By Jonathan Power
Forgive my cynicism about climate change. Thirty years ago I wrote a column for the Washington Post for which I had interviewed four of the world’s top climatologists. They all told me the problem was that the climate was cooling and that this would have devastating effects on agriculture and food supplies. When scientists a decade later turned around I wondered how it could be that for measuring things that changed only over ten thousands of years opinion could change so fast.
I felt I was in good company this week when I listened at a student-run conference in Lund, Sweden, to Bjorn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre.
First, he says, he is a convert to global warming. He adds that even if temperatures are increasing every year it would only cost $20 trillion to put it right – and that over a long period of time since it is a slow moving event for 98% of the world. A lot of money? Well, only 0.7% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product totalled over the span of the 21st century. But he also asks is that the best way to spend our money?
So he goes on to deflate some of the shibboleths. One of the fears is that heat waves will produce higher mortality. But if by the year 2050 there were 2000 more people dying from heat each year in the UK, as has been forecast, it overlooks that more heat waves mean less cold waves. Then 20,000 people less will be dying.
Next, he says, look how easy it would be to deal with major problems created by large cities which are much warmer than the surrounding countryside because of the density of people, traffic, industrial activity and the number of black surfaces- roads, rooftops and railways.
In Tokyo it can be up to 12C warmer. But if hundreds of thousands more trees are planted, if roads are painted a different colour than black – light red perhaps as with the Mall, the road leading up to Buckingham Palace in London – if roofs are painted white and if more lakes and ponds are created then the discrepancy in temperature would fall sharply. This is much cheaper than spending money on the remedial policies suggested by the anti-climate change advocates.
Third, he says, take malaria, a devastating illness that infects big swathes of Africa. A warmer world would lead to more mosquitoes. But dealing with malaria by increasing the pace of the distribution of bed nets and improving the availability of medicines would cut infection faster than dealing with the warming of Africa and at much lower cost.
The truth is that we are way up in the clouds with a lot of talk and little consequence. Even the landmark Kyoto Treaty on climate change if fully implemented would only reduce world temperatures by 0.0004%.
If the European Union carried through its present ambition to significantly up its expenditure on combating global warming it would only decrease temperatures by 0.01%. And Europe is way ahead of the rest of the world in the making of firm plans.
Europe should know from the experience of one of its members – Holland – how sea defences can stop the effects of rising sea-levels. Densely populated Bangladesh might find it hard to build thousands of miles of dykes with its present budget but wouldn’t the money available now from the EU be better spent on getting rid of the widespread arsenic in its water supplies, an immediate and serious problem?
So what is the best, but not exclusive, answer for the long run, apart from getting a sense of proportion? It is windmills and solar panels, but not the ones we recognise today which help only modestly. Think of the computer 50 years ago – massive machines that cost a fortune taking up a large room. Now the same computing power is available in your lap top. The large amounts of investment – mainly by the private sector – that went into computers now should go into wind and solar energy to bring costs right down. Not today, not tomorrow, but perhaps in 30-40 years’ time we will have made the same quantum leap with them as we have with computers. Remember too that by the end of the century most developing countries will be as rich as Europe is today. In 30 years’ time they themselves can pay for much of the necessary investment.
Right now what government money is available should go on today’s problems that could be solved within ten years on the modest present day budgets allocated to fight global warming- universal drinking water and sanitation, defeating malaria and other debilitating Third World diseases, malnutrition, slum upgrading, primary schools and health clinics for everyone.
Even the US Congress might vote for a budget of this size if the quid pro quo would be for the Administration to stop lobbying for more money to avert global warming.