06/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With Global Warming, Delay is Not An Option

After reading a transcript of Fareed Zakaria's interview with Bjorn Lomborg on Global Public Square on CNN this past Sunday (June 15), my colleagues and I feel compelled to clarify several points which merit clarification as well as context.

WRI has rebutted Bjorn Lomborg's logic and conclusions about global warming before (see here), and we will do so again.

Countless peer reviewed studies all indicate that the threat of climate change is real and that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities will change the climate in catastrophic ways if unchecked. Because greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for many years, we do not possess the ability to fully avert climate change. However, we do have the ability to control our own destiny and avert the most serious consequences.

Despite Mr. Lomborg's fatalistic outlook on the problem, we must address global warming now, and there are good ethical and economic reasons to do so. In stark contrast to the idea that simply adapting to global warming will be cheaper than preventing it, Lord Nicholas Stern did a comprehensive economic assessment of the costs of climate change in the Report on the Economics of Climate Change. In his words, he found that:

The overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more. In contrast, the costs of action - reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change - can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.

Lomborg's assertion that it will be easier to adapt to climate changes than to reduce emissions also ignores much of the science. The real issue is not so much the gradual changes that will take place, including sea level rise, the disappearance of glaciers that provide many countries with reliable water supplies, and so on. Rather, it lies in the potential for much more dramatic change as the climate reaches certain "tipping points". If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, a threat that looks increasingly possible, sea level rise would be measured in meters, not centimeters. Cutting emissions today is not just about tweaking sea level rise as Lomborg suggests, but about insuring against unpredictable but potentially catastrophic effects. Acting now allows us to avoid taking even more aggressive measures later.

The case for action is clear, and we are left to tackle the question of what is feasible and reasonable. Fortunately there are already a number of opportunities for greenhouse emissions reductions readily available, opportunities that can improve fuel diversity and security, and in the case of energy efficiency even save industry and consumers money. Furthermore, technologies like wind energy are highly evolved and already being deployed at high rates in many parts of the world. Mr Lomborg seems to see technology as something that turns up magically, but in fact it is climate policies that have been driving the innovation in many areas of energy technology. The German renewable energy support that Mr Lomborg derides does not merely postpone global warming for an hour: it creates the economies of scale that allow these technologies to be taken up around the world. Similar policies in his own country of Denmark have made his compatriots the world leaders in wind energy, and have underwritten the huge deployment of these technologies today in China, India and other countries. It is a fallacy to suggest that new technologies negate the argument for policy; they ARE the argument for policy. His reference to research and development as the means to reduce costs suggests a lack of awareness of where many of these technologies are today. It is not only R&D (though R&D is necessary), but deployment and economies of scale that are needed, and that are the main aims of climate policy. And solar will be competitive with fossil fuels long, long before "mid-century" thanks to these policies. To fully harness the creative minds of industry we must institute market-based programs that put a price on carbon and provide the regulatory certainty needed for private investment.

Mr. Lomborg also implies that China and India will not be ready to deploy clean energy themselves until that far distant date when the costs are at rock-bottom. He should perhaps visit China, where wind energy is being deployed faster than anywhere else in the world and has built one of the world's leading solar industries. China has identified climate change as a key threat to its economy, and clean energy as a centerpiece of its development.

In closing, we believe that acting now to address climate change will not only (hopefully) avert catastrophic consequences, it will create jobs, improve energy security and improve people's lives the world over. Let's get started now.