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Nov 30, 2015
Presented by
Bjorn Lomborg

Is man-made climate change our biggest problem? Are the wildfires, droughts and hurricanes we see on the news an omen of even worse things to come? The United Nations and many political leaders think so and want to spend trillions of tax dollars to reverse the warming trend. Are they right? Will the enormous cost justify the gain? Economist Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, explains the key issues and reaches some sobering conclusions.

The more the West focuses on climate change, the less it focuses on deadly issues facing the developing world, like disease and terrorism.

  • Europe’s plan to reduce carbon emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 costs an estimated $250 billion annually, while its impact on global temperatures will be a miniscule one-tenth of a degree Farenheit by the end of the century.View Source
  • Those hundreds of billions could be used to help the developing world, which faces the threats of widespread disease, food shortages, inadequate healthcare, genocidal regimes, and terrorism.View Source

Europe’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2020 costs $250 billion annually, yet has almost no impact on global temperatures.

  • Trying to cut emissions through subsidizing current renewable energies will be very expensive and do little good.View Source
  • Europe’s plan to reduce carbon emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 costs an estimated $250 billion annually, while its impact on global temperatures will be a miniscule one-tenth of a degree Farenheit by the end of the century.View Source

Even if climate change is a problem, there are far worse problems in the developing world that can be solved with far less money.

  • Europe’s plan to reduce carbon emissions to 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 costs an estimated $250 billion annually, while its impact on global temperatures will be a miniscule one-tenth of a degree Farenheit by the end of the century.View Source
  • Those hundreds of billions could be used to help the developing world, which faces the threats of widespread disease, food shortages, inadequate healthcare, genocidal regimes, and terrorism.View Source

Global warming reality check: Since 1950, wildfires have decreased by 15%.

  • Since 1950, wildfire incidents have decreased by 15%.View Source
  • Estimates published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggest wildfire occurrences in western U.S. states will remain low for some time.View Source
  • WATCH: Economist Bjorn Lomborg on realistically assessing and responding to climate change.View Source

Exaggerating the threat of climate change leads to policy decisions that waste scarce resources.

  • Trying to cut emissions through subsidizing current renewable energies will be very expensive and do little good.View Source
  • For example, a better response to fears of storm damage is investing in more resilient buildings and ending subsidies for hurricane insurance so builders would choose wiser areas to develop.View Source
  • WATCH: Economist Bjorn Lomborg on realistically assessing and responding to climate change.View Source

Global warming reality check: In the last 60 years, drought has not increased globally.

  • A 2012 study found that a widely used drought index had “overestimated” the impact of climate change and that drought has not increased globally in the previous 60 years.View Source
  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, since 1950 some areas have seen more drought while others have seen less.View Source
  • WATCH: Economist Bjorn Lomborg on realistically assessing and responding to climate change.View Source

To really address climate change, we should quit wasting money on subsidizing ineffective green energy and invest in energy innovation.

  • Solar, wind, and other renewables require subsidies of more than $100 billion a year and have almost no impact on global temperatures.View Source
  • Investing in research and development in more efficient energy solutions is the key to long-term reduction of greenhouse gas emission.View Source
  • WATCH: Economist Bjorn Lomborg on realistically assessing and responding to climate change.View Source

Contrary to the exaggerated claims from climate change alarmists, hurricane activity is at its lowest point since 1970.

  • Hurricane activity has not been at a lower point since 1970, and the United States is seeing the longest absence of a severe hurricane in more than a century.View Source
  • The cost of damage from hurricanes globally is predicted to drop by 50% by 2100.View Source
  • WATCH: Economist Bjorn Lomborg on realistically assessing and responding to climate change.View Source

One of the most persistent claims in the climate debate is that global warming leads to more extreme weather. This is a common concern expressed by those who fear a dangerously warming planet. President Barack Obama did so eloquently in his 2013 State of the Union Address when he talked about “the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.” Many others have offered similar sentiments.

Global warming is a problem that needs to be addressed, but exaggeration doesn’t help. It often distracts us from simple, cheaper and smarter solutions. To find those solutions, let’s address the three horsemen of the climate apocalypse to which President Obama referred.  

Historical analysis of wildfires around the world shows that since 1950 their numbers have decreased globally by 15%. Estimates published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows  that even with global warming, the level of wildfires will continue to decline until midcentury and won't resume on the level of 1950 -- the worst for fire -- before the end of the century.

Claiming that droughts are a consequence of global warming is also wrong. The world has not seen a general increase in drought. A study published in Nature in March 2014 shows globally that there has been little change in drought over the past 60 years.

The U.N. Climate Panel in 2012 concluded: "Some regions of the world have experienced more intense and longer droughts, in particular in southern Europe and West Africa, but in some regions droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter, for example, in central North America and northwestern Australia."

And finally, the third horseman: hurricanes. Global hurricane activity today, measured by total energy, hasn’t been lower since the 1970s.

While it is likely that we will see somewhat stronger (but fewer) storms as climate change continues, damages will be lower because we’ll be better adapted. A March 2012 Nature study shows that the global damage cost from hurricanes will be 0.02% of gross domestic product by 2100 -- down 50% from today’s 0.04%.

Let me make this clear: this does not mean that climate change isn't an issue. It means that exaggerating the threat concentrates resources in the wrong areas.

Consider hurricanes (though similar points hold for wildfire and drought). If the aim is to reduce storm damage, then first focus on resilience -- better building codes and better enforcement of those codes. Ending subsidies for hurricane insurance to discourage building in vulnerable zones would also help, as would investing in better infrastructure (from stronger levees to higher-capacity sewers).

These solutions are quick and comparatively cheap. Most important, they would diminish future hurricane damage, whether climate-induced or not. Had New York and New Jersey focused resources on building sea walls and adding storm doors to the subway system and making simple fixes like porous pavements, Hurricane Sandy would have caused much less damage.

In the long run, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide because it causes global warming. But if the main effort to cut emissions is through subsidies for chic renewables like wind and solar power, virtually no good will be achieved -- at very high cost.

The cost of climate policies just for the European Union -- intended to reduce emissions by 2020 to 20% below 1990 levels -- are estimated at about $250 billion annually, or about $20 trillion over the century.  And the benefits, when estimated using a standard climate model, will reduce temperatures only by an immeasurable one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

Even in 2040, under its most optimistic scenario, the International Energy Agency estimates that just 2.2% of the world's energy will come from wind and solar. As is the case today, almost 80% will still come from fossil fuels. As long as green energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, growing consumer markets like those in China and India will continue mostly to be powered by them.

Solar, wind, and other renewables are still inefficient because they require subsidies of more than $120 billion a year. And even in 2040, they won’t be efficient. The International Energy Agency estimates they will still require more than $200 billion dollars annually.

Instead of pouring money into subsidies for existing, inefficient wind and solar energy, we’d be far better off supporting research and development of green energy technologies to make them cheaper, faster.

When innovation eventually makes green energy as cheap or cheaper than fossil fuel energy, everyone will use it, including China and India. Until then, let’s cool the fear mongering and make practical decisions that will help people now.  

I’m Bjorn Lomborg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

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