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Andrew Winston

Andrew Winston

Posted April 27, 2009 | 10:55 AM (EST)

Is Bjorn Lomborg Dangerous or Helpful?


This weekend, the New York Times gave Bjorn Lomborg -- the self-proclaimed "skeptical environmentalist" -- more air time. Lomborg wrote an op-ed that railed against those who want to cut greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. He offered his opinion on a better solution: "make low-carbon alternatives like solar and wind energy competitive with old carbon sources."

As usual, Lomborg sets up a false straw-man to knock down. He says "we are often told that...we must cut emissions immediately and drastically." Then he worries that people just don't get that we actually need to make renewables cheaper. Really? So none of the major environmental NGOs, or country delegations to global climate negotiations, have thought of that? So to tackle obesity we shouldn't just talk about weight, but also about exercising more and eating right? So insightful...

Lomborg has a long habit of tilting at windmills that he mostly imagines. His most famous argument is that we shouldn't prioritize climate change over other pressing social priorities like poverty alleviation -- as if they're all separate. The poorest people in the world are energy poor and don't have access to clean water -- the two biggest environmental challenges of our time. He's always setting up false tradeoffs to establish his more "reaonsable" middleground.

I will say that one overarching aspect of his arguments is important. Of course we should constantly ask ourselves, "What's the cheapest way to solve that problem, and where should we allocate scarce resources?" He's always pushing for that discussion. But as we've seen time and again, whenever a group -- usually a particular industry most affected by a change -- says it will be too expensive to solve an environmental challenge, it ends up being much cheaper. We innovate, get smarter, get leaner, and move away from what's ailing us.

To me, Lomborg's arguments seem couched in a way to just maximize attention, not for the ideas themselves, but for Lomborg. And I'm guilty of spilling ink on him now. Climate change deniers use his work to say, wait, let's not rush into anything (which makes me ask, you mean rushing into things that might save us money, keep cash and jobs here instead of sending them to parts of the world that hate us, and improve our health -- you mean those things?).

Lomborg's arguments are more subtle than he usually gets credit for. Probably 75% of what he says is dead on -- but that's what makes him so dangerous. It's the other 25% that gets us in trouble.

I welcome your thoughts on his role...

Andrew Winston helps companies use environmental thinking to grow and prosper. He is author of the upcoming Green Recovery -- a special preview is available free here. He is also co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold,