Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Bjorn Lomborg Interview, Part 2

The conclusion of my interview with the controversial and charismatic Bjorn Lomborg ("Cool It," "The Skeptical Environmentalist"). Part 1 ran yesterday. Enjoy!


PC: In Cool It you mention how a lot of An Inconvenient Truth is fear mongering. It seems to me that since that movie has come out, every time I'm online or reading a newspaper I see some sort of environmental catastrophe story, like a chunk of an iceberg the size of Texas breaking off. There's so much information coming in, how do we know what to recognize as being legitimate and what do we recognize as being skewed figures and facts?

BL: That is an incredibly hard question both to answer but also really to find a good solution for. I think what the segment in the film does is point out that we need to take the fear factor out, both because it's incorrect but also because it makes us make bad decisions. You feel scared, you're likely to make bad decisions. That was why we put it in there, not to sort of gloat over parts of Al Gore's film. In reality, I think the point is we recognize that in a vast number of different areas—certainly not just global warming—we hear a lot of scary stories and there's a very systematic reason why: Because bad news sells. We know from studies that if you give people a pile of good news and a pile of bad news and say, "Read whatever you want," people overwhelmingly read the bad news pile. So, it's not like it's the newspaper's fault, it's simply because we're genetically more interested in bad news.

…Take these stories with a grain of salt, and look for the weasel words of may and could and that kind of thing. Start asking, what's the reasonable prediction here? and get a sense of proportion. When you read these stories about an iceberg just broke off, well icebergs break off all the time. The real question is, have more icebergs broken off? And that's a much more complicated issue, but in reality all of these are just used as story segments to influence us to take action, and then we're back to the rest of the film, which is really to say: You should be concerned about global warming, but the current way that we are then acting on it just doesn't make sense. In a sense, all of this is just white noise compared to the fact that if we agreed that we need to fix it, then let's start talking about how do we fix it smartly. So, it's not about, is that particular iceberg [breaking apart] caused by global warming or not? That's not the issue.

PC: The film's message is that the situation regarding global warming is bad, but not critical. Do you think that may feed indifference?

BL: I'll first answer this strategically, and then I'll try to answer intellectually afterwards. There is a risk that if you say it's not as scary as you thought that people are going to relax. But I honestly think we've seen the consequence of the other approach, which is basically that people need to be scared more and more, and eventually you just can't scare them anymore. If global warming is a 100-year problem, you can scare people for five or 10 years, but you can't scare them for 100. What we've seen is essentially people turn off. You keep upping the ante, and then eventually you'll be found out, or you don't and people get sick and tired. That's why I think strategically you need to scale back. Now, that doesn't mean that you should do nothing, but it means you can start talking about what you should do sensibly, and that also means we can come down to this place where we don't act on panic, that we act rationally. Now, that's the strategic answer.

The intellectual answer is I believe telling the truth is the best long-term strategy. There's something dangerous about making this argument of, maybe we should ramp it up a little bit because that would make people make more of the right decision. Remember, that's exactly what got us into trouble with Iraq. I like the example because it was the right wing who was sexing up the weapons of mass destruction because they wanted people to make the right conclusion from this uncertain data. I think we can safely say now that we were not well served with that sexing up. So, in the same way I think we should be careful about sexing up the message to get people's attention on the other issue.

PC: If we keep "sexing up" global warming and other environmental ills what's the worst-case scenario?

BL: It's pretty bad already, isn't it? It strikes me that there are several different impacts. First, there's the impact that it's not sustainable, which is one of the reasons why we're seeing an increasing number of people saying global warming is made up. Simply because it's a natural consequence of, I'm fed up with this. And Gore said Florida would disappear, but I was just down there. Then you say, which is also wrong, "Well, maybe it's all made up." That's certainly one risk. Then we make bad policy decisions, which I think is a terrible risk. But also, remember, it actually feeds a lot of things that never show up in the policy area, but just simply make people feel bad. Those kids in the film [Lomborg talks to young English students at a private school about the planet's status] are scared witless.

One of my friends, she was worried about getting a kid because how could she allow a kid to grow up in this sort of terrible world. Now, if it really was a terrible world maybe that was a good decision, but if she's overworried—that's a terrible loss…If she'd actually turned 40 and hadn't gotten a kid that would have been a terrible loss for the rest of her life just simply caused by this fear factor.

PC: You've always said that there are problems with the environment. It seems to me that you and your detractors are reading from the same book, but are on different pages. Do you ever think there will be a time when you and your detractors can come to terms or will that never happen?

BL: My sense is if this film is successful and this sort of discussion is successful, we'll start doing smart things and in 10 years' time we'll be like, what was all the fuss about. Of course we wanted to do this…I would, though, doubt that it will be because it's the same people. There's a famous science philosopher, [Imre] Lakatos, who wrote that when we get a new paradigm in science it's not because the old god gives up. It's simply because they die and get replaced by others. I think that would be a little more realistic in that sense; it'll just be new people talking about the new environment in a different setting.

PC: So, basically, you have to wait for the old guard to change over.

BL: Or it simply becomes unpopular to talk about that—we talk about it in a different and smarter language. And I think that could happen very quickly. Then you'll just simply have people talking about different things.

PC: Your travel schedule and work schedule are absolutely brutal. It seems like you're in a thousand places at once.

BL: No, no. I'm in a thousand places right after each other.

PC: Is it tiring to do what you do, to get people to listen? Or does it energize you to keep going out?

BL: I'm an academic at heart. I think what I like is making good arguments. That's what really gets me going, but I've always been making the argument way before, when I was just an academic…My point has always been if we don't communicate what we find, what's the point? Most academics have this tendency of saying, "Hey, I wrote my book, and it has to speak for me. People will have to pick it up, and if they don't they're just too stupid to see the brilliance of my mind." Unfortunately, that's just not how most of the world works because there are lots of books out there and lots of ideas. So, in a sense, you have to spend a significant amount of time to actually tell other people why this is important, why this is interesting. And if you don’t, it wasn't really worthwhile for you to find these good ideas in the first place. I see this as an integrated part of finding the good ideas. Sometimes you can get a little tired, but on the other hand there's nothing so much fun as being right.

We essentially have a situation where we've been making a policy for the last 20 years that's failed. And everybody kind of knows this, but it's the dirty secret nobody wants to say. So when you're the little guy saying it's not working, people sort of [makes a doubting noise], but it needs to be said. It's energizing in the sense that it actually makes it more possible for us to move toward a place where it will be more right and we'll do more smart things. I'm happy to do it, I'm glad I'm not going to be doing this for my whole life, but I think it is part of getting your message out. If I hadn't cared about getting my message out, I should have never made the film in the first place.

PC: Are you hopeful for the world's future?

BL: Oh, absolutely. Listen, if you look at the past 400, 500 years, it's very clear on virtually all accounts that matter we have managed to do better, not worse. Every time we solve a problem we typically make another problem, so solutions and problems tend to come together. Typically, we solve more problems than we create new ones. That's why we live longer, we are better fed, we're better schooled, we have higher incomes, we have more free time, all that amazing stuff. And we've fixed many of the environmental problems in the first world, and there's good reason to believe that when the Chinese and the Indians get rich they will do the same thing. So, fundamentally, yes, we're living in a world where it's reasonable to assume that people in 50, 100 years if given the option to live when they live or [in 2010], they'd say, "Oh, my God, of course I'm going to live [now]."…It's a very empowering issue of realizing we're moving in the right direction, and your contribution to the world is going to be: are we going to move there faster?

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