Bjorn Lomborg's Movie: Is Quiet the New Loud?

I recommend the new movie by Bjorn Lomborg and documentary film-maker Ondi Timoner, Cool It, based loosely on Lomborg's book of the same title. It is a reply to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, and much better (effective though Gore's movie was as propaganda). I went to a screening of the nearly final version at the Heritage Foundation yesterday. It is well done. Not just watchable but absorbing all the way through, and extremely persuasive.

I was a little concerned as the film got going that it would be essentially a profile of Lomborg. There's a chunk of stuff at the start about what a nice guy he is. He has been a friend since I took his side in the controversy that followed the publication of the Skeptical Environmentalist--a terrific book--so I didn't need to be told that he is conscientious, unfailingly courteous, and sweet-natured. Many others, I suppose, do need to be told this--since he is usually represented by environmentalists as a satanic figure, beguilingly kitted out in T-shirt and jeans, intent on planetary catastrophe. Still, I was glad the personal stuff quickly gave way to an urgent, intelligent, and entertaining account of the climate policy debate, with a strong focus on cost-effective solutions.

Lomborg was recently--and fatuously--accused by the Guardian of doing a U-turn on this subject. His position all the way through has been that climate change is happening and that it is largely man-made. He has also argued, to the consternation of many greens, that Kyoto-like policies are both expensive and (even if diligently pursued, which they won't be) ineffective. He is right on both points, in my view, and this is still his position.

The film restates this critique but quickly moves on to look at more productive post-Copenhagen approaches: pursuing new technologies to make low-carbon energy cheap (before we force ourselves off fossil fuels), geoengineering (for an emergency response if low-probability worst-case scenarios start to come true at speed), and adaptation (which we are good at, and which is relatively cheap).

Instead of spending hundreds of billions of dollars on policies that won't work, Lomborg argues for smaller (though still substantial) sums to be spent on R&D directed at new energy technologies, leaving a surplus for relieving malnutrition and disease in developing countries--the issues which have consistently been at the top of his list of global policy priorities.

This sounds like a heavy agenda for an evening at the movies, but it's artfully done. Interviews with the likes of Nathan Myhrvold and Freeman Dyson are nicely mixed in; the animations and graphics are as good as in Gore's movie (which is high praise); there are jokes. The whole thing moves along really well.

After the Heritage screening, Lomborg took some questions. The AEI's Lee Lane, who speaks in the movie about geoengineering, asked a good one. He said that Lomborg is persuasive on the waste inherent in Kyoto-like methods, partly due to the inefficiency of government; but why does he think that the huge subsidies he recommends for clean energy R&D and other projects will be any better spent? I'm not sure Lomborg had a very good answer to this. He said he preferred an X-prize approach over grand industrial strategies, and that support for R&D was less prone to rent-seeking than (for instance) cap and trade. Also, even with a lot of waste, he  said, this approach would likely achieve far more than simply raising the price of carbon. Maybe.

Another questioner asked, why did he choose a conservative think-tank like Heritage to show the movie in DC? His answer: because they were willing to do it. He said he regretted the missing centre in the debate. People interested in the subject tended to see climate change either as a hoax or as an immediate existential threat to civilization. "The constituency we have to grow is the intelligent middle," he said--people interested in level-headed, cost-effective solutions.

That is the tone of the movie: calm, intelligent, and engaging. Lomborg bemusedly said that at the Toronto Film Festival, one of the movie critics who came along to the screening asked him afterwards, "Is quiet the new loud?" If only.