Dump Kyoto, save lives

OTTAWA, ONTARIO - Everyone has their favorite barometer of Canadian left-wing received wisdom.

Stéphane Dion, the Toronto Star editorial board, Naomi Klein and Linda McQuaig are all worthy contenders. But lately, I’ve been tracking a more obscure pundit with equally impressive dogma-spouting ability: University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers, author of the recently published manifesto Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? Anti-Americanism, greener-than-thou environmentalism, starry-eyed multilateralism, strident cultural and economic nationalism — Byers is the whole package.

In a recent issue of the Star, Byers issued forth on Stephen Harper’s opposition to Kyoto. And he did not disappoint. Our Prime Minister is “playing games while the planet burns,” he concludes. Harper’s “nasty.

” He’s a “small man” who’s damaging the “long-term interests of humanity” in the furtherance of a narrow political agenda.

And what are those “long-term interests”? This is where Byers’ column got interesting. Alongside the sloganeering against Harper, he also delivered a good synopsis of the stock humanitarian argument put forward on Kyoto’s behalf by environmentalists: “The droughts, floods, storms and sea-level rise caused by human-induced climate change are impeding efforts to alleviate poverty worldwide… Canada’s wealth has been developed through decades of heavy consumption of fossil fuels, with the atmosphere being treated as a free trash bin for the resulting emissions. Yet perversely, it’s the developing countries – with their dependence on subsistence agriculture, acute exposure to droughts, floods and sea-level rise, post-colonial political tensions and still inadequate infrastructures – that are most exposed.”

In a cold, guilty country like Canada, where most of us would actually prefer a warmer climate, this is one of the few arguments that gets traction. We’re so very lucky, and so very rich. How immoral would it be for us to keep consuming hydrocarbons while the rest of the world starves, fries up and drowns? Note the masterful way Byers pushes all the right buttons — right down to the “post-colonial” touch, just in case we forgot what colour the victims are.

What you’re reading in this blog entry is not a Terry Corcoran-style attack on the science of global warming. Like just about every scientist who doesn’t have a regular opining-writing gig at the Wall Street Journal or Financial Post, I believe anthropogenic global warming is real. My problem with the Kyoto camp isn’t that it’s peddling “junk science.” It’s that, like Byers, they go straight from the science to the politics without stopping to count the money. What if global warming is real, but Kyoto is still a rip-off — even according to the big-hearted humanitarian logic at the core of the pro-Kyoto camp?

On that note, here’s something that pops out at you when you read Byers’ op-ed: a total absence of numbers. The same is true of most pro-Kyoto articles, and sometimes even whole books. Too often, the argument for fighting climate change is based on vague appeals to cuddly polar bears, our moral debt to mother nature, the “will of the international community” — as well as the usual litany of worst-case (and, often, worse-than-worst-case) disaster scenarios. You rarely see anyone actually crunch the numbers and prove Kyoto’s worth on a cost-benefit basis.

That’s because, as world-renowned Danish thinker Bjorn Lomborg demonstrates in a new book, you can’t.

In Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, Lomborg acknowledges that global warming is a serious problem. He also acknowledges that people will die, and human society at-large will suffer, as a result. What he disputes is that we can do much about it without breaking the bank.

Consider: The global all-in compliance costs of Kyoto amount to about $180-billion per year. Yet all these billions — even paid in perpetuity — would delay the globe’s expected rate of heating over the next century by just 5%. Assuming Kyoto is allowed to expire in 2012, its total effect will have been to delay the pace of global warming by one week. In terms of Canada’s contribution to Kyoto, the effect would be measured in hours. Think about that the next time Dion or David Suzuki lecture you about Canada’s lost opportunity to save the world.

Lomborg’s book — excerpted in a three-part series that appeared on the National Post comment pages a month ago — is built around the (surprisingly) rich body of peer-reviewed studies that measure the aggregate social cost of climate change on human societies — including its impacts on agriculture, fisheries, freshwater supplies, hurricanes and land loss. The bottom line Lomborg presents is that the world has about $15-trillion worth of damage coming to it if global warming proceeds unabated. Kyoto — even if it were fully implemented by all its signatories — would knock off a little less than $2-trillion of that, but at a cost of more than $5-trillion. For every dollar we spend on Kyoto, we get back 34 cents.

And even this analysis is optimistic — because it assumes the most efficient carbon-abatement policies available. In practice, many nations have opted instead for inefficient, but optically attractive, solutions such as windfarms.

Schemes that are even more ambitious than Kyoto result in even greater economic inefficiencies. That’s because of the law of diminishing marginal returns. Our first carbon cuts are always going to be the easy ones — dropping the house thermostat when we go away for the weekend, screwing in a few CFL light-bulbs, buying a slightly smaller SUV, etc. But the deeper you cut carbon emissions, the more painful and difficult the cuts become. A European Union proposal that would freeze the world’s temperature increase at 2.7F, for instance, would cost $84-trillion — without even generating the complete $15-trillion benefit that would accrue if warming were stopped completely.

If I have Byers pegged right, I’m guessing that he’d say that none of this matters: Whatever the numbers tell you, Kyoto is still advisable because it allows developed nations to pay back some of the moral debt they owe the developing world.

But here’s where Lomborg’s analysis is especially trenchant. While his methods are ruthlessly utilitarian, he shares the same humanitarian goals ostensibly championed by climate-change activists. Indeed, there’s nothing he’d like more for the $180-billion a year demanded by Kyoto to be shovelled into other programs that address human misery more directly. If we did so, he shows, we’d save millions more lives.

Lomborg’s foray into global-warming is only his latest project. Before that, he became famous as the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, an elite global think tank that has created a sort of master-list of problems facing humanity, ranked according to how cost-effectively we can fight them. At or near the top of his wish list are HIV/AIDS prevention, micro-nutrient provision, trade liberalization, malaria control, water purification and basic local health services. In all of these cases, lives of people in the developing world can be saved for thousands, or tens of thousands, of dollars each. Kyoto is at the bottom of the list: To save a single life through carbon-abatement costs millions.

The details here are striking — and should be digested by anyone who claims to champion Kyoto on a humanitarian basis. In the case of AIDS prevention, for instance, Lomborg cites statistics that show a single dollar invested in simple measures such as condom distribution and antiviral drugs can bring about 40 dollars’ worth of social good — more than 100 times Kyoto’s 34-cent rate of return.

Malaria is a particularly good example, since its spread if often cited among the parade of horribles that global warming is set to unleash. Through Kyoto-style carbon abatement, we could save something like 140,000 malaria deaths over the next century. Or, we could spend one 60th that amount on direct anti-malarial policies like mosquito netting and drugs, and save 85-million people.

The debate about climate change has become increasingly surreal in recent years. We live in an intensely monetized world where even five- and six-figure capital projects typically are subject to the most exacting cost-benefit analysis before being embarked upon. Yet when it comes to Kyoto-style policies — which would require the investment of a 13-digit sum over coming generations — many of our most impassioned pundits urge our decision-making to be guided by nothing more than guilt and green emotionalism.

Reading Byers, I shudder to imagine that this is the level of analysis that informs our nation. One hopes that the people who actually make decisions about climate change in this country — Mr. Harper and his environment minister, John Baird, spring to mind — are also finding the time to read authors like Lomborg, who actually care enough about what they’re writing about to crunch the numbers. They are the real humanitarians.


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