by Sophia Sparks
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost’s Sophia Sparks speaks with Bjorn Lomborg about his latest project, Cool It. The documentary film about global warming, teams Lomborg with director Ondi Timoner, with the hope of educating people about the current state of climate change.
Lomborg, an environmental academic and author, is currently a professor at the Copenhagen Business School and Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center. In 2001 he published his controversial and best-selling book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, whose thesis refuted some of the world’s most-publicized predictions about environmental issues. He was accused of scientific dishonesty which was overturned by Danish authorities in 2003, much to the chagrin of his critics.
He has received accolades from many media outlets, such as Esquire’s 75 Most Influential People of the 21ST century, One of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine, and One of the fifty people who could save the planet, by the UK Guardian. Lomborg has also been featured on Larry King Live, 20/20, The Colbert Report, 60 minutes, BBC Newsnight and various other TV shows.
Sophia Sparks: In a world that’s overrun with information, how would you encapsulate your views in such a way that people can sort through them? What is it that you want to get across to people?
Bjorn Lomborg: Well, two fundamental points: one is global warming is real. It’s man-made, it is important, but it’s not the end of the world, so it’s sort of the in between; it’s the end of the world and it’s not happening. That conversation is actually very, very hard to have because we have a very polarized discussion, there’s no central point. So that’s one point. The second point is we need to find smart solutions. We have been trying to solve global warming for at least eighteen years and probably much longer, and we have been failing for eighteen years. So, instead of saying, ‘Well, let’s try for another ten years with the same fail solutions, let’s actually try to find smarter solutions.’ And that’s what this film is really about, and the smartest solutions will really only get to, if we stop having this very unproductive conversation of ‘it’s the end of the world or it’s not happening at all.’ So those two things really go together. I could do the film in two minutes! (laughs)
We’re not scientists, we’re not economists, and of course your audience isn’t either. So my question is geared towards the idea of the film in terms of PR or getting the message out. Why choose this medium? And to what extent are you trying to combat certain images and perceptions about yourself and about climate change—the whole argument?
Bjorn Lomborg: Fundamentally, I think it’s an obvious idea to try to do a film because, if you write a book, you’re lucky a couple hundred thousand people will read you. Most won’t and certainly that’s been one of my biggest problems—most people haven’t read what I say, and go off of what other nasty things people say about me, and sort of discount the whole discussion. This was really a way to have, if you will, a conversation just like we have here now, to talk about how we should deal with global warming. Obviously I would like to change my perception, the way that I’m perceived as well, but honestly this is mostly about getting the climate discussion right.
How do you go about shifting people to move towards the center? You make some points about climate change and cooling down the fear talk – does that in any way support your opponents? People tend to hear what they want to believe.
Bjorn Lomborg: Oh absolutely, and it’s inevitable that if you make arguments in the public sphere people are going to take them apart. And I’ve been called a denier, an Al Gore. I don’t know if you saw The Guardian a couple months ago, their whole front page was me making a u-turn because I said we should be spending a hundred billion dollars. When you say, ‘Listen, it’s not as bad as Al Gore says or the current solutions aren’t working,’ they say, ‘Oh, you’re just a Republican!’ And if then you go, ‘We should spend money on climate change,’ they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re just a Democrat!’ In some way it’s exactly a testimony to the unproductive nature of the conversation if you can only have those two extreme points. It’s either the end of the world or it’s not happening at all because then people try to push it into one or the other. But in reality what I’m trying to do is the smart center—my success criteria for the film would really also be if we end up having a conversation where we start saying, ‘Yeah, this is a problem. It’s not the end of the world. How do we fix this problem?’ And then lots of other people are going to come up with smart solutions. I hope we have come up with some smart ones, but I’m sure there’s even smarter ones. Then we’re off to a very different, more constructive way of thinking about global warming. That would be wonderful.
Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, was the biggest documentary about global warming to date. It made a lot of money in the theaters and on video and won an Oscar for best documentary. Can we see Cool It as a response to his film?
Bjorn Lomborg: I think it’s very much about moving on rather than just a response to Al Gore’s film. Al Gore made us realize global warming is real, and I think that’s great. I think he also scared the pants off of many people, which I think was unhelpful, I mean he certainly wasn’t alone in this. In some ways you could say he was the most successful in doing it but the fear is unhelpful in two ways. Partly it makes us pick bad solutions and often not question very well, but also obviously it can have direct consequences. When I saw the movie I was like, ‘That’s terrible!’ Not just on a policy level or ‘well we don’t get recognition,’ well you know, they’re scared witless! And one of my friends, she wasn’t going to have any kids because she was questioning all the other environmental questions like, ‘It’s too polluted. Can we afford to do this?’ but also because global warming can allow thoughts like bringing a kid in this type of world, it’s just going to be so warm. And you know, now she’s got a kid because she almost turned forty (laughs). So yeah, she just managed to do it, but she didn’t get it. That was part of the cost. In some sense there’s both political costs and personal costs that I think a lot of the public bears. So this is about dismantling the fear part, the unnecessary fear part. Realizing that this film is a problem we need to fix, and then moving on to a solution. So I hope we’re more of a post-Al Gore rather than an anti-Al Gore.
The film speaks about commerce and energy in very sensible terms about how alternative energies are currently not cheap enough to compete with oil and coal. Is it possible that these very wealthy and influential industries can prevent alternative energies from competing against them? We hear stories all the time about, ‘Well, something’s viable’ and then it disappears. Or Who Killed the Electric Car? How does the money you need, or the culture needs, to get geo-engineering off the ground, differ with the desires of very wealthy people who will literally go and squelch something that goes against their interests?
Bjorn Lomborg: What we have to remember is that most of the energy companies make a lot of money from selling us energy. They don’t necessarily care all that much about whether they’re selling oil or coal or whatever they’re selling, as long as they’re just selling the stuff to us because they don’t own the oil sources or the coal resources. Now it’s a different question for Saudi Arabia because they would be stuck with a lot of oil. They would hate this. Actually, I think most of the energy companies, if there was a cheap or different energy supply, if you could just put out solar cells and make lots of cheap electricity, and they could sell it to us, they’d do it.
And we go along for the ride. You bring up Saudi Arabia; what if Exxon suddenly ousted them?
Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, but the point is Exxon would actually make just as much money if they could sell you energy. Well, about the same amount of money, if they could sell it from solar panels. In that sense they would be fine. In that sense it’s the Saudis that are the problem but I don’t think the Saudis could stop this in the same way. The difference to the electric car, because that is a huge difference, the electric car is a very complicated issue because it requires a whole separate infrastructure. You can’t just have an electric car, so that’s much more of a decision where there really is potential for saying, “No, let’s stay with the oil standard.” But actually if you look at a fair number of countries; Israel and Denmark are two of them that are trying to switch to electric cars, and it’s not like anyone is actually try to stop it. The main blockage really is they are incredible costly still. So I would say the fundamental problem is much more cost, certainly for the electric car but also for all the other technologies and the real point of course is imagine if somebody came up with making solar panels that could be incredibly cheap. Exxon even if they could, they wouldn’t be able to stop that. You can buy it, that’s why we don’t need to worry so much about the sort of nefarious powers squashing. It’s simply much more a fact of we need to have a lot more production. The comparison that we don’t do in the film that I think is very useful is the idea of the computer in the 1950’s. Computer were big like basements and they couldn’t do anything and the right solution to making them better was not to tax the alternative technologies like taxed typewriters, and it wasn’t to promise everyone to get one in 1960. It was to dramatically increase research and development into those and that was what we did through budgets. And that means that IBM and Apple would then made one in the early 70’s, late 80’s.
Anyone who goes against the status-quo, in any walk of life, they’re going to come across a lot of road blocks. The media kind of tore you apart multiple times. So, in trying to get this message across to people what was your greatest challenge? Also, what was the most rewarding about the film too?
Bjorn Lomborg: It’s definitely true that there’s a lot of people who want to tear this apart, but I actually find that there’s a lot more people who want to find a smart solution to this. And this is obviously just pop psychology, but it seems reasonable to say there’s 10% who are wedded to the idea that this is the end of the world and we just need to do something. And perhaps 10% of the other spectrum that says, ‘Oh, it’s just silly’ and something made up out of left wing. But there’s a vast majority in the middle that feels somewhat uncomfortable about this; why aren’t we doing something about it? But also it’s not their biggest issue and they certainly don’t want to have to support having outrageous gas prices or anything. think in many respects, this is exactly where once you hear the message, a lot of people will go, ‘That makes a lot of sense.’
When I go out and give talks, almost invariably somebody will come up to me afterward and say,’I thought I’d hate you!’ You know, realizing that this makes a lot of sense and so in some sense I think the biggest challenge for me has always been that people have heard about me from somebody who didn’t like me and not from me. They haven’t actually read me, they had read somebody writing about me. And what this film does is it makes it possible for people to hear what it is I say and most people’s reaction seems to be, ‘That sounds pretty smart. Why aren’t we doing that?’ And that’s great, so that’s the really rewarding point. I think this has the chance to opening up the middle for constructive debate.
That’s always the challenge, we see it more and more in American politics, that the calm, reasonable middle does not get heard. The extremes get heard, and along the same lines, the idea you spoke about, the fear mongering, part of your message is that we don’t need to invest in that behavior. Does obsession and hysteria serve any purpose or is it always counterproductive and how do you slow it down to make it work?
Bjorn Lomborg: I see your point and I have a hard time judging whether you could make a sort of very utilitarian argument for scaring people a little because it needed to get the ball rolling. But as an academic I would always say that that is unacceptable but also it’s unlikely that it’s not going to backfire in the long run. Simply because if you scare people and then come back and tell people, ‘Oh, we just told you that to scare you,’ it’s hard to imagine that you will treat those people with the same sort of respect and trust later on. So I actually think that the reason we’re seeing a lot of people turning off now is exactly because they got so scared. You see Florida disappear under the waves in Gore’s film, and you go down there and it’s there! Who am I going to believe? You just can’t scare people for 90-100 years.
Not only are you dealing with the problem of people feeling scared or manipulated but you also have this problem with people who feel controlled. They feel controlled in a climate where corporate America seems to have far too big an influence in our government, to the point that there’s an overriding assumption that we’re really never going to be able to change anything. How do you fight the idea that people like you are out there writing books and trying to engage the average person when the average person doesn’t really have any power any more?
Bjorn Lomborg: That actually ties nicely into the idea of the polarization as well. I’m an academic; I honestly believe that arguments really do carry weight. Most people want to do good in this world; yes, there are a lot of big corporations that just want to make money and go to quite extreme lengths to make sure they can keep on doing that, but I think these are also fathers and mothers and they want to do good in the world and they have good intentions mostly. If you come out and say, ‘Here’s a way we could do more good, more effectively, at lower costs,’ that’s a hard argument to keep out of the debate. You can still have a lot of discussions around it and say, ‘No, no, we don’t want to spend a hundred billion, eighty billion, or we should spend it exactly there,’ but fundamentally I think arguments still carry weight. And so this is much more an argument saying, ‘This is not going to cure all ills and definitely democracy isn’t working as well, but it is going to actually help us be smarter, at least in this particular problem.’
With your efforts around the world and the success in European countries regarding the film, including the efforts in New Orleans, what is the established world opinion with regards to geo-engineering?
I think people are coming around to realizing that we need to also look at this problem. In some ways it’s a very similar experience with the adaption discussion in the 1990’s where a lot of environmentalists felt like, ‘No, no, we shouldn’t talk about it because once we start talking about that, people will forget about cutting carbon emissions.’ But of course that’s immoral not to talk about how you’re going to actually adapt because a lot of people are going to be affected and they do need to talk about how you adapt to those problems. Likewise it seems immoral to me not to talk about how we could potentially avoid some of the really dramatic impacts of global climate at very low costs that we at least want to take a look at. In some way it’s a little similar to saying, ‘If you install airbags in cars, people will drive less carefully,’ because people know they’re safer, and we know that from many studies. But of course nobody would actually make the argument, ‘So we shouldn’t put them in.’ Because then people will just be reckless. I mean, you’re just not going to do that. Or likewise, that you are going to have a bypass operation because you should have eaten better. No. Or giving people bypass operations just means they’ll eat pizza. Sure, we should still inform them that eating pizza all the time is not a good idea but we should probably also realize that if we have the technology we should look in. More and more people are realizing that this has to be part of the mix. And I think what the film again has the opportunity to do is to say, ‘Why don’t we just be smart about this?’ Of course we should still be focusing on getting green energy affordable but until it is, certainly in some cases there’s bad surprises in the climate cover, we won’t know.
Since the economic crisis, the American public has been more focused on the economic crisis rather than worrying about climate change. Your views logically change both sides of the viewpoint, but how could you explain this to someone who doesn’t have any background in science and usually goes with either the left or right, or is swayed solely by their political viewpoints?
Bjorn Lomborg: Well the simple answer is to say, ‘The solution for the last eighteen years, let’s say trying to make fossil fuel so expensive so that nobody wants to use it.’ That’s a political non-starter but it also turns out to be economically very efficient. If you try to do that it costs a lot and actually does very little good. A good example is if we’re going to be spending $250 a year for the rest of the century to reduce temperatures by a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit. So instead of trying to make fossil fuel so expensive nobody wants it, make green energy so cheap everybody wants it. If we could innovate solar panels to be cheaper than fossil fuels in say, 2030, problem solved. Everyone, also the Chinese and Indians, would be buying these. Not because we had these grand dreams or because we forced everyone, but simply because it’s cheaper, so it really is a very, very simple argument. Fortunately most real, but also most important points, are fairly simple. Don’t try to do what you can’t do politically, and what doesn’t work economically and then we make fossil fuels so expensive so nobody wants it. Make green energy so cheap everyone wants it.
I think that and Copenhagen brought it home to most people to realize that it won’t work. We’ve been trying this and it hasn’t worked. We saw this gigantic failing in Copenhagen last year so we kind of know it’s not working. I think there’s a lot of people looking around for new solutions, not just ordinary people if you will, but also politicians.
The Obama administration is on board with some of the ideas you’re expressing.
Bjorn Lomborg: We went to talk to them after we’d done the Nobel conference and they were certainly very interested. I felt that they, and many others, feel like they painted themselves in a corner and they’re looking for some way to un-paint themselves and this could be one way. We do take it seriously but we’re not going down the line that hasn’t worked and isn’t going to work. So let’s invest dramatically more in research and developments; it’s cheaper, it’s more effective and will probably work a lot more.