Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm: Book Overview & Takeaways

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "False Alarm" by Bjørn Lomborg. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How worried should we be about climate change? What are the most sensible approaches to tackle the problem, whatever its size?

The World Health Organization considers climate change the single largest health threat to humanity. However, Bjorn Lomborg’s book False Alarm argues that, while climate change poses a significant threat, it is not a cataclysmic one.

Continue reading for an overview of the book to understand this perspective on such an important matter.

Overview of Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm

According to progressive media and politicians, climate change constitutes an existential threat, requiring drastic cuts in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to avoid catastrophe. In Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm, he concedes that climate change will have a notable impact if left unchecked, costing $140 trillion of global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2100.

However, he argues that climate activists’ proposed approaches, like sharply reducing fossil fuel consumption, have unintended economic costs that must be balanced with the effects of climate change alone. Instead, Lomborg outlines several more modest recommendations that balance economic and environmental costs.  

As the founder of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank that uses cost-benefit analyses to propose solutions to global problems, Lomborg takes a similarly quantitative approach to climate change. Consequently, he relies heavily on statistical models and academic studies to support his arguments throughout False Alarm.

In this guide, we’ll first discuss Lomborg’s assessment of the potential impact of climate change. Next, we’ll proceed to discuss his criticisms of alarmist approaches to climate change, followed by his proposed alternative approaches.

Methodological Assumptions

These assumptions that Lomborg depends on provide an objective measure for evaluating climate policies.

Temperature: The Proxy for Climate Change

First, Lomborg asserts that temperature is the best proxy for climate change. Admittedly, climate change has numerous effects: It leads to floods, droughts, and rising sea levels. But, these effects are connected to one factor: temperature.

Lomborg agrees with the scientific consensus that temperatures rise because of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, the global temperature depends on the atmosphere’s total CO2 levels. Consequently, Lomborg observes that reducing emissions won’t necessarily reduce global temperature; rather, it will reduce the rate that temperature increases.

Using MAGICC—the Model for the Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change (MAGICC), which United Nations’s (UN) climate scientists rely on—Lomborg observes that the “middle of the road” scenario—which sees no drastic emissions cuts—results in an increase of 7.4°F by 2100, compared to preindustrial times. So, 7.4°F is the benchmark Lomborg uses to assess proposed climate policies.

Gross Domestic Product: The Proxy for Prosperity

Next, Lomborg asserts that gross domestic product (GDP) is the best proxy for prosperity. Lomborg observes that GDP and temperature are directly proportional. So, Lomborg concludes that, when we assess climate policies, we must consider the effects of increasing temperature alongside the effects of increasing GDP.

Correcting Climate Alarmism

Next, Lomborg argues that climate alarmism—the view that climate change poses an apocalyptic threat—is unfounded. This view is pervasive: A 2019 poll suggests that nearly half of the world believes climate change will end the human race.

The Truth About Extreme Weather

Lomborg argues that climate change has had relatively little impact on extreme weather.

First, Lomborg disputes the claim that climate change has worsened droughts worldwide. He cites the UN’s panel of climate scientists, who found the earth isn’t experiencing more drought worldwide since 1950. Similarly, the United States’s National Climate Assessment found that, in the U.S., long-term increases in precipitation have actually decreased droughts.

Second, Lomborg says alarmists claim that climate change has increased flooding. Refuting this claim, he cites the UN’s scientists, who concluded there’s little evidence floods are increasing in severity or frequency. Lomborg concedes that climate change causes increased precipitation, increasing the risk of flooding in the future. But, UN scientists recognize flooding is highly linked to river management, so improved river management could mitigate this risk.

Third, Lomborg addresses the claim that climate change causes destructive wildfires by pointing out that wildfires have burnt 25% less land globally in the last 18 years as fire management has improved. Though climate change increases wildfires in some areas, its impact is smaller than some suggest.

Finally, Lomborg denies the claim that climate change causes more frequent and catastrophic hurricanes. He again appeals to the UN’s climate scientists, who recently concluded that hurricanes are not getting more frequent—except in the North Atlantic. However, Lomborg notes that they attributed this increase to air pollution.

The Real Cost of Climate Change

Since Lomborg states that climate change won’t lead to apocalyptic weather, he tries to estimate what its cost will really be. Ultimately, he concludes that on our current trajectory, climate change will cost 3.6% of global GDP by 2100. In other words, we can expect climate change to have a significant—but not catastrophic—effect on global prosperity.

Lomborg uses this 3.6% reduction in GDP as his benchmark for evaluating climate policies. If a climate policy reduces GDP by less than 3.6%, it’s worth considering.

Misguided Approaches to Climate Change

In light of the predicted costs, let’s discuss Lomborg’s evaluation of misguided approaches to climate change.

Two Paths: Sustainable Development vs Fossil-Fueled Development

According to activists, we should reduce emissions by investing in green energy and minimizing fossil fuel usage. However, Lomborg argues this approach is flawed; rather, we should increase reliance on fossil fuels to spark economic growth.

Lomborg cites a 2017 study from the UN’s climate panel that found that the two most promising pathways were the so-called Green Road and Conventional Development. Lomborg calculated that the Green Road sees GDP per person increase to $103,000 by 2100, and Conventional Development sees it increase to $172,000. So, even accounting for the damage from climate change, Conventional Development is the more prosperous path.

The Green Revolution

Another approach depends on an imminent green revolution, in which renewables like solar and wind will supplant fossil fuels, reducing carbon emissions to zero. Lomborg, however, argues that the green revolution is an unattainable fantasy.

First, Lomborg points out that renewables are projected to be responsible for 16% of energy in the U.S. by the midcentury. This, he argues, doesn’t suggest a pending revolution. In addition, Lomborg argues that renewables, such as solar panels, can’t provide enough energy to lift poor societies out of poverty. Even wealthy countries such as Germany suffer from increased reliance on renewables

The Paris Agreement

To spark the green revolution, world leaders took a more concrete approach to climate change via the Paris Agreement. Lomborg, however, argues that the Paris Agreement does more harm than good.

First, Lomborg examines the four entities whose promised carbon reductions amount to 80% of the total reductions outlined in the Paris Agreement: the U.S., the EU, China, and Mexico. Lomborg estimates that, if these countries keep their promises, it will collectively cost them $739 billion annually. Because these countries represent 80% of promised carbon reductions, Lomborg assumes that $739 billion is about 80% of the total annual cost of the Paris Agreement. So, its annual cost is around $1 trillion.

Lomborg calculates that the Paris Agreement could reduce global temperature by 0.05°F. If countries extended their commitments to 2100, a 0.4°F reduction in temperature would result. But, because the temperature is expected to rise 7.4°F by 2100, this reduction still means it would actually rise 7°F—nowhere near the stated goal of 3.6°F.

Consequently, Lomborg concludes the Paris Agreement is ineffective; even if every country kept its promises, it would yield minuscule progress, while costing $1 trillion per year.

Individual Sacrifice

In addition to international agreements, climate activists exhort us to make individual sacrifices. Lomborg, however, argues that individual sacrifices do nearly nothing to combat climate change.

To provide a metric for assessing individual sacrifices, Lomborg uses prices set by the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the U.S.’s main carbon marketplace. Lomborg uses the price of RGGI allowances—$6 per ton of CO2—to evaluate three individual sacrifices: going vegetarian, using electric cars, and not having kids.

First, Lomborg cites studies suggesting that going vegetarian decreases our carbon emissions by only 4.3% per year. Since RGGI allows us to purchase one ton of carbon emissions for $6, this means going vegetarian is worth about $3.50 each year.

Similarly, activists suggest that switching to electric cars will vastly cut emissions. Challenging this claim, Lomborg notes that electric cars often use electricity generated by fossil fuels, and producing them requires more energy than producing gas-powered cars.

Further, activists claim that choosing not to fly is crucial to mitigate climate change. Lomborg notes that, if nobody flew for the rest of the century, we’d slow climate change by about one year.

Finally, some activists suggest we should stop having children since they generate enormous amounts of CO2 over their lifetimes. Lomborg argues that the benefits outweigh the cost.

Promising Approaches to Climate Change

Lomborg argues that there are more promising approaches available.

Fund Innovation

We should invest in innovative solutions to climate change. In particular, he advocates for innovative approaches to energy storage, nuclear energy, carbon capture technology, and geoengineering.

First, if we could efficiently store solar and wind energy, it could play a larger part in our energy usage. Lomborg concludes that investing in developing new energy storage solutions could yield high returns.

Second, Lomborg argues that investing in nuclear energy is promising, but, because there’s no uniform blueprint and each nuclear power plant is custom-built, the cost of building them is high. So, investing in uniform, streamlined designs could yield outsized returns.

Third, Lomborg suggests we should invest in technology that captures CO2 in the atmosphere and stores it elsewhere. Current technology is too expensive, so he suggests we should invest in researching how to drive down costs.

Finally, Lomborg proposes that we should invest heavily in geoengineering, the process of artificially reducing the earth’s temperature. Lomborg suggests that we should fund research in this area.

Invest in Adaptation

Because CO2 in the atmosphere is also a product of past emissions, which we can’t control, innovation won’t stop climate change entirely. Consequently, Lomborg argues that we need to adapt to climate change over the coming century. And, though Lomborg discusses various adaptations, we’ll focus on three key ones.

To start, Lomborg grants that rising temperatures will lead to rising sea levels, placing coastal territories at risk. However, we can meet these rising sea levels with adaptation. For instance, we can build dikes or pursue artificial nourishment.

To handle flooding, Lomborg recommends various strategies, including creating floodplains to protect cities and investing in more vegetated areas in cities that better absorb water.

Finally, Lomborg notes that heat waves will likely worsen in cities, which contain heat-absorbing asphalt. He recommends a simple adaptation—painting roofs and roads with light-colored coatings, which could decrease summer temperatures by several degrees.

Cultivate Economic Growth

Wealthy countries can better cope with climate change, while poor countries are disproportionately harmed. Therefore, sparking economic growth in poor countries—even at the cost of increasing carbon emissions—is a promising approach to climate change.

Implement a Global Carbon Tax

Lomborg argues that we should implement a global carbon tax—a tax that offsets the carbon emissions of the goods we buy. According to Lomborg, a carbon tax is necessary to correct market failure. Lomborg asserts that market failure is occurring because prices don’t reflect the carbon emissions created by many products.

Lomborg concludes the optimal carbon tax would reduce the temperature from 7.4°F to 6.75°F. Although this tax would cost about $20 trillion to implement, it would save us $22 trillion overall.

Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm: Book Overview & Takeaways

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Here's what you'll find in our full False Alarm summary:

  • Why climate change isn't as cataclysmic as people think
  • The unintended costs that come with climate activists’ proposed approaches
  • A look at the most promising approaches to climate change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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