Lomborg vs Watson Interview

JANA WENDT: Robert Watson and Bjorn Lomborg, welcome to you both.


Robert Watson, if I could start with you, how serious a problem do you believe global warming poses for the world?

DR ROBERT WATSON, UN CLIMATE CHANGE PANEL: I believe it is a serious environmental issue, even more, it`s a serious development issue. There`s no doubt the earth`s climate is changing, there`s no doubt that further change is inevitable due to human activities, with potentially adverse consequences for most people in the world. We`ll see potentially tens of millions of people being displaced, both by the heavy precipitation events and by sea level rise. We`ll see some of the water-scarce areas in Africa and other regions of the world become even more water scarce, areas where we already have difficulty managing water today. So, what we see are changes not only in the average temperature, but some of the extreme events which are the most important for understanding the impact on human society.

JANA WENDT: Bjorn Lomborg, if I could turn to you right now, when Dr Watson talks about these dire consequences of global warming, do you agree with him?

PROFESSOR BJORN LOMBORG, AARHUS UNIVERSITY: I think in general, this seems to be the correct answer. Yes, there are a lot of dire consequences. I think the only thing maybe we could disagree on is the people that will be displaced, basically because displacement as the models run right now, are calculated by saying that we will not increase our expenditure on adaptation, just simply because sea levels will rise, and that seems somewhat unlikely. But yes, global warming will be costly, global warming will have a lot of consequences, and consequently, our initial response at least would tend to be “Then we`ve got to do something about it.” But of course, only if the cure is actually cheaper than the illness.

JANA WENDT: OK. Well let`s get to this “What we have to do about this.” The issue internationally now is the Kyoto protocol. Dr Watson, if I could ask you, do you think this is the way to go right now?

DR ROBERT WATSON: I think something like the Kyoto protocol is an important first step. It clearly is not the solution to the climate change issue, it`s only its regulations on industrialised countries. Indeed, by the year 2100, it would only have a small effect on the earth`s climate. But it would send a signal to both governments and industry that we have to start to produce our energy in a slightly different way, and we have to use our energy much more efficiently. In addition, we could actually sequester or capture some of the carbon by better forestry and land management practices. So, I believe the Kyoto protocol, or something like the Kyoto protocol, is an important first step on a very long journey.

JANA WENDT: Bjorn Lomborg, is Kyoto the way to go now?

PROFESSOR BJORN LOMBORG: No, basically there are two different things and I think it`s very important to keep them apart. One thing is – overall is Kyoto a good idea? And as Dr Watson says, it will do very, very little good. Basically what it will do is postpone warming for about six years, so the warming we would have had in 2100, we now postpone to 2106. Or to put it differently, we don`t save the people who have to move in Bangladesh from flooding, we simply give them six more years to move. We have to compare that to the cost of Kyoto, which will be anywhere from $150-350 billion a year, which has to be compared to what we give to the developing world. The total global development aid is about $50 billion. So we`re really talking about spending three to seven times the amount of what we spend on helping the Third World on doing very, very little good. And, therefore, we have to ask ourselves “Is this really a good way of going?” Is it good to say “Very small advantages and very large disadvantages at a very large cost.” Couldn`t we do better with that money?

JANA WENDT: OK, Robert Watson, let me throw it back to you. Do you accept those costings – that for an enormous amount of money you`re getting very small return?

DR ROBERT WATSON: They`re very small amounts of money actually compared to what we pay on the energy systems. I agree, it seems to be a large amount of money compared to official development assistance to developing countries, but I don`t think this is a question of either/or. If we do indeed believe that climate is a serious issue, we have to start to deal with it. The longer we put it off, the harder it will be to control carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere.

JANA WENDT: But what do you say to Bjorn Lomborg`s point that you are really putting off, for instance in the case of moving people due to floods in Bangladesh, you are putting it off by a mere, let`s say six years in dealing with it the Kyoto way?

DR ROBERT WATSON: Whether it`s six years or whether it`s 10 years – I don`t totally disagree with the number. But it`s the first step on a journey. Clearly what we`ve said in IPCC, is if you want to protect the climate system, we have to stabilise the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. That eventually will mean significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions compared to today. So my argument would be yes, it`s only a first step, but we actually do believe that by changing energy technologies and energy policies, that over the next 50-100 years we can significantly change our energy system, at really, a relatively low amount of money. We`re talking maybe a reduction in the growth of GDP of a few hundredths of a percent of GDP. So, it sounds a lot of money to talk about billions or maybe even trillions of dollars, but relative to what we spend on environmental protection, and relative to what we`re trying to protect, it`s actually a very small amount of money.

JANA WENDT: Bjorn Lomborg, you`ve done what amounts to, I suppose, a cost benefits analysis of Kyoto. You say we could be spending our money better. What proposal do you have?

PROFESSOR BJORN LOMBORG: I think it`s important to say two things. First of all, it`s true that in the total amount of things, maybe this is not a great deal of money. That`s true. We spend a lot of money on military and other stuff. But we really have to keep on asking ourselves, if we want to help the Third World, which is also as I understand, what Dr Watson talks about, then we should spend it the most efficient way. The argument that I put forth, just to give you an example, when we`re talking about spending $150-350 billion, that is way more than what it would cost to solve the single biggest problem in the Third World – give clean drinking water and access to sanitation for every single human being on earth. That would save 2 million lives every year, it would save half a billion people from getting seriously ill every year. We have ask ourselves, “Isn`t that a better thing to do?” The other thing of course is to say, “Yes, in the long run we have to stabilise carbon concentrations, we have to stabilise the climate system, but that WILL happen. What we have seen over the last 30 years is that renewable energy resources like wind and solar energy have dropped in prices of about 50% per decade. So, it`s really unlikely that we will continue to use massive amounts of fossil fuels at the end of the 21st century.

JANA WENDT: Robert Watson, what about that argument, that truly global argument, if we`re going to be using this amount of money to achieve an end, why not the immediate one – sanitation, clean water for mankind?

DR ROBERT WATSON: Because the money`s not fungible, unfortunately. Why will the world not spend the money required to eradicate malaria, why won`t it spend money to eradicate AIDS in Africa, water resource management – all of these are key issues. The governments of the world have not yet stood up to the plate to put the few billion dollars, tens of billion dollars it requires for AIDS elimination, malaria elimination, good water quality – whether it`s clean water to drink or sanitation – food security in Africa and other developing countries and so it really is just not fungible money. To think that the money that would possibly go for climate protection would in other words go to do these development issues is just not realistic, unfortunately. We have to go along a twin track.

JANA WENDT: Is it any less realistic than getting the world`s countries to sign up to Kyoto, because that seems to be extremely difficult at the moment?

DR ROBERT WATSON: Fundamentally the price. If indeed we sign up to Kyoto, the price of the carbon abatement will be internalised in the cost of energy. So if indeed it costs us, say, $20 a tonne to avoid a tonne of carbon emissions, that would be five cents on a gallon of American gasoline. So, the cost of it will be borne by industry that will be passed onto the consumer in slightly higher energy prices.

JANA WENDT: Bjorn Lomborg, a very quick answer to that point?

PROFESSOR BJORN LOMBORG: Well, it`s a strange argument, because basically it`s the consumers that pay both things. So we should ask ourselves, “Do we want to do good, or just do something that sounds good?” When Dr Watson tells us this is not politically feasible, I tend to agree in the sense that because we have pushed global warming as the issue to focus on, then it`s true that most people are most focused on that. But clearly what we should do, and it seems to me the only reasonable way for scientists to go ahead, is to say “What are the priorities in this world, and so where should we focus?” There are lots of other things that would do much more good for the developing world at a smaller cost. Should we do the good stuff that works now, that helps a lot of people, or something fairly ineffective that will only work in 100 years to people who are much richer, and really only do it fairly ineffectively. That`s the question that we have to pose to the world.

JANA WENDT: Yes, Robert Watson?

DR ROBERT WATSON: If we delay actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it will indeed be inevitable that the earth`s climate system will change, and then it will be extremely difficult to protect small island states against sea level. We could see the loss of, say, the Maldive Islands, the Marshall Islands. We also will have a very hard time protecting coral reef systems. Even a one degree Centigrade increase is likely to lead to widespread reef mortality across the world – the most beautiful biological systems in the world. And so some things you can`t put economic cost to. The coral reefs are very important for both fisheries and ecotourism in many countries of the world. But even if they weren`t economically important, they`re God`s resources of the most beautiful ecological systems. We would lose or change many of our forest systems in the world. So sometimes when we do a cost benefit analysis we forget the aesthetic, the cultural, the religious value of some of these wonderful systems that we have around the world.

JANA WENDT: Bjorn Lomborg, having crunched the numbers in the way you have, have you by-passed some of those culture aspects that Robert Watson talks about?

PROFESSOR BJORN LOMBORG: We try to put them into our models, and clearly, models are only a way of trying to represent most of what is there. We also try to say how much do we value these issues and these areas, like they`re just simply beautiful to have, we just like the idea of having coral reefs, as Dr Watson says, they`re not only economic resources, definitely. But we also have to remember all the children that died because they don`t have adequate access to drinking water or sanitation, are also something we need to take into perspective and say “Do we want that sort of world?” Basically when Dr Watson says – and this is a very typical response – to say “We should have both.” We`re really saying “OK, let`s spend $50 billion here and $50 billion here.” But still there are better ways of spending the other $50 billion that we are talking about spending on global warming. We could give total health care, or we could do education for the Third World, which would liberate women. There are lots of other areas still to be made. So we have to face the idea of saying “Where do we spend our money the best?” Should we do it in the best possible way or should we just do something that sounds good.

JANA WENDT: OK, on the eve of the Bonn talks you`ve both given us lots to think about. Thank you both for your time.