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Opinion: The global environment movement is Bjørn again

Lomborg's supposed 'reversal' on climate change is a sham. But hey, this debate is all about posturing anyway.

(Photo: Thomas Barwick)

In the vicious fight for the future of the planet, the Greens were touting a huge symbolic victory last week, with news that Danish academic Bjørn Lomborg has come out in favour of decisive action to combat climate change. London’s Guardian newspaper gave front-page treatment to Lomborg’s upcoming book, which will declare man-made climate change a “serious problem,” and advocate for a global fund worth $250 billion annually, funded by carbon taxes, to develop alternative fuels and technology aimed at mitigating its impact.

Yet another professor issuing yet another call for action on climate change hardly seems like big news. But Lomborg’s supposedly radical about-face brought an avalanche of triumphalist gloating among environmentalists.

For those who’d actually read Lomborg’s work, however, the hubbub was confusing. You see, Lomborg isn’t a climate-change denier and never has been. In his 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist, he clearly states that he believes man-made climate change is a reality, and it’s a problem. He’s repeated that point in hundreds of interviews over the past decade.

But Lomborg has always elicited irrational responses from environmentalists, in large part because he identified himself as one of them, then had the temerity to suggest that the world had more immediate problems — with more obvious solutions — than climate change. He suggested, for example, that we would be better to concentrate more effort on ridding the world of malaria, because it kills millions each year, and we know that there are relatively inexpensive measures we could take to save tens of thousands of lives right now.

But that kind of cost-benefit analysis is anathema to those who have made climate change their religion. Not only was Lomborg an enemy—dangerously off-message and maddeningly outspoken — but he was an apostate. And, as history shows us over and over, such movements reserve their most bitter hatred for fallen brethren. The head of the UN International Panel on Climate Change even once compared him to Hitler. Now, the international green movement is seizing upon an opportunity to cast his new work as a mea culpa.

In this atmosphere, you are either for the planet or against it, and all other ethical questions are irrelevant. That’s how green pressure groups manage to convince the Gap, Levi Strauss and others to boycott energy derived from the Alberta oilsands — even though this means greater reliance on oil coming from places like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, places that regard basic human rights as a punchline.

Bjørn Lomborg was the rare academic who was willing to confront those kinds of dilemmas, make comparisons and argue for priorities. That sort of parsing of the facts drove other environmentalists batty. But his new book doesn’t represent a conversion on the road to Damascus. It’s more like somebody making a last-minute switch from salmon to popcorn shrimp at Red Lobster.

And that’s the really irritating thing. While all the commotion surrounding Lomborg’s supposed reversal gets him closer to a bestseller, his policy proposal gets us no closer to a climate-change solution. And yes, for the record, I too believe man-made climate change is a problem and we need to overcome it.

Lomborg’s publisher promises a practical and realistic approach to solving climate change, but his key suggestion of a $250-billion global carbon tax is simply a rehash of a long-standing, internationalist policy demand. It’s a political non-starter.

To begin with the most obvious question, who should pay for it? If we go by share of global GDP, it’d make the U.S. the biggest contributor at US$60 billion annually. Sure they can afford it (they spend 15 times that much on the Pentagon each year), but how do you think that would play at mid-term election time with 14 million Americans out of work? If we go by global carbon emissions, that’d make China the biggest donor, at $55.7-billion, and India third, with $13.7 billion. Good luck with that. Actually, good luck getting the $290 million out of Uzbekistan, too.

But nobody bothers to challenge facile proposals like this because we’ve gotten so used to them. The Kyoto Protocol established a precedent of political fantasy masquerading as international treaty, and the followup talks have predictably devolved into a bun fight. Meanwhile, environmentalists bemoan politics and carefully avoid questions like “what’s possible?” and “what’s practical?”

Lomborg’s earlier work was interesting because he took those questions head-on. Now he’s joined the green chorus and made it that much easier for well-intentioned idealists to skirt such pesky details. No wonder they’re celebrating.