Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail

Global warming's cooler heads How is any normal person supposed to make sense of the global warming debate? I don't blame you if you've given up. The trouble is, it's not a debate at all. It's a heavily politicized screaming match, with claims and counterclaims bombarding you from all directions. What can we do? And who the heck can we believe? If you're in this fix, Bjorn Lomborg is your man. The Danish environmentalist has just published an essential guide for the perplexed, called Cool It. He covers all the bases in language anyone can understand. He doesn't deny the reality of global warming. Instead, he puts it in perspective. Yes, it's getting warmer, and the impact will be serious. But scary headlines about looming catastrophe are wildly exaggerated. We need simpler and smarter solutions than the ones that are getting all the attention. And finally - listen up, folks - global warming is not an imminent planetary emergency. It is one, but only one, of many challenges we need to tackle on a global basis. Two billion people still live without electricity, and three billion without clean drinking water and sanitation. In this century, malnutrition, disease, dirty water and lack of sanitation will kill far more people than global warming will. Mr. Lomborg drives a lot of environmentalists crazy. It's easy to see why. He says, for instance, that international protocols such as Kyoto are entirely useless, because their impact is minuscule and nobody observes them anyway. In the short term - the next 50 or 100 years - cutting carbon dioxide emissions is environmentally inconsequential. That's not a matter of opinion. It's a highly inconvenient fact. "What we must come to terms with is that even though C0{-2} causes global warming, cutting C0{-2} simply doesn't matter much for most of the world's important issues," Mr. Lomborg argues. Does that justify indifference or inaction? No. It means we should focus on things that work. "We shouldn't ignore climate change," he stresses. "We should tackle it smartly." For example, by far the most effective way to minimize the damage from increasingly severe coastal storms would be to toughen building codes, protect wetlands, and discourage people from building in high-risk areas. That would also be orders of magnitude cheaper than making drastic cuts to carbon dioxide. Similarly, to save the polar bears, we'd save far more of them if we just abolished hunting. In other words, feeling good is not the same as doing good. Mr. Lomborg does advocate a modest carbon tax that would encourage people to change their behaviour. He also wants a dramatic increase in research and development funding devoted to non-carbon energy technologies. The logic is obvious. Deep cuts to emissions will only happen when alternatives exist at reasonable prices. He is convinced (as I am) that science and technology - not international treaties or trying to legislate fundamental changes to our way of life - hold the greatest promise for tackling climate change. Every ambitious politician in every Western nation now takes global warming seriously. This is a remarkable development, and it happened fast. The next step is to find approaches that (unlike Kyoto) are workable and realistic. That's the tone that Stephen Harper struck in his speech at the United Nations yesterday, and the tone that John Howard has adopted in Australia. I have no idea of their personal opinions about global warming (I'm inclined to be cynical.) But their commonsensical approach will surely appeal to people who figure there must be some middle ground between abandoning fossil fuels tomorrow and doing nothing. Mr. Lomborg's great contribution is to rescue global warming from the moral realm and put it back in the real world of real choices and real tradeoffs. And that's a highly moral thing to do. It means we might get action instead of more hot air.

3 Jan 2008