Bjorn Lomborg’s “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” is a true alarm—a call for a re-thinking of climate policy entirely.
Bjorn Lomborg is a business school professor and best-selling author. Time has named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Foreign Policy has declared him one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. He’s also a self-described environmentalist. Indeed, The Guardian considers him one of the fifty people who could save the planet.
Remarkably, he has recently published a book titled False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.
Lomborg’s book is a relatively compact, convincing rejoinder to climate alarmism with an optimistic, human-centric theme. The author’s thesis is that climate change is a problem, and that human activity is contributing to the problem. It is a problem that is manageable and not catastrophic. Indeed, he insists that panic, fossil fuel suppression, and a reverse of the decades-long eradication of global poverty would be far more catastrophic.
Lomborg goes into exhaustively cited detail on the high cost of acquiescing to the demands of the climate change lobby. He emphasizes that the costs will be especially onerous on the world’s poor (including the poor in first world countries):
“The truth is that climate policies hurt the poor everywhere, even in countries like the United States, because higher energy prices have a disproportionate negative impact on the poor. Universally, poor people in well-off countries use much more of their limited resources paying for electricity and heating. One 2019 study showed that US low-income consumers spend 85 percent more on electricity as a percentage of total expenditure than high-income consumers. When climate policies lead to higher electricity prices, this harms the poor much more than the rich.
“This is one of the reasons why rich elites have no problem saying we should increase gas prices to $20 a gallon—they can easily afford it. Wealth also tends to be clustered in cities, where people drive much less. Of course, the struggling single mom in Huntingdon, West Virginia, has a very different experience.” (p. 143)
The author devotes considerable space to the Paris Agreement, to which Joe Biden is reportedly considering committing the United States again. He argues that the agreement is not only ineffective but would be ruinous to the poor of Third World nations:
“The Paris Agreement is expensive and largely ineffective. It is also going to mean more people left in poverty. A 2019 study found that the massive cost of reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement will lead to an increase in global poverty (compared to what would otherwise be expected) of around 4 percent. The authors issue a stark warning that strong climate change policies could slow efforts to reduce poverty in poor countries.” (p. 139)
Lomborg explains that much of future climate change is already irreversible, caused by past industrial activity—the effects cannot be avoided now. He also explains how inefficacious individual action such as veganism, personal suspension of air travel, etc. is in affecting a planet-wide phenomena that aggregates the output of scores of countries and billions of individuals. He notes that, while hurricanes and other extreme weather events are less frequent than in the past, they are more severe. He even explains that there are, in fact, benefits to warming beyond the fact that more people die from extreme cold than from extreme heat. He conclusively argues that doing nothing to address climate change (which is not his preferred response) would still be less deleterious to society than to enact most of the proposals of the environmental lobby. Fundamentally, False Alarm is a true alarm—a call for a re-thinking of climate policy entirely:
“Thirty years of climate policy have failed to rein in temperature rises or reduce carbon intensity—the amount of carbon dioxide we emit for every unit of energy produced. All the well-meaning personal actions undertaken in the rich world, like buying electric cars or becoming vegetarian, amount to little more than gestures. Far more importantly, the Paris Agreement has put us collectively on a pathway toward incurring gigantic costs, especially for the poorest, with next to no climate benefit.
“Thus far, humanity has excelled at showing how *not* to fix the climate. We have spent three decades trying the same, deeply broken approach, over and over.
“Politicians lurch from one climate summit to the next, with climate campaigners urging them on to make even more ludicrous promises. Enough is enough.” (p. 148)
The weakest part of the book is the beginning of Lomborg’s proposed solutions to climate change. He begins with a proposal for a carbon tax, which he calls a “market-based solution”. With copious, illustrative graphs, he calculates the precise amounts at which a carbon tax would deter carbon dioxide emissions without unduly hampering prosperity, technology, etc. This section of the book is redolent of all-too-familiar Pragmatism. Lomborg does not consider whether excessive—or any—coercive taxation is justifiable on principle; he considers only alleged short-term practical effects. Also, it is too much of a macro solution, discounting the rights of individuals and companies. His other proposed solutions to climate change are significantly more reasonable. In a chapter on “adaptation”, he notes that the citizens of The Netherlands has learned to live below sea level. In another chapter on innovation, he stresses that it is too early for innovation to work but that more money should be spent on it. The final chapter of this section has a title that speaks for itself: “Prosperity: The Other Climate Policy We Need”.
False Alarm is a detailed, generally cogent, human-centric, optimistic tome from an honest environmentalist. Other than the pragmatism of the prescribed carbon tax, its biggest flaw is a failure to delve into the ideology behind anthropogenic catastrophic global warming. Lomborg even asserts that most of those concerned about climate change are concerned about minimizing human suffering. It is not necessary to quote environmental ideologues to refute this misconception about misanthropic green ideology; the fact that this book needed to be published alone is evidence that most “environmentalists” are not primarily concerned with the humans. Lomborg’s failure to so much as mention this—in fact, his apparent unawareness of this well-documented aspect of environmentalist culture—comes across as naive and ignorant.
Nonetheless, it is refreshing to read what an expert, “mainstream” figure has to say about this subject—and that it dovetails with the views of “extremist” capitalists.
“Fixating on scary stories about climate change leads us to make poor decisions. As individuals, we feel compelled to transform our lives, in ways both minor (not eating meat) and major (foregoing parenthood). As societies, we are making treaties that promise to squander hundreds of trillions of dollars on incredibly inefficient carbon-cutting policies.
“Overspending on bad climate policies doesn’t just waste money. It means underspending on effective climate policies and underspending on the opportunities we have to improve life for billions of people, now and into the future. That’s not just inefficient. It’s morally wrong.” (p. 222)
While capitalists will disagree that governments should be spending that money instead of individuals, Lomborg’s False Alarm is a welcome independent view that concurs that the pro-man (human-centered) approach to policy is the moral one.
Jeffrey Falk, Capitalism Magazine