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Reducing Carbon Vs. Increasing Wealth

The New York Times ran a fascinating piece on global warming. It is based on an interview with Bjorn Lomborg, who the Times describes as “…the Danish political scientist and scourge of environmentalist orthodoxy.”

The interview took place at New York’s Bridge Cafe. The most interesting thing about the Bridge Cafe — aside from its claim to be “New York’s Oldest Drinking Establishment” — is that it is located at 279 Water Street in Manhattan. The street was so named because it was built right flush on the water.

It happens to be that New York has been experiencing its own problems related to weather:

Since record-keeping began in the 19th century, the sea level in New York has been rising about a foot per century, which happens to be about the same increase estimated to occur over the next century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The temperature has also risen as New York has been covered with asphalt and concrete, creating an “urban heat island” that’s estimated to have raised nighttime temperatures by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. The warming that has already occurred locally is on the same scale as what’s expected globally in the next century.

So since the interview was right on Water Street and sea level is up a foot in the last century — we ought to be able to see from the restaurant window something similar to what global warming is projected to do to the world during the next hundred years.

And in that there is a story:

The effect of these changes on Lower Manhattan isn’t quite as striking as the computer graphics. We couldn’t see any evidence of the higher sea level near the Bridge Cafe, mainly because Water Street isn’t next to the water anymore. Dr. Lomborg and I had to walk over two-and-a-half blocks of landfill to reach the current shoreline.

The effect of the rising temperatures is more complicated to gauge. Hotter summer weather can indeed be fatal, as Al Gore likes us to remind audiences by citing the 35,000 deaths attributed to the 2003 heat wave in Europe. But there are a couple of confounding factors explained in Dr. Lomborg’s new book, “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.”

The first is that winter can be deadlier than summer. About seven times more deaths in Europe are attributed annually to cold weather (which aggravates circulatory and respiratory illness) than to hot weather, Dr. Lomborg notes, pointing to studies showing that a warmer planet would mean fewer temperature-related deaths in Europe and worldwide.

The second factor is that the weather matters a lot less than how people respond to it. Just because there are hotter summers in New York doesn’t mean that more people die — in fact, just the reverse has occurred. Researchers led by Robert Davis, a climatologist at the University of Virginia, concluded that the number of heat-related deaths in New York in the 1990s was only a third as high as in the 1960s. The main reason is simple, and evident as you as walk into the Bridge Cafe on a warm afternoon: air-conditioning.

The lesson from our expedition is not that global warming is a trivial problem. Although Dr. Lomborg believes its dangers have been hyped, he agrees that global warming is real and will do more harm than good. He advocates a carbon tax and a treaty forcing nations to budget hefty increases for research into low-carbon energy technologies.

But the best strategy, he says, is to make the rest of the world as rich as New York, so that people elsewhere can afford to do things like shore up their coastlines and buy air conditioners. He calls Kyoto-style treaties to cut greenhouse-gas emissions a mistake because they cost too much and do too little too late. Even if the United States were to join in the Kyoto treaty, he notes, the cuts in emissions would merely postpone the projected rise in sea level by four years: from 2100 to 2104.

“We could spend all that money to cut emissions and end up with more land flooded next century because people would be poorer,” Dr. Lomborg said as we surveyed Manhattan’s expanded shoreline. “Wealth is a more important factor than sea-level rise in protecting you from the sea. You can draw maps showing 100 million people flooded out of their homes from global warming, but look at what’s happened here in New York. It’s the same story in Denmark and Holland — we’ve been gaining land as the sea rises.”

So often, our public debate is based on a non sequitur. So someone points to global warming and then leaps to the conclusion that the best thing to do is to pass the Kyoto Protocol.

Dr. Lomborg is interesting because, although he believes in global warming, he argues that the way we are discussing the issue is preventing us from coming to the optimal conclusion. On its Web site, The Times gives this excerpt from the preface of Dr. Lomborg’s new book, “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming”, as a summary of Dr. Lomborg’s argument:

That humanity has caused a substantial rise in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels over the past centuries, thereby contributing to global warming, is beyond debate. What is debatable, however, is whether hysteria and headlong spending on extravagant CO2-cutting programs at an unprecedented price is the only possible response. Such a course is especially debatable in a world where billions of people live in poverty, where millions die of curable diseases, and where these lives could be saved, societies strengthened, and environments improved at a fraction of the cost.

Global warming is a complex subject. No one — not Al Gore, not the world’s leading scientists, and most of all not myself — claims to have all the knowledge and all the solutions. But we have to act on the best available data from both the natural and the social sciences. The title of this book has two meanings: the first and obvious one is that we have to set our minds and resources toward the most effective way to tackle long-term global warming. But the second refers to the current nature of the debate. At present, anyone who does not support the most radical solutions to global warming is deemed an outcast and is called irresponsible and is seen as possibly an evil puppet of the oil lobby. It is my contention that this is not the best way to frame a debate on so crucial an issue. I believe most participants in the debate have good and honorable intentions–we all want to work toward a better world. But to do so, we need to cool the rhetoric, allowing us to have a measured discussion about the best ways forward. Being smart about our future is the reason we have done so well in the past. We should not abandon our smarts now.

If we manage to stay cool, we will likely leave the twenty-first century with societies much stronger, without rampant death, suffering, and loss, and with nations much richer, with unimaginable opportunity in a cleaner, healthy environment.

The gist of the argument is that any change in carbon emissions is likely to have a very small effect on global warming. Even the most ambitious plan is likely to simply postpone certain effects by a few years. So, although Dr. Lomborg agrees with imposing a carbon tax to offset some of the costs carbon emissions can impose on the world — what economists call externalities — he says that the most important thing is to do what is necessary to increase economic growth.

It turns out that wealth is what gives people the ability to deal with all kinds of problems. As The Times article explains:

If you’re worried about stronger hurricanes flooding coasts, he says, concentrate on limiting coastal development and expanding wetlands right now rather than trying to slightly delay warming decades from now. To give urbanites a break from hotter summers, concentrate on reducing the urban-heat-island effect. If cities planted more greenery and painted roofs and streets white, he says, they could more than offset the impact of global warming.

Of course, some people will argue that a true catastrophe is coming and we better assume a worst-case scenario and prepare for it. But Dr. Lomborg has a different view:

…preparing for the worst in future climate is expensive, which means less money for the most serious threats today — and later this century. You can imagine plenty of worst-case projections that have nothing to do with climate change, as Dr. Lomborg reminded me at the end of our expedition.

“No historian would look back at the last two centuries and rank the rising sea level here as one of the city’s major problems,” he said, sitting safely dry and cool inside the Bridge Cafe. “I don’t think our descendants will thank us for leaving them poorer and less healthy just so we could do a little bit to slow global warming. I’d rather we were remembered for solving the other problems first.”

The article is a great piece, entitled ‘Feel Good’ vs. ‘Do Good’, on Climate, written by John Tierney, and you can read it here.

The title derives from Dr. Lomborg’s concern that much of what we are doing on global warming is designed to make people “feel good” rather than to actually “do good” — an agenda he prefers.

Agree or disagree on global warming, the lesson for all of us, all the time, is that we can’t assume the “solution” is obvious from the identification of a “problem” and allow an orthodoxy to stop us from thinking.

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