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 (130 Responses)
  1. 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 |
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    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 |
  3. 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 |
  4. 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 |
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    August 18, 2012 at 11:56 pm |
    • 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 |
    • 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 |
    • 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 |
  6. mylovemydove

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

    September 17, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
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