What are we really arguing about when we argue about climate change?

The phrase ‘the science is settled’ is regularly used by politicians arguing for meaningful action on climate change. To the majority of the world’s scientists, global warming is a clear and present danger and those who deny it, or argue that its effects will limited or benign, are dangerous lunatics. Nevertheless, an increasing numbers of voters, particularly in the US and the UK, have drifted into the sceptic camp in recent months and years. A Pew Research October survey in the US showed the percentage of people seriously concerned by the climate change issue down from 77% to 65% in two years. An international survey by HSBC showed a fall from 32% to 25% over the past year in the percentage of people saying that climate change was the biggest issue that respondents worried about. A batch of highly successful books from journalists and maverick scientists has provided the intellectual covering fire for this decline. The result of the growing scepticism will be a weakening of national resolutions to take the difficult steps required to shift rich countries away from dependence on fossil fuels.

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Bjørn Lomborg's new book Cool It

Bjørn Lomborg, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, is the most formidable critic of those who think that cutting climate-changing gases is the most important problem the world faces. He made his name with 'The Skeptical Environmentalist' and his new book continues his drive to get the world to see global warming as just one of the world's important problems. Lomborg believes climate change is happening, and that mankind’s activities are responsible. But he tells that we shouldn’t do much about global warming because the costs are very high and the benefits low and far-off. Like most books written by partisans in this impassioned debate, much of what he says can be questioned.

Nevertheless, this is an extremely valuable polemic: it stresses repeatedly that taking action to stop climate change may have very high short-term costs. If by clumsy attempts to hold down emissions we stunt the prospects for global economic growth, we may do more harm to the world’s poor than would be inflicted by climate change. It needs to be said time and time again that disease and malnutrition are killing far more people today than climate change. We are making progress diminishing the impact of these scourges. Despite what you sometimes read in the newspapers, world food supply and life expectancy are improving. Panic-stricken action on climate change must not be allowed to halt this progress. We need a rational assessment of whether it is best to spend money on slowing climate change or to whether we would achieve better effects from focusing resources elsewhere.

Bjørn Lomborg is an able debater with a passionate interest in his subject. But he overstates his case, focuses on only parts of the issue and avoids any discussion of a possible future acceleration of global warming. Even with these weaknesses Cool It needs to be part of the continuing debate on how to respond to the climate threat without crippling the poorest economies of the world.

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