by George Sax
An inconvenient man?
The controversial Danish ecologist and social scientist Bjørn Lomborg is pursuing a positioning strategy that’s been increasingly popular in recent years. He says he’s aiming for the center of the heated debate on climate change.
Bragging rights on the political center have been claimed by a wide and growing variety of public figures. This vaguely defined center has become so crowded it’s begun to seem unlikely there’s room left on its margins for the radical right and even less for the anathematized “lunatic left” (everyone from California Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger leftward, in some political schematics). Even the surging, seething Tea Partiers have, in effect, staked a claim on the center, alleging that they represent the ideas of the largest number of Americans.
It doesn’t take a William Butler Yeats to question whether this densely populated center is as stable, or as centrist, as its claimants say it is, but that’s where Lomborg has put down his chips in the climate-change dispute. In the new edition of his 2007 book, Cool It, which is the inspiration and basis for Ondi Timoner’s new documentary of the same title, he writes: “…I try to stake out the sensible middle ground between global warming rejection and alarmism.”
Leading those “alarmists,” of course, is Al Gore. Lomborg obviously sees himself as the un-Gore. The former vice president, in his view, is among those posting “scary scenarios,” making “simplified dramatic statements,” while avoiding reasonable doubts and qualifying evidence in order to get “loads of media coverage,” in the words of scientist Stephen Schneider, whom Lomborg quotes approvingly. He doesn’t question Gore’s sincerity, but he believes he has adopted what amount to scare tactics in a sort of “end-justifies-the-means approach” in order to galvanize public support for measures to avert climate disasters.
It’s his challenge to the growing paradigm on climate change—exemplified by Gore’s own book, An Inconvenient Truth, and the international 1997 Kyoto Protocol—that has landed Lomborg in hot water, or a lot of climate scientists’ dog houses. “People get incredibly upset. ‘This can’t be true!’” he tells us in the movie.
In addressing this nastiness and notoriety, Timoner and Lomborg open the film with a sort of “Who is Bjørn Lomborg and why are people talking about him?” intro. We get a warmly reassuring biographical sketch, and a little gloss on how he came to transcend conventional green political assumptions (he read a book!), becoming the “Skeptical Environmentalist”—the title of his first book. In one brief, mildly squirm-making sequence, we learn how he loves his mother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
Timoner’s movie begins with faux-gauche animated images and the voices of English children expressing concerns and fears about global warming. (They’ve been scared silly, you see.) Lomborg marches and pedals his bike through much of the movie’s first half, explaining that he’s not a rightist climate-change denier, abetted by the comments and endorsements of some eminently respectable scholars, like Nobelist economist Thomas Schelling. At first, the pointedly youthful, consistently jeans-clad Lomborg gives off some suspiciously narcissistic, self-appointed pacemaker vibes. But in the last 50 to 60 percent of the swiftly moving, data-packed movie, he comes across as someone with an earnest, carefully developed position.
The gist of that position is that the predominant climate-threat proposition overestimates the extent of the likely ravages of warming, and, more importantly, misrepresents the usefulness of proponents’ remedies and preventive recommendations.
Somewhat reductively, Lomborg’s own position is that we shouldn’t concentrate on what are the probably politically unattainable Kyoto CO2 reductions, which would be of very limited efficacy anyway. Each dollar of expenditure toward meeting those standards, Lomborg estimates, yields only $.30 in benefits. He tells a largely young audience in a Yale lecture hall, “If everyone drove Priuses it would cut energy use by only .05 percent.”
Lomborg proposes we devote our efforts to environmental programs and protections—like expanding and protecting wetlands—that would ward off most of the destructive effects of warming, the magnitude of which he says has been exaggerated by Gore and others.
As the movie moves smartly along—too quickly sometimes—his argument becomes more plausible, even if most lay people will be unable to confirm or refute it. He, it seems, has significant support, including, for example, from Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, who calls President Obama’s cap-and-trade carbon-reduction program a “grandfathering” of old, harmful technologies.
It is some relief to hear liberal orthodoxies questioned by an informed, articulate person, and it’s not a dark secret that Gore and various political figures sometimes seem to be shaving evidence in a semi-demagogic fashion. Lomborg may not be right, but he ought to be heard and his argument assessed.
Watch the trailer for Cool It
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