Posts

Panicking over climate change has a cost, too

False Alarm: How Climate Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet” is the new book by the Danish political scientist and author, Bjørn Lomborg.

In it, Lomborg hones in on the subject which is rapidly becoming the most consequential area of political and social debate: climate change.

The risks posed by climate change, he argues, are exaggerated. Furthermore, the policy measures which governments around the world have embraced – like subsidising solar and wind power – are failing miserably.

Most importantly of all, a continuation of this fear-driven approach will result in serious costs to the world’s population over the next century, particularly poorer people in developing countries who cannot enter the middle-class without access to the affordable and reliable energy which comes from fossil fuels.

In spite of the obvious trade-off, it has almost become an axiom that climate change is an existential threat to mankind, and that all measures which could be taken to cut emissions should be taken, regardless of the financial or practical cost.

Just a few years ago, for instance, calls for a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the next decade would have been dismissed as being completely unachievable.

Yet now, that target is part of a Programme for Government which Ireland has happily signed up to.

These policy changes could not have occurred if a large segment of the population were not deeply worried.

A narrative this dominant inevitably seeps through to most of society. This is shown in polls cited by Lomborg which show that significant percentages of the world’s population – including four in ten Americans – believe global warming will lead to mankind’s extinction.

Here, as he has done in previous books such as “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming,” Lomborg calmly examines the facts and argues that this extreme pessimism is unfounded, given the undeniable progress which humankind has made.

Since 1900, average life expectancy has more than doubled, from 33 to 71. Rates of absolute poverty and illiteracy have shrunk and child labour has become rarer.

On the whole, people are living longer, healthier, more prosperous and more peaceful lives than ever before, and there is a very good chance that this progress will continue, with UN researchers estimating that by 2100 average incomes will be at 450 percent of today’s levels.

This much is hard to dispute given the abundance of data available, but interestingly Lomborg also asserts that the health of the planet is actually improving in ways which benefit us substantially.

“Higher agricultural yields and changing attitudes to the environment have meant rich countries are increasingly preserving forests and reforesting. And since 1990, 2.6 billion more people gained access to improved water sources, bringing the global total to 91 percent,” Lomborg notes. “Many of these improvements have come about because we have gotten richer, both as individuals and as nations.”

This is a core point in his overall argument. While many self-described environmentalists and socialists (these days, the two groups are scarcely distinguishable) claim that economic prosperity threatens the planet, Lomborg takes the opposite viewpoint.

Not only does greater wealth improve the quality of life, enhanced affluence also allows us to focus more attention on protecting the world around us.

To be clear, Lomborg is not a “climate change denier.”

A committed environmentalist, he refrains from eating meat, and welcomes the recent tendency to avoid giving the oxygen of publicity to those who dispute the science about rising temperatures.

Lomborg believes that climate change will have a negative impact overall, and insists it needs to be tackled.

However, he takes aim at those who have exaggerated the damage which has been occurring.

In the wake of any extreme weather events, politicians and campaigners are quick to point to the enormous economic toll as a reason to support measures such as new taxes, the closure of high-emitting industries, anti-car policies or dramatic changes to farming practices.

This, to Lomborg, is a false alarm.

True, the costs related to increased flooding or forest fires have increased, and rare events such as hurricanes or tropical storms can also pose enormous challenges.

But this increased cost comes at a time when we are much better able to afford to repair what nature has wrought, and where our improved material conditions mean we are far less likely to be physically harmed.

As Lomborg observes, deaths from climate-related disasters have dropped dramatically over the last century, at a time when carbon emissions and temperatures were going up. In the 1920s, such disasters killed almost 500,000 people annually, but now claim fewer than 20,000 lives annually, in spite of the world’s population having increased fourfold over the last century.

Higher incomes make for better and more secure housing, and as the developing world continues to make economic advances, the numbers dying needlessly due to natural disasters will likely fall even further.

While increased economic damage over the next century is very likely, there is an explanation for this too. As the world’s population has increased, so too has the number of houses and the amount of infrastructure in place.

The same sized flood or storm today will cause more financial damage than it would have a century ago, but recent economic growth means we are better able to afford this.

One of the areas where alarmist media coverage has been most evident is the issue of rising sea levels.

Prominent media outlets frequently point to a future where many large cities are submerged below water, as if this was going to happen suddenly, and as if humans were powerless to take defensive action.

Here again, Lomborg draws attention to what should be obvious.

Significant portions of the world are already at or below sea level and thriving regardless. The Netherlands and large areas of Vietnam, for instance, have long safeguarded low-lying areas by investing in dikes, dams and other flood protection measures.

As sea levels rise, a large amount of additional investment will be needed elsewhere in the next century, but again, this is far from being beyond the means of developed – and even developing – countries.

The greatest value of Lomborg’s analysis lies in his examination of the costs and benefits of existing policy approaches.

Given the consistent failure of solar and wind power to deliver results, he is deeply sceptical about large-scale investment in those areas, but he does have a number of policy recommendations, including the dedication of far more resources to efforts to adapt to a warming planet; a universal but modest carbon tax; and a dramatic increase in R&D spending on new technologies.

Above all else, Lomborg’s message is that we need to view the problem differently. Climate change, he writes, “is not like a huge asteroid hurtling towards Earth, where we need to stop everything else and mobilise the entire global economy to ward off the end of the world. It is instead a long-term chronic condition like diabetes – a problem that needs attention and focus, but one that we can live with.”

In this new reality, where every facet of government policy is likely to be impacted by how we respond to our planet’s changing climate, remaining out of this debate is no longer an option.

As such, it is well-worth taking the time to hear the views of a true humanist, a man who is confident that we have the ability not just to adapt and survive, but to prosper and improve as well.

James Bradshaw

James Bradshaw works for an international consulting firm based in Dublin, and has a background in journalism and public policy. Outside of work, he writes for a number of publications, on topics including… 

EDITORS NOTE: This MercatorNet column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

PODCAST: On the Islamic State’s Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Threats

This week witnessed the gathering of 50 heads of state at a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. President Obama’s concluding speech only briefly addressed the threat of so-called dirty bombs and necessity of controlling the distribution of radioactive materials widely used in industry and cancer health treatment in hospitals and clinics throughout the world. The stated objective is prevent such materials from falling into the hands of  ISIS, whether North Korea, or Iran’s  terrorist proxies,  Al Qaeda, or the self declared Caliphate of the Islamic State in conquered areas of  Syria and Iraq.  The problem of dirty bombs and more lethal CBW Weapons of Mass Destruction will be discussed by Dr. Jill Bellamy, United Nation’s Counter terrorism Task Force adviser and founder of Warfare Technology Analytics  on The Lisa Benson Show, Sunday, April 3rd.

Recent actions by ISIS Paris and Brussels terror cells murdering a security guard at a Belgian nuclear facility and filming the offices of Belgian Nuclear research director’s office are an indication of a longer term strategy to unleash dirty bomb as a panic driven wave of terrorism in Europe. A front page story  in the weekend  edition of the Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2010 illustrates the ISIS strategy that Dr. Bellamy will discuss, “ISIS Turns College Lab into Bomb School:”

Gen. Hate Magus, Iraq’s top explosives officer, said the facilities at the University of Mosul have enhanced Islamic State’s ability to launch attacks in Iraq and to export bomb-making know how when its fighters leave the so-called caliphate and return to their home countries. Dirty bombs are easily made, and so are biological agents as Weapons of Mass Destruction as Dr. Bellamy will reveal on the April 3, The Lisa Benson Show that airs at 4:00 PM EDT in the U.S.

Watch  this 2003 WGBH/BBC co production on The Dirty Bomb originally aired on NOVA on PBS and Horizon on BBC in the UK.:

The documentary contains Interviews with nuclear materials research and counterterrorism experts from the UN International Atomic Agency, The U.S. Department of Energy, the CIA and the Federation of Atomic Scientists take the viewer through the scientific basis for radiation effects and actual occurrences of accidental releases.  Overall, it  illustrates the ease by which a terrorist with training  could obtain radioactive materials like Cesium Chloride from industrial gauges,  medical isotopes and the history of massive use of heavy radiation emitting Strontium 90 developed into  thousands  of standby generators  and mobile seed generators, the latter using Cesium chloride.,

The documentary reveals a terrorist dirty bomb attempt in Moscow in 1995, discovery of high radiation Strontium containers in the mountains of the Republic of Georgia in 2001, as well as the panic effects of release of a handful of Cesium Chloride in Brazil in 1987 affecting 100 percent or over 100,000 of the city’s population.  The documentary addresses the plausible risk of Al Qaeda and now ISIS obtaining these radioactive materials and the risk of contracting radiation sickness and cancer as the fallout from a dirty bomb explosion spreads.  That is reflecting in two scenarios; one is a large dirty bomb explosion in Central London equivalent to the Cesium chloride in one of the Soviet seed generator that produces perhaps 10 killed from the explosion but increases the risk of cancer rapidly as the radius from the explosion increasing. Such a large dirty bomb blast would require enormous displacement of populations and economic decontamination requiring the virtual abandonment of the city center for a decade or longer. Think of the spread Strontium 90 with the Chernobyl reactor meltdown in 1986 in the Ukraine and the radiation sickness and cancer effects. A smaller explosion scenario depicts the explosion using a handful of Cesium Chloride in the Washington, DC Metro with the Metro carriages and the system’s ventilation system distributing the powdery Cesium flakes over a broader area; panic breaks out. That was not unlike the Anthrax attack on the US Senate Office Building in late 2001 that cost hundreds of millions in decontamination costs in US Postal Service sector centers and five deaths across the US from the biological agent sent via mail.    Now read these excerpts from the Nuclear Regulation Commission from their Fact Sheet on The Dirty Bomb:

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT DIRTY BOMBS & RDDs

What is an RDD or “Dirty Bomb”?

A “dirty bomb” is one type of a “radiological dispersal device” (RDD) that combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material that may disperse when the device explodes. It is not the same as a nuclear weapon. If there are casualties, they will be caused by the initial blast of the conventional explosive. The radioactive particles that are scattered as a result of the explosion cause the “dirty” part. The explosives in such a bomb would still be more dangerous than the radioactive material.

What is radiation?

Radiation is a form of energy that is present all around us. Some of the Earth’s background radiation comes from naturally occurring radioactive elements from space, the soil, and the sun, as well as from man-made sources, like x-ray machines. Different types of radiation exist, some of which have more energy than others, and some of which can be more harmful than others. The dose of radiation that a person receives is measured in a unit called a “rem.” A rem is a measure of radiation dose, based on the amount of energy absorbed in a mass of tissue. For example, an average person gets about 1/3 of a rem from exposure to natural sources of radiation in one year, and approximately 1/100th of a rem from one chest x-ray.

Are Terrorists Interested In Radioactive Materials?

Yes, terrorists have been interested in acquiring radioactive and nuclear material for use in attacks. For example, in 1995, Chechen extremists threatened to bundle radioactive material with explosives to use against Russia in order to force the Russian military to withdraw from Chechnya. While no explosives were used, officials later retrieved a package of cesium-137 the rebels had buried in a Moscow park.

Since September 11, 2001, terrorist arrests and prosecutions overseas have revealed that individuals associated with al-Qaeda planned to acquire materials for a RDD. In 2004, British authorities arrested a British national, Dhiren Barot, and several associates on various charges, including conspiring to commit public nuisance by the use of radioactive materials. In 2006, Barot was found guilty and sentenced to life. British authorities disclosed that Barot developed a document known as the “Final Presentation.” The document outlined his research on the production of “dirty bombs,” which he characterized as designed to “cause injury, fear, terror and chaos” rather than to kill. U.S. federal prosecutors indicted Barot and two associates for conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction against persons within the United States, in conjunction with the alleged surveillance of several landmarks and office complexes in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Newark, N.J. In a separate British police operation in 2004, authorities arrested British national, Salahuddin Amin, and six others on terrorism-related charges. Amin is accused of making inquiries about buying a “radioisotope bomb” from the Russian mafia in Belgium; and the group is alleged to have linkages to al-Qaeda. Nothing appeared to have come from his inquiries, according to British prosecutors. While neither Barot nor Amin had the opportunity to carry their plans forward to an operational stage, these arrests demonstrate the continued interest of terrorists in acquiring and using radioactive material for malicious purposes.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.