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Bjorn Lomborg slams 'virtue signalling' on climate change, highlights more serious priorities

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

"We could lose our status as a state": What happens to a people when their land disappears, UK newspaper The Guardian asked in one of several anxiety-inducing headlines in its Climate Change section this week. The World Bank has warned of an “unprecedented situation for international law” triggered by soaring temperatures and rising oceans, with the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, agriculture and farming largely to blame.

With most plastic being manufactured from fossil fuels, environmental advocates have cautiously welcomed the outcome of five days of UN talks in Paris on plastic pollution earlier this month. Fear remains that the petroleum industry and some governments could water down the eventual treaty. Plastic waste produced globally is set to almost triple by 2060, with about half ending up in a landfill and under a fifth recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Amid apocalyptic concerns and other fears, best-selling Danish author and environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg is a voice of reason, tempering the "millennial angst" and fostering hope. Lomborg has urged a shift from empty rhetoric and trillion-dollar promises to real and efficient billion-dollar action, trumpeting that "it is time to focus our attention where it matters most". In his new book, Best Things First, Lomborg takes a more positive view of how innovation and technology and, sometimes, even fossil fuels can actually provide solutions.

A smiling Bjorn Lomborg, an environment provocateur.

Best-selling Danish author and environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has been described by the Financial Times as the "essential provocateur". Photo: Facebook

Cautioning in 2020 not to spend trillions of dollars on poorly designed climate policies, which means we aren't fixing the issue, Lomborg said: "Climate change will not mark the end of the world. This is a problem, not an emergency.

"In our eagerness to enact climate policies, we could easily end up making the world worse off. Even if we tackle climate smartly, the policies could end up costing as much as 16% of global GDP or more."

A political scientist and statistician by profession originally and named once by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet, Lomborg told TalkTV last month politicians “need to stop virtue signalling” on climate change and focus on solving problems like disease, education and poverty. (According to the Cambridge Dictionary, "virtue signalling is the popular modern habit of indicating that one has virtue merely by expressing disgust or favour for certain political ideas or cultural happenings", especially on social media.)

Lomborg said in the TalkTV interview: "We know if you look at the news today in Britain, and I think in America as well, and many other parts of the world, climate change is the biggest single issue. Everything else goes by the wayside. There are lots of sound bites. They're not going to achieve net zero. None of it's going to be achievable…

"And it's going to have a huge, huge cost. Isn't that part of the problem that climate change is the sexy subject right now? It's the virtue signal beyond virtue signal. What a good person you are. But actually, you know what, stopping kids dying of TB and malaria isn't sexy enough for our politicians, which is why they don't do it and they don't talk about it.

"But we shouldn't let climate change overtake our entire conversation and say this is the only thing that matters because, for most people, it is not the temperature in 100 years. It's the fact that their kids might die tonight from an easily curable disease."

Last week, Lomborg wrote in an opinion piece: "The world faces many challenges. Amid all this, 2023 marks the halftime point for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — the sprawling list of 169 ambitions in which all global leaders have promised everything to everyone.

"Governments worldwide have promised to end hunger, poverty and disease, and stop climate change, corruption and war while ensuring quality education and every other good thing, including organic apples and community gardens for everyone.

"Not surprisingly, the world is failing on almost every promise. We’re at halftime but nowhere near halfway. We need to do better.

"First, we need a better conversation on priorities. My think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus, is working with governments worldwide — from Uganda to Tonga and Uzbekistan — to help with national spending decisions by researching which policies deliver the most significant benefits for each dollar spent. If there is political interest, we could also do this for the United States. The starting point is a national conversation on priorities.

Graphic highlighting damage caused by climate change.

Even accounting for the damage caused by climate change, the average person in the poor world will be much better off in a fossil fuel world, Bjorn Lomborg argued in a 2020 peer-reviewed article. Graphic: Facebook / Bjorn Lomborg

"Second, we need to rescue global goals and end global dithering. As resources are scarce everywhere, we must prioritise the best things first.

"Achieving all the promises is estimated to cost $15 trillion to $20 trillion annually. Currently, less than a quarter is funded, and most of that spending is in rich countries, not the poor countries where development is needed the most.

"This leaves an annual shortfall of $10 trillion to $15 trillion, equivalent to the entire tax intake of $13 trillion from every government in the world. That’s a fiscal gap that cannot be closed…

"Consider the SDG promise of reducing hunger. We need a second Green Revolution. In the 1960s, breakthroughs created more efficient seeds that allowed farmers to produce more food at lower costs. Now, agricultural research and development are desperately needed for the world’s poorer half.

"Spending $5.5 billion annually could deliver an incredible return of long-term benefits worth $184 billion. This spending would cut malnutrition, help farmers become more productive, and reduce food costs.

"In addition, improving childbirth conditions could save the lives of 166 000 mothers and 1.2 million newborns each year for less than $5 billion annually."

Economists working with the Copenhagen Consensus have identified 12 powerful policies that would deliver enormous benefits across the SDGs at relatively low costs.

"For $35 billion annually, we could do everything listed above, plus we could avoid a million deaths from tuberculosis each year by 2030, improve land ownership records, boost trade, reduce malaria, enable more movement of skilled workers to reduce inequality, improve immunisation levels, make significant inroads into child nutrition, and save 1.5 million lives from chronic diseases like hypertension,” Lomborg said.

In February, he wrote in a Business Day column: "Every dollar spent (on agricultural R&D, research and development) delivers an astounding $33 of social benefits, making this a spectacular investment… There is still significant underspending on agricultural R&D for poorer countries. The untapped potential is huge.

"This investment will generate better seeds and high-yield crops that can also better handle weather changes like those we will see from climate change. Creating bigger and more resilient harvests will benefit farmers, and producing more food will help consumers with lower prices. The total net benefit over the next 35 years for both farmers and consumers adds up to more than $2 trillion." By 2050, this additional funding will boost agricultural output by 10%, reduce food prices by 16%, and increase per capita incomes by 4%, Lomborg wrote. The investment will increase the GDP in developing countries by $2.2 trillion by 2030 and $11.9 trillion by 2050, a 2% and 6% increase in per capita incomes respectively. And more efficient agriculture will reduce global climate emissions by more than 1%.

"Agricultural R&D is a phenomenal investment because not only do we make agrarian workers more productive, but we enable more people to be productive and innovative in other sectors too. It leads to fewer people being hungry, and to lower costs of food for everyone.

Graphic accounting for the damage caused by climate change.

It is often claimed that the cost of climate change is very uncertain, says Bjorn Lomborg. But the three main global models (ones used by Obama Admin) show surprisingly similar estimates. Graphic: Facebook.

"We can’t deliver on all our promises for 2030. But we should deliver on agricultural R&D for the poorest half of the planet because it’s one of the best investments humanity can make." In Paris, delegates at the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics agreed to produce an initial draft before their next meeting in Kenya in November. Led by Norway and Rwanda, along with environmental groups, the aim is to end plastic pollution altogether by 2040.

“Projections suggest that a child born today will see plastic production double by the time they turn 18, but we know that the consequences of increasing plastic production will be disastrous for our health, the planet, and the climate,” Dr Tadesse Amera, who led the International Pollutants Elimination Network’s delegation at the talks, told AP. “The stakes are high, but we are optimistic by the growing awareness among delegates of the need for global controls.”

Countries with big petroleum industries like the US, China and Saudi Arabia are focusing instead on plastic recycling, and want country-by-country rules instead of across-the-board limits.

Humanity produces more than 430 million tons of plastic annually, two-thirds of which are short-lived products that soon become waste, filling the ocean and, often, working their way into the human food chain, the UN Environment Program said in an April report.

In 2019, commenting on the ban on single-use plastics such as shopping bags, Lomborg argued in Canada's The Globe and Mail that there needs to be honesty about how much consumers can achieve.

"As with other environmental issues, instead of tackling the big picture problems to actually reduce the plastic load going into oceans, we focus on relatively minor changes involving consumers.

"We also need to consider the wider environmental impact of our bag choices. A 2018 study by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food looked not just at plastic waste, but also at climate change damage, ozone depletion, human toxicity and other indicators. It found in some cases you must reuse an organic cotton shopping bag 20 000 times before it will have less environmental damage than a plastic bag," Lomborg wrote.

* I'm Not Plastic's vision is to encourage people to embrace an authentic lifestyle, in which single-use plastic and food waste are eliminated.


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