Monday, December 6, 2010

The Bjorn Lomborg Interview, Part I

This was a really fun interview because Lomborg, the academic, author, and "Skeptical Environmentalist", had unflagging energy. His enthusiasm for the future and in influencing the methodology of solving the world's environmental ills is almost tangible.

The best part was that Lomborg loved to talk--he gave me 40 eloquent, passionate minutes--which makes my job a hell of a lot easier. It also means a very lengthy (trust me, I transcribed the tape), albeit rewarding Q&A, kind of like the old "Playboy" interviews. So that's why I'm dividing this into two parts. The second part will be posted by tomorrow morning.

Oh, and go see "Cool It" if you can. Excellent movie.

This interview originally appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission.


In the recently released documentary Cool It, Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School and president of The Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank, offers a series of common sense applications for environmental ailments. The total worldwide price tag: $250 billion.

The film features no dire predictions, no crying to the heavens, just a lot of clear reasoning. A big reason why the movie is so good—aside from the solutions and data presented—is Lomborg's enthusiasm and passion. It's unusually high for someone who doesn't enjoy a glowing reputation among his peers. That will happen when you're best known for a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist and when you raise concerns about the value of the Prius, energy-saving light bulbs, and Al Gore.

Lomborg's message of environmental pragmatism has not been ignored. In 2008, Esquire named him one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century; four years before, Time tabbed Lomborg as one of the world's 100 most influential people. This month, Foreign Policy magazine named Lomborg one of its "100 Top Global Thinkers of 2010."

A big part of delivering that message (and promoting Cool It) includes non-stop travel, which is what brought Lomborg to Philadelphia in early October. He had the energy of a college freshman at his favorite class, and the wardrobe to match: black t-shirt, jeans, and red on white sneakers. The blonde hair and trim figure only cemented the image.

Lomborg, who turns 46 in January, was eloquent and self-effacing, delivering his answers in energetic bursts during our 40-minute interview. Among the topics: why the "pragmatic middle" is the film's desired audience, the dangers of "sexing up" environmental issues, and the reason Lomborg doesn't tire of being a messenger.

Pete Croatto: How did the idea for a documentary come about, specifically your participation in it?

Bjørn Lomborg: Fundamentally, the idea for the film came from me. It was literally just an idea of, I'm an academic, I like to read books, but I recognize that's not what most people do. You write a book and if you're lucky a few hundred thousand people are going to read it. But if you could make a film, Al Gore clearly showed you can get tens and maybe even hundreds of millions of people to watch it. So my sense was simply to say, "If Gore can do it, why not me?" And then I realized there's a reason: It's actually incredibly hard to get from that idea to then doing it…I was raising the idea to people who might know. And then I was in Los Angeles, I met Terry Botwick, who's one of the producers, and he got interested in this. He got into also trying to raise some of the money, then we got his company involved, and then it just sort of spun from there. But it was very clearly in a very different area than what I do.

PC: How long did it to get from the idea to the finished product?

BL: It's been going on actually before I wrote Cool It. This took about one and a half years, but I've been trying to do this idea [make a film] for five, six years.

PC: It must be great to finally see something onscreen.

BL: It's both an amazing and a really scary thing. At the end of the day, my ideal movie would probably have been that I sat down in front of the camera and read the book or read a long table of numbers, and I recognize that probably wouldn't have made for a very good film. It is a challenge to do something in a medium that you don't know very well, and that's essentially why I was so happy Ondi [Timoner, the director] was on board, because she has managed to take my message and transform it into a very different language, where I can only vaguely see whether it's working or not. So I've constantly sort of compared this experience to…Do you know when you have these workers' outings where you have to all get to know each other? You stand in a circle and then you let yourself go and hope somebody catches you? That's how I felt about this process.

PC: Was it hard to let go and let other people take over your ideas?

BL: Yes, that is hard. I apologized to Terry at one point about being uptight about this, and he goes, "Oh come on, it's only your life." Obviously, you're concerned about it, but I also recognized that it was just not going to work unless I would let go. I've been very, very aware and I've probably driven a lot of people—not so much Ondi and Terry and the other guys—but much more my friends whom I've relied on, I've probably driven them close to…What do you call it?

PC: Insanity?

BL: …insanity by asking, "What do you think about this? Could we do this?" Then I'd come up with all these solutions. Every once in a while, apparently, I'd come up with something that worked for the film. Mostly they'd just say, "No, Bjørn, you can't do that."

PC: In the movie, there is a slue of alternatives presented for energy, flood prevention, but the prevailing sense I get is that in the U.S. these ideas haven't gained a lot of traction. They're sort of just great ideas that don’t have the funding or the right people aren't looking at them. What's it going to take for those ideas to become accepted and implemented, especially in the U.S.?

BL: Fundamentally it takes something like this film, and that's why I'm hoping that's really what the film will do. It's about making this cool. Right now cool and climate change are terms that [mean] either putting in energy-saving light bulbs or buying a Prius or proposing large-scale carbon cuts in the federal government. Those are sort of the accepted things; if you say some of that, you're a good guy. Where if you say, "Maybe we should paint our rooftops white" or if you say, "Maybe we should invest a lot more in research and development into geo-engineering or into solar panels," it's not like you're crazy. But it's just sort of like, nah, not really. This is about making it cool. That's what the film hopefully will do, and once that happens of course the funding will come.

PC: Am I safe to say that the film is presenting your ideas in a packaging that's more palatable to the masses? Is that part of why it got made, to show that here are some ideas and here they are presented in a way that we hope will impact you?

BL: Yes, but if I could at least elaborate a little bit on "palatable," because in some ways it could sound a little bit like, Bjørn has really uncharming views but will make them up into a commercial and make it look nice. That's not what they did, but my views tend to be much more along the lines of saying, "The current approach for every dollar we spend, we avoid about two cents of climate damage. However, here is a proposal that for every dollar spent, we'll avoid 11 dollars of climate damage or [do] about 600 times more good." And people's eyes glaze over. Now, I just said something that I thought was an incredibly coherent and cogent and interesting argument. But to most people it just sounds like, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. I think the film makes the 600 times more effective [proposal] palatable. So it makes the correct argument understandable to a public who is not overly swayed by long tables of mathematical and economic arguments.

PC: Is there a certain portion of the population that you want to watch this film and take something away from it?

BL: …I think it's much more likely that we're going to see [as our audience] the vast middle of America who wants to feel responsible, who cares about global warming, and when you put them in the right mood actually feel a little bit disturbed about this sort of looming catastrophe that they've heard about, many of whom have mostly gotten their information from just Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. And have the sense of, we shouldn’t have taken that holiday last year and probably shouldn’t have gotten this big house. And have all this guilt but haven't really acted very much on it, and bought some energy-saving light bulbs so they feel a little bit more OK, that want to do good, feel there's a problem, but don't really know. That's the vast majority of people who actually get it, realizing this is a smart, coherent, and fundamentally effective way of tackling this issue. Of course, it's great in the sense that those people are, by far, the biggest majority of the discussion. I think we also have to recognize the five percent on either side [those who dismiss global warming or fear the absolute worst] who have made their status by almost defining themselves as the polar opposite of their opposition, are probably not going to say, "Ooh, let's move into the pragmatic middle."

PC: Do you have any hope that policy makers will see this film, government officials, anyone who may need to be awakened? Do you think they'll be watching this?

BL: Oh, I think a lot of them will. Certainly when I talk to policy makers from around the world they have the sense that they've painted themselves into a corner. On the one hand, they found it incredibly easy to be the defenders of green and say, "We need to commit to strong cuts and in our future." But they also realized we're not coming up with solutions, eventually we're going to go to one failed meeting after another, the public is going to be very concerned but they're also going to say, "Why are you not doing anything?" and they're not going to accept huge new taxes to try to implement some of the inefficient technologies that we have today. So they really feel like they've painted themselves into a corner. Now coming out and saying, "Instead of cutting carbon emissions, I'm going to paint some rooftops white," just simply doesn't work today. Because it's going to seem like you just don't care, you're callous, you're out of touch…But if this film actually got a lot of people's attention, then it'll suddenly be possible for a lot of politicians to say, "Listen, I'm going to go with the cheaper, smarter, and more effective way to tackle global warming." In some sense, you could say the politicians will definitely watch the film but they will only change their mind once sufficiently many people have seen this film and have the reaction, which I think a lot people have: That's smart, why aren't we doing that?

PC: The movie makes it very clear that your reputation in the environmental awareness circles is mixed. Some people are fully behind you, some people want nothing to do with you. Are you afraid that your controversial profile might hinder this film's success?

BL: In an ideal case, it would probably have been more useful had we had someone who's an entirely blank space. The previous reporter just told me about the infield hitter here in Philly who just threw something yesterday.

PC: Roy Halladay. (Note: The day before the Phillies ace pitcher had thrown a no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in his postseason debut.)

BL: Yeah, it probably would have been great to have him do the film or somebody who had universal acclaim, but that’s just not how the cards were dealt. And in some way, the upside of that [controversy] also means that there are a lot of potential newsworthy stories about this. But at the end of day I honestly don't think this is about me. And the only reason why I'm interesting or my mom [who appears briefly in Cool It] is interesting is simply to get people to realize that I'm not the devil, and maybe [moviegoers] actually want to hear what this guy is saying. The message is the important part. So, if you know…Sorry, what was his name again?

PC: Oh, the pitcher? Roy Halladay.

BL: Please let him know there's a film vehicle waiting.

PC: Was it always the intention for you to be the face of this movie, or did you try to get a celebrity like Leonardo DiCaprio (who narrated The 11th Hour)? Was that discussed at any point?

BL: We had that discussion for a long time, and I think there were two things that worked against it, partly that if you want a celebrity they will typically take on cases that are universally good. If you want something that's motherhood and apple pie, this would never have that character. It would be an uphill battle and then we may end up with a sort of C celebrity that would have some sort of dodgy connection to the national radical association, that we may end up losing the whole thing. It's also about the integrity of the message because at the end of the day you also want to show that this is really a journey of understanding how we do these solutions; you don't want to have somebody who's essentially reading off a teleprompter. Hopefully the film is much more now my journey to find the smart solutions. At the end of the day, there's no obvious Leonardo DiCaprio offering him or herself up.

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