In love with himself: Bjorn Lomborg looks like he used to be in a boy band but then got too old
Bjorn Lomborg is a Danish statistician and political scientist at the Copenhagen Business School who shot to international prominence a couple of years ago with his book ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist.’
In it he basically argued that taking action to tackle climate change would be too expensive and a waste of money. He tried to show that the risks associated with ecological destruction had been overstated; despite having no particular expertise in climate science he thought he knew better than pretty much all the other scientists in the world. As a result he has faced a lot of complaints about the serious scientific flaws in his work, from bodies like the Union of Concerned Scientists and Scientific American magazine (don’t worry, the right wing Economist mag rushed to his defence!)
Basically his argument is that tackling climate change doesn’t amount to value for money, and if governments around the world are going to spend big cash on a major problem they’d be better placed getting to grips with poverty or AIDS (of course ignoring the fact that poverty, climate change and the spread of preventable diseases are all consequences of capitalism). This has rightly led to him being ridiculed for underplaying one of the greatest threats to ever face civilisation. But last week, The Guardian and other papers were delighted to report that he’d changed his mind and has declared that actually spending £100 billion a year on climate change would be good value for money. Thanks for that Bjorn, not like you’ve been wasting our time up until now!
Although he was never an out and out climate change denier, and accepted its reality, Lomborg became a poster boy for the far right effort to deny scientific reality, that at its root is motivated by people who want to defend capitalism in general, and the energy corporations in particular. So the fact that he’s changed his stance is on one level kind of good news. That is, until you look into what he actually proposes doing.
How Lomborg would like to see us spend a good chunk of this money is the exceedingly mental idea of geoengineering. This means gigantic mega-projects by which humans would attempt to take control of the global climate and control the weather, in order to try and counteract global warming. Projects like sending thousands of ships into the Pacific to spray saltwater mist into the air and make clouds more reflective to deflect heat back into space (one that Lomborg seems particularly keen on), or filling the sea with iron filings to encourage the growth of massive algal blooms that would then lock up carbon in themselves.
One of the ships Bjorn would like to see pumping mist into the clouds. The reason it looks like cheap sci fi concept art is no one has been crazy enough to do it yet
What’s wrong with this? Lomborg puts it quite well himself when he says that geoengineering “could lead to really bad stuff.” Basically, the global climate is an incredibly complex system, with huge numbers of different factors affecting it. Already we’re seeing the unexpected impact of our actions through anthropogenic (i.e. caused by humans) global warming. There’s absolutely no way to predict what unforseen consequences would result from mega-projects like these. It’s a bit like pulling a thread from a big complex tapestry, and then trying to repair it by pulling out other threads and tying them together to replace them – you’re almost certain to do more damage that you can’t predict.
His other solutions are generally along the lines of finding techno-fixes that will allow us to keep up capitalist society pretty much as it is, but maybe with some greener technology. This is where we get to the rub of why people like Bjorn Lomborg will be unable to prevent climate catastrophe. Fundamentally, what his work does is apply capitalist economics to the global climate and ecosphere, something that capitalism fundamentally can’t understand.
There are some simple facts about life on Earth. All species evolve in ecosystems that support them, and if they exhaust the capacity of that ecosystem to support them then they’re in trouble; if a predator eats all the prey to extinction, then pretty soon it’s extinct as well. Humans have done very well at using technology to offset our need for the natural environment to support us, but ultimately we are just another species, and need to recognise that we now need to choose between the short term survival of our ever expending, ever impoverishing socio-economic system, and long term survival. Lomborg’s line up until now has been to choose disaster in the long run, because it would be a waste of money to prevent it now. Now he’s changed his tune, but he’s still only a capitalist economist, trying to find ways to make our survival as part of the global ecosystem economically viable.
Even if we pretend for a minute that getting technology to fix everything for us would work, instead of just causing more problems, where does it end? Some scientists have tried to calculate the economic worth of all the tasks that the natural world performs for free that allows human civilisation to carry on as it does – purifying water and air, regulating climate, keeping the soil fertile etc. They found it ran to trillions of dollars every day. The more we damage these natural processes, and the more we rely on ourselves and our machines to do the job, the more we will start to take these costs on to ourselves, instead of just trying to live as a part of natural systems, not as a replacement for them.
The survival of civilisation isn’t economically viable under capitalism. It is completely possible for the human race to choose to live better, more equally and in a way that is sustainable over the long term. But to do that we need to get rid of capitalism. The future has a name, and it’s ecosocialism.