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

soundoff (120 Responses)
  1. eroteme

    May as well worry about clear water, global warming was not selling so well, alhough better than global cooling sold number of years ago. But it is pretty safe to worry aboug climate change being climate change has been going on for the past bilions+ of years, it is most likely to continue. But we must indeed worry about clear water as well as global warming, er, I mean climate change. For myself I can worry about most anything, fortunately nothing I have ever worried abou has ever come to pass. Yet. But as of today I am going to worry about clear water as well as global warming (not cooling) and climate change, and a few other matters I choose not to mention.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  2. eroteme

    The clear water problem may result from all those 32oz sugary sodas obese Americans are slurping up these days, particularly obese New Yorkers. These sugary sodas must use up quite a bit of clear water.

    June 19, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • NorCalMojo

      careful, if you stretch it any further you may dislocate something.

      June 19, 2012 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  3. Al

    The root environmental problem is overpopulation. The main cause of poverty in 3rd world nations is overpopulation. The main cause of air and water pollution is overpopulation. The Earth simply can't support 7 billion humans at a high standard of living. The biggest difference between nations with high standards of living and low standards of living is family planning. Families in nations with high standards of living generally limit family size to what they can afford while in nations with low standards of living they don't. What we need to worry about isn't as much the number of people dying of pollution now but the mass die off we face in the future if we don't do something about population now. That is what environmentalists should be worried about.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  4. mac101

    Finally, some sense in the discussion. Yes, the ice caps are melting, the earth is warming, and the weather is getting weirder and weirder. But for every so-called science study that says it is due to human abuse, there are others to debunk this

    But rather than sit around and argue about the cause, could we please get to solution? Instead of trying to figure out a way to cool the earth down a little – a mammoth boondoggle if there ever was one – let's start looking at changing the way we handle things like floods, hurricanes, blizzards and droughts. Instead of sinking more money into studies, let's start putting money aside so people can get a reasonable fair market value for their property so they can move off the coasts and away from the river valleys, away from the areas that are getting dryer and dryer.

    Why keep paying flood insurance premiums over and over, overwhelming the insurance industry? Admit that the waters are rising and get people to higher ground. If that means parts of New Orleans and New York and other cities shrink, then they shrink. If Texas and the West are getting drier, let's make it feasible for people to get some equity out of their parched farms and find better farm land with more rainfall. The Earth is going to win this battle, regardless of why the ice caps are melting. So let's cut our losses and move on.

    In the meantime, efforts to lower air pollution levels, clean up polluted water and provide clean water to those who don't have it, as well as finding ways to make fossil fuels cleaner, should all go forward. For all seven continents. But let's stop arguing about global warming and just admit it's here – and allocate our resources accordingly.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  5. Renee Marie Jones

    He says we cannot be running out of anything because of the prices. Reality means nothing ... only 19th century economic theory is to be believed, I guess. Pollution is certainly a big deal, he is right about that, but continuing to waste resources and pour carbon into the atmosphere is hardly the solution to air and water pollution. Pollution, global warming, disease, they are all symptoms of the same problem. It is what happens when you put corporations and profit ahead of everything else. The people who are running the world do not care who dies, they only care what the profit numbers are when the last one drops dead.

    June 19, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  6. don

    It's a short term(poor, third world) priority versus a long term (rich country) priority. Of course we should all be concerned about humanity's contribution to accelerating climate change but if you're cooking over an indoor dung or cardboard fire you have the shorter-term view. Haiti has cut nearly all it's trees for charcoal mostly for cooking. Propane is a better way but has some fixed costs and distribution challenges. I think this guy cares about the short-term needs of poor countries and their people.

    June 19, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Reply
  7. Ras Bhim

    Lomborg is not an environmentalist. How dare he call himself one.

    June 19, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  8. John Land

    It's not either-or. The two problems are inter-related. For instance, global warming is contributing to desertification in Africa, which is diminishing water supplies.

    June 19, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  9. Stuart Weinstein

    Bjorn Lomborg is nothing more than a shill for Big Oil. Each time he opens his mouth he gets crapped on by actual scientists.

    First Lomborg claimed AGW didn't exist.

    Then after he got crapped on, he claimed:

    AGW wasn't a big deal. "Cool it"

    Then he got crapped on again. So now he claims we should worry more about clean water.
    Unable to rebut the copious eveidence for AGW and its attendant dangers, Lomborg now seeks to distract us.

    And he still has no clue.

    Really Bjorn? Rapidly rising Sea-Level will make a lot of arable land disappear like a fart in the wind. And I guess you figure its affect on water tables in coastal areas where most of the world's population lives, is simply not big deal.

    Do yourself a favor. Stop writing books on subjects you known nothing about. Go back to being an obscure statistics professor. You might well have been competent at that.

    June 19, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  10. Kimo

    The REAL issue is population control. The planet is simply overpopulated. Get serious, reduce the population and these environmental issues become non-issues.

    June 20, 2012 at 12:04 am | Reply
  11. mspuffcowgirl

    At the core of any discussion of climate change is the chorus of deniers who go on and on about normal Earth cycles,past changes in climate that to them look like the present, and that the debate about change is in play. All mountain ice is disappearing, the poles are melting in the shortest time ever seen in history of this planet- faster than any predictions and always this chorus of voices claiming falsely motives of science:looking through a prism of their drivel about these changes being normal. Life as we know it on this planet is in balance and what does a deserving world receive – all the BS repeated over and over by people who know better. We can do something about these changes but not by sitting around listening to the Modern Sirens just spewing out their misinformation and business as usual.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:00 am | Reply
  12. JohnViter

    I know this fellow Bjorn's writings.
    He is best thought of as an internet "Troll".

    Which is that he has no particular expertise, and is just saying these things to get environmentalists all riled up.

    So congratulations, Bjorn, on you ability to play the role of provocateaur, regardless of the merits, so long as you can get a reaction.

    June 20, 2012 at 1:44 am | Reply
  13. rednaxelat

    Why ia this twit being given air time? Isn't his main distinction being one of the very few (if not only) people in the world officially judged "not a scientist" by the scientific community? Fareed, you diminish yourself by talking with him.

    June 20, 2012 at 2:12 am | Reply
  14. deniz boro

    No one can ignore the abnormal changes in weather. Yes, it is an El Nino year. It is already here. It is not just a matter of being green. The weather is much above normal values and we are not warned about it. ..Say the solar flare thing was a farce, we are still in an El Nino year and this time people havea right to know it.

    June 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Reply
  15. vistarian2011

    Forget global warming – its too late to reverse the damage, and because politicians and billionaires dont want to talk about it.

    I agree that we should continue to improve water technology which will be a critical issue as global warming gets hotter around the world.

    June 21, 2012 at 9:45 am | Reply
    • mspuffcowgirl

      No one will "forget global warming". It will be in front of us and on our minds with each passing year. Lots of things can be done-best at this time to do things in concert as nations. Lots can be done.

      June 21, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Reply
  16. Thubten

    Bjorn Lomborg conveniently never mentions anything about species. Climate change is affecting species diversity. Species diversity is the best indicator of the health of the planet. http://www.uta.edu/biology/gough/lab/pdf/fulltext.pdf and http://people.oregonstate.edu/~mccuneb/LesicaMcCune2004JVS15.pdf Self-interest is intoxicating. Cooperating on self-interest undermines human's natural ability to cooperate and solve problems. We are having problems with subtle long term problems. Humans should care about the other species for ethical reasons if not survival reasons.

    June 24, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  17. Katherine Owen Sechrist

    Regarding global warming, I would like to ask Mr. Lomborg why the earth warmed up from the last ice age about 12,000 years ago? I was a science major at Auburn University and no one knew the answer to that question except that it had nothing to do with human activity at that time. Also, I undersstand the ice cap is melting on earth, but is the ice cap also mentling on Mars? I read that somewhere. If that is so, global warming could be being produced by the sun.

    July 9, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  18. Flyttefirma

    I'll right away grasp your rss as I can't to find your e-mail subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you've any? Kindly let me recognize so that I could subscribe. Thanks.

    August 2, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  19. Fellow Environmentalists: Wake Up

    "Global Warming" people pretty much single-handedly killed environmentalism. It will be back, but it has to heal.

    You see, there was a time not long ago when being an environmentalist merely meant you were a good person. It didn't mean you were part of a certain political ideology. That all changed when the US Democrat party started filling up with "Global Warming" activists. I for one believe in climate change, but I also believe it is one of the most ridiculous topics to discuss right now. We can't even go outside without worrying about inhaling environmental toxins from industrialism and we have pretty much every type of cancer, lung disease, and autoimmune disease rate spinning out of control.

    Yet all anyone wants to do is fund "vote for me" campaigns that revolve around "Global Warming" down to the most meticulous definition. Environmentalism is being hijacked as a political slogan. Global warming is real, but it is a nonfunctional issue. Discussing it achieves nothing. Discussing the measured, undisputed health hazards of the same things which cause global warming is functional! It leads people from all political parties to be concerned and take action.

    I would honestly not be surprised if some of the most extreme, stubborn global warming figures who refuse to discuss anything else (overpopulation, water, air, toxic products, etc.) and only discuss global warming 24/7 are paid industrialists intentionally marginalizing and sabotaging the environmentalist cause. Good day everyone.

    August 7, 2012 at 6:28 am | Reply
  20. Fellow Environmentalists: Wake Up

    What happens when you take an anti-environmentalism person and talk to them about air pollution, water pollution and industrial corruption?

    They become pro-environmentalism.

    What happens when you take an anti-environmentalism person and lecture them about how the Earth's temperature may cause unforeseen consequences in several centuries?

    They turn even more anti-environmentalism.

    Why do only a few environmentalists seem to understand this? The fixation on global warming and refusal of certain scientists to discuss ANY other environmental topics is a corrupt scam. They are paid by large industries to turn environmentalism into a fringe political issue.

    Environmentalism used to be everywhere. You were a "Green" person. It was popular. Liberals loved it, coservatives loved it.

    Now what do we have? The "global warming movement", where nobody talks about anything other than obscene futurism, with a few pop-scientists making millions while environmentalism crumbles away from mainstream thought.

    Please think about what is going on here. If you truly want to save Earth's environment then the old saying "you catch more bees with honey" applies extremely well. Start talking to people about air pollution, lung disease, thyroid cancer, water toxins, pesticides, etc.

    STOP ranting about global warming. That's exactly what the opponents of environmentalism want you to seem like: An obsessed psycho fixated on a single doomsday theory. II know climate change is real, but when you talk about something so far away and ignore current real problems, it alienates people. Rightfully so!

    August 7, 2012 at 6:38 am | Reply
  21. Cisco ASA

    Pretty great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wished to mention that I've really loved browsing your weblog posts. In any case I will be subscribing for your rss feed and I am hoping you write once more soon!

    August 18, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Reply
    • Lamees

      环保 just cos your house dun have aircon or 热水器 la. If your house havnig those, I bet you will use them. Alot of time we only talk talk. Go supermarket also bring back alot of plastic bags lah.

      July 7, 2014 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • Clautaire

      i go supermarket use my own bag, just throw evithyeng inside, as long as they can go in... not that i huan bao, but i just hate carrying all the plastic bag, so clumsy......

      July 21, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Anastasia

      In his book Cool It he says ice replaces itlsef. Its common sense when you think about it. When you fill a glass with ice and let it melt it does not rise once its melted, its actually very logical. Sometimes we just need someone to put it into perspective. Therefor we need someone like Bjf8rn Lomborg.

      July 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  22. mylovemydove

    Thank you for your commentary. Great points that we all need to consider and change.

    September 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
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