Revised 8 May 2020

I’ve been reading quite a bit of Bjorn Lomborg recently, for my research on climate technologies and their social consequences – and I’ve been reasonably critical of some of his writing and mode of argument (see [1], [2]). However, somewhat to my surprise I found it possible to extract an interesting, and relatively consistent position on climate and ecological problems from his work.

The main problem with Lomborg is that he almost always seizes on the most optimistic figures for the economic and other consequences of climate change, and never questions the consequences of current economic structures and drives. He is similarly cheery about the consequences of the current pandemic and the ways to deal with it. He always appears to try and diminish the problems. This ‘optimism complex’ (found in those supporters of renewables as well, who think transition is inevitable and easy) is a problem when the situation seems a lot worse than most people realise.

Another problem is that he appears to not ‘think ecologically’ ie in terms of complex systems. Thus he appears to argue that a few degrees cannot make that much difference – we can all survive 2 degrees no real problem. However, a minor change in one part of the systems can make massive amounts of difference as it courses through the systems, triggering other effects and compounding crises. For example, global warming will probably not just mean our highest temperatures are one or two degrees (the average) higher but much higher, and the high temperatures will not be separated out into single days which might not be too harmful, but over continuous days or even weeks. This significantly magnifies human and animal deaths, water and crop problems, so that they can become catastrophic. These failures then add to other stresses (say pandemic, flood, fire etc) on what should be manageable days. The more stressed the society, the more vulnerable it becomes, and the more catastrophic minor incidents become.

Finally he does not seem interested in any action which restricts air pollution, or emissions. It is probably right to be cynical about the bone fides of any position which claims to be about benefiting human life and which does not recognise air pollution as important harm.

However, this post is an attempt to summarise what I believe to be the strongest points of his underlying argument. The result may not be exactly what he would put forward himself, but seems worth considering. While I don’t agree with all aspects of this argument, and would be far more intense about the problems we face, it does seem to be a useful position, and I have put it as strongly as I can.

  1. At the moment, the whole world faces a set of interlinked problems that cannot be solved by a narrow focus on just one or two of these problems. We have to approach these problems from many directions, and be generalists.
  2. There is a climate crisis which needs to be fixed. It may not be immediate, and it may not be the primary problem we face today, but we do need to fix it. Now, I do think it is an immediate problem, but Lomborg tends to postpone it, as part of his optimism complex. However, let’s begin with it.
  3. The current systems of climate talks, agreements and targets are not working. The Paris targets are costly and nowhere near strong enough, and we are failing to achieve them anyway. There is little point continuing on in the same way and keep failing.
  4. We do not have anything like the amount of green energy we need. We may be increasing green energy enormously, but we have been increasing fossil fuels even faster, so the percentage of truly green energy remains tiny. According to the IEA, the OECD has 2.3% hydro and 2.6% of “geothermal, solar, wind, tide/wave/ocean, heat and other.” To this we can add 9.6% Nuclear and 6.1% of Biofuels and waste, if you really wish to classify these other sources as clean (IEA 2019 Key World Energy Statistics, p7.)
  5. Governments should immediately stop subsidising fossil fuels, at all stages of production. This is a complete waste of money and time. It helps make the situation worse. If companies go bust, then they go bust; that is the market in action. Established companies which depend on bailouts and subsidy should not be supported, as their weakness indicates either bad management, poor financial choices, unwanted products, or some combination of the three.
  6. Pollution and ecological destruction should not be free. At the very least, we need a mechanism to establish a carbon price to help fund research. Lomborg’s position is inconsistent and it’s easy to find counter examples, but I think his position moves towards this over time. I’d add that other ecological destructions should not go uncharged, and uncurtailed, either..
  7. Green energy should not be subsidised. This might result from good intentions, but it is distorting and, according to the IEA, governments are spending way too much for the observable results. Strangely, while Lomborg questions calculations for fossil fuel subsidies he does not seem to question the figures he objects to for renewable subsidies. For example, does the IEA count feed-in-tariffs as subsidies when these could be considered the price paid for electricity generation? We need to be sure what is a subsidy.
  8. Some of the processes receiving subsidy are not that green to begin with. For example, carbon capture and storage is a waste of money. It has no hope of solving the problem, and merely prolongs fossil fuels use.
  9. In the US and Europe, wood burning is classified as green or renewable. This is also deceptive. Burning wood emits more CO2 than coal, and destroys forests and wildlife. The forests may not be replanted, either and it is dubious planted forests have the bio-complexity and resilience of natural growth in any case. Biofuels take away land from agriculture, especially from poorer farmers, and they are largely energy inefficient with low EREI.
  10. Green energy’ should mean every energy source without GHG emissions after set up, including small scale nuclear.
  11. Currently, research into green energy does not receive anything like the money needed.
  12. Instead of subsidising renewables, governments should put at least half that money (or “an annual global commitment of some $100 billion”), into research into green energy [1], [2], [3]. This could be funded from abolished fossil fuel subsidies, so it is not an extra cost. Government led research is effective, and stripped of commercial bias. It can also lead to ‘public domain’ patents, available to all, thus increasing economic productivity.
  13. As we are on track for climate or ecological devastation in the long term, we also need to increase societal resilience.
  14. Poverty and disease are major causes of suffering and decrease societal resilience Removal of poverty also increases life-span and productivity.
  15. Most people who suffer badly from disasters [and climate change] are the poor. The better off people are the better able they can handle, or negotiate, disaster.
  16. Poor people tend to be less worried about climate than about day to day survival. Action on climate often may not seem to benefit, or engage, them but action on their immediate problems can be embraced enthusiastically. However, it can be added, that given that some problems are already coming from climate change, we should not ignore this either.
  17. One reason for massive fossil fuel use is that this easily available, well understood, and centralised form of energy is promoted as helping to lower poverty in the developing world. Without solving the poverty problem, we will not solve the pollution and ecological destruction problems.
  18. There is little point having green energy if it seems to be as harmful to people in poverty, as fossil fuel energy generation and mining can be. We should probably stop coal mining were it hurts, or displaces, poor locals.
  19. We need to keep the economy strong enough and organised enough to lift people out of poverty.
  20. It is notable that Lomborg does not ask whether the current structure of the global economy enables a general lifting out of poverty without harmful consequences. For example does the increase in living standards in the ‘third world’ or ‘the South’ come at the cost of increasing inequality of wealth and power in ‘the North’, along with the decline of the ‘first world’ working and middle classes? Do current methods of raising living standards destroy ‘community’ and mutual aid? Yet the general idea of raising living standards and prosperity, as a help towards problem solving, increasing political participation and resilience, is important and requires more investigation.
  21. These problems also stretch to his support for ‘Free Trade’. The problem is we don’t get really free trade. Neoliberal free trade, has tended to suppress government programmes aimed at providing the social amenities and common good which was not provided by ‘the market’ in the vague hope that they would be provided by the market. This amounts to a suppression of democracy in the corporate interest. Free trade negotiations also seem to have allowed the market to be regulated by the major players in the market to benefit, and protect, themselves. So care is needed here.
  22. Another cause of instability and suffering is disease. TB, for example, is debilitating, and could apparently be eliminated with enough spending. The same is true of Malaria.
  23. Governments also need to protect water and its flows. Improved sanitation and latrine technology help reduce disease, and no one can live without drinkable water. Convenient water also frees up time from collecting it. At the moment we seem to be damaging water at an increasing rate. In dry countries, like Australia, it seems obvious to me that projects which could harm, or restrict, the water supply, even in 200 years or more, should not be considered. It is easier to damage than to protect water supply, in particular underground water.
  24. Research is needed into improving agriculture and food supply in the long-term. It is obvious that short term improvements should not be at the expense of long term sustainability. Although Lomborg does not seem to mention it, this may require research into regenerative agriculture. At the least we need to lower the emissions from agriculture and stop leeching soils of nutrients, salt rising, topsoil loss, and deforestation to provide new fields because old fields are exhausted.
  25. Indoor air pollution from cooking, needs reducing. I would suggest solar cookers, where possible, as this allows wood to remain uncut and dung to fertilise the soil, but Lomborg goes for ventilation – this is also useful and cheap addition. Outside air pollution is also a problem. The World Health Organisation estimates 3.8 million people die per year from household pollution and 4.2 million people die from outdoor pollution. This requires reduction of burning, of coal, gas, oil and so on, but Lomborg seems largely uninterested in lowering this cause of death.
  26. Another source of instability and poverty is the lack of effective birth control, [1], together with the lack of educational and economic opportunities for women. Again it is relatively easy and cheap to fix this – although it will encounter a lot of religious opposition and the amounts being spent seem to be declining.
  27. By reducing the number of children, birth control helps provide better nutrition for existing children and this renders them more physically and mentally capable of education and resilience.
  28. Education needs improvement and more accessibility, especially pre-school – but this is difficult as some dominant groups don’t want people to be well informed, or able to think critically or creatively; they just want them accepting and obedient. A critical and creative population is dangerous for incompetent, or unjust rulers.
  29. It also needs to be added to this summary of Lomborg’s remarks, that any reform program that is actually going to deal with this whole series of problems which interact with each other and magnify each other, may involve a disruptive politics. Particularly when one of those serious problems, is the structure of power relations themselves, and those power relations will affect all attempts at reform.

These ideas seem to be worth considering, wherever they come from, as increasing disasters point to global systemic causes and effects, and they demand systemic strategies in response.

One final addenda. It seems common for people supporting Lomborg to say that:

Spending on green tech research,
Fighting poverty,
Doing our best to end TB, Malaria and other health issues,
Improving food and agriculture,
Improving access to drinkable water and protecting water supplies,
Lowering indoor pollution and
Boosting education, particularly for women,

is somehow incompatible with lowering emissions and pollution and reducing ecological destruction. They repeatedly imply it’s one or the other. However it is probably more accurate to say we cannot carry out Lomborg’s plans, unless we reduce pollution and ecological destruction. The poor end up with the harmful consequences of pollution and eco-destruction and usually live in the places which are most badly affected. We cannot, for example, reduce poverty when corporate or government interests are destroying local agriculture, and poisoning the water and air.