Select Committee on Economic Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-208)

Professor Bjorn Lomborg


  Q200Lord Layard: Dr Pachauri talked about the various views that were taken into account with the IPCC and yet we have also been talking about an overwhelming consensus, a very powerful narrative that has developed, which is obviously difficult for people like yourself to speak against, because if I am right you suffered a lot of personal attack and professional vilification for what you have written. Has that climate changed in the last couple of years? Is it more tolerant with more open debates, or do you feel there are still oppressive factors at work?

  Professor Lomborg: It has probably got better, but you also have to realise that we are really asking the wrong people to be tolerant. Obviously, if you are talking about climate change, that is your ball game, and IPCC is bottom line talking about the fact that we should do something about climate change. I am simply trying to say maybe we should worry more about other issues. We should worry about the long-term, but that is still a fairly small financial investment, about changing incentives towards renewables. But, very much so, there are other pressing issues where we can do a lot more good, like HIV/AIDS and malaria and other issues. When you are basically talking about where you should be spending the money, it is obvious that people who get out on top of such a list will love you, and people who get out in the bottom are not so inclined to do so.

  Q201Lord Lawson of Blaby: One thing you said a moment ago may be true, it seems to me, Professor Lomborg—or it may not be true. You said that if more money was spent into renewables there would be technological benefits and the cost will come down. That may well be true, or not, but the other side is if the oil companies and governments are also spending a lot of money on technology for producing oil more cheaply, particularly off-shore oil, with huge technological benefits, the cost of conventional energies might also come down. It seems to me a little less clear than you said. We are concerned very much about public policy. On the whole governments have out-sourced—the fashionable thing nowadays—this area to the IPCC. Is that, in your view, a satisfactory way to proceed and, if not, how should governments proceed?

  Professor Lomborg: Let me briefly answer the idea that conventional resources will obviously also get cheaper, but they cannot show any kind of increase in their efficiency at the rate of 50 per cent per decade. You are right that they will also get cheaper, but they cannot compete hopefully with renewables as we certainly have seen them over the last couple of decades. More to your point, you have outsourced the discussion to IPCC. I think it is entirely good to the extent we want to know what is going to happen if we put out so much carbon dioxide, what will happen if we put out less carbon dioxide—basically the natural science model of climate. But you might want to consider whether you want to have the IPCC running the discussion of where is it cost-efficient and where should we otherwise do it. Basically, the mandate for IPCC is that we should cut emissions, and so perhaps it is a little hard for them to have economists in there who say maybe we should not. So you could imagine doing that elsewhere. Also, you have to basically take that discussion, which in the circumstances is a political discussion, namely should our first priority be to deal with climate change, or should it be with some of the other issues that are also on the world agenda, as I have tried to point out with the Copenhagen Consensus.

  Q202Lord Skidelsky: I would like to elicit your views on what all this shows about the state of science, and the relationship between science and politics. You made the point that all climate changes are in the same ball-park and therefore you could not really expect them to be tolerant, but science is supposed to be a disinterested activity, and it has been pointed out to us time and time again, including by Dr Pachauri, that there is a consensus between scientists that certain things are likely to happen, and also a consensus, though less of a consensus, on what to do about them, which is basically to slow down the rate of emissions. If indeed there are valid criticisms to make of this approach, would you expect that in the end there will be some re-evaluation of the existing prejudice, or do you think that the forces of politics which influence what scientists say are so strong—and the panic and hysteria which journalists and others create from this—that there will not be any really serious challenge?

  Professor Lomborg: I do not think there will be any real serious challenge but I am not so sure I would be so pessimistic about the fact, because if you look at another area, for instance malaria research, if I was a malaria researcher I would feel strongly that it is worthwhile to do a lot of effort and that we really need to focus on it. All my research might be true, all my research about how we can do something about malaria and how many people are out there might be true; yet I would also have the opinion that this is a very important issue and we should really do something about it. That is no different from climate change researchers. I think they are honestly trying to do as well as possibly they can to tell us what is likely to happen and what we can do and the impacts. But of course they are also looking into a situation where, as I think we all agree, global warming all in all will be a negative. So it is something that inevitably you will feel you should do something about.

  Q203Lord Skidelsky: But there is a religious element in climate-change arguments that you do not on the whole find in malaria research?

  Professor Lomborg: No, I—well, you tell me.

  Q204Lord Skidelsky: I am just suggesting it.

  Professor Lomborg: My feeling is that they are telling the exact same story: "If we do not do something here, terrible things will happen", just like malaria and just like anyone else. Of course, they are probably telling us on a slightly longer timescale, but the bottom line seems to me to be the same thing. I think it is good; it shows that these people are really enthusiastic about their area.

  Q205Lord Macdonald of Tradeston: But linking that to Lord Lawson's question, clearly the action would have to be done at huge cost to governments. Why should governments go along? Is there not another approach to making decisions?

  Professor Lomborg: That is where I think politicians will have to show their strength and say that many different areas argue that we should spend more money here, not only domestically—we both have national health services and the arts, and everyone wants more money—but also in the international area everyone wants more money, and everyone wants their problem fixed. So we have to set priorities. We have to ask ourselves if we can do a lot of good here and we can do a little good here, maybe we should spend our money where it would do most good first.

  Q206Lord Goodhart: Although there is a lot of talk and stories about global warming and the possibly disastrous consequences, is it not also true that politically it is extremely difficult to persuade people to accept a net reduction in their use of energy? Is it oversimplifying what you are saying that it would be more effective to concentrate on finding alternative sources of non carbon-producing energy than to actually cut energy supplies?

  Professor Lomborg: Yes. First of all, it is going to be very hard, but the point is we can do pretty much anything we want. We cannot do everything, so we have to make sure that we do the right things. Of course we can cut people's carbon emissions right now, but it will be very costly—or the flip side is that it will have serious impacts on people's well-being. So we have to ask ourselves if that is the right way to go. I would generally argue that it is not, and that we should invest in long-term strategies instead. I think you are on to something else as well, which is that it is very hard for politicians to say, "yes, maybe the Gulf Stream will turn, but it is going to be too expensive to do something about it". It feels amazingly callous to say that. But the real point is to say: "The question is, are we going to spend a lot of money on postponing for six years the slight risk there is of this happening?"

  Q207Lord Goodhart: I am thinking of what happened over petrol price increases in this country a couple of years ago. It is very difficult to take steps to force people to use—

  Professor Lomborg: Frankly, that is also why we are going to see that a lot of countries, when Kyoto starts hitting European countries, will realise that it will cost them real money, and that will be somewhat problematic at least.

  Q208Lord Lawson of Blaby: Dr Pachauri said the Chinese should not have cars and they should have public transport. You are right about maybe a slightly less broad-brush approach to the issue. Fundamental choices that governments and politicians have to make might be perhaps more illuminated. You say the Copenhagen Consensus said that the most important thing to put money on is HIV/AIDS, but as far as I know there is no connection between HIV/AIDS and global warming. If you are going to focus the public, which in democracies politicians have to do, on alternative courses, surely it would be more sensible to say that there are certain consequences of global warming, like maybe an increase in the incidence of malaria and the problems in the coastlines of low-lying areas; and it may be much more economic and much more effective to tackle these by anti-malaria policies and spending more on that, by doing what the Dutch did many, many years ago in order to protect their low-lying areas from flooding from the sea and so on. You could focus on these things to see how you could substantially reduce the damage that global warming is likely to induce, rather than talking about other things like HIV/AIDS, which is perfectly valid to talk about, but in this particular context I think only confuses the issue.

  Professor Lomborg: I see your point, and I think it is a discussion of what is politically more valid. I would say it is a more intellectually honest argument to say we never compensate everyone for all the damages that civilisation does. We have a hope that democracy in general makes a lot of different decisions, and that they will not all be detrimental to some people; but there will be goods and bads in between. The bottom line is that it is much more important for us to say, not that we are going to try and help specific individuals, but that we are going to try to spend our money doing the most good we can in the world. I certainly take your point.

Chairman: We have come to the end of the time available. On behalf of all of us I would like to say how grateful we are to you for coming and answering all these questions. You probably got the feeling by the end that many of us sitting around the table have in the past had to make difficult political decisions and had responsibilities, but that we all thought we did the right thing at the time, and we look at our successors in office and just wonder if they have the same determination that we had, but it has probably been like this since the beginning of time. However, let me say how grateful I am that you have come along to help us in what we are finding a difficult subject. You have helped enlighten us.

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