Traitor to the planet!

That sounds pretty melodramatic, but I think it’s actually a pretty good description of Bjorn Lomborg. If you haven’t been paying attention, that’s the fellow responsible for the current feature film “Cool It”, which purports to be a scientific rebuttal to Al Gore’s allegedly overstated “An Inconvenient Truth”. This new film has been getting reviewed along the lines of “OK, that’s seems reasonable, or at least it’s a plausible alternative viewpoint.” I’m here to say, emphatically, “No!”

Without quibbling about details (including whether I have I seen the film or read his book), I am going to summarize his position on the issue as follows: Yes, there is scientific evidence for human-caused climate change. But it’s not as bad as this Gore fellow makes out. In fact, there’s no reason to panic, or even to change anything at all. Let’s just see how this thing plays out. Maybe it will be a blessing in disguise. At any rate, human technology can deal with it when the time comes.

Sound reasonable? That’s what he’s counting on. In fact, what he is doing is providing a fig leaf of “scientific” skepticism (as opposed to  clearly anti-scientific denial), that in effect entirely justifies the policies of the most fervent climate change deniers (you know who they are — oil company execs, coal state senators, Republican congressmen). Basically, he is leveraging whatever scientific credibility he might have in order to become the darling of the status quo. There are always those who are willing to sell out their professional integrity for fame, wealth, or power, and this might be merely a particularly egregious example, except for the fact that the stakes are so high, and the consequences so serious.

Look at it this way: suppose Lomborg is right, but we ignore him, and do everything we can to reduce carbon emissions. We wind up (eventually, hopefully) with a carbon-neutral economy, and we’re set for the next few centuries, at the cost of some corporate profits in the short term (and those mostly associated with old-line energy companies; while at the same time, entrepeneurial alternative energy companies are booming). No big harm done, and the petroleum economy was already on its way out (see: peak oil).

Now suppose we listen to him, but it turns out Al Gore was right (or even half right). We’re totally f**ked. Crops fail. Millions are displaced by rising sea levels. Taxes go through the roof to pay for massive infrastructure projects (seawalls, dams, macroengineering mitigation schemes). The economy collapses as oil runs out. Will Lomborg (or James Inhofe) step up and take responsibility for this mess? Ha.

One more point I would like to make, that I think is generally overlooked in this discussion: it isn’t all about us humans. As a species, we have the capability to mitigate the effects of climate — we have been doing it since the last ice age, and it is what has enabled us to spread out across the planet like so many ADD cockroaches. The effects of climate change are already being felt by other denizens of this planet; among the more significantly affected are corals, conifers, and amphibians. The Lomborgs of this world are apparently unconcerned about the fate of the odd cuttlefish or wolverine — after all, that can’t possibly affect their comfortable urban lifestyles. But of course, they are entirely missing the big picture.

Human civilization is made possible by “free” ecosystem services, providing both the water we drink and the air we breathe (among other things). The ecosystems that provide these services (upland forests, rain forests, oceanic plankton populations, to name a few) are not immutable or permanent; they have changed many times over the long history of the planet. But here’s the catch: the global human population is adapted to the specific conditions that have existed over the last twenty thousand years or so, and civilized humanity to an even more recent set of conditions. In the long term, if prairies become deserts, and tundra becomes prairie, species will migrate and adapt. But in the span of a human lifetime, this kind of change would be enormously disruptive, both for humans and wildlife. It’s not like you could just uproot the entire agricultural infrastructure of the American great plains and teleport it to the Yukon. And vegetation cannot migrate tens of miles per year to track a changing climate.

The mere change from winter snowstorms to winter rains in the Sierra Nevada would severely impact the carrying capacity of the state of California. Massive winter flooding would displace millions; summer droughts would devastate agriculture and cause water rationing in the cities. A similar change in the Himalayas would be even more catastrophic, affecting billions of people. How would Lomborg propose to “mitigate” disruption on this scale? The fact is, he is prepared to accept billions of starving Asians in the near future, in order to protect his lifestyle over the next ten or twenty years (and good luck with that).

In other words, he’s a total douchebag.

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