09/20/2007 04:59 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Essence of Cynicism

Jackson, WY -- It is disconcerting, upon my return from a melting Greenland, to be confronted by Bjorn Lomborg's latest toxic confection. Greenland, after all, is still governed by Denmark. And Lomborg is the Danish statistician who several years ago, in a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist, claimed that environmental problems were all, at their root, myths, that every day and in every way things are getting better and better.

Lomborg was briefly the darling of Denmark's Conservative government, but he is out of fashion even there at this point. If The Skeptical Environmentalist was Panglossian in its optimism, his new foray, Cool It, is breathtaking in its cynicism. Lomborg now concedes that global warming is real, and will do lots of real harm. But nothing too horrendous happens for a few years. And he argues that it will be very expensive to stabilize the world's climate. We should just wait until everyone in the world gets rich. Rich people really won't care about global warming, because they will be able to build sea walls against flooding, install air conditioning against heat waves, and import their food if they can no longer grow it. Really -- that's the heart of his argument.

The real message is that the future doesn't matter. It hasn't done enough for us. And Lomborg is not alone. A British energy expert on our Greenland trip recounted an overture the oil industry made to him a few years ago. He's a Conservative, so they assumed he might work for them, and they were quite explicit about their strategy, "We're not going to be able to convince people that global warming is not a problem. We're just going to keep them confused for another decade about how much of a problem it is. And, in a decade, there won't be any choice but just to adapt."

It turns out that many of the advocates of sequestering the carbon emitted by burning coal for electricity are equally cynical -- they too are just buying time. Blogger David Roberts, posting on Gristmill, passes on the following bit of intelligence from the Climate Change Skeptics news group.

Recently, CEI emeritus Myron Ebell was complaining to the group about sequestration -- he noted that it's expensive and unworkable at scale. Along comes Richard S. Courtney , long-time climate change skeptic, former Senior Material Scientist for British Coal, now Technical Editor for CoalTrans International -- coal shill for life. He lifted the veil from Myron's eyes:

"Firstly, the value of carbon sequestration is political : n.b. it is not technological or economic.

"There is opposition to power generation systems that emit CO2 as waste (this is similar to opposition to nuclear power systems that emit radioactive waste). A response to the opposition is needed until the AGW scare is ended. And claims of carbon sequestration (cs) provide that needed response although everybody knows cs would be too expensive for it to be used."

Is it possible that all this cynicism is a European phenomenon only, and that America's global warming deniers are genuinely confused? Somehow I doubt it. Myron Ebell, for example, has not surfaced in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to blow the whistle on this hypocrisy.

Do all advocates of carbon sequestration secretly believe that it will be too expensive to use? Certainly not. And we ought to do the research to find out whether the technology is viable, both economically and technologically. Some climate deniers are genuinely unconvinced of warming's reality, but behind a huge part of the campaign to stop action is the fundamental premise that Lomborg lays out: The future doesn't matter, and rich people don't need a natural environment or a stable climate. They can get out of New Orleans or Greenland or Bangladesh if they have to.

As a postscript: Readers of this post may be also interested in this review I wrote about Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus's new book, Break Through.