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Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, who says global warming isn't a big threat and that international treaties requiring sharp and immediate cuts in carbon emissions would cost a lot but do little good, is seen in Copenhagen, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007. Lomborg belongs to the small and splintered but loud camp of skeptics - also known as contrarians - who claim the climate threat is exaggerated. (AP Photo/Christopher Patrick Grant) (Christopher Patrick Grant/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, who says global warming isn't a big threat and that international treaties requiring sharp and immediate cuts in carbon emissions would cost a lot but do little good, is seen in Copenhagen, Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007. Lomborg belongs to the small and splintered but loud camp of skeptics - also known as contrarians - who claim the climate threat is exaggerated. (AP Photo/Christopher Patrick Grant) (Christopher Patrick Grant/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Under heat, climate-change contrarian won't wilt Add to ...

Former Danish statistics professor Bjorn Lomborg created a storm of controversy when he published The Skeptical Environmentalist , a 1998 work that was denounced by scientists for its cost-benefit critique of the Kyoto Protocol but also praised for its willingness to challenge environmental orthodoxy.

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Dr. Lomborg published a follow-up book, Cool It , a decade later and is now the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which explores how to do the greatest good in the world with limited economic resources. On Dec. 1, he will take part in the Munk Debate on climate change in Toronto. John Allemang spoke to him this week.

How does the upcoming Copenhagen summit look from your perspective?

We're trying to cut carbon emissions quite dramatically, yet we've tried this approach for the last 20 years and it hasn't worked. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, the OECD [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development]countries promised to cut carbon emissions back to 1990 levels by the year 2000. We overshot that by 12 per cent. Then at Kyoto, in 1997, we promised to go 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010. We'll probably overshoot that by about 25 per cent.

So I'm disappointed we're not trying to do something smarter in Copenhagen. It seems a safe prediction that we're going to be here in 2019 saying, gee, cutting emissions didn't work the third time either.

Why do you think the cycle repeats itself?

Munk Debate preview

Bjorn Lomborg (left) and George Monbiot will face each other in the 2009 Munk Debates
Participate in a live video chat with Bjorn Lomborg at Tue. Dec. 1 at 11 a.m. ET and George Monbiot at 1 p.m. ET

For politicians, it's about saying they promised good stuff: to cut emissions by 10, no 20, no 30 per cent! And that's what gets all the applause, not delivering what's been promised. So we have to find an approach that makes it easier for people to actually do something.

In a sense, the politicians' promises seem natural: We've got a CO{-2} problem, so let's cut CO{-2}. But that turns out to be incredibly hard. All the encouragement so far is about making dirty fuels so expensive we can't use them. But that's not going to work because nobody wants to vote for a government that makes fuel expensive.

What would work is to make clean-energy technology cheap: You'll solve global warming not because you're forced to or because you're green, but simply because solar power is cheaper than fossil fuels so everybody will switch.

That may take some time to achieve, but meanwhile you propose what you call "real-world" political suggestions to reduce global warming.

It's about making short-term solutions that will have real impact. For example, we estimate that by 2050, 80 per cent of all people will be living in cities. So we could actually make the world much better and cooler at very low cost by painting the city roads light colours, planting trees in green areas, adding water features.

But we also need a long-term solution. And it seems obvious to me that this means solar power, simply because there is overwhelmingly more solar power than anything else. Basically, the amount of sunshine the world gets in one hour is enough to power the world for one year.

So what would you like to see happen in Copenhagen?

We should invest dramatically more, say 0.2 per cent of GDP every year, in research and development into green-energy technologies. This would be 50 times more than what the world spends now, yet it would be half the price of Kyoto and much less than what any new treaty coming out of Copenhagen will cost.

People say, you shouldn't be a climate-science denier, and I agree. But likewise you shouldn't be a climate-economics denier. And in doing the numbers, we're saying that if you want to keep the temperature rise at two degrees centigrade by cutting carbon emissions, by the end of the century it's going to end up costing 13 per cent of the global GDP. And the benefit will be that for every dollar you spend, you end up avoiding two cents worth of climate damage. That's an incredibly bad deal

But if you spend money investing in research and development and green-energy technology, for every dollar you spend, you end up avoiding $11 of climate damage. So you end up doing 500 times more good.

Much of the talk in climate-change circles is about the planet's future, but you prefer to argue from the human needs of the present.

Go around the world and ask people what they need: They don't care about a temperature rise that will be problematic in a hundred years when now their kids don't get an education, when they don't have enough food, when they might be dying from easily curable diseases or infections.

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