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In a new documentary, Bjorn Lomborg says "Cool It"

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Cool It movie posterDoes Bjorn Lomborg add value to the global warming conversation or does he set it back? That depends on whom you ask. In 2008 The Guardian named the Danish academic and author of the 2004 controversial bestseller The Skeptical Environmentalist "one of the 50 people who could save the planet." In contrast, many see him as a disruptive and even damaging force in the ongoing debate regarding humanity's best course for dealing with global warming.

A similar dichotomy characterizes the political discussion, at least in the United States, around the issue of climate change. Some elected officials say global warming is cause for dire concern for the future of humanity. Others, including roughly half of the new Republican members of the U.S. Congress, deny that man-made climate change exists at all. (Of course the scientific consensus is that anthropogenic climate change is under way and a cause for concern.)

Lomborg takes issue with both sides. Man-made warming is indeed happening, but conventional wisdom within the climate science and environmental communities exaggerates doom-and-gloom scenarios that do not reflect the data, he says—and the notion that urgently capping CO2 emissions is the best solution is counterproductive. These are the underlying arguments of a new documentary, Cool It, based on Lomborg's 2008 book of the same title. The 128-minute film, directed by Ondi Timoner, opens November 12 in 20 metropolitan areas nationwide.


"It's not about whether it's happening, but how we are tackling it," Lomborg explains in the new film, which points to the actions of former Vice President Al Gore and the European Union (EU) as examples of how not to "tackle" global warming. Rhetoric like Gore's insistence that "the future of humanity is at stake" precipitates hysteria that gets in the way of clear thinking, says Lomborg. This, he argues, is what leads governments like the EU to take measures like pledging to cut 20 percent of its CO2 emissions by 2020—a goal projected to cost $250 billion per year. Lomborg, who runs the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which claims to commission research that "analyzes the optimal ways to combat the biggest problems facing the world," says the EU's plan will not be worthwhile, since every dollar spent will only prevent about a half a cent's worth of climate damage.

Lomborg uses the film to argue that, instead, much of that that $250 billion should be spent on a global program that addresses, along with climate change, more immediately solvable problems such as disease, water scarcity and malnutrition. He would also use a big portion to fund research into the effects of sea-level rise, upgrade protections to vulnerable cities, and make urban areas cooler by installing white roofs and perennial shade trees. Direct climate change mitigation should receive $100 billion a year in funding, he says. But as opposed to the EU's focus on emissions caps designed to make fossil fuels so expensive that nobody will buy them, we "need to make green energy so cheap that everybody will want to buy it."

Whereas Lomborg's critique of expensive emissions cuts—in particular his point that problems like malnutrition and malaria deserve a portion of the money that would be spent on such cuts—may be a good one, his argument for increased investment in green energy is not unique. Most of the environmentalists he criticizes would agree that more R&D money should be spent to develop cheaper wind and solar power systems, and to advance potential solutions like artificial photosynthesis, wave power and algae-based biofuel—three technologies the film highlights. Likewise, many would agree that climate-related geoengineering—another potential solution the film mentions—deserves more research attention. 

On the whole, Cool It is too promotional of Mr. Lomborg and his ideas, glossing over many of the obstacles in the way of his plan to combat global warming by focusing primarily on adaptation strategies and clean energy research and development. He may be correct that doom-and-gloom rhetoric is counterproductive, but viewers will be forgiven if they exit the theater without having reached a clear answer to the question of whether he is adding to—or holding back—the discussion.


Image credit: Lomborg

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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