Bjorn Lomborg’s game-changing “volte face”

Climate change politics is creeping into a kind of inevitable realism. (If you will forgive me, I’ll mention that I have argued for nearly 25 years that it would, sooner or later.) It is becoming clearer that it is now legitimate and necessary to say that there will be no silver bullet. Bjorn Lomborg’s new book (discussed in 2 new Guardian prepublication pieces, here and here) looks like helping quite a bit.

Contrary to most reports, Bjorn Lomborg always believed climate change was influenced by mankind and might be serious. His Copenhagen Consensus Centre helped promote an argument that said that it might be best to help the planet get rich so as to respond to whatever it turned out to be. This was useful because until very recently the assumption was mostly that mankind’s only proper response was to massively and quickly reduce carbon emissions by new rules and taxes. This carbon-reduction ideal was enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol process, which has faced such difficulties (in Copenhagen) in 2009. There may still be a role for some such internationalism, but it will probably be more modest and less proscriptive.

I have never altogether accepted the logic behind Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus thinking. It seemed to suggest that “fixing” the climate was on all-fours with, say, fixing human poverty, and competed with it, and mattered less. I thought this was rather more of an apples-and-pears problem: fixing malaria might not help a hotter world. Anyway, Lomborg seems now to have come round to a view that moderating climate change might be worth attempting, provided it wasn’t too Kyoto-like. Rather than clobbering carbon mightily, he seems now to be suggesting we tax it enough to raise billions for low-fossil energy, climate engineering, climate adaptation and, yes, poverty reduction.

In principle, I prefer this approach. It is the one the US government tacitly promoted under George W. Bush. (So that would be another hurrah for the despised ex-president.)

This is to say that it is unlikely that it would be politically possible to bully carbon out of the picture, though a little fiscal discouragement might be no bad thing. It is to say that “alternative” energy technologies are close to economic viability and need a nudge. And it allows that the Copenhagen Consensus was right to note that the world needs to be less poor if it is to survive climate change.

This argument is a rebuff to those who have rather lazily and naively placed all their hopes in a draconian, dirigiste, (dammit, a socialist) approach to climate change. Equally, it will be a rebuff to those who suggest that no policy is necessary because there’s no problem. It fits bits, but not all, of Lord Stern’s thinking. I am not at all sure how Lord Lawson and his cohorts at the Global Warming Policy Foundation will respond, but in their more accommodating moods, it ought to suit them.

This latest version of Lomborgianism seems to be a pretty good fit with reality. Of course it is still likely that even this quite relaxed approach to policy will not see full fruition. The truth is that in the real world climate change will be elicit only those responses which are cheap and convenient.

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Publication date

03 September 2010