Keeping Your Cool On The Climate Debate With Bjorn Lomborg

interview with Bjorn Lomborg
Wednesday, March 10, 2021

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TRANSCRIPT ONLY

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson, Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen consensus center a think tank dedicated to applying economic analysis including cost benefit analysis. We'll be hearing more about that I'm sure to the great issues of the day, he's the author of a number of books, including his 2001 bestseller, "The Skeptical Environmentalist. Bjorn Lomborg latest book published just last year, "False Alarm" how climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet. Today, the Biden administration has promised to place climate at the very center of all its deliberations. Bjorn Lomborg will tell us how the administration is doing. Bjorn welcome back.

Bjorn Lomborg: Yeah, it's great to be back.

Peter Robinson: You're in Sweden?

Bjorn Lomborg: I am, yeah, so virtually.

Peter Robinson: Yes, and I'm in California. I think that's pretty much we're on opposite sides of the planet right now, right?

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, One third or so.

Peter Robinson: Two quotations here's this is from the Biden plan which is a campaign document that laid out Joe Biden's climate agenda. And as best I can tell the administration, now that he's in office, they're sticking to this quite closely. Quote, from coastal towns to rural farms to urban centers, climate change poses an existential threat, close quote. Bjorn Lomborg writing recently in the New York post, quote Biden's climate alarmism is almost entirely wrong. Close quote. Bjorn will come to the details in just a moment, but opening explanation here. Climate doesn't pose an existential threat

Bjorn Lomborg: Look, climate change is a real problem and it is something we should fix, but we also need to get a sense of proportion here. And if you tell people this could be the end of the world for you and your loved ones and everybody else in the planet which is essentially what the existential threat means. You are telling people they should spend everything and the kitchen sink on fixing this problem and not really bothered by anything else before we've gotten this problem fixed. On the other hand, if you look at the gold standard you might say of climate science which is the UN climate panel and the many, many climate economists who have spent three decades more trying to estimate what's the total problem of global warming. They said in their 2014 report that the impact of global warming by the 2070. So about 50 years from now, half a century from now would be equivalent to each one of us losing somewhere between 0.2% and 2% of our income. Remember by then the UN estimate that each one of us will be much richer on the medium impact probably about 350% as rich as we are today. So instead of being 350% as rich and 50 years we will only be 336% as rich. Now that's a problem because we could have been even richer, but certainly not the end of the world. And that's why we need to have this conversation. If we think it's the end of the world, we'll spend everything. If we realize it's one problem among many, we will start prioritizing just like we do with all other problems. Yes, we should spend smartly. We should not spend the whole pot on this.

Peter Robinson: Listen, I want to come, You being you I want to hear what we should be doing, but first a couple of segments, if I could in which I just want to present the Biden plan and hear your critique of the Biden plan. But I promise I reserve a large portion of this conversation to Lomborg plan but we'll come to that second, if you don't mind. So first the premises of the Biden plan, again a couple of quotations. This one, again, I take directly from the Biden plan, campaign document. Top climate experts have all concluded that human activities are estimated to have caused an approximate one degree centigrade rise in the earth global temperature to date. That's already happened. Quotation number two, president Biden's Special Presidential Envoy for climate, John Kerry quote, the scientists told us three years ago that we had 12 years to avert the worst consequences of climate crisis. We're now three years gone. So we have nine years left, close quote. The premise here is that there exists a clearly defined irrefutable scientific consensus which extends not just to how bad the problem is, not just to what has already happened but to the amount of time left to fix it. This is clear. It's well known by anyone with a mind open to the science. True or false?

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, I would like to explain a little more than just, you know, fundamentally Biden's right. We expect about a one degree temperature rise since the industrial revolution. And it is likely that much of that is because of global warming. So absolutely global warming is real and is manmade and it's causing quite a big part. Probably not all of it, but a large part of the one degree centigrade rise.

Peter Robinson: That bit of the premise is correct?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Bjorn Lomborg: But then we come to a, and I saw this on CBS when John Kerry made that statement. And remember, it's the very same statement as AOC said back in 2018 when it first came out. We heard that we only have 12 years left and we got to do everything if we're going to fix this. And so we really can't be bothered about anything else. That's the one that John Kerry them three years later. So now we only have nine years. That's an incredible misrepresentation of what the UN has actually done. So back in actually a little before 2018, the UN was asked to produce a report that would tell us how do we get to the 1.5 degrees centigrade, which is 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. It sounds better in celsius so let's just go along with that. The 1.5 degrees centigrade, how do you get to that? And what they told us was that's gonna be incredibly hard. That's almost impossible, so if,

Peter Robinson: I just wander, how do we lower the temperature by one point ?

Bjorn Lomborg: So what they're expecting is if we don't do anything we'll way overshoot, we'll get up to about seven degrees Fahrenheit, or almost four degrees Celsius. But if are going to really cut a lot, not just in the U S not just in the rich world, but across the world, we can possibly just keep it to 1.5 degrees. That's basically the idea.

Peter Robinson: Over how much time, 1.5 degrees.

Bjorn Lomborg: If it's 1.5 degrees of sorry, So there's a lot of conversation about can you just jump over a little bit and then get down below? It's hard to know, but let's say we try to keep it below 1.5 degrees for all time. So we really have a very, very small margin to deal with because we're already about a little bit more than one degree. So what they say is, if you're gonna do that, it will require immense effort. It will be almost impossible. So what they said was you have to do an enormous amount by 2030. That was how the 12 year time schedule came up. And that's how Kerry is talking about the nine year time schedule. So he's right in that very technical sense. If you want to do something, that's almost impossible. You have to do pretty much everything, even vastly, vastly expensive stuff. But remember, that's true for everything. If you want to build a bridge to China or to Europe it's going to be fantastically expensive, and engineers of course can tell you how to do that, but they will probably also sort of in the PSA, but it's not a very good idea. It's fantastically expensive. Earliest climate economists will do the same thing. And they've done that for the 1.5 degree target and it's fantastically expensive and will not achieve anything like the benefits compared to the cost that we're going to enter into. So that's why Kerry is simply saying if we want to do this almost impossible thing we have to do everything now. But the real question, the democratic question is do we want to do everything possible to get below 1.5 degrees? Because remember 1.5 degrees climate change is not the only challenge facing humanity as I think everybody has realized with COVID. So we got to ask ourselves, how much do we want to spend on climate compared to all the other problems? Then we're back to the conversation we just had before. If you think this is the end of the world, yeah, you're gonna spend everything on climate. If you realize it's one of many problems you're going to portion a part of your budget to climate, you're going to portion it to a lot of other things.

Peter Robinson: Just to recap, the UN did not say we have 12 years until we all die in a giant ball of fire.

Bjorn Lomborg: And they've actually been out saying that very explicitly afterwards because they they feel very, very misunderstood on that point.

Peter Robinson: Okay, the UN said, if you want to do something that's nearly impossible and probably unwise in the first place, then we probably have 12 years in which to do it, but let's talk. That's what they really said. Second premise that I want to address here. Again, a few quotations from the Biden plan. The Trump administration allowed America to fall behind in the clean energy race for the future. The Trump administration, abdicated leadership, president Trump recklessly threw away hard won progress. President Trump reversed America's progress on climate change. All those quotations come from the Biden plan. Against that, I did the best I could as a layman of limited intellectual scope. I did the best I could to try and figure out what actually happened during the four years of Trump. And as best I can work it out, greenhouse gas emissions in the United States fell by about 9%. Now a lot of that is because of the economic slowdown during the pandemic. But even if you remove that, it looks as though because of the increase in natural gas during Trump pre pandemic greenhouse gas emission we're slightly down as best I can tell. So what's the premise that everything Trump did was a catastrophe, we're behind because of him. And yet as best I can tell, that's just not. So how do you evaluate that premise?

Bjorn Lomborg: So I think we need to recognize that climate and doing something about climate is immensely long-term impact. So virtually nothing that Biden will do the next four years will have a significant measurable impact certainly on temperatures. Probably even on emissions. And likewise, anything Trump did was not really gonna matter much in those four years when he was president. Remember the fall that you talked about, and that is real there has been a decline in emissions certainly in the last decade. For the US it's actually the been the biggest rate decline of any nation in the world. You're also very big so that's part of the reason.

Bjorn Lomborg: But that's because you got fracking. And remember fracking was not at all intended to cut carbon emissions. So it was intended to make energy cheap in the US, but a side effect was that gas became a lot cheaper than coal because gas emits about half as much CO2 as coal. A lot of coal fired power stations went out of business, a lot switched to gas powered production. And that's why we've seen a dramatic decline. It happened both on Obama's watch and on Trump's watch. And it's really not the benefit of, you know they can't claim credit for this either of them. So what we've seen is Trump certainly gave up on climate and just said, "We're not really gonna are all that much." And I think he was clearly wrong in saying it's not really a problem. It is a problem. But I think we also need to recognize it is about how we long-term tackle this problem. Not about what happened every, any one year

Peter Robinson: All right, by the way, may I ask a question which I admit is tendentious. How has the United States done over the last decade by comparison with the European union? Those are two that are roughly comparable in size and wealth in degree of technological advancement and so forth. Who's done best in greenhouse gas emissions.

Bjorn Lomborg: So again, that's a hard question.

Peter Robinson: Oh, no it's not.

Bjorn Lomborg: The US has reduced more and that's also because you emit a lot more per person. So the Europeans have produced more in percent and you've reduced more in absolute terms. I think if you were to try to be reasonable, probably the Europeans have done slightly better, but it's been much, much more costly. But part of that of course is because we don't have fracking. We don't have access to easy switch from coal to gas. And part of it is because we insist as Europeans and I'm also being a little facetious. We insist on saying, "If it's going to be good it has to hurt." So we don't like those cheap, or even .

Peter Robinson: The Biden administration, let's go through if we may three or four of the main initiatives a couple of which they've already taken. And then again, I want to get back to the Lomborg plan, but here's the Biden plan. Here's what the administration has done and intends to do. So I'll name a few of these and you just give me a relatively brief evaluation on his first day in office, president Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement and revoked the federal permit for the Keystone oil pipeline. Paris agreement legally binding treaty on climate change signed by almost 200 nations. Trump got us out and now Biden has put us back in. What do you make of that?

Bjorn Lomborg: Unfortunately, first it's not legally binding. That's one of the reasons why Biden can do it and not actually send it to the Senate for confirmation where would obviously fail.

Peter Robinson: Once we go in we'll stick to it, we can't help ourselves. Sorry, go ahead.

Bjorn Lomborg: Fair enough. And the second part is, certainly on the current promises, Paris will not do very much. Paris will get us about 1% of the way to the 1.5 degrees target that we talked about. So if everyone does everything, it will reduce temperatures in 2100 by about 0.1 degree Fahrenheit. So really you won't be able to notice the fact that the US joined or not joined won't make much of a difference. Now, a could be a way that we can actually try to address this problem in the future, but for now it's mostly a symbolic act. And unfortunately the same thing is also true for Keystone XL. Even Obama's own estimate showed that they pointed out well, it's not like the Canadians not going to be selling 883,000 barrels of oil every year. Anyway they'll just get it up in anther way. So the real question is, do you want to get it out safely but also more cheaply? so more cheaply so people will probably buy more of it or do you want to make it harder, but also less safe? That's really the question. It's a very small bit player in the global emissions, but it's again, a very powerful signal. And of course that's a problem with much climate policy. It's not so much about how much good it does. It's about how much good it makes us feel

Peter Robinson: Or in other words, politics.

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right. By the way, the Keystone Pipeline just to be clear about this for listeners pipeline to take gap oil from Canada down to the interior of the United States crossing most of the United States to the Southern United States to refineries and distribution centers in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and so forth. All right, the green new deal or some revised version thereof. President Biden has said that he intends to spend, the numbers here are staggering. He intends to spend $500 billion a year or more than 10% of the entire federal budget on climate fears includes money big money to retrofit commercial buildings across the country, expand the railroad system apparently on the idea that it's better for the climate. If people take trains, instead of drive their own cars create new jobs and green industries and expand subsidies on all kinds of so-called sustainable energy including windmills, solar panels, and so on. Spending Bjorn huge spending, more than 10% of the entire federal budget, Bjorn.

Bjorn Lomborg: Well there is a couple of things to note on it. First of all there's a lot of things that we still don't know how he's going to spend the whole $500 billion, but certainly some of these things we know are not very good investment. So the retrofitting, the weatherization of homes. We actually have the world's biggest study done in the U S about 40,000 homes showed that the cost was about twice as high as the benefits that you reap. So spending hundreds of billions of dollars, which we know that Biden is talking about over the next four years on a policy that would give you 50 cents a less back on the dollar is a bad deal. Likewise, he wants to increase dramatically the funding or the subsidies for electric cars. Again electric cars being these icon of us doing something about global warming. Now, remember electric cars are actually good for the environment. They emit less CO2 on average even if they charge from a coal fire power plant, but not very much. Because you still have to build them, much of their batteries are incredibly energy intensive typically done in China with lots of coal pipe via power. So the reality is that these cars will typically over their lifetime cut maybe 10 tons of CO2. Now to most people, that doesn't mean anything, but actually on the standard market places for CO2 emission in the U S you could cut a similar amount for $60 right now. So spending $7,500 to get that amount it's a really bad idea. Again, it's not to say that the intention is not good, but its a very, very poor intensive. It's one of the worst ways to try to cut carbon emissions. You mentioned subsidies to wind and solar. Typically the reality is that we can get more wind and solar, but only if we keep paying for it at least for a considerable amount of time. And so doing that is probably very ineffective as well. It certainly typically doesn't lead to very effective cuts of CO2. So there are lots of poor ways to spend that money. And at the same time, you mentioned, you know that he's going to spend $500 billion a year. Just remember last year alone, the us debt, the public debt the public debt in the U S Rose by $4.5 trillion going out and saying, "Hey let's spend another $2 trillion on climate "over next four years is probably not "the obvious implication of just how big become four "and a half trillion dollars poor."

Peter Robinson: Right

Bjorn Lomborg: Again, it is a way of saying maybe spending lots of money is not the right way to try to fix climate change along with everything else

Peter Robinson: One final aspect of the Biden new deal. And then we come to the Lomborg deal. The Biden plan, excuse me. I'm quoting again from the Biden plan, president Biden will quote, to lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets. Close quote, The idea here is that the Western world which the Biden plan admits this is in writing accounts for only a little more than a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. That means the rest of the world, especially China, India, Latin America account for the rest. And president Biden is going to get them to ramp up their ambitions. What do you make of that?

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, Peter, in some way, it emphasizes the whole idea of how we think about climate mainly, And you say you don't quite know how what to make of it. It's all about promises, that's the ambition part of it, right? It's about, let's make sure that we make grander promises. Next time all the global leaders are gonna meet is in the end of this year in Glasgow in England, sorry and United Kingdom,

Peter Robinson: Scotland in Scotland, Bjorn.

Bjorn Lomborg: And they're they're gonna make these fantastic promises. So they're going to say, "We'll cut a lot more than what you thought," but of course the reality is it's not about how much you wish you'd cut it's how much you actually cut. And there is two very important parts of this. As most people and most States who've made promises have not met those promises. You know, Canada famously promised for the Kyoto deal, they were going to cut I believe it was 8%. They ended up 25% above. Bill Clinton back in 1992 promised to get the US back to 1992 levels in 2000. He totally shot that and when confronted with it, he said, "Well, it' because the economy "has been going so well." And you can understand how polo policymakers are saying, "Sure, we'll try and do something "in a long term and then we'll see if it happens." "We'll see if it actually works out." Because actually cutting is very expensive and also very uncomfortable. As we've seen with the COVID crisis, we've actually seen dramatic reductions during COVID. But I think we've also seen that most people don't want that, and they certainly don't want more of that. So it's very hard to imagine that you're gonna be able to get countries to say, "Yeah, we'd like to reduce more, "if that means we'll have less economic ability, "less economic growth, less of everything." That's just not attractive to most voters.

Peter Robinson: I'll say it because you try very hard and successfully to stay out of politics, but perhaps you could just nod or pull your ear lobe if you think I'm right. The idea that President Biden can pursued China or India to surrender one iota of economic growth if China and India believe that their economic growth depends on burning coal is preposterous. Pull your earlobe if you agree.

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, I'll probably do it around here. I think there's some truth to that. Obviously, if we talk to the Chinese, if we talk to the Indians, and what has happened over the last 20 years is certainly in international circles, it's become almost untenable not to say that you want to cut carbon emissions. So I think there is some pool in each of these sovereignty. And also let's not forget the rest of Southeast Asia and Africa which quite and enormous player towards the second half of the century. All of these know that the West is telling them, cut your carbon emissions. I totally agree with you, they're not gonna cut most of it. If it brings some economic benefit, that's obvious in China because the deal with the Chinese regime is we get your economic growth if you then accept not to having political influence. And of course if you don't get them economic growth it's gonna be a much harder deal to come through with. In India it's perhaps even more clear because honestly there's still what 300 million people who are in extreme poverty and Modi and the rest of the Indian elite wants to pull them out. And right now the best option is coal. So again, there has to be an understanding that this is not mostly about talking. This is not mostly about, you know, controlling people and nations into making grand promises in Glasgow. It is about making sure that it is economically viable and preferably economically beneficial to switch to low carbon or zero carbon emissions.

Peter Robinson: This brings us to the Lomborg plan. This is you Bjorn in the New York Post just a couple of weeks ago, quote for last 30 years of climate policy have delivered high costs and rising, not shrinking, rising emissions. The only reliable ways to cut emissions have been recessions and the COVID-19 lockdowns, both of which are unpalatable. Unpalatable is a mild word for it. Expecting nations to stop using cheap energy. Won't succeed. You've already explained all of that. Here's what I'd like you to explain next, We need innovation. We already have windmills and electric vehicles. And Biden wants to spend more or give us more windmills and more electric vehicles. That's innovation Bjorn, what's wrong with that?

Bjorn Lomborg: Not really no, that's multiplying the stuff that we already know doesn't work without the subsidies. So innovation is really the way that we as human beings and as civilization has fixed most problems. Remember, it's a very hard sell to go and tell people, I'm sorry, could you do with less? Could you turn off your lights? Could you have less lights? Could you drive less? Could you fly less? And we've tried it here under the pandemic and of course, most people don't want that. Most people are looking very, very much forward to going back to being able to travel and to eat and to enjoy in many different ways, if you look at Los Angeles back in the 1950 tabloid political plays, mostly because of cars, it has a very specific sort of geographical location that traps all the pollution from cars makes it a terrible place to live if there's lots of pollution. So one obvious way, and I would say sort of the environmental way would be to tell everyone in Los Angeles in 1950s, "I'm sorry, could you stop driving?" "Could you walk or bike instead?" And of course they would have gotten absolutely no uptake on that. But what did work out was innovation. So a guy innovative and I'm making this a little too simple, but guy innovated the catalytic converter in 1974. So it costs a couple of hundred bucks. You put it on the tailpipe and it takes away most of that emission. So fundamentally an innovation. Yes, it was not costless, but it was fairly cheap and you mandate every car got this and it basically solved much of the problem. People drive much more in Los Angeles. There are many more people, now there still other problems and certainly traffic jams is one of them. But this basically fixed a very large part of the pollution problem in Los Angeles with innovation. So instead of telling people do with less which is never gonna work, we should find a way to do with more but emitting less. That was what the catalytic converter did for the Los Angeles problem. And honestly for much air pollution around the world we need the same approach to finding green and eventually zero carbon emitting energy technologies. So let me just, yeah, go ahead.

Peter Robinson: Well, let me set up, I think I know where you're going with this if not just bath the question aside. So fracking was technical innovation. It was within the oil and gas industry. The idea that as I understand it, there are two or three. First of all, there's a legal overhang. You have to understand subsurface, mineral, they're all kinds of complicated aspects of the American legal and financial structure that went into fracking. But the technical aspect was they figured out how to drill here and then go horizontally a long way away. That's new. And then they also figured out how to put a kind of substance made mostly of water into this pipe. Then put it under enormous and sudden pressure and cause microscopic fractures throughout the structure into which gas leaks that you can then pump out. That turns out to be really remarkable. And as you say, it's led to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in this country for which the government cannot take credit because it wasn't directed by the government or mandated by the government. It was a bunch of largely guys, largely in Texas after the old good old Texas oil and energy, what do we do next to get that stuff out of the ground? It was those guys. All right. I think you approve that kind of innovation, but I don't believe that's quite what you have in mind. You want government to play a role here in funding in mandating. Fracking isn't good because it just happened by accident. You want somehow or other, this is the problem Bjorn. You don't want the free market left alone. And yet innovation is always a surprise, in some ways it's always accidental. What do you want us to do to cause the kinds of innovations the kinds of accidents to find the surprises that you say we need, do you see what I'm after?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, so first of all the fracking revolution really was an impressive innovation. And as you say, it was incredibly good for us emissions because you switched from coal to gas. One of the things that we should use this for is also make sure that China gets it because China uses lots of coal and very little gas. If we could get fracking going in China we could dramatically reduce the planet's biggest emitter and we could do so in a way that would actually be advantageous for China. So that's absolutely right. The second part is it's not as simple. I know that there's different sort of versions of the fracking story. So the Breakthrough Institute has actually gone back and interviewed a lot of the participants in the fracking adventure. And for instance, Mitchell, who was one of the leader on billionaire oil men, who is credited for much of the of the breakthrough of fracking has very clearly confirmed that a very large part of what made this possible was that he got a lot of funding from ARPA. So Mitchell very clearly said he managed to do this because he got a substantial amount of funding from the federal government to do this. So the idea here is to say it was unprofitable to just go around and say, "I have a hunch that this might work." And of course it didn't actually work for 10 years or more. If you don't have any money most companies are just going to shut yo down. Now, Mitchell was a very persistent man, but he also had the opportunity to keep trying because the government actually gave him funds. Remember the point of giving people who are very tenacious and have this great idea that very likely will fail. Remember we haven't heard about the hundreds of Mitchells by other stuff and that didn't succeed. The point is giving them a little funding to actually see their grand ideas through often is very, very low cost. So the idea here is to say there's a reason why a perfect market economy typically under invests in innovation. This has been known widely for at least 20 or 30 years in economics. And it's because most of the breakthroughs that you manage to get will only help humanity and will only really be big bestsellers once your patent has run out. So you will do this amazing breakthrough then somebody else will do an amazing breakthrough. Then somebody else will do an amazing breakthrough. And we'll all be much richer in 30 years. But of course the guys who did the first breakthroughs have now had their patents out. That's why you invest a lot less than what it's actually worth for humanity. We recognize this in health research where we invest lots of money and a lot of people who will eventually go on on to be Nobel laureates who produce all these breakthroughs and health understanding that eventually makes it possible for private businesses, like the big pharmaceuticals to make breakthroughs that can actually make money. We don't spend trillions on these guys, but we do spend billions on them. And it's well spent billions because it enables breakthroughs 20, 30, 40 50 years down the line. It's the same kind of argument that I'm making for energy. I'm not saying that we should go in and sponsor Solyndra. That was a terrible idea because we were basically sponsoring,

Peter Robinson: Solyndra was the solar panel.

Bjorn Lomborg: No, it doesn't work. So instead of trying to do stuff we already know doesn't work which is what all the subsidies that Biden is talking about to wind and solar, which is just basically turning out more of the stuff that still needs subsidies. It's about getting the next and the next generations of this. It's about subsidizing all the slightly crazy ideas many of which are not gonna work. So let me just give you one example. So Craig Venter, the guy who cracked the human genome back in 2000. He has this idea that he will essentially use gene modified algae and grow them on the ocean surfaces far away from land where they'll soak up sunlight and CO2 and produce oil. Now we know it can be done. We also know that it's hugely inefficient right now, but he's saying maybe he can innovate a way to make that incredibly cheap. If he could do that, we can keep our whole world as it is. We could keep running on oil, but that oil will just have been produced out there on the ocean surface. So it would be CO2 neutral. The amazing thing is if we have lots of people doing these ideas, we only have to give each one of them a little bit of support, not a whole lot. Not Solyndra support, but get your idea to the stage where you can actually see whether it works or not. Those ideas are the ones that we should be supporting. And most of them are going to fail, but we just need a few of them to come through and those are the ones that'll power the 21st century.

Peter Robinson: Price tag. What should the United States be spending? Joe Biden says $500 billion a year on this that and the other, almost all of what you disapprove of. What should we be spending?

Bjorn Lomborg: We suggest that somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2% of GDP. So you should be, and all nations should be spending this. So you should be spending what, $20, $30 billion a year. So you should be spending a little part of the pot that president Biden has set aside for all these climate events. And that would be the main reason why we would actually find a solution that could make it possible for everyone to switch. Just think for a second, if Biden helped innovate by spending this money, generating really smart ideas that then eventually turn out one of them to be incredibly beneficial for humankind. Everyone would switch not just rich well-meaning Americans but the Chinese, the Indians, Africans, everybody else. And that's why Biden should be spending this. So Americans should be spending, but Denmark and Sweden and everybody else should also be spending the same proportion of their GDP. It would be fairly small if not totally unsubstantial, but much, much smaller than most nations are now spending on their climate commitments. And it would have a much greater chance of actually fixing the problem in the long run.

Peter Robinson: Bjorn I have to say conservative that I am, If you had said to me, two years ago, we should be spending, We should add 20 or 30 billion in outlays to the federal budget on basic research. I think I would have resisted you, but now what you're saying is we can save 500 billion. We can save 450 billion or 470 billion a year. And I think Bjorn, you deserve the Nobel prize. I want you to know I've swung around behind your argument to thanks to Joe Biden. I'd like to take you, now that I've got you and you're not in California and you won't be here until this lockdown ends. Let me take you through a couple of what I think of in terms of as almost special topics, things in the news. And I'd like to hear the way you think about them. The correct way to think about them, the Lomborg way to think about them, Texas. Last month, there's a polar vortex. I didn't know polar vortexes existed until I read about them. They're swinging down to Texas. It inflicted record low temperatures on Texas, temperatures so low that windmills froze. And it turns out that although Texas has been run by Republicans for 25 years, 20% or more than 20% of the Texas power supply, they had put into windmills, windmills freeze. Grid, essentially crashes. Hundreds of thousands of people are deprived of electricity for days. Here's what John Kerry says about that. Your instinct is to say this is the new ice age, but it's not. It is coming from global warming which threatens all the normal weather patterns, close quote. So of course the first question is what happened in Texas something of which we're going to see a lot more because of climate change. And then the second question is if we've been following the Lomborg plan innovating, what's the correct way to think about Texas and what we could do to prevent such a catastrophe in the future.

Bjorn Lomborg: So the first part is a ploy that's very often heard namely every weird thing is because of global warming. And the end of you that Kerry actually made he was asked is this global weirding. And he was like, "Yeah, that's exactly what it is." And of course that sort of gives it away. This is not science anymore. We're just gonna call everything we don't like climate change. Look, all models, not just most models all climate models show not surprisingly as temperatures rises has CO2 rises, we're going to see fewer and fewer cold nights fewer and fewer and cold days. You just can't make this argument into generally. We're also going to see more cold. No, that's not what climate change means. It's not what we're expecting. There's a tiny bit of sliver of an argument of the polar vortex. It's very, very unclear if it has any reality, but certainly overall we're going to see less cold, not more cold. Isn't you know, this is not rocket science. And I think it's somehow gives away the point of saying you can't make everything you don't like into climate change. That's not how that works. At least if you want to keep being scientific. The second part, namely, what should Texas do? I'm not going to pretend to be an expert in Texas, but my understanding of this is we have to be very careful not to just blame one thing as you well know, wind turbines gave out, but so did gas turbines, even coal-fired power plants, there was a one blip in the nuclear power plant as well. I think the better argument, and this is again, in some sense the way that the climate conversations become so polarized everybody just jumps in there and say "See frozen wind turbines," or "No, no, no, see the coal fire power plants "also have problems." We're missing the big picture. I think, which is if you take a step back, what the problem in Texas really tells us is as a society, we have very, very dependent on power, 24/7. If we are going to follow much of the climate alarmists and climate recommendations we're gonna put many, many more things on there the electric power. You're going to have our cars being charged from electric power. We're gonna have most of our space heating from electric power. We're going to try to electrify almost everything. So we're going to be even more dependent in the future. What that means is we really got to make sure it's 24/7 power. And one of the problems with going solar and wind is that is the opposite of very sure that you have power 24/7. Obviously there is no solar power at night. Obviously there is no wind power when the wind is not blowing. And so the reality, and this is one of the reasons why it's so hard to go very far with solar and wind is what are you going to do on nights when the wind is not blowing, you have zero power. You just can't remember, people will then sort of and say, "Oh, it's batteries." Right now, the US batteries enough to store 14 seconds of us power. So, and yeah, need it to store, not just for hours, but for days and possibly even seasons. That's just way outside of our ability right now. Again we should research better batteries because that's going to make everything cheaper and make cell phone better, but we should likewise also find ways to find baseload power. And that's very much about nuclear and hopefully fusion maybe. And also the Craig Venter argument, if we could get oil from the sea, that could also be one way.

Peter Robinson: I want to come to nuclear in just a moment. But first this is something you touched on earlier, electric vehicles, because they're in the news everywhere. I mean, as you know, as you well know, I live in Northern California and a neighbor just down just two or three houses away from where I am now was in charge for a while of the Google, what is it called? , anyway, their electric vehicle, driverless all of this. Okay, it's in the news here, but now it's in the news everywhere. A couple of quotations, here's Holman Jenkins in the wall street journal quote, the Biden administration will be piling a lot of chips as if to say poker chips on electric cars, the most popular and least useful way of fighting climate change. No matter how you fiddle the data, personal EVs are a single digit factor and belong low on any same list of priorities, close quote. That's Homeland Jenkins in the wall street journal. Now here's Mary Berra, the CEO of General Motors announcing that GM will soon produce mostly electric vehicles

Bjorn Lomborg: At GM, we believe that after one of the most difficult years in recent history, this moment will prove to be an inflection point. The moment when our world's reliance on gas and diesel powered vehicles will begin transitioning to an all electric future and GM and tends to lead that change. Not only to help accelerate the rollout of more electric vehicles, but to help ensure an equitable and inclusive transition to a net zero carbon future to advance a safer world for all.

Peter Robinson: On the one hand electric vehicles low on any same list of priorities, on the other electric vehicles about to lead us into a more equitable and inclusive and safer world, Bjorn.

Bjorn Lomborg: Well, first of all, it's absolutely true that they will have fairly little impact. Certainly over the next 10, 20, 30 years They will eventually took over a significant part of personal mobility. And that's great. There's lots of benefits to an electric car, but only once they've gotten cheaper. And that of course goes to GM's point. She's basically saying, "Yes, I'd love to sell a lot of cars onto Biden, "especially if he's going to give me $7,500 "for every car I sell and even more maybe."

Peter Robinson: And we get to replace the entire automotive infrastructure in the country. That's a lot of cars.

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, obviously, look, there's clearly a lot of private incentive if there's all this subsidy money out there, but we have to be realistic. Most surveys show that the vast majority of cars sold in 2030 will still be not electric. Now some of them will be hybrid because that's actually a very competitive way. And we've seen that already. The pre-assess we used to love, you know, five 10 years ago is actually a really good idea because it's cheap and it actually lowers your cost. It's something where you can both go a little ways and be very energy efficient, or you can go a long way and you can just gas it up at any gas station. So there's a good argument for going hybrid. It's much harder to imagine that most of us gonna go all electric. For a variety of reasons, partly because it actually it reduces your mobility because you will have to think about what am I gonna do when I've reached the end of the battery. It's also very hard for the 40% who don't live in single detached houses. It's a very, very rich world phenomenon and a very rich people in rich world who are thinking about, "Oh, I have a house 'and I can just recharge it in my garage." What do all the people who live in apartments or in cities do, that's much, much harder. And then finally, of course, it's very costly right now. Electric cars are typically much more costly. That's why you need the subsidy. And so it's extra sort of grading when you hear that this is going to help the world's poor or just the poor in the US the reality of course is that most green subsidies go to the rich, but by far the biggest amount of subsidies from electric cars go to the very richest in the US because they are the only ones who could consider buying an incredibly expensive Tesla and then get a lot of subsidy from both the American state and from the California state and also get the chance to drive in the carpool lane and everything.

Peter Robinson: Yes, exactly. Right now that you're touching a raw nerve because when I'm on the 101 one in the crowded lane and I see all these hedge fund people whipping past in their Teslas, the last people on the planet who need subsidies are the people who are whipping past. All right, you get that.

Bjorn Lomborg: Can I just very, very briefly mentioned that people love to emphasize Norway because in Norway they actually have new cars more than half are now electric. And people saying, "See, they're leading the way." The reality is that Norway is giving so much subsidies both in direct subsidies and that they don't tax these cars and that they get, you know, both carpool lanes they get cheaper parking, they get cheaper ferry which is a big thing in Norway. So if you add all of that up, it turns out that a car that costs $30,000 you possibly get around $26,000 in subsidies. So sure, it makes sense for anyone who could possibly want an electric car to buy an electric car in Norway, but obviously most people who are not Norwegian possibly Norwegians can't afford this in the long run. And also almost all of the people in Norway who buy an electric car already have a gasoline car for when they actually need to go somewhere do the shopping and feel virtuous in the electric car.

Peter Robinson: Got it. Does that feel good for a Dane to just put, them a little bit?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, we're annoyed that they got all the, of course there's another thing, right? Let's just think about Norway. The reason why they can afford all this is because they get rich and oil.

Peter Robinson: On the oil, the North sea oil. Nuclear power. This is from the state of the planet, a study published by Columbia University. And as you know I'm such an expert that I just tripped across this thing online. Quote, the us has 95 nuclear reactors in operation, but only one new reactor has been started up in the last 20 years. Over 100 new nuclear reactors are being planned in other countries and 300 more are proposed with China, India and Russia leading the way, close quote. Okay, if the United States, I put this to you. If the United States has indeed surrendered the lead in the race for clean energy, as the Biden plan argues it has done so above all in nuclear energy. I mean, if the Chinese are going to be building as I read someplace else that there's some thought that the Chinese will build a hundred nuclear plants over the next decade or so, and you know what by the time they get to plant 15 or 16 they'll be pretty good at it. They will have discovered. You do something repeatedly and you play some intellectual effort behind it, you'll make breakthroughs. There will be innovation, right?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, that's certainly what we used to think. We didn't actually see that happening with nuclear power. So nuclear power is a very funny or a very special sort of instance, because what happened in the '60s, '70s and '80s, where that nuclear power while you built more and more of them they all were very, very specialized. They all got tailored to that particular place and they got more and more expensive. Which is one of the main reasons I actually think we stopped using nuclear in the West. What we have to recognize is that although these numbers sound impressive, remember everything is very, very large in China, so 100 nuclear power plants are not actually all that much. And by most estimates nuclear power is not going to be a dramatic player in the future of energy so far. But you're absolutely right to say nuclear power is something we should be investigating because it gives us base load power. So it gives us the stuff that Texas was missing. And it has the possibility of doing so very, very cheaply. It is not cheap right now. One of the arguments is that it was actually deliberately made so extra safe that it ended up being incredibly expensive. But obviously it's not an argument to say, well let's make it a little less safe to make it cheap, but that's never going to happen. But what a lot of people are arguing is that we're right now in the third generation nuclear power plant. A lot of people like Bill Gates and many others are investigating fourth-generation nuclear power which promises to be a lot safer possibly inherently safe and much, much cheaper.

Peter Robinson: Let me go through, because again just Googling around on this. It turns out that there are several dozen funded, private ventures as best I can tell they're privately funded. The Bill Gates foundation is funding one or two. I guess what I have in my head is of course, every American has seen, I suppose people around the world have seen this. Every American has seen old footage of nuclear explosions, test explosions, everybody's conscious of Hiroshima. We have that in our minds. When we here the word nuclear. Chernobyl in this country, Three Mile Island, but still it scare people. The accident in Japan. All right, it turns out, so it goes to the argument which I test by placing it before you that these new technologies apparently there is some prospect that they will really be different. There's a nature and reactor. This is apparently what Bill Gates is investing in that will use sodium as a coolant instead of water. It won't have to be under pressure the way water is under pressure. Apparently keeping the water under pressure adds enormous complexity and expense to building a plant. Don't need to do that anymore. There's a small, modular, light water reactor. I can say these words, but this is why I'm putting it to you because I don't know the field at all, but that would occupy the space of only 1% of a conventional reactor. And while we're talking about small reactors there were also designs. Now for micro reactors that would fit in the back of an 18 Wheeler. And of course, I'm thinking to myself, Texas could have used a few of those 18 wheelers just a few weeks ago. So I'm a layman, but doesn't that look like a place where some of your 20 or 30 billion a year ought to go. If we can crack the nuclear problem and make it genuinely safe, we already know it can be tremendously inexpensive, I guess, isn't that in some way the technological grail that we ought to be seeking or am I becoming too excited about one technology?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, I think that's the real problem, because if you remember back in time we've had, you know, George Bush loved hydrogen cars. Biden obviously loves solar and wind. There's always this favorite technology. And the reality is, of course we don't know which place the breakthrough is going to come, but absolutely we should be spending money on nuclear. Let me just on the nuclear bit, although we've had Chernobyl and we've had Fukushima and we've had three mile Island and many other smaller problems, actually, very very few people have died from nuclear power. And the biggest survey of all the deaths that we've had from different energy forms, nuclear is one of the least deadly. Of course we remember coal is by far the most deadly because literally kills hundreds of thousand possibly even a million people a year by air pollution. So this is not rocket science, nuclear power is very safe. Now we should make it even safer. And if we can make it so safe that it physically can't make a big problem that would be wonderful. But the primary problem with nuclear is not safety. Although there is a perception problem in some ways. The primary problem is cost. So most of the new nuclear power plants that we built in the West are so expensive and coming so high over cost that they are vastly more expensive than fossil fuels and vastly more expensive than most subsidized green energy. That's not sustainable. And that's why we need to find ways to technologically engineer that. And that's actually what Gates and these other guys are saying. Let's find ways that we can make this much cheaper. I have great hopes for this, but I wouldn't place all my eggs.

Peter Robinson: So one question, it's my understanding at a very fuzzy level that some large component of the expense arises from the regulatory overhang, which in turn arises from, it's more than a perception problem. I'm mean Chernobyl was a horrifying event. That's that people are responding to something real, but if you can make them smaller, if you can make them safer that is to say the technology itself isn't even now all that expensive. It's the amount that we pay to keep ourselves from being terrified by it. That makes it too expensive in some proportion. Is there something to that? Or am I mistaken?

Bjorn Lomborg: Something to that? Just remember the, the EU did a survey of a Chernobyl and they estimate it together with the international in atomic energy agency and several other Institute World Health Organization that the total number of dead across all of the world from Chernobyl were less than 200. So I think it's worthwhile to have this enormous sense of devastation. Yes, it was a problem. But remember, there are lots of lots of people killed from air pollution from farms and the coal fired power every year. But but again, back to your question, yes it is partly that we have regulated this very, very harshly. And as I mentioned, I don't think we're gonna get away from that. But if you could, and you alluded to that, if you could build the same power plant over and over you can build it very safely and cheaply. Whereas what we're doing right now is we build a new kind of power plant every time, very safely, but incredibly expensive. So if we could get to those 18 wheel trucks or, you know some sort of modular design and we could just turn out lots of them they could be incredibly safe and fairly cheap. We still don't know whether they can be incredibly cheap. And I think that's where a lot of the innovation comes in. If you can make this in a modular way that is inherently safe, very cheap, you could get everyone to use it and we'd be done. We wouldn't have to talk about climate change anymore because we just have this incredibly cheap power source that everyone would use everywhere.

Peter Robinson: All right, Bjorn, a couple of final questions. Climate change is real. I'm summarizing Bjorn to Bjorn, but doesn't pose an existential crisis. And nearly all the spending that Joe Biden proposes, nearly all of that $500 billion a year will be wasted. At least it may have its political purposes. If you're Joe Biden, you may say, I need to pay off this interest group and that interest group. But from the point of view of actually affecting the climate it's wasted. Joe Biden probably knows that. And if Joe Biden doesn't know that he has highly intelligent well-read people throughout his administration, who do, how is it the that Bjorn Lomborg sitting in Sweden of all places is the one voice, why doesn't every intelligent person, every intelligent well-read person who feels strongly about climate change. And there are a lot of people who fit just that description in the Biden administration. Why don't they see things the way you see things?

Bjorn Lomborg: So I think there's a number of different reasons. Part of it is that if you really believe we only have nine years left, we've got to amp it up to 11. We got to do everything we possibly can. And if we can get our hands and find a billion dollars, we're going to spend it. Yes, it might not do as much good as we could have done elsewhere, but this is the overarching problem. So let's try and get going. I think a lot of people, and certainly a lot of people I debate really have that urgency. You know, the meteor is hurdling towards earth and we just got to do something even if it is, you know, sending Bruce Willis up there. So the idea here is in some way is you're just trying to do something at least to get this done. I think there's also an other and more sinister part of this. If you spend $500 billion, you make a lot of people rich. Obviously a lot of people are championing this. I often find it very hilarious, when you went to the Paris Summit, there were ads everywhere from all the wind turbine companies and solar panel companies saying, "Make a strong statement for climate." What they were obviously also saying was, "Get us lots of contracts." And you know, if you're a CEO of that company of course you should be pushing for that. And then there's also this understanding, even John Kerry said that, and you mentioned that at the at the beginning of our program here. He recognizes even if the US totally stopped submitting it's not really going to matter because most of this is about the rest of the world. There's a sense in which if we do everything in the US we can show everyone else that they should also do it. It's of course, fallacious because remember the Germans thought the same way. And what they're basically now have is an incredibly expensive program as they call it which costs consumers, at least 30 billion euros every year in higher cost for their energy. And they have basically not succeeded in reducing their emissions because wow surprise when the wind is not blowing, you have to fire up your coal fired power plant. There's a lot of other things wrong with Germany, but the fundamental point is if you try to show people, here's how to do it and then do it really, really expensively and really, really badly, you're not a picture of admiration for everyone else. Everybody says, "Oh, let's not do like Germany." And people will do the same thing for the US. But I think for most people, when you start off this immense project of saving the planet you just got to do everything you can and everybody will love the US when we put up more solar panels. And unfortunately, I'm the guy who says, "Well, no." and I'm a party poop on that way, but we need someone to say it in order for us to get to the policies that will actually work. They're not going to be as flashy, but they'll be much more useful.

Peter Robinson: Bjorn, is this a correct conclusion from all that you've said There is one gift the United States could give the world that would matter just one innovation, is that correct?

Bjorn Lomborg: Yes, if you take one thing away, let's make sure that the us helps the world innovate that technology or the few technologies that will power the rest of the 21st century cheaply and with very little or no CO2. That's what you can do. And of course, I would like, because I don't think it's just about the US. We should ask all nations to do that because it's gonna be all of humanity's benefit. If we innovate that, even if it ends up being a Chinese or a Nigerian innovation, we'll all benefit from that innovation that will help us become carbon neutral and have access to cheap energy. But by all means, you know it fires people up a little bit more if you just say America should fix this.

Peter Robinson: Well, and you know, I'm just thinking here's what we have given the world in the last quarter century, Facebook, Twitter, Google maybe nuclear energy for the whole world would not be such a bad, It might actually be a step up, maybe. All right, last question Bjorn. Here's the title again, of your most recent book which you published just last year, "False Alarm." How climate change panic costs us trillions, hurts the poor and fails to fix the planet. Since you published that book, the European union has suffered the shock of Brexit, the British exit. The entire planet has suffered a pandemic. And here in the United States, Trump is out and Biden is in. Are you hopeful since you published that book have we become more or less susceptible to climate panic?

Bjorn Lomborg: I think we've become more susceptible because you know when Trump was in, then the problem was really that the us was not caring enough about climate change because he didn't care at all. Now the problem is probably that you care too much or at least that you care in a way that's incredibly ineffective, and you're likely to lead much of the world down that path. Certainly the European union is willing. The UK is willing and a lot of rich countries are willing to play in on this idea that we're all gonna make a grand promises and kumbaya at the end of this year and then, you know, we'll figure out later what to do. But one other thing happened as you also mentioned we had a grand pandemic. And what that did was it reduced global emissions somewhere between 4% and 6%. The UN tells us we need to cut this emission every year by 7.6%, if we're gonna live up to our Paris agreements. So just to give you a sense of proportion, that means last year we should have had a bigger nastier pandemic or at least the economic effects of that. You know, they shut down would have reduced emissions even more around the world. But this year we need to have those big shutdowns because we need 7.6% and then 7.6% above in 2022 we need three shutdowns like we had in 2020. And by 2030, we need 11 of those. I think what you can see where I'm heading this simply emphasizes that the current way that people are just sort of casually suggesting that we can dramatically reduce our carbon emissions by investing in some electric cars is simply misguided. And unfortunately it'll actually lead us to just spend lots of money and actually not having found a solution. This is again, Los Angeles in 1950s. Don't go around and tell everyone to bike instead. Spend the money on innovation.

Peter Robinson: Bjorn, Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and the Hoover Institution, thank you.

Bjorn Lomborg: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: For Uncommon Knowledge, the Hoover Institution and Fox Nation. I'm Peter Robinson.

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