June 18th, 2012
03:21 PM ET

Author: Focus on clean water, not global warming

This week, hundreds of world leaders and tens of thousands of environmentalists are convening in Rio de Janeiro for the U.N.'s Conference on Sustainable Development.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” says the Rio+20 summit will be a wasted opportunity and that the U.N. is focused on the wrong things. He says that for every person who might die from global warming, 210 will die from health problems caused by a lack of clean water and pollution.

Lomborg joined “Fareed Zakaria GPS” on Sunday to talk about his views and possible long-term solutions. Here’s an edited version of their conversation, which can also be viewed by downloading the entire show on iTunes.

Fareed Zakaria:You have a Foreign Affairs article coming out in which you point out the history of these kinds of growth predictions and what the environmental concerns have been. Explain that point briefly.

Bjorn Lomborg: It’s the 40th anniversary of (the report) “The Limits to Growth” –the idea that we were going to run out of everything and, even if we weren't, we were going to be screwed anyway because we would basically be polluting ourselves to death.

That ran computer models back then. Of course, remember, computers seemed like they were telling the truth no matter what you put into them. And I think with the oil embargo in '73 just one year later and oil prices shooting up, there was a real sense that, yes, we are running out of everything … we are running out of oil and we need to conserve everything and we are really on a very, very wrong path.

In many ways, you can say, it's set the environmental agenda certainly for a couple of decades.

So what are the facts?

Lomborg: Well, the problem is they were wrong. They were, first of all, wrong that we were going to run out of food. But perhaps more importantly for the environmental concern, they were wrong about the idea that we were going to run out of all resources.

Actually, if you look at the cost of resources, which is the economist's way of looking at how many resources do we have left, the cost of resources generally have come down about sevenfold since 1850. Yes, it's ticked up in the last 10 years … but if you look at the whole curve, it's very clear, it's a clear downward trend. 
Why? Because innovation is much, much more important than using up the resources.

The Club of Rome thought there were only so many resources; when we've used up them, we are really up a creek. But what they forgot was we find many more resources and we get much better at exploiting poor resources further away but even cheaper with technology. And that's really what we've done with virtually all resources.

Zakaria: What about the other half of that report, which was about pollution?

Lomborg: They thought as we get richer and richer and there are more and more people, you'll have more and more belching smokestacks. But what they forgot was technology actually handles a lot of that. Now, we've actually seen air pollution come down in most rich countries for most of the last century.

It's not just the technology. … After '72, we put extra effort into making regulations that meant that we've gotten even lower levels of air pollution.

Zakaria: So you support those government regulations?

Lomborg: Absolutely. We want to have regulation where it makes sense - where there's lots of people dying, for instance, from air pollution. That is a real concern.

But you should also recognize, what is it that drives the ability to care about the environment? It is that you're rich enough that you don't have to worry about your kids dying tomorrow.

And that's my real concern about the way we look into the future when we go down to Rio in just a few days. What are we talking about there? Well, we're talking about going to a green economy, and we're talking about global warming. But in reality, the real issues for most of this world is still air and water pollution.

Why are we not talking about the important issues in the third world? Why are we talking about somewhat more esoteric issues that clearly concern first-world people? There is perhaps 0.06% of all deaths in the developing world caused by global warming. There's 13% of all deaths caused by air and water pollution. Let's get our priorities right. 

If you read the U.N., their little leaflet that they distribute for the Rio summit, they show how we should all get electric cars and we should go organic and stuff like that.

No. Most people in (the) developing world cannot afford an electric car. What we should do is focus on innovation to make those cars so cheap. Then the next half-century, everyone will want them.

Zakaria: And how can we focus on air and water pollution in the third world? How do we deal with bringing that number down from 13%?

Lomborg: Well, there are two main solutions.

One is that we have a lot of technologies that we know how to get clean drinking water.

We also know … most of the air-pollution deaths are actually caused by indoor air pollution, people cooking with bad fuels like dung or cardboard. Let's make sure they actually get access to fossil fuels. That makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but that's the reality that we live with. And that's why 2 million people don't have to die in the developing world each year because of unsafe cooking and heating fuels.

But the long-term solution for that, of course, is to make sure that people actually get richer in the third world. It's a poverty problem. And so I'm a little concerned about the fact that we talk a lot about the Kyoto Protocol. But there's another city with a protocol that we don't talk very much about: the Doha Round, the idea of free trade. That is one that most economists would estimate would give much, much better opportunities in the long run for most countries in the world to actually get rid of their old problems, both environmental, but also all the other poverty-related problems.

Topics: Climate • Development • Environment

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