Danish economist warns Bangladesh about ‘climate politics’

Bangladesh may be the centerpiece in global climate negotiations, but it should focus less because it is not ‘worth it’, says top Danish economist Bjørn Lomborg.

Nazia Afrinbdnews24.com
Published : 11 March 2015, 09:28 AM
Updated : 11 March 2015, 10:09 AM

bdnews24.com recently met Lomborg, whose maverick 'cost benefit analysis’ indicates it is a long way before those wind turbines on the coast start producing power.

On the sidelines of the ‘Post 2015 Consensus Journalist Seminar’ held in Dhaka on Mar 9, he cautioned Bangladesh about what he saw as the pitfalls of global climate politics. 

“Focusing on global warming instead of child nutrition is quite frankly ... almost immoral because it is so easy and cheap," says “the skeptical environmentalist”, as he is often called, after a bestseller he authored.

While many express their concern over the lack of global action in sharing the burden of climate change — among them Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina — the unusual guest in town advised calm.

Lomborg, director of US think-tank Copenhagen Consensus dismisses global warming as an imminent crisis, but has been named as among “50 people who could save the world” by The Guardian. 

Nazia Afrin, bdnews24.com’s assistant features editor, interviewed the Danish economist who has figured several times in the list of top global thinkers in magazines like Time and Foreign Policy.

bdnews24.com: You are the 'skeptical environmentalist'. You say that climate change is not the end of the world, then what is?

Bjørn Lomborg: I hope nothing [smiles], Projecting scary scenarios are probably unhealthy to deal with real issues. Now, if there was a meteor hurtling towards earth, we should tell people. If there was really something destroying the earth we should definitely be telling people and doing something about it. My point is …

bdnews24.com: Global warming is not as quick as a meteor, but ...

BL: [completes previous line] … if you, for instance, look at climate change, it is often portrayed as the end of the world. But if you look at for instance the UN climate panel, they tell us by about 2070 the total cost of global warming is going to be somewhere between 0.2 and 2% of the GDP. And that emphasises what I am trying to say - global warming is real, it is a problem, it is something we should fix, but it’s not the end of the world.

bdnews24.com: Many nations do not experience two percent growth these days.

BL: Let’s just take the high end, 2% is not trivial, that’s definitely a big problem but it’s by no means the most important issue; remember hopefully Bangladesh will have gotten 10 to 20 times richer, so 1000 to 2000% richer. So, again my point is to put things in perspective and say we should deal with it, but this catastrophic, apocalyptic vision is not helping, it will just scare people.

bdnews24.com: For Bangladesh the effects of climate change is becoming a reality with each passing day and our prime minister has said this has stood in the way of fulfilling MDGs. It’s very much around the corner.

BL: It’s important to keep a sense of balance here. Bangladesh and most poor countries are going to be harder hit by global warming. Global warming will overall have a negative impact, so it is a problem. So, you will have more problems with the rise of sea levels, which is going to be worse in the future. Let’s just get that out of the way, but on the other hand we need to have a sense of proportion - how much of a problem is it? The Dutch has shown us 200 years ago, you can handle sea level rise fairly, easily and cheaply, you can do the same thing here and you will do the same thing here. Remember when people say, global warming is a big problem and we need to put a wind turbine here - any amount of wind turbine or solar panels that we are going to put in the next 50 years, are going to have absolutely no impact on the sea level rise that towards the end of the century. They may make a tiny difference towards the 22nd century, but if want to do anything about sea level rise, it’s all about adaptation. Globally there seems to be actually less ferocious hurricanes, one measure is accumulated cyclone energy, which is sort of a good global estimate and it’s actually been at some of the lowest levels since we started monitoring in the 1970s. There is a theoretical argument that you will see slightly fewer but slightly stronger hurricanes towards the end of the century. Again, this is not by any means the end of Bangladesh.

bdnews24.com: So, the United States and other developed countries can say that ‘climate change is not an immediate threat and for that reason, we are not going to compensate Bangladesh for our carbon emission’.

BL: There are really two issues here. One is, there are a number of developing countries that think, if we use and really push the climate conversation, we can get money from the north. Now, while there is a tiny bit of argument there, I think in some ways you are actually pushing to make the least likely outcome. Partly because you are probably not going to get the money. That’s sort of the real politics we have. But to the extent that you are partly going to get the money, you are going to get the money in terms of solar panels and wind turbines. Almost a third of global development aid is now spent mostly on solar panels and wind turbines. Now they do a little good, but if you think about the same amount of money, we are talking about 20-30 billion dollars, imagine that had been spent on malnutrition, on tackling tuberculosis, on making broadband and on all other thing that could do amazing amount of good. So I am worried that climate conversation gets people into two corners - the US says we don’t want to pay and you say it’s all about payment and the second part to the extent that you are successful, you end up getting really useless payments. And the other issue is, of course there are real climate problems like increasing sea levels. But if you wanted to deal with those you would not have been talking about this, oh we are going under and we need money from the US. You would have started building sea defence system in the south. So, in some sense this whole conversion pulls us away from doing smart staff. If we could be a little cool headed about climate, I think we could be so much smarter in how we are going to address it. When your prime minister goes South and says this is going to undercut the Millennium Development Goals, I am sorry that’s almost just wrong. It is probably in the order of 0.1% of GDP right now, but it’s a tiny bit. Focusing on global warming instead of focusing on getting nutrition to small kids is quite frankly I think almost immoral to small kids whom you could help so easily and cheaply. So my point here is again, yes there is a problem, yes we should tackle it smartly, but the way to typically do it, we end up spending lots of money badly, we end up polarising everyone and we forget about a lot of other things that could do much much good to these kids and pretty much everyone else.

bdnews24.com: Is this why 'Copenhagen Consensus' is working on a 'Bangladesh Consensus’?

BL: There are a number of reasons. We have wanted for a long time to be able to do a country prioritisation. We have been looking at a number of countries. It’s sort of a constellation of fortunate events that made it Bangladesh. But I think the main reason is that Bangladesh is an unique country. You both have a very vibrant culture in conversation, so lots of people talking about it, you have lots of great things going on, you have lots of data, but you also still have lots of problems. So, in some sense, you are the perfect place to do this. Because we know a lot of staffs that work, we probably also know a lot of staffs that doesn’t work. And you have the opportunity to have this conversation and at the same time there is still a lot of stuff that need fixing. So my hope is this will be the place where we could sort of showcase to the world that being smart about the solution will actually do more good than we otherwise would have done. 

[photo credit: lomborg.com and bdnews24.com]

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher