How evangelical and partisan discourse can blind stakeholders to solutions that would resolve a broad range of societal ills

Bill-WhitelawIt has been over 20 years since Bjorn Lomborg penned The Skeptical Environmentalist. The Danish scholar originally wanted to call the book The Real State of the World, but his publisher had other thoughts in terms of reader engagement and suggested a title that would provide a balance for readers to contemplate.

That Lomborg went along with the suggestion – many authors don’t – is a testament to how his mind works. His publisher’s perspective was broader and more encompassing, anticipating a utility that The Skeptical Environmentalist title signalled. Lomborg recognized he might just be too close to the subject matter – as the climate debate was really, ahem, just warming up then.

But what’s remained constant since he published that first effort – and all the way up to his latest, False Alarm – is a tenacious effort to call out climate extremism. Lomborg believes climate extremism does a substantive disservice to the world’s other pressing needs, such as poverty and pollution. He’s not a climate denier per se but is skeptical about how evangelical and polarizing discourse can blind stakeholders to solutions that concomitantly resolves a broad range of societal ills.

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Lomborg recently visited Calgary, Alta at the invitation of the Canadian Energy Executive Association for a keynote address at its annual Energy Business Forum mid-year update. I sat down with him for a few minutes prior to that session.

Q: Let’s discuss skepticism. I’ve always thought of skepticism as something contingent and contextual to a particular set of instances at specific points in time. I’ve always seen you as a constructive versus a destructive skeptic. How do you think about skepticism when defining a position on an issue? Some of it must have to do with attitude because while it may seem at the time an unpopular stance, you’re always coming from a place of being constructive – even on complex and contentious issues like climate.

A: Yes, I am a constructive skeptic. I think skepticism is fundamentally a good thing (and you need) to be a little skeptical about whatever you hear and say. Fundamentally, skepticism has to be used not just when taking something down but building something up. How can we fix problems on the climate side while not ignoring everything else? We seem to be so focused on saying (climate change) is terrible we forget to ask, ‘So, how do we fix it?’ It often feels like we’ve already decided on the answer before looking at the available alternatives along with their cost and benefits.

Q: So, the key is not looking at one single thing in isolation but instead trying to understand how a variety of often interconnected issues present a variety of choices?

A: Yes. It’s not that any one thing – say, climate change or plastic straws for that matter – is not important. According to the World Health Organization, climate change kills maybe 250,000 people a year, which I think is a vastly exaggerated number. Most people don’t seem to recognize that the biggest environmental killer by far is air pollution. But looking at issues in isolation leaves us with little sense of what really is incredibly important versus what’s just somewhat important.

Q: Thinking about the work that the Copenhagen Consensus Centre does in terms of its transnational efforts to bring balance to complex discussions, do you think it could be offered as a “franchise” of sorts to other post-secondary institutions around the world to establish a network of consensus centres?

A: We’ve never trademarked our process, but we would love everyone else to do it. For a long time, I have hoped that could happen. I have to say I’ve also been somewhat disappointed, but I think this is because (the type of work we do) is really hard to do.

It turns out that in the few places where I’ve seen other people try it, it ends up being more a mélange of interesting stuff with different academics looking at problems. Our methodology, on the other hand, works like this: this team found that, adapting their results will give you $3 back on the dollar, doing a carbon tax will give you $2 back on the dollar, doing research and development into green energy and innovation will give you $11 back on the dollar, and so on.

Q: I ask because the University of Calgary has kicked off its latest interdisciplinary and trans-faculty strategy for the future of energy systems. In Alberta, we’re not just fossil fuel but all the interlocking and interdependent components of an energy system of evolving systems. I wonder if there are other models in the world that Canadian post-secondary institutions can look to create a bit of a different set of discourses in a global context as a counter-balance to our typical processes. But at the Consensus Center, the word consensus sets a high bar for how people engage, interact and dialectically get to a solution. I’m interested in your view on solutions illuminating the differences between compromise and consensus.

A: (chuckling) Okay, so I’m going to disappoint you here. It’s called the Copenhagen Consensus Center because somebody came up with a word and said, ‘That sounds good.’ You have to love the alliteration.

But to your question, yes, we have a process that helps you make good decisions, where we basically ask everyone to rank (on an issue), and then you take the median of the ranking. It’s sort of strategy-proof; it’s a smart way to get everybody on board, even if they somewhat disagree. That means that everyone in the group is relevant, and because they’re reasonably smart individuals, they will respect the rankings results. But honestly, our process is much more than just rankings: it’s about getting and managing the information and asking what are incredibly effective policies, what are just somewhat effective policies, and what are really dumb policies. And I think that’s much more relevant than the actual ranking. We’ve increasingly gone to just producing all the research and telling people, ‘Hey, this is what we found.’

Q: But presumably, the quality of the discussions, the dialogue and the output is a function of who gets invited to the table? From an initial start, right? You can build your own echo chambers if you’re not careful.

A: Yes. But we’ve done this a lot for nations: this is really about getting the government, the opposition, the interest groups and the academics on board and getting them to realize that there’s a body of evidence, like cost-benefit analysis, that can help them make better decisions. That analysis can tell you that if you spend a dollar or a rupee or schilling or whatever your currency is, you will get this much back on that dollar, etc., which makes it much easier to understand and summarize what a lot of economic research tells you. It is a fun way of getting media attention.

Q: How hard is getting people from different academic perspectives to move toward consensus? I’ve always thought you build marvellous bridges between the social and natural sciences where data points can speak differently to the different disciplines. Is that a fair observation?

A: In any conversation, you must remember the people you are conversing with and who you need to convince. It’s the mom who has to take her sons to soccer in five minutes. Those are the people that we actually need to convince.

So, this is about making the conversation so relevant and yet reasonably simple that you can realistically imagine the scenario. One of the reasons we have so many catastrophe scenarios is because it’s very, very easy to claim all the ice is going to melt and we’re all going to drown. That’s a fun story, but it’s not true. But it’s a fun story. I get why it gets headlines. But the story doesn’t end there. We need to recognize that natural scientists are not the only ones who can tell us how much higher temperatures are going to be.

It also matters what humans do. And I think that’s where social scientists come in. And social scientists will typically tell you, yes, the actual physical place of the water is one factor, but another critical factor is what people choose to do with that. Holland is a great example of that.

And, so, at the end of the day, you need that other bit of the conversation. But social scientists have been terrible at making the same impact as natural scientists, partly because (social science) is not as precise as being able to say it’s going to be a metre of sea level rise. It’s harder to explain what the impact of adaptation will be, for instance. A straightforward way of doing that is simply by saying, well, you know, this many people are going be displaced if nobody did anything. But a lot fewer people are going be displaced if we do something.

Q: Perfect. Just in closing in terms of a personal passion, I argue that Canada’s agricultural and energy systems sectors can be a lot more productive on climate issues, food security, energy stability, decarbonization, all those dynamics through cross-sectoral collaboration and consensus building. Is that something you’re seeing in your work globally, where different sectors are saying they need to have better conversations because they’re in the water game together, they’re in the emissions game together, they’re in the biodiversity game, they’re in the civil society game together? Any advice?

A: Together. It sounds right, and it also sounds nice. But it’s not the kind of thing I do. To me, the main conversation is much more about why we are talking about net zero rather than ensuring we have enough food. Why do we talk about carbon emissions before we talk about making sure that people have good lives? So, it’s a question of priorities.

Conversations about collaboration just end up emphasizing all the same keywords that everybody regurgitates, which is nice. And it makes everyone’s careers go very easy and smoothly, but it’s not really what changes the conversation. What you really need at the outset is to ensure you overcome all the vested interests in the conversation … and to make sure you’re looking at the right problems.

Bill Whitelaw is the Managing Director of Strategy & Sustainability with Geologic Systems.

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