A Changed Climate Skeptic?

Bjorn Lomborg has long infuriated environmental activists with his contrarian views on global warming. Has he now embraced their cause?

It seemed too sensational to be true. On Aug. 30, the Guardian reported that one of the world's most prominent "climate change skeptics," Bjorn Lomborg, had made an apparent about face, now calling for $100 billion to be devoted to stopping global warming. This is a man who, for years, writing books with provocative titles like The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It, had argued that climate change wasn't as pressing as other international problems, such as child malnutrition and poverty. Now, he seemed to be saying that stopping global warming was an urgent matter after all. Had the Danish political scientist changed his mind? Was he admitting he'd been wrong? What would this new $100 billion be used for?

In an exclusive interview with FP's Elizabeth Dickinson, Lomborg says his views haven't budged an inch. Rather, he argues that the cap-and-trade approach of Kyoto Protocol fame has clearly failed, and it's time to try a more creative approach -- one that doesn't involve wasting billions of dollars. "At some point," he says, "we have to ask ourselves, do we just want to keep up the circus of promising stuff but not actually doing it?" Excerpts:

Foreign Policy: You've been in the news quite a lot this last week thanks to your new book, Smart Solutions to Climate Change, which many are portraying as a change of heart on climate change. Is that accurate? Have you changed your mind about global warming?

Bjorn Lomborg: No. I always said that global warming's real, it's man-made, and that it is important. The economic models indicate that global warming is going to impact negatively GDP by the end of the century, by somewhere between 5 percent and 2 to 3 percent.

The fundamental point I try to make, though, is that the current set of solutions isn't working. Since 1992, we've been trying to cut carbon emissions by [holding] grand international get-togethers where everyone promises [to cut emissions]. But unfortunately nothing happens and nobody delivers. This book is about asking: Are there other and smarter ways? I helped organize something we call the Copenhagen Consensus on climate, where we brought together 28 of the world's top economists to look at all the different possible solutions to climate change and ask, "How much will it cost and how much climate damage will it avoid?" These top economists, including three Nobel laureates, ranked the smarter solutions. What they found was that the best long-term solution to climate change is dramatically increasing research and development on green-energy technology. [That means getting] green energy to be so cheap that everybody wants some. Don't try to make fossil fuels so expensive that nobody wants to use them. That's not going to work politically, and economically it also turns out to be a very poor way to help the world. Instead, make green energy so cheap that everybody wants to use it.

FP: Where does energy efficiency fit into that equation?

BL: That is one of the things that we should be investing more research and development in. [But] I would be somewhat cautious [about saying] that that's going to be a huge driver. The fundamental issue here is not to tinker at the margins. By all means, replace your light bulbs with energy-efficient ones and eventually LED lights. By all means, buy a Prius. But also recognize that this is not what's going to change the outcome. If we want to have a world that's eventually not emitting carbon dioxide, it requires a dramatic change in energy production. Instead of using a little less of the power that comes out from your coal-fired power plant, make solar panels so cheap that they replace coal-fired power plants.

FP: In The Skeptical Environmentalist, you write optimistically about the impact climate change will have on agricultural production. Are you now concerned about how global warming will affect farming?

BL: It's very clear that one of the things we will need to do is to develop new varieties of agricultural produce. They'll be better able to deal with warmer weather -- that's especially true in the Third World. We should also recognize that we already have a huge challenge ahead of us because we're going to be feeding about 50 percent more people toward the end of the century, or more. We'll need to feed them better because they're going to be richer.

[But] we need to be careful. The models also indicate that the impact of global warming in a well-functioning market system is fairly small. If you look at the models, the worst-case scenario is that global food production by 2085 will be 1.4 percent less than it otherwise would have been. The best-case scenario is that it will be 1.7 percent above. It is going to have a little impact but it's not going to be the major challenge in the 21st century. We're talking about food production reaching in 2086 what it would otherwise have reached in 2085 without global warming.

FP: What about extreme weather? Some people would point to the floods in Pakistan, for example, as a manifestation of what's ahead.

BL: We know that there's going to be more precipitation and that would be consistent with more flooding. [But] we have quite a number of studies in Uruguay, [where there were] big floods in 2000-2002, that seem to indicate that a fairly small part of the flooding could be ascribed to global warming.

Of course the [main] reason that we're seeing flooding is because we've built on a lot of flood plains. So what you're probably seeing in the vast majority [of cases] is an increase in bad infrastructure decisions that have then caused a lot of these floods to be so dramatically damaging.

This gets back to the whole point of asking, "If you want to help Pakistan, how do you do that in the best possible way?" Do you do that by cutting carbon emissions which, even if there is a link, there's probably a fairly weak link and it will only help in 100 years? Or do you help them by focusing on making better infrastructure decisions?

My point here is to be the skeptical environmentalist, not skeptical of global warming -- that's true, that's happening, and that is man-made -- but to ask: If we want to do good, what are smart policies? Proposing to make carbon cuts is really, really hard, and we've seen it fail for the last 18 years. It's probably also not the best way to actually go about doing good for the world. And presumably, that was what we wanted. I doubt very many people care whether there's more or less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What we care about is that we actually make lives better for our kids and grandkids.

FP: How do we know that it's really a zero-sum game -- that if we don't tackle climate change, we can invest more heavily in smart infrastructure policies, or malnutrition, or one of the other many global needs out there?

BL: It's not a perfect zero-sum game. On the other hand, I do think we need to own up to the fact that the international community seems to have hard time worrying about a lot of different things. I'm not saying that climate should drop off the page. I'm simply saying, right now we seem to be obsessed with pretty much the only solution that we have conclusively seen doesn't work and that the economists have very clearly pointed out is a very poor way of tackling the problem. At some point, we have to ask ourselves, do we just want to keep up the circus of promising stuff but not actually doing it?

For every dollar you spend on traditional carbon policies -- even if you do them well -- the benefits could be measured in just a few cents. That's a poor deal! If you invest dramatically more in research and development of green energy technology, however, for every dollar you spend you can probably avoid about $11 of climate damage. We can do 500 times more good if we do it right.

I actually do believe that there's at least a certain amount of zero-sum game, because as long as everybody talks about Kyoto, that's the only real issue on the agenda. And what we [actually] need to start talking about is dramatically ramping up investments in research and development of green energy.

FP: In 2005, you wrote in Foreign Policy that those of us in the rich world have reached the point where we can afford to think about the environment, whereas the developing world really can't. If we're talking about a research and development solution, isn't that really just a developed world solution? Is there some sort of role for the developing world in this also?

BL: I think we need to own up to the fact that the developing world has much more important priorities. We're unaware that half the world's population still lacks simple things like food and education and water and sanitation and health care. Worrying about global warming [that will happen] 100 years from now is a slight luxury to those people. It doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but it means that we should also recognize that there are many other things we should be focusing on.

The only real climate policy that we have right now is the EU 2020 policy -- that they're going to reduce [emissions by] 20 percent below the 1990 levels by 2020. The cost is about $250 billion. Let me give you a better way to spend that money. If we spent $100 billion on research and development into green energy, we would do much, much more good. If the EU continues to spend $250 billion for the rest of century, they will reduce temperatures by 0.1 degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Wow! I'm really sure our descendents are going to be really really happy.

If we invested that $100 billion dollars [in research] there's a good chance we will be able to cut maybe two degrees Fahrenheit off the temperature by the end of the century. Then, we should invest about $50 billion in different ways to adapt to climate change -- that's of course especially [important] in the Third World, to make sure that they can actually deal with climate change. And then I propose that we should spend about $1 billion dollars in research and development into geoengineering to make sure that we have an insurance policy if something really bad is lurking in the corners of climate-change research. The last $100 billion should be spent on fixing all of the other problems in the world: Give clean drinking water, sanitation, basic healthcare and education to virtually everyone on the planet. We could do that for about $100 billion a year.

FP: Geoengineering has been so controversial lately. What specifically do you think are the means we should pursue? Are you worried at all about externalities we won't or can't anticipate?

BL: The reason why the Nobels did not say: Let's deploy [geoengineering] now is exactly because we haven't spent very much money on looking at it. Could this potentially affect, for instance, the monsoon? We want to know before we start.

On the other hand, we have to recognize that even if we do dramatic things to deal with climate change (which is a very, very unlikely scenario to have happen), we would not be able to measure the difference in temperature come midcentury. We don't have anything that can do anything [about] climate change fast except for geoengineering.

And geoengineering is potentially incredibly cheap compared to virtually everything else we talk about. If you look at marine cloud whitening -- making clouds a little whiter by putting up sea salt into the lower atmosphere -- we could actually pretty much offset all of global warming in the 21st century. The total cost of that would be about $6 billion to $7 billion in total. The cost of a 2 degree Centigrade policy [limiting climate change to 2 degrees through other methods] could easily be $40 trillion a year. We're talking about 5,000 times less [expensive], and only once instead of every year.

The only model that has ever been built wasn't built on public money. It was paid for by the Discovery Channel for their show on geoengineering. There's something fundamentally wrong with having to rely on public entertainment to figure out potential solutions to the big problems.

FP: Politically, what's the best way to inject fresh energy into climate policy?

BL: We've got to stop discussing global warming as if it's a contest between: Is global warming the end of the world, or is it a hoax perpetrated in the American people? It's neither. I think in some ways, the fact that the Guardian made it look like I flip-flopped is because it's so hard for anyone to see the world through any other prism than "It's either black or white -- it's a hoax or it's the end of the world."

It seems like we're still debating if the world is round or flat. I mean, come on, its round. But the real question for Christopher Columbus was: How do I best get to the West Indies? And that's the real issue: How do we plot a course to get from A to B. That's what this book is all about. It's about finding the smartest ways to get to that point.



Swoons Over Miami

A conversation with author Saskia Sassen, who coined the term "global city." As she tells FP: Don't focus only on London and New York. The rest of the world should want to be the next Miami.

In the 1970s and 80s, back when crime peaked in Manhattan and downtowns across the United States and talent and money were draining out to the suburbs, a young sociologist named Saskia Sassen had a hunch the emerging conventional wisdom about the death of the city was wrong.

Then a researcher in New York City, conversant in five languages, she spent her time trolling the small shops and businesses around Wall Street. Even as the city's local economy was struggling, she recognized the emergence of new ties to the world beyond New York -- small, specialized financial and marketing firms with global links, immigrant communities with ties back home, museum curators drawing upon international networks. Sassen predicted that the Big Apple was not dead, but about to spring back to life, with more international clout than ever.

In 1991, when Sassen published her first book, The Global City, which popularized the term, many onlookers were skeptical. After all, the United States was then mired in recession, and urban planners weren't yet talking about how to reinvent downtown or attract a "creative class." Many thought that opportunities would flourish outside cities, and telecommuting might soon make the morning commute obsolete. But in the two decades since, history has proven Sassen right. Today, cities are increasingly important, both as places people desire to live and as global nodes of commerce, culture, and ideas.

On the occasion of the publication of Foreign Policy's 2010 Global Cities Index, we caught up with Sassen to ask her to pick the next round of urban winners and losers for the 21st century. The most extraordinary success? The rise of Miami. Missed opportunity? Beirut.

Foreign Policy: What distinguishes a global city?

Saskia Sassen: A global city makes new norms. And two requirements for that happening are complexity and diversity. Quite often, in countries around the world, it's the most global city, especially New York, where new national and international norms are made.

FP: Is a global city always a megacity, and vice versa?

SS: I'm so glad you asked. Most global cities are really not megacities. Some are, but the question of size is a tricky one. Size is important for a global city because you need enormous diversity in very specialized sectors, a whole range of them. Some of the leading global cities are very large, like Tokyo or Shanghai. On the other hand, you have cities that are simply very large, like Mumbai or Sao Paulo. I don't think Lagos is a global city; it's just a huge city. You have a lot of very large cities that are not necessarily global cities.

FP: Can any city become a global city?

SS: No, I don't think that any city can.

FP: So what's the magic recipe?

SS: Many of today's global cities are old-world cities that reinvented themselves. Like London or Istanbul, they already had enormous complexity and diversity. On the other hand, there are old-world cities, like Venice, that are definitely not global cities today.

And then there's Miami. Never an old-world city, today Miami is certainly a global city -- why? It's quite surprising. Where did its diversity and complexity come from? Let's go back to the history. Before the 1990s, Miami was sort of a dreadful little spot, frankly. There was lots of domestic tourism; it was cheap; it was rundown; it was seen as dominated by the Cubans. But several important things happened. One was the infrastructure of international trade that the Cubans in Miami developed. There was also real estate development, often spurred by wealthy individuals from South America.

All this coincided with the opening of Latin America. In the 1990s and early 2000s, firms from all over the world -- the Taiwanese, Italians, Korean, French, all over -- set up regional headquarters in Miami. In the 1990s, there was also deregulation, so Miami becomes the banking center for Central America. Then the art circuit, the designers' circuit, and other things began to come into the city. Large international corporations began to locate branches there, forging a strong bridge with Europe that doesn't run through New York. That mix of cultures -- in such a concentrated space, and covering so many different sectors -- created remarkable diversity and complexity. Of course, the Miami case is rather exceptional.

FP: So what's the future Miami of Africa?

SS: You have probably two cities that people could think of as complex places in sub-Saharan Africa. One is Nairobi, Kenya, where some of the architecture still reflects British colonial history. The other one is Johannesburg, South Africa. In recent years, I would say Jo'burg is more dynamic, but Nairobi has lost ground.

FP: And the Miamis of Asia?

SS: In China, there are fast-growing cities like Shenzhen, which is also a port and a place where things come together. But Chinese cities are too controlled to be equivalent to Miami.

Two similar cases might be Singapore and Dubai. Both have constructed themselves arduously, with a lot of resources and government-driven projects, mind you. The market alone could not have done it in either Singapore or Dubai. In a sense, the whole city is a government-driven project -- they have constructed themselves as global cities, and very significant ones.

Elsewhere? Quito, Ecuador; Bogotá, Colombia; Caracas, Venezuela -- these are all cities with deep colonial histories; they were important nodes, part of a colonial empire, so there was a strong international connection already. They are cities to watch.

But Miami, a little outpost that suddenly explodes -- that is still very rare. Dubai and Singapore are the only great similar examples.

FP: How do you explain them?

SS: Well, I think Dubai and Singapore are government-driven projects. It took a lot of hard work. In a way Singapore is surprising. Culturally it's not cosmopolitan; on the other hand, there was the obligation to learn several languages. Everybody had to study English.

FP: Are there any cities that missed, or are missing, their chance to be global cities?

SS: Beirut, if it had not had a civil war that destroyed it. Beirut had once been the global financial center and banking and commercial center for that whole region. The networks of the Lebanese are truly global and enormously sophisticated; they're everywhere. That keeps sustaining Beirut a bit, but really can't transform it. And I think that void in the region is partially what allowed Dubai to become a major trading center, and then a financial center and global city.

Dubai, you know, has it all supposedly -- including skiing now, which is ridiculous, so that you can function there. Still, it's difficult to invest in real estate for the long term there. So many people who actually work in Mumbai prefer to live in Dubai. The flights that go from Dubai to Mumbai are HUGE! And the planes are full of business people! And I've flown that. The first class is fantastic, and it's not that long between flights because there is a lot of traffic between those two cities now.

FP: Is old Europe then old news?

SS: Well, I think Copenhagen, in a way, is becoming the Dubai of Europe. I love that image. I just get so amused by these things. It used to be that London was the platform for Europe. The Japanese firms, the Dutch, German, Spanish, Italian, even the French firms -- if they wanted to operate in Europe, they located in London.

But today, you don't need that single platform. So Copenhagen and Zurich are two cities that have become very attractive for all kinds of reasons to firms, whether European firms or firms from the rest of the world. And so they locate in Copenhagen, which is a very reasonable city: much cheaper, well organized, and it ranks as one of the top cities in terms of reliability, investors' protections, good on everything. And Zurich, I don't know if you have been to Zurich, but if you can live in Zurich, why live anywhere else in Europe? It's absolutely so stunning.

FP: Where did you grow up?

SS: Well I grew up, first of all, in five languages. And I lived in the Netherlands, Argentina, Italy, and then I studied in France, I came to the United States, and I went back to France, and so that kind of a life. I speak like a native from Buenos Aires, you know, a particular city.

FP: Can you speculate on what FP's Global Cities rankings might look like in 15 years?

SS: I think that many of today's top global cities of today are here to stay. Of course there'll be some shift in their relative influence. And trends like the ascendance of Dubai or of Copenhagen over the last few years. Or Singapore -- 15 years ago Singapore was radically different. Maybe it looked the same, but it was a different type of global city -- it was not a global city, really.

Istanbul is going to be enormously significant. I mean, who are the top investors in Istanbul today? They are from both the West and the East. The East includes Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Bulgaria; it's just extraordinary.

The other thing that is happening is of course China. In the future, I think that China and Chinese cities will be even more significant.

FP: Will China's emerging megacities be global cities? By 2030, McKinsey and Co. projects there will be 221 cities in China with populations of more than 1 million.

SS: Not global cities in the same way -- they will be Chinese global cities. What I mean is that Beijing will never be a global city of the world, but it will be a global city in the world. The distinction is that of the world means that you have to really become a bit de-nationalized, more ethnically and linguistically diverse. Beijing is still quite homogenous. Same thing with Tokyo. Tokyo never became a global city of the world. It's not. But in the world, it's very powerful. In China, only Hong Kong is of the world, because it has been evolving global connections there for a hundred years.

FP: So there's no mainland Chinese Miami?

SS: Please tell me if you discover it.