On Cool It

From Al Gore to Kyoto, from sea level rise to fatal disease, Bjorn Lomborg tackles it all in his book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. Having seen a preview for Lomborg’s movie which spreads the message of his book, I was intrigued and decided to see what it was all about. I’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth, I’m completed my share of reading on environmental issues and strategies for doing my small part, and I consider myself to be a citizen who cares about the world in which she lives. Though I’m still skeptical of some of the research that Lomborg himself is advancing, his 164 page book offered a concise and clearly thought-out argument for tackling other more feasible issues before the environment in order to take the time to more efficiently and intelligently handle the global warming crisis.

Lomborg doesn’t really buy into the crisis of global warming. The language of terror and fear in which environmental issues are coated rings grossly over-exagerrated to him. Throughout the course of Cool It, he provides evidence to the contrary of what you may have learned from Al Gore or what you think you know about the Kyoto agreement. Ultimately, though we should still do what we can to reduce CO2 emissions, doing so will not make a big enough dent to halt environmental change. We are focusing on fruitless and inefficient potential solutions to a misconstrued problem and Lomborg urges us to think in terms of improving the quality of life and the environment, rather than allowing ourselves to get caught up in focusing upon on aspect of the environmental damage we are causing. He advocates utilizing a cost-benefits analysis when looking at the environment because so many of our expensive efforts do much less than their worth.

With a decidedly optimistic view of climate change, Lomborg does not believe that the future will be as bleak as everyone claims these days and definitely not as quickly as popular research believes. Backed largely by research from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the argument is that the global temperature will warm less than 5 degrees by the end of this century. And though temperature rise may not seem desirable, it actually will lead to a decrease in cold deaths, which already outweigh heat deaths worldwide. At the same time, the change in temperature, so says Lomborg, will not be substantial enough as to increase heat deaths because humans are far more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. Plus, we’ve got AC. Overall, the average global temperature statistics are hard to go by because different hemispheres and climes of the world will change in different ways over the years. Essentially what is most important to take away from the IPCC’s research is that every heat wave is not an indicator of global warming, that our temperatures are not going to sky rocket as we thought, that subtle temperature increases may be better for humanity, and, most importantly, that there are ways we can deal with warmer climes because we’ve dealt with it before (when we had even fewer technologies and resources at our disposal) in the last century.

Among the various analyses Lomborg provides, let me give you an example. In cities, temperatures are likely to rise more quickly because there is less vegetation and more heat-absorbing building materials, such as brick, asphalt, and tarmac, creating what are known as urban heat islands. Rather than making costly efforts to reduce CO2 emissions only, Lomborg suggests other more affordable, simple, and accessible solutions. Paint black tarmac and buildings white to attract less heat and plant more vegetation to increase moisture and cool the air. These efforts could reduce temperatures in cities by more than the 5 degrees that they are expected to rise in the coming century – giving us a net lower temperature. And in his signature cost-benefit analysis, Lomborg shows us that taking these efforts in Los Angeles, though initially costing $1 billion, would annually save $170 million in air conditioning and $360 million in smog-reduction. It wouldn’t take too long for the annual benefits to outweigh the one initial cost.

But Lomborg doesn’t just look at the environment in this book. He’ll fight your fears about rising sea levels, global temperature increases, potential mass flooding, an impending Ice Age, catastrophic changes in the Gulf Stream, and global warming contributing to an increase in major natural disasters with solid factual evidence and a realistic look at the changes in our modern world. A lot of the fear-mongering that occurs among the major player in the environmental dialogue compare modern day damages, both real and hypothetical, with those of the past. But doing so in like comparing apples to oranges. For instance, Hurricane Katrina, which was a category 3 hurricane, wrecked unparalleled havoc on New Orleans. But in looking back at hurricanes that have occurred in the area since 1900, Katrina was by far not the largest or most dangerous as a natural disaster. The real tragedy and the reason Katrina has become a poster child of sorts for evil natural disasters is because so many people were affected by it. In years prior, fewer people were living at the coast, they had fewer possessions and less wealth, and thus any disaster would have affected a smaller contingent of people with less to lose. Katrina caused so many irreparable damages by virtue of the fact that she struck a highly populated area in the 21 century when people have more things that are in danger of being destroyed. We can’t just say Katrina was a hurricane like no other that can only be explained by the global warming crisis – to do so would be largely inaccurate and would miss the point entirely. And to do so would really be an injustice as we can learn some valuable lessons from Katrina. There is nothing humans could have done to have stopped the category 3 hurricane that hit, however, there is much more we can do to educate and prepare people in the future. Better support systems for buildings, citizens informed of evacuation routes and escape protocols, and increased knowledge about the dangers of living in such coastal areas could all help us better prepare for and recover from any such future disasters. Reducing CO2 emissions or demonizing our fellow humans for wreaking havoc on the environment will do little to positively impact any potential future Hurricane Katrinas.

Again and again we see that we’re focusing on the wrong issues and framing them in the least effective ways. And improperly framing a problem will no doubt lead to an ineffective solution. Lomborg takes the time to focus on other major issues the world over that we can do something about – HIV/AIDS, malaria, hunger. These are issues that are more pressing than global warming, he argues, but also have much more achievable solutions. And throughout the course of Cool It, like an annoying voice inside your head, Lomborg repeats again and again that if we can ensure the health, safety, and survival of more people all over the world, then there will be more people with the potential of developing the technologies and ideas to further reduce whatever threats global warming may pose. In first securing the needs of a population, we can then move on to less fundamental but still important issues – and we’ll have more people who will be willing and able to contribute to the discussion. Once again, we need to look at things through the cost-benefit lens. Is it more beneficial to prioritize less costly issues that will equip us with more people to tackle slightly lower priorities? I think yes. In talking about global warming and its impending threats, we are called on to thing about our future and the future of our children. Sure, we want them to live in a healthy and stable environment, but don’t we also want them to live, to eat, to be healthy and free of disease too? We can’t tackle all the social ills in one lifetime, or even one century, but we can prioritize intelligently to tackle the most pressing problems with viable solutions first.

The only issue I really have with Cool It comes to food production. I don’t know all sides of the story, but I do think that for the health and viability of our sustenance, in terms of maximal nutritional content and sufficient dietary diversity, it is important to have better and more authentic methods of production. Lomborg talks about food availability and how it has increased dramatically since the 1960s and 70s. However, we aren’t distributing the food adequately, which Lomborg points out. But we also need to keep in mind that more food isn’t necessarily good. Sure we want enough to feed ourselves without worry but when we are producing more than our daily caloric needs, where does the excess food go? Well normally we eat it, then we gain weight and increase our risk of disease and unhealthy patterns. Or the food goes to waste and usually isn’t put back into the soil to improve next year’s lot, but rather tossed in the garbage. We need to focus less on how much we produce and more on what we produce. Lomborg references agriculture models that predict large increases in food availability – “more than a doubling of cereal production over the coming century.” I love cereal and that’s all well and good for breakfast, but what about the fresh fruits and vegetables that contain our most essential vitamins and minerals? What about all the fields of corn crops that are producing nutritionally inadequate corn syrup to make those cereals? These fields are not only using up valuable land on which we could be producing more viable sources of sustenance, they are also going to cereals and other sugary and processed foods on which we can’t hope to maintain a healthy existence.

But I digress. Lomborg’s arguments are not flawless, but they are fairly tough, well thought-out, and accessibly described. He ultimately wants us to know that, though decreasing CO2 emissions is a noble goal, it isn’t one that is affordable or realistic, or even all that necessary when so many other potential solutions would provide a bigger bang for our government’s buck. Lomborg is optimistic about the future, about the environmental changes that could actually improve some of our living conditions. I remain skeptical, however, of the ability of social policy to change. So many Americans have been bombarded with messages of imminent environmental ruin and have been scared into advocating change. We need to educated everyone about the reality of the issue and our potential to more effectively handle other important issues that are just as pressing if not more. Education and knowledge are ultimately what we need to focus on – if we want to improve our lives and those of future generations, we need to ensure that people know the best solutions for and methods of doing so. Otherwise policy will never change and the social issues that Lomborg, the IPCC, and many other compassionate souls the world over care about and recognize as needing attention, will never get the spotlight they deserve. And though I am wary when it comes to population issues, I also agree with Lomborg that a more healthy and vital future population, though larger than the numbers we are currently struggling with, will likely be more wealthy with the potential to thrive and to conduct more research and development to avert whatever global warming crisis is imminent. By taking the time to more thoroughly understand the environmental issues and what is at stake, we can better adjust our efforts to curb the damage. But first, maybe we should turn our eyes to humanitarian issues about which we can currently do more.

Ultimately, Lomborg’s Cool It provides a new method of understanding the environmental debate and proposes new solutions to it. He calls out the fear-mongerers and assuages our worries with less frightening evidence of potentially positive changes. He takes an optimistic view of the future and sets it forth in an easy to understand, accessible, and relatively short book that makes a whole lot of sense. The cost-benefit analysis when applied to so many aspects of the global warming crisis calls for a new method of conceptualizing the environment, however this reconceptualization needs to take place at a level larger than us individuals. There is little we can do on our own beyond urging policymakers to change and it is this that leaves me still skeptical. I can envision Lomborg’s changes for improving our lives and environment, but the most important question is, can we make them a reality?

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