasted a doomsday scenario. Adaptation was the key recommendation of the study.
    I'd guess the next big issues will be another pandemic (manufactured or otherwise), nuclear exchanges (brought on by Ukraine or other national conflicts), and/or food security.
    I remember when the hole in the ozone layer was the end of civilization 🙂
    Be safe Roger,
    Gus Drum

  3. Lomborg is a good counterpoint to the usual “end of the world” memes that climate scientists put out there in their publish or perish frenzy……but really the outdoor and indoor air pollution death numbers he uses are complete junk. It is not a Cause of Death on any death certificates so is complete confirmation bias. He would get better traction with the media if he didn’t use these made up numbers (maybe not made up by him, but somebody making bogus extrapolations who he then quotes….and not fact checking is just as bad as lying yourself).

  4. On the "Climate Change Is Natural" FB blog,there is a study done at Oxford Univ. which claims rocks,mountains,etc actually emit CO2 naturally,rather than act as carbon sinks as was believed for a long time.Perhaps emitting as much CO2 as all the volcanoes worldwide.Only 1% of total emissions,but still a bit of a game changer if true.When one considers that would represent about the same emissions as Australia.And 2/3 of Canada's emissions.

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