I’ve tried to stick mainly to discussing science, rather than opinion, but thought I would comment on a recent Watts Up With That (WUWT) post called Lomborg: Let’s get our priorities right. The author of the post is Bjorn Lomborg and it came from his facebook page.
The basic argument seems to be that about 10 million people die a year from easily curable infectious diseases, 5.2 million from air pollution, but only between 140000 and 30000 die from climate change related events. Therefore, we should get our priorities right and focus on the really big issues rather than on those that are clearly not that significant (or something like that).
The first issue I have is that the argument is simplistic. Noone is suggesting that we shouldn’t address curable infrectious diseases or air pollution, simply that we should be providing evidence to policy makers so that they can decide on the priorities. It’s clear that many people die from cancer and heart disease, but that doesn’t mean that the only medical research we do should be related to cancer or heart disease. Also, addressing climate change isn’t just about reducing deaths, it’s about addressing all possible impacts of climate change : our ability to grow food, increased flooding, more heat waves, increased wildfires, ….. Furthermore, it’s about preventing these problems getting worse. Does Bjorn Lomborg want deaths from climate change related events to match deaths from air pollution or infectious diseases before we do anything about it? I would have also thought that a big factor in air pollution would be increased car use and pollution from coal-fired power stations. Addressing climate change may therefore also act to reduce air pollution. These things aren’t necessarily unrelated.
The main issue I have, however, is that this type of argument typically seems to come from one particular economic ideology. Bjorn Lomborg goes on to say
And no, the number of deaths from global warming won’t increase, but more likely decrease over time, as many infectious deaths will disappear because of increasing wealth, and because fewer cold deaths will increasingly outweigh increasing heat deaths.
Firstly, I don’t know why he thinks deaths from global warming won’t increase. I think many would disagree. It’s the latter part of this comment, however, that makes me think that what’s driving this is the standard free-market, neo-liberal ideology.
Bjorn Lomborg hasn’t spelt this out explicitly, so maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that he’s not actually arguing that rather than spending money acting against climate change, we should spent it addressing issues related to infectious diseases and air pollution; he’s simply arguing that spending money acting against climate change will make it less likely that people will be able to lift themselves out of poverty. My understanding of this argument is as follows. Acting against climate change will require government involvement and regulation. This will make our economies less efficient and hence will make it harder for people in poverty to take advantage of the market and hence they are less likely to increase their wealth and therefore they will be unable to solve the problems that they face. The only way forward, according to people who make such arguments, is to rely on market forces.
The one obvious argument against this is that there are so many things that would not have happened had we relied on market forces. We wouldn’t have gone to the moon. We wouldn’t have found the Higgs Boson. We wouldn’t have built and launched the Hubble Space Telescope. I could carry on. The more fundamental problem I have, however, is that the last 30 years has seen a substantial increase in income and wealth inequality in the developed world. I would argue that this is because of reduced regulation and a decrease in the power of collective bargaining. It seems to me at least, that a true free-market is more likely to lead to wealth accumulation than to increased wealth distribution. You need some form of feedback in the system that acts against such accumulation – governments who act in the best interests of the many, rather than the few.
It therefore seems to me that the main motivation behind posts like that of Bjorn Lomborg is essentially a rather selfish recognition that acting against climate change is going to require investment in new technologies and the creation of new jobs and that this can only happen if it is accompanied by a transfer of wealth from those who currently have it (the rich) to those who don’t (the poor). In my view two of the main problems we face in the coming years are climate change and income/wealth inequality. It seems to me that acting against climate change could help to alleviate both problems and so is something that would be beneficial for both the environment (and our ability to survive in it) and for the general economy. It will require that the very wealthy contribute more than the poor, but that’s what’s required if you want to be part of a stable, long-lived society. Of course I’m not an economic or policy expert so, as usual, happy to be educated by those who are.