Roads to Progress with Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus, the best-selling author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Best Things First, and a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. He’s been named one of the top 100 public intellectuals by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines and was listed among TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world.

There’s something unmistakably toxic in today’s politics. Pick the issue, and its online offshoots are likely to be oversimplified, black-and-white shouting matches in which self-proclaimed heroes moralize against evildoers on their way to more influence and clout… Read the rest of this article on my Substack

CHAPTERS

00:00:00 In this episode…

00:00:19 Intro

00:03:34 Chapter 1: Go Check the Data

00:16:36 Chapter 2: The UN Climate Panel View

00:20:46 Chapter 3: Fighting the Apocalypse 

00:39:30 Chapter 4: Economic Development and Progress

00:46:37 Chapter 5: Best Things First

01:01:25 Chapter 6: The Value of Life

 

View Full Transcript

Roads to Progress, with Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

 

I’d love to live in a world where we fix everything. But the reality is some things are easy and cheap to fix and other things are incredibly hard and expensive to fix. Given that we know these two things, it seems to me that maybe we should fix the easy and cheap things first .

 

FRED

 

This is my conversation with leading global thinker and president of the Copenhagen Consensus, Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

 

I first came across Dr. Lomborg’s work when he published The Skeptical Environmentalist, a book that made waves and made him controversial among environmental activists.

 

Dr. Lomborg has accumulated an impressive list of accolades: he was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, a top 100 public intellectual by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines, and one of the 50 people who could save the planet by the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

 

His approach to breaking down public issues is as far from today’s politicians and pundit influencers as you can find:

 

He looks at policies logically and designs studies to understand them from a hard data and statistical perspective. He’s precise and transparent about his conclusions. He’ll readily admit to blind spots or limitations in his findings. His focus is far less political than it is scientific.

 

Along with a team that includes several Nobel prize winners, he compares policies according to their costs and benefits—how much benefit do they actually provide in human well-being for every dollar spent?

 

What he finds is that simple measures people find too boring to discuss in the entertaining blood sport that democracy has become, often provide the best value to investment  – things like digitizing the public procurement process, improving newborn health in poor areas, or widening the use of self-learning tablets for kids in classrooms, and many others

 

On the other hand, the big, splashy, high-drama hero policies we love to obsess over on social media are often overrated and drain resources from better places

 

Overall, it’s a refreshing change from the cartoonish, black-and-white moral panic that’s so popular in today’s public discourse, and much likelier to actually help design better solutions

 

In this conversation, we talk about Dr. Lomborg’s intellectual journey, we unpack his views on the environment, which are way more nuanced than his detractors suggest, and learn about his cost-benefit approach and what it can bring to public discourse, and why politicians and ideologues often push back against it

 

I hope you all learn and enjoy this conversation – this is the road to progress with Dr. Bjørn Lomborg.

 

 

Fred

Dr. Lomborg, thank you so much for being here.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

It’s my pleasure. It’s great to be here.

 

Fred

Excellent. So I’ve been following your work for over 20 years, since 2002, exactly when I was doing a masters in international law in the Netherlands. And your book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, had just come out and was already starting to cause a little bit of controversy. But more quietly, more in like, academic settings. And since then, of course, you know, the controversies have gotten a little bit more mainstream. But I remember at the time, reading the book and saying, wait a minute, like what my environmental law professor is saying that the book is saying and what the book is actually saying are two completely different things. And since then, I’ve become very, very curious about your work with the Copenhagen Consensus and so forth. So first of all, I really, really value this opportunity to discuss these issues with you. And I want to thank you for agreeing to do this. It’s a real honor and pleasure to have you here with me today.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Well, thank you very much. And thank you very much for actually having read the book, because, yes, you’re absolutely right. There’s a lot of people who have only read about the book and they have a very, you know, not very surprisingly, but they have a very cartoonish vision of what the book probably says, because a lot of people like to make a lot of cardboard versions of what I’m actually trying to say. But you know, very briefly, it simply points out, contrary to what you think, most environmental trends and indeed most trends in the world are improving, and that’s worth knowing just simply because it takes it out of that state of, my God, the end is near nigh and we’re all going to die, and start making us realize alright, you know, fundamentally things are working, but there’s still a lot of problems. Let’s actually fix those problems. Let’s fix them smartly, not being panicked but being, you know, rational, cool head it.

 

Fred

So you take that very pragmatic approach.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

You don’t need to read the book or your listeners don’t need to read the book.

 

Fred

But it’s very true that people reduce it to sort of these talking points or these, oh my God, like he’s a climate denier, you know, just because you take this more pragmatic, like, cool-headed approach to the environmental problem. And I remember reading this is totally not what the book is about. So it’s actually you come from a part of the world. And as we just talked about, I actually studied there for a year in Sweden, Scandinavia, where concern for the environment is kind of a sacred cow. And it’s taught very early on, usually in what has come to be a very orthodox way. So focusing on the need to reduce consumption and reducing carbon emissions. And how, you know, capitalism has gone too far and that whole sort of way of thinking and in a lot of ways you’ve been exploring a contrary view to these orthodoxies for most of your career. How and when did you personally realize in your life that the standard way of looking at these issues was flawed? And what’s it been like on a personal level dealing with all the blowback in your homeland?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yeah. So I should, first of all, before I get to what I’ve actually tried to do here, especially around the world, we like to sort of pretend that Denmark and Sweden and Norway are these amazing paragons that do everything right and, you know, are just amazing people. Look, we like, you know, the new car and the big stereo and all the other things just as much as the next guy. And our politicians like to get reelected on the back of having, you know, economic growth and jobs and all that stuff. So it’s not like we’re amazing. But you’re right sort of trend wise. And, you know, I used to be one of those guys. So I was a member of Greenpeace, out in the rubber boat or anything.

 

But, you know, I had the I had the subscription, I had the backpack with the badge and I had the poster on my wall that, you know, this quote. Later I realized it was a fictitious quote from this Indian chief who says, “only when they felled the last tree, well, they realize they can’t eat gold”. Yeah and, you know, that whole sort of belief. I remember we had a very strong incident in Denmark back in 1987 where we found a lot of dead lobsters on the on the bottom of the, you know, the big sea. Everything’s small in Denmark, but the relatively big sea that we have caused by hypoxia. So basically agricultural runoff, that makes, you know, lots of algae and then sucks up all the oxygen and then, you know, lobsters die. And I remember I felt very, very strongly and sort of viscerally, why are the politicians just talking about, oh what should we do? The world is ending. You’ve just got to stop everything. And, you know, so I totally get what where you know, people that I’m now debating some 40 years later are thinking the exact same thing. We sort of think this is the end of the world. And then we panicked.

 

So my journey was I read an interview in Wired magazine back in 1997 about an American economist called Julian Simon, who basically said, look, you think the world is ending, you think everything is getting worse. Not true. Actually most things are getting better. And yeah, my sort of instinctive reaction was right-wing American propaganda.  But he did say one thing that really nagged me. He said, go check the data. And this was, you know, I taught statistics and political science. I was a tenured professor at that time. And I always look for interesting stuff to engage my students in. And I always told them, you know, the reason why you need to learn statistics is because you need to check the data. And so I figured this would actually be fun. Surely it was wrong. But, you know, it would actually be fun to check all his data.

 

Fred

Let’s debunk this guy. Let’s debunk this guy.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yes. I mean, I think everyone who started on this, I had like, you know, 10, 20 really smart students were going to read all of his stuff and we were going to, you know, go every week for like a semester. And we were going to debunk the whole thing. And, you know, yes, he did say some wrong things. Yes, he did engage in some wishful thinking, but mostly he was right. And if you look around, it’s not very hard to see most places in the rich world. Air pollution has come down dramatically. Now. A large part of this, certainly in the last 50 years, is because of environmental regulation. We basically told people you have to cut some of that emissions from your tailpipe and your car and you do that with, you know, catalytic converters and other, you know, smart gizmos.

 

But the fundamental point is it’s actually been coming down to most rich countries for about 100 years. Much of it is simply because more air pollution is also an example of wasteful use each year. You basically emitted some of the coal that you could otherwise have burned more and got more power with. So if you actually try to become more efficient, you get less air pollution. So one of the graphs that I also show in the Skeptical Environmentalist is we have air pollution data back from 1585 in London. And if you look at it, it just kept going up and up and up. It got worse and worse and people were coughing more and more up till about 1890. And since 1890, air pollution has declined and declined and declined so that today it’s now cleaner than it’s ever been since medieval times.

 

This is important for two reasons, partly because it actually shows that when, you know, things can be very different from what you think they are, we’ve actually pretty much fixed most of air pollution. There’s still a problem. We should actually fix it more. We’ll get to that. But fundamentally, we’ve fixed a large portion of outdoor air pollution in rich countries because we got rich. Part of it is because of legislation. Part of it is because of efficiency. But we’re much better off than we’ve ever been in modern times. And we need to know this because it takes away the panic.

 

Fred

So it’s understanding this nexus between economic development and technological development and actually improving the environment. I wonder if you’ve read Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, which sounds very similar to this article about a very data based approach to proving that, you know, I mean, things in all these different measures, we have all this crazy pessimism and you look at the media, you look at the politics, everything runs on panic and fear. But actually, when you take a cool-headed look at the data, it suggests a completely different trajectory.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Absolutely. So, yeah, and yes, I consider although he never writes, I think for good reason, because he didn’t want to get into that controversy. I find in this new book very much an update of The Skeptical Environmentalist in many ways. And in some ways you could say what you see. And he shows that data. If you look at data from New York Times and from a lot of papers and TV around the world since 1970s, negative words have become much more prominent than positive words, much less prominent. We’ve just simply become much, much more worried. And there’s a very simple reason for that. The more competition you have, the more you need to become clickbait, and you need to, you know, sort of get your viewer’s attention. And it’s much easier to say, yeah, the world is ending, then you’ll click on it, then saying, actually this is just like it was last year. It’s actually better than last year and most people are just going to say, okay, and then move on. So we, you know, negativity sells.

 

Fred

And especially like if it’s small progress, right? If it’s like, okay, this is 1.8% improvement over last year, that is like the most boring story ever that nobody’s ever going to click on.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yeah, and there’s two things to that. One is that many of these improvements because they keep on year after year, they’re actually really, really important, but they never get to be that breakthrough thing, you know, bad things happen immediately. Oh, this forest burned down, but actually over since 1986, at least the world has more forests, not less. This is very well known when you look at… because we have good satellite data. But actually most of the stuff that you hear is, oh this forest burnt down or that forest got felled. And that’s, of course, a news story. But you don’t hear the fact that overall it’s actually seen increases and, you know, there’s a large reason that I would love to tell you. Well, let me just tell you very, very briefly, if you ask FAO, which is the – which is the U.N. Organization for Agriculture, they keep sort of the world’s best or the world’s most prominent forest data. And they look at places where there were forest back in, you know, say the fifties and sixties. And now surprisingly, when you only look at the places that have forest, it can only go down. But what the satellite data does is it also looks at all the places that didn’t have forest back in the 1950s and sixties.

 

And you get why a bureaucratic organization ends up just looking at where there used to be forest and then actually see, there’s less and less forest. But if you look at satellites, there’s more and more forest because lots of forest has happened elsewhere and overall there’s more forest. The other bit is also that there’s some of these stories, even though they happen every day, they’re incredibly momentous. Did you know over the last 25 years, each and every day, the world has lifted 138,000 people out of poverty every day for the last 25 years? That could have been the headline in all papers around the world. We’ve literally lifted more than a billion people out of poverty and of course, many more if you take the increase. But they were not there in the first place. But the amazing thing is you never hear that. If you ask most people, are there more few people poor in the world? Most people will say there are more people that are poor because that’s the story that we hear. Again, there are a lot of poor people still, you know, 600, 700 million people that are desperately poor. And we should definitely do something to help them. But 200 years ago, almost everyone in the world were poor. And now, less than 10% are poor. We need to keep a sense of proportion if we’re going to get this right.

 

Fred

Absolutely.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

So just to finish the personal story, when I realized that, you know, I didn’t actually leave Greenpeace because I still think it’s a great organization, I’m happy they’re there. But I ran out of money as a student, and so I ended up not, you know, keeping up my membership. But obviously I’ve become very critical of the way that you only look at problems, the way that, you know, Greenpeace is a great part of the conversation, but you shouldn’t trust them when they just say, here’s a problem, here’s another problem, here’s a third problem. You also need to take a step back and look at the whole picture of it.

 

Fred

So if we start with the environment overall, like this, this complex topic that apparently we’re not allowed to talk about, it’s right or left or it’s black and white, and there’s like, no. And I believe I like the way foreign policy described you. They said that you’re a person that takes the black and white out of climate politics and I really, really like that. And I found myself many times with a lot of my environmentalist friends trying to explain to them your position, because right away they started categorizing like, oh denier, you know, like on the other side or like some kind of an agenda. And I’m like, no, no, no, no. So I’d like to spend a little bit of time like really just breaking down your stance in a few basic positions that I’ve kind of simplified and you can maybe comment on each one and correct me if I’m wrong. So if we start from the top, you believe that. And again, I don’t see personally, I’ve never seen the environment as like a right/left. I think that we should all care about the environment. You know, even if you on the right wing and typically you’ll even see people like more on the right wing, they’ll have this actual more connection. Sometimes with nature and care more about, you know, care about things like, you know, the pollution in a river or things like that. And so it’s something that we should all care about. But if we start from the top, you believe and we focus in on this the climate change issue, you believe that climate change exists and that it’s a problem that we need to confront on some level. Is that is that accurate?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yes, it’s both. It’s real, it’s happening, it’s manmade. And mostly it’s a negative impact. Yeah. Okay.

 

Fred

And that so that was number two. You believe that it’s to some degree caused by humans, especially some of our industrial practices, particularly our reliance on coal-related energies, is that also fair to say?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yes. And just to sort of shortcut this whole thing, I simply buy a whole wholesale into the whole U.N. climate panel scientific findings. So, look, I’m a social scientist. How would I know better? I think there’s a lot of people who are arguing this, and I think it’s great that they are, you know, but fundamentally, if we’re going to have a sensible political conversation about this, I’m simply taking the standard view, the U.N. climate panel on the science bit is just right.

 

Fred

Okay, great. Three, and this is maybe an important departure point, and you’ve mentioned that quickly. You do not subscribe to the climate apocalypse hypothesis. In other words, you do not believe that we are facing an imminent, inevitable catastrophe. In other words, it’s not to be understood as a meteor hurtling towards planet Earth, like UN Secretary-General Guterres calls it global boiling or suicide or a time bomb. Is that fair? You do not subscribe to that view of It’s a meteor coming at us at full speed.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

No. And that’s again, because that’s not actually what the U.N. climate panel is saying at all. If you look, I did a tweet on this, but that’s more sort of the fun. You know, that’s the very condensed version of it. If you look at how many times the U.N. climate panel uses the words climate change or global warming, lots of times, how many times do they use climate catastrophe, global boiling? You know, any of those many, many words that you see out there, existential crisis? None, because that’s just not what the U.N. climate panel is telling us. They’re telling us that global warming will be a problem, not the end of the world. And that’s crucial because, as you just pointed out, you know, if it was the end of the world, then clearly we should just throw everything in the kitchen sink of this. And in some sense, I get why a lot of climate campaigners want to position as the end of the world. It’s a common thing that a lot of people in a lot of different areas say, oh my area is so important that if we don’t do something about it, we’re all going to die. So give me all your money. Yeah, it makes sense if you’re an NGO, but it doesn’t make sense if you’re actually trying to make decisions between a lot of different things. Because remember, climate is not the only thing we need to spend money on. We also need to spend money on food and education and health care and all these other things. And it’s not like they’re going to go away. So we need to have a sense of the real size of the problem, not sort of an exaggerated version of it.

 

 

I’m curious. I saw one, said Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan and Antifragile. He is a statistician and he wrote once, I believe, in a tweet that even if the climate apocalypse were very, very small risk, that it would still be reasonable to disproportionately invest in minimizing this risk since the outcome is like massive planetary destruction. So as a statistician and as a social scientist, what do you think of this argument?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

So this is a very clever argument. It’s not correct, but it’s a very clever argument. It’s a version of the Pascal argument of saying, you know, look, you may not know if there’s a God, but if there’s just a small chance of there being a God, it’s probably better to be Christian because, you know, if you get up there and you didn’t believe in him, you’re screwed, right? The problem with that argument of course, is how do you know it’s a Christian God? What is the risk that it could have been, you know, Islamic God or a Hindu God or something else? So, you know, whatever you end up believing, you sort of have screwed up all the other ones. You know, by some count, there’s 4000 different deities. So if you believe in one of them, you have 3999 chance of failing on actually having chosen the right God. Now, this this is obviously just fun, but it’s important because this really tells us it’s not the only thing that potentially could go catastrophically wrong.

 

So this was actually a big discussion between the climate economist called William Nordhaus, who ended up getting the Nobel Prize. He’s the only guy to get the Nobel Prize for climate economics and another guy who is making essentially the argument that you just made and I’m forgetting his name right now, which is terrible, but there you are. But his argument was there’s a fat tail risk. So, you know, it could go fantastically wrong. So we should spend all of our money on climate change. Nordhaus’ argument was very interesting, and they, you know, went on for a very long time. His argument was, well, what about all the other fantastically risky things? A.I. is one that we talk a lot about. Gray goo that, you know, sort of small micro machines could actually end up taking over the world and make everything into gray goo. What about an asteroid? What about everything else? You know? There’s a ton of things. Yeah, very obviously, the fact that North Korea has lots of nuclear weapons and, you know, they always seem to be getting worse into the 21st century. There’s lots of things that we should be concerned about, obviously, pandemics and so on. Should we be spending all of our money on all of these things? You can’t. You can only spend all your money once. And so he actually had a very, very interesting point and a data point.

 

So back in the late 1990s, NASA came up with a proposal to detect 90% of all the meteors that potentially could end up hitting Earth. Now we know that that’s a way the world could end its ended, or at least end it for a very large number of species. So this is really a planet killer possibility. Now it only happens once every about 100 million years thereabout. So it’s not something you need to, you know, be awa- you know, wake of every you know, every night. But it is a real risk and, you know, multiply it by the fact that we don’t want to go extinct. That’s a huge issue. Maybe we should be spending all our money there. So NASA’s sent to the U.S. Congress a proposal we can do. We can find 90% of these within the next five years for this amount of money. We can also find 99% for a larger amount. And U.S. Congress said, okay, we’ll do the 90%, but not the 99. And what Nordhaus points out is that they did what any reasonable person would do. We were going to buy some, but not all of it. We’re not going to get all the protection. But they implicitly actually set a price on the extinction of human race, right? Because we decided no. 9% reduction of the risk of human extinction is just not worth those extra billions. And we do this all the time. We make these decisions and we need to make these decisions because we have to trade off with a lot of other things.

 

Remember, everyone will tell you, oh, my area is the most important that you could possibly invest in. And if you don’t invest here, we’re going to lose out on so many different things and potentially we’re all going to go extinct. Well, yeah, but so we do with all others. So the fundamental point here is, yes, when you do these models with climate economics and actually say, but there’s a real risk of things getting worse than what we expected, it does mean you should spend more, but it doesn’t mean you should spend all. It’s still very clearly bound because there are a lot of other things that could also go terribly wrong. And so this happens. You only make this argument if you don’t think about, well, all the other things in the world.

 

Fred

The opportunity cost. You’re assuming that argument, even the Blaise Pascale kind of version of it, it assumes that there’s no opportunity cost and no tradeoffs. Right. You’re sort of if.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

There’s only one God, then you should believe in him because the alternative is really bad. But if there’s a lot of gods, which there are in the real world, it doesn’t actually work.

 

Fred

Yeah. And that’s it. And it assumes that there’s no there’s no tradeoff. It’s it. So that’s why I think there’s a bad reason for believing in God, for instance, because if the odds are so small, then the tradeoff is you’re sacrificing the only life that you know you have, right, on the probability that you’re believing in a false god. So it’s the same thing here. It’s like we’re assuming that there’s an opportunity cost, but there’s, there are tradeoffs. There are, you know, limitations in resources. Resources are scarce up to a point where you can’t just keep printing money and expect there to be no consequence eventually. So you sort of have to balance these things out rationally.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Money is only a proxy for stuff we have. So even if you print more money, you don’t have more stuff. And the stuff is actually the things that we care about. So yes, you are limited.

 

Fred

Right. And I want to get back to that in the context of Best Things. First, in terms of your methodology for calculating these things, including human life, something I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts about. But just to close up sort of on the environment side. So the final position is you don’t believe that the type of policies many Western governments, especially, you know, what we call the environmental movement, are pursuing in the name of tackling climate change are effective and that they may even cause more harm than good by increasing the price of energy and by diverting resources in the way we just discussed. Now, from issues where we know we can do a lot more tangible good and where there is a lot more data. And you give the example of Germany’s Energiewende policy or the clean energy policy of Germany. Can you please explain for people that are not super well versed in this topic, how climate policies and this kind of environmental action can practically cause more harm than good?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yes. So again, I’m not the guy who is claiming to have all the answers. I’m simply looking at all the guys who have actually done all the work. So, you know, in the in the climate science space, it’s the UN climate panel. But in the climate economic space, it’s the climate economists. And you know, foremost about among them is William Nordhaus, who got the Nobel Prize and climate economics. And his basic point is there’s a cost to climate. That’s absolutely true. So, you know, the higher the temperature goes up, the more damage we’re going to see. There’s a real cost to that, but there’s also a cost to climate policy. So if we try to force people to do stuff they otherwise wouldn’t have done, it’s because it’s actually either less convenient, less useful, or just more expensive. And we see this in a lot of different ways. If you try to push people to electric cars while they’re not quite ready, you know, you actually need to incentivize them with thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in subsidies. If you want to force people to use solar power and wind power, you actually need to give them a lot of subsidies.

 

And that’s what we’re seeing around the world. We can have this conversation about- are there some of these things that would happen, even though, you know, yes, some people would buy electric cars without subsidies? Great. Please do. Some people would put up solar panels and wind turbines. That’s no problem, but we’re not arguing about the stuff that people would do without subsidies. That’s fine. The point is, if you want to get the world off fossil fuels any time soon, you need massive subsidies or more likely, massive fines for using it, which is typically understood as a carbon tax. Or you can do much, much less effectively by having a bundle of non-overlapping non, non-interacting bad policies. They’ll try to promote some things and destroy other things, and then you end up with much, much more costly policies. All of these climate policies, climate economics shows that you should do some climate policy and that. So that’s also what I’m arguing for. We should do some. Cutting the first tons of CO2 is very cheap and it cuts the very highest end of the temperature outcomes, which are the worst outcomes. So very cheap cost, very high benefits. That you should do.

 

 

Fred

I’m interested this is what policy in particular can you can you zoom in on.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

That would be you should certainly go from 0 to $1 in a carbon tax. If we just imagine it for a global. It’s not never going to happen that way. But you know, you should. Right now the world has say somewhere between 1  and $2 of effective carbon tax, which is really rich countries have lots of carbon taxes, most poor countries have virtually zero. You should definitely move that up because cutting the first tons of CO2 is very cheap. You know, one or $2 by definition, and the benefits are much larger than that, possibly in the tens or maybe even the hundreds of dollars. But as you go up and make more and more taxes, you will eventually reach a point where you are making more costs and lower net additional benefits. Then you should stop. This, you know, if you set this in any other circumstance, people would just be like, that sounds banal and it is banal. It’s just basic economics 101. But in climate it has become this. No, we need to go all the way. We need to go to net zero by 2050. We need to basically stop using fossil fuels as power. The last 200 years of industrial progress in order to avoid a climate catastrophe.

 

Now, again, if it’s the end of the world, it sort of makes sense to say, yes, we should do everything and the kitchen sink. Nothing can be too expensive. But the reality is and there’s just a new study out in in Climate Change Economics, which is a period journal as the first estimates of the cost and benefits of going net zero by 2050. And I’m just going to give you- it’s a long story. There’s several estimates of the cost. There’s one estimate of the benefit. But I’m just going to give you the very short version of this. What they find is the average cost- sorry, the average benefit of achieving net zero by 2050 will probably be in the order of four and a half trillion dollars per year on discounted across the 21st century. Now, that’s not nothing. That’s actually a lot of money. That’s worth, you know, opening up your eyes for what the cost of the policy achieve. It will likely be in the order of 26, maybe $27 trillion.

 

Fred

Oh my God.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Paying $27 trillion to achieve a benefit-

 

Fred

That’s crazy –

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

-of about four and a half trillion dollars is a really bad deal. And this is the basic point.

 

Fred

So negative ROI like very negative ROI. With your methodology on measuring the ROIs of policies, this is like.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Every dollar spent will deliver $0.17 of benefits, which is just, yeah, that’s not a good way to help the world. You’re basically throwing away more than $0.83 of every dollar you put in there, and it’s not a little bit of money. We’re talking about 26, $27 trillion. Just for context right now, the global tax intake. So the net ability of all governments in the world to do anything is about $15 trillion. Now, obviously will become richer throughout the 21st century, but it gives you a sense of proportion. We’re almost talking about twice all the spending of all governments in the world every year throughout the century. So, again, I’m not saying that we should do nothing. We should actually do smart climate policy, and that involves a bit of carbon taxation. It’s probably never going to really work because we’ve seen it not work in the US, we’ve seen it. It would be very hard in the U- and Europe and many other places, but we should do some of that. But mostly we should be focusing on innovation because that’s the way you actually going to fix this. But currently that’s not what we’re doing. We’re all saying and all politicians are saying, no, we need to go net zero by 2050. And that’s just the most incredibly costly policy to achieve very little good for the future of this planet. So net, it’s a very, very bad idea. And it’s again, not me saying this, this is some of the best models, some of the best economists, the only guy to win the Nobel Prize in climate economics, telling us the current set of promises on climate are just a really bad deal.

 

Fred

It’s a very interesting psychological phenomenon as well, because I remember from a COVID and even staying out of the political aspect of this, I remember during COVID it’s almost like we sometimes as a species, like a certain fear, captures our attention and then we sort of narrow our entire consciousness to that fear. And then all we’re doing is mono-maniacally dealing with that fear. Regardless of what the consequences are, we lose our ability to expand our consciousness and look at the overall impact. And I remember this during COVID and it was like, that’s it. The point of life is just dealing with COVID, like reducing COVID is, that is the only point of like human life, that, if you listen to government, that’s the way they were sort of treating it, just the methodology of it. I guess I was not of the view that we should do nothing. I was not of the view that it was just the common cold. I was not of the view that we should not do anything about it. But this mono-maniacal, this is the only thing that matters. And then, you know, after that, the damage to the economy and the damage to people’s mental health and so forth. And at some point, like very quickly, it was like, wait a minute, like, are we looking at this in a cost-benefit analysis or are we measuring?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

I thought that after COVID, this would be a perfect example for everyone. But of course, what really has happened is that a lot of people have gotten very, very sort of fixated on one or the other side. So in some ways it’s been become a play of the whole climate conversation. But again, as you point out, look, fundamentally, COVID was a huge challenge. Flattening the curve was an incredibly smart thing. We know that that’s a good idea. Basically, make sure a lot more people survive to make sure that there’s enough hospital capacity. So you may need to make some restrictions to flatten the curve. That makes perfect sense. But once governments realized, oooh, I can make fewer people die from COVID, why is the right number not zero? Yeah, and of course, the right number is not zero because it’s rarely zero. And, you know, if you look at another thing on American roads, on European roads, every year, about 40,000 people die in each place from traffic deaths. We have a perfect way to reduce that down to zero, set the speed limit of five kilometers an hour. Nobody dies. But of course, you don’t actually do that because you have other things you want to optimize as well. And we know that we make optimization when we say, sure, you know, it should be 55 or 75 miles an hour or 100, 130 kilometers an hour, but it’s not three miles. You don’t want to.

 

Fred

Think it is. You know what I think it is? I think it’s the uncertainty. I think it’s like we’ve gotten used to people dying from car crashes. So the fact that we know more or less how many people are going to- we’re like, okay, there’s no uncertainty there. But as soon as there’s uncertainty, we think, oh my God, it could be endless. It could be like as- it’s the uncertainty that gets us, like, irrational. I think.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

And there’s certainly a certain part of that. But I would argue that a lot of other things so very clearly, why are we not more we’re more worried about future pandemics? Because clearly they could cost us all of our lives. Why are we not worried about meteors hurtling towards Earth that could eradicate all life as we know? Why are we not more worried about North Korea? Why are we not more worried about A.I. or Grey Goo and all these other things? So I think it’s it is partly the worry of endless, terrible outcomes, but it’s also because we get massaged on this particular point from media. So during COVID, it was COVID That was all that matter and that was all everybody thought about.

 

Fred

We could only focus on one at a time. We could only have like we only have room for one great fear at a time, completely irrational. All these other fears exist. But yeah.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

I think it makes perfect sense for, you know, for humans that we that we have a hard time dealing with many things at once. But of course, we should recognize that we are actually, as a species, dealing with many things at once. And I, for one, am incredibly grateful that there’s a lot of smart people who are working on a lot of things I had no idea was problems. But, you know, they’re actually figuring it out. And, you know, there’s a lot of doctors’ll figure out a lot of diseases. I’ve heard of that I might actually have died of had they not been looking at it and all these things. So we should definitely be investigating all these things. We need to recognize it is not such that we can just avoid catastrophe by shutting down essentially the engine of economic growth and go to net zero without a huge loss overall. And it seems very likely that that is just a very bad idea. And so, again, if you listened so far, into the conversation you’ve basically heard, yes, the UN climate panel is right. The climate economists, the best and brightest climate economists are also right. And they’re basically telling it on the basis of the science. It’s a problem, not the end of the world. We should do something, but not all. And that’s really the basic point. And, you know, I don’t think it’s very controversial to say it, but clearly it is because it upsets a lot of people.

 

 

Yeah, you mentioned economic development and also how a lot of the solutions actually come from technology. And I think it’s worth zooming in on this point before we move on to Best Things First, because I do want to talk about the positive side of the ledger as well. The things that we can do, the things that can deliver a great ROI from a policy perspective. So there’s this perceived tension in the environmentalist movement, we know, between economic development and climate action. Right. But you’ve noted in many places in your writings that the more an economy develops, the more people typically can afford to start caring about the environment, the more they’re willing to pay a price for the environment. And also they’re willing to invest more in technology and developing clean energies. At a political level, you often hear Western environmentalists say, well, if everyone consumed like us, you know, the Earth could not take it. And then on the other side, in developing countries, you see much less overt environmentalism. And it’s almost like the stance is easy for you guys to say you guys have already developed. We deserve our turn at development, even if that comes at a cost for the environment. So in your view, if you can just summarize: what happens when an economy develops, is it more polluting because of more consumption or is it actually less polluting because of cleaner technologies and more care for the environment?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yeah. Oh God. There’s not a really, really short answer, but I’ll try to make it short. Well, on most things we see as people get richer, they actually end up with fewer environmental problems. We have cleaner air, we have cleaner water. We’ve cleaned up most of our act. As you get richer, you first get more polluting and then you get less polluting. It’s called the inverse Kuznets curve. And in the literature is very well proven across the world and we know that, as you pointed out, it’s simply a question of saying once you get sufficiently rich, you actually like more forests, you like more clean water, and you’re willing to elect politicians that’ll prioritize that. But this is not true, at least not so far on emissions of CO2. So on emissions of CO2, as you get richer, you just emit more CO2. Now, they’re possibly seeing some things like in the EU and Canada, other places. We’ve actually seen a decline in emissions. We’ve also seen that from the US. So possibly there is this sort of as you get very rich, you then start seeing declining emissions, but we’re not nearly as certain about that.

 

But I think there’s an additional part of this conversation that we tend to forget, namely that ostensibly the reason why we care, for instance, about climate change is because of its impacts. Much of those impacts are on human beings, right? So this will lead to storms that will have worse impact on people, on droughts, they’ll have worse impact on people, on higher temperatures, they’ll, will have more impact on people. But what we forget is that really poor people will have enormously bad impacts of all of these things, as they will for most other things. But as they get out of poverty, they get much less badly impacted by all of these. So fundamentally, if you’re rich, you don’t get nearly as much impacted by a drought because you can actually get your food from the other side of the world. Whereas if you’re really poor, it really does matter. And so one of our the Nobels I work a lot with Thomas Schelling who’s unfortunately passed on now. He actually was the first to formulate what’s known as the Schelling conjecture. Our poor people are actually better off by focusing on climate policy or by focusing on making them better off. And the simple answer is it’s much better for them to be better off not only are they much, much less vulnerable to any climate catastrophe you can imagine, they’re also much better off. You know, they are now gonna be –

 

Fred

To be you reduce their fragility. You reduce their fragility. Yeah. You improve their ability to sort of respond to whatever happens.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yes, but and this is what we often forget because we’re so obsessed with just talking about climate. They’re also just not going to die from, you know, from basic excess diseases or from hunger or they’ll be better educated. All these other things that come from not being poor. So it’s not like they were just better off in the climate, but they’re better off, period. And, you know, that’s of course, why, as you as you very politely mentioned, that most poor people find this to be an incredibly hypocritical conversation. Sure. It’s easy for you rich guys to sit and say –

 

Fred

Yeah.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Do we have enough? I actually feel like I have enough. And of course, people don’t actually act as if they are when you see them at their next interview for how much their wages should go up. But, you know, you can sort of see why people would argue, at least in principle, we have enough. But clearly people who are really, really poor don’t have enough. And I don’t blame them one bit for saying I would like some of that development. And I think we owe it to them. But they also get the same opportunity to get rich. Just one final point. When people say, oh everyone couldn’t live like that. If we all live like Americans, you know, then we’d need four or five Earths. It’s important to say that’s just from an incredibly flawed study of what’s called ecological footprint. It really just comes down to this one point, namely that if you measure ecological footprint, how much of the world do you need to live your life? It is measured in terms of saying all the CO2 that you emit we need to plant forests to soak that up. And if you do that because it’s one of the least effective ways to soak up CO2, you would actually need to plant four or five planets if everyone lived like Americans. But of course you could just plant, I don’t know, wind turbines or solar panels or nuclear power plants, and you would need virtually no extra land and you could soak up all the CO2. So it’s really designed to give you that result, but it’s fundamentally flawed. And if you take that one assumption and that assumption away, you don’t get this outcome. So it’s one of those many myths we happen to stop happening.

 

Fred

It’s interesting how there’s this combination of like on the one hand, it’s always sounded to me as a very privileged discourse, this idea that, well, you know, everybody can’t afford to live like us. I mean, we live like us. So it’s okay, but we can’t afford for anybody else to live at our standard. You know, that would be that would be wrong. Yeah.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

And you point to a very important issue that nobody could actually get elected by saying, look, guys, we’re all going to get poorer. There’s actually some academic people who are arguing for degrowth and that we need to realize, yeah, we’re never going to be able to sustain this and we’ll be much more. That’s just never going to work in the voting booth, which of course is why a lot of people have been saying maybe we should be more autocratic like China, but it’s never going to work in China either. The fundamental point is this is not going to fly, but also it’s not necessary. There’s a very good reason to believe that we can both be much better off and have much less environmental impact. And the real choice is much more of smart policy.

 

 

Yeah, and what you talk about the wind turbine, so one thing that you do that very few people do when talking about these issues is you look at the actual measures and you look at the actual policies and the actual technologies and you analyze them. So if we look at the positive side of the ledger, I mean, one of the reasons you’ve pushed back against our brand of environmentalism is because it sucks energy and resources away from more, you know, other issues like you’ve talked about the food security and the diseases and so forth, the things that we know how to tackle and where we can precisely measure the positive impact. But for whatever reason, they’re not sexy enough. They’re not exciting enough, like we lack the political will to actually tackle them and do the things that we know we can do to improve them. Again, maybe they’re too boring. Maybe we feel like we know them already, so we kind of take them for granted. And it’s not as exciting or heroic as like, we’re going to save the planet, right?

 

So a few examples from this from your latest book, Best Things First, where you put more of a focus around the developing world. So some examples would be making known tuberculosis treatments more available, simple improvements to newborn health in poor areas, better fertilizer and irrigation of crops, more use of tablets for kids in classrooms. They’re almost too simple to generate a lot of political energy around. There’s a sense of like, we know this stuff already, but you show in your book that measures like this can pack a much bigger ROI than sexier issues like climate action. And you and the researchers you work with have developed a method, to calculate the ROI for every dollar spent on these policies. So can you first please tell us a little bit about the ideas and methods behind Best Things First and then maybe in your view, you know, if simple, proven policies like this can do so much good, why is it in your view, that they’re not pursued more proactively by government?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yeah, well, thank you. So first of all, I run a think tank called the Copenhagen Consensus, where we work with hundreds of the world’s top economists. We work with seven Nobel laureates in economics to try to find where can you do the most good in the world. And so, funnily enough, in some sense, I’m very well known in the rich world for saying we’re spending way too much and badly on climate. But I’m known most of the rest of the world on saying we should be spending a lot more money on really smart things like on tuberculosis and health care and on education and agricultural research and development, so on. And so in some sense, this other, this new book that I just came out with, the Best Things First is just a statement to we wanted to try to say where can you actually spend money and do the very most good? So we try to identify the places that look, there’s a lot of things that can actually do you pretty darn good things in the world. And we know a lot of these things, but there are a few of them that are phenomenal. And so we identify phenomenal is as better than for every dollar spent. You will deliver 15 dolalrs of social benefits to people around the world.

 

Now, there’s unfortunately a get rich quick scheme, right? It’s not you can’t actually recoup those dollars because if you could, then it would already happen. This is basically, for instance, when we talk about tuberculosis, you invest money in getting more treatment, getting treatment services better. So that could be apps to make sure that people keep taking their medications and get a lot more people tested for TB. So we find the missing 3, 4 million people with TB every year, which is the reason why the epidemic keeps going on. This is fairly well-documented and we know how much it will cost. Can we basically know, it will cost about $6.5 billion a year more than what the world is spending right now. And the benefit would be that we could save about a million people each and every year up to 2050. So aren’t we willing to spend that? I think that would probably be a good idea. It’s not the only thing we should do, but it’s one of the best things you can do. We estimate for every dollar spent you would do $46 worth of good. How cool is that?

 

Fred

Unbelievable.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Why are we not doing that? And that goes to your second question why we’re not doing it. I think it’s a combination of I think is certainly not as sexy. You know, we’ve had tuberculosis for many years. Tuberculosis killed an enormous, you know, a tidal wave of people in the 1800s. Every fourth person that died in Western Europe or North America died from tuberculosis. So, you know, that’s just a mind boggling number. Probably about a billion people have died of tuberculosis over the last 200 years. But then we got antibiotics and it was no longer on the rich, rich country. Back, you know, 100 years ago, people would move to sanatoriums, you know, Moulin Rouge, I’m going to give away the ending. Right. Revolves around the fact that one of the main characters has tuberculosis. And this was true everywhere you had to go to Sanatoriums. And we really they didn’t work, but they were sort of a way to get people get rid of people with tuberculosis and get them to somewhere they wouldn’t infect others. And then suddenly we found a solution. Worked. But there’s still 1.4 million people that die each and every year on this planet from tuberculosis, it is an eminently treatable disease.

 

Yet it is the most it’s the biggest infectious disease killer. And, you know, for two years, 2020 and 2021, COVID was much bigger. But besides that, it’s been the biggest infectious disease killer, for the last decade. And we don’t care. Part of this is because most of the people who get it are weak, poor, often with very little political voice. So it’s not rich people, even in poor countries, that get it, because if they get it, they get it, they get diagnosed, they get treated, and they stop having it. And you also stop talking about it because unlike HIV, it’s not something you keep having. So you can sort of pretend you never had it. In Kenya, just to give you one example is the most extreme example. But if you get diagnosed with TB, there’s a very good chance you’re going to lose your job. You’re also very likely to lose your spouse. So about a quarter of everyone get divorced because why would you want to be, you know, married to that kind of a loser? That sort of thing? So of course, I want to pretend that I don’t have TB and as soon as you get cured, I never had TB. But the reality is it’s a huge and important killer, one that we can fix. And so we try to point out this is one place where you could spend little money and do an amazing amount of good. Again, this does not mean we can’t. We’re advanced species. So as you pointed out, we can only have sort of one catastrophe in our heads, but we can actually have more and, you know, policy conversations in our head. We know that we both need to talk about education and about health and about infrastructure and about, you know, North Korea and everything else in between. We can do all those things. So it’s not to say that we shouldn’t also do smart climate policy, but the way climate sort of takes over everything means that we often don’t have these simple, smart conversations that for a fraction of what we’re talking about in climate could solve all the major issues in the world.

 

Just to give you sort of the bottom line of the book, it says on these 12 great things that we identify for about $35 billion. So, you know, not nothing. I don’t think you have that kind of money. I certainly don’t have it, right. But yeah, and even Bill Gates kind of don’t have it because it per year. Right. So he would run out after, what, three or four years. But, you know, but it is a rounding error in most of the international conversations that we have. It’s a total rounding error of the, you know, $27 trillion I just told you about on the on the cost of our climate promises. So this is a really, really small amount of money for $35 billion a year. We could save 4.2 million people from dying each and every year. And we could make people in the poor half of the world about $1.1 trillion richer each and every year. That’s mostly through getting them better education and getting more opportunity for economic growth. And that’s about a dollar per person per year for the 4 billion poorest people. How come we’re not saying that? We estimate on average every dollar spent there would do $52 worth of good. That is a great investment and that’s certainly something we morally have a responsibility to do first.

 

Fred

So is it the political, voicelessness and powerlessness of these people? But that explains the fact that these things are not done or the denial or the fact that I don’t know the people with power and with political power, just, their minds are on something else. Like we’re… we’re…

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

It’s a combination, I think, of a lot of these things. So very clearly, for most rich people, our concern is with climate change. It’s with all our domestic issues. Look, that’s fine. You know, most politicians should be most worried about domestic issues, and that’s fine. But, you know, to the extent that they’re worried about stuff outside, they’re worried about climate, they’re worried about, you know, Israel, Palestine, they’re worried about Ukraine. There’s a few other things. And then that’s about 90% of everything that they can sort of encapsulate. And TB is just not a terribly sexy thing. Oh it’s been there for hundreds of years. Likewise, with malaria. But there’s one other thing. So, for instance, on education, as you very briefly said, what we find is there’s a lot of things that are not good investments. And then we also find there are few things in education that are incredibly good interventions. But one of the things that are not good interventions is to just simply get more teachers or pay teachers more. And we know this, the best estimate is from Indonesia that promised to double their spending on education and actually did it, much to their credit, the way they did that was basically hiring lots more teachers and then paying each teacher twice as much, which is an amazing outcome. And because they did it in different regions at different times, there’s a famous pseudo-randomized controlled trial paper that is actually evalued. So how much did that do for students? And the title of the paper is Double for Nothing. So you can sort of see what came out of it. It’s a it’s a very good paper. You should read it. But what it basically shows is you got much happier teachers. I mean, if you pay them twice as much, it’s not surprising they’re happy. But there is no not little, but no additional outcome on student learning. And this is what we know from a lot of studies.

 

So the real problem, any sort of realistic setting, especially in the third world, but really in many countries around the world, is that you have one grade, you know, fifth grade, you have all the 12 year olds there, whatever, you know, the average ages of the 12 year olds, some of these 12 year olds are really smart and ahead of the teacher. And some of these kids have no clue what’s going on in there. Ideally, the teacher should teach each one of these kids at his or her own level. But of course, you can’t do that with 50 kids in the class. And so you end up teaching it somewhere in the middle. And then the really smart kids are bored out of their minds and the really lost kids are sort of, you know, eventually drop out and very few learn fairly little. But the problem is most parents think, oh we just need to cut class sizes. But actually that is not- it probably delivers a little bit, but very little at very high cost. So what you basically see is, well, cut it down to 25 kids. You still have the same problem. You can’t teach the smartest and the most lost kid at his or her own level. And that’s a fundamental problem. Pay the teacher twice as much. The teacher unions love it and you can do other things. And I’m not saying that isn’t great. You know, it’s wonderful that teachers don’t have to be taxi drivers in their spare time. That’s probably a good idea, but it doesn’t actually deliver on the main thing that we want education to do, namely get kids to learn better.

 

But we do know. So we asked all of our education economists and they all said by far the best thing is to teach at the right level. Now, a teacher can’t do that because you can’t get a teacher to teach even 25 kids at their own level, each one of them. But a tablet can. Put a tablet in front of this kid one hour a day, not give the kids this tablet because then they’ll watch movies and play games and all kinds of other stuff and it’s very expensive. So this tablet will be shared with lots of other kids in the school. But one hour a day they sit in front of this tablet with educational software. The educational software very quickly finds out what level you are at exactly and then teaches you at that level. The amazing thing is this cost about $31 per kid per year across the lower, lower/middle income countries. So that’s about 10% more of what they already spend on education. So it’s certainly not, you know, out of out of the blue, impossible to do this. And it includes all the extras you need to buy the tablet. You need to get the educational software, You need to lock it up at night. You need to get solar panels if you don’t have electricity. And some of these are going to, you know, get stolen and get lost or not be used. Right. And incompetence.. All is all that is included, $31 per kid per year. The outcome is and we’ve proven this in lots of different settings this kid will, after one year going to boring school most of the day, one hour of really smart school, will learn three times as much as he or her ever would normally have learned in one year. It’s like going three years to school, but not paying for it. And of course you can keep doing that. We assume, for many, many years. But we’re just looking at doing this for one year. If you do that for one year, you have made this kid so much better that when she or he goes out in to be being an adult will have higher productivity, will therefore have higher wages, will help the society to grow richer to the tune of about $2,000 per kid. So spending 20, sorry, $21 to do $2,000 worth of good is a great investment. It’s about $65 back on the dollar. That is again, one of the many things we should do. And so what we’re trying to do is let’s do the smart stuff that we know works before we do dumb stuff that we kind of know doesn’t work. You know, it’s really not rocket science when you put it like that.

 

 

It’s very pragmatic and very commonsensical. And it’s things that we already know. There’s a lot of studies around. So it’s not this theoretical discussion, but I think underneath your view is a very optimistic and positive view of humanity. And I think one of the reasons that your work irks a lot of people is because there’s a lot of like somebody that say that’s completely convinced that there’s a meteor hurling at the planet climate apocalypse, right. They’re going to be irked by this optimism and this positivity. And I think here in this discussion on Best Things First, there’s this weird view out there, this weird assumption. And again, it’s probably more prevalent in the environmentalist movement that human life itself really isn’t a positive, like it doesn’t bring any value to the planet, that human beings are a liability. We’re selfish polluters, that we are like a human life is a net negative. Nobody would say it like that, but it’s kind of like this weird little, little assumption.

 

Elon Musk called it the battle between the extinctionists and the humanists. And recently the New York Times ran a feature on Less Knight and the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. These are the extreme versions of it. But these kinds of ideas like, well, you’re saying save a million lives a year. Like, I’m not even convinced it’s that positive. But in your book, Best Thing First, so you discuss the concept of the statistical value of a life, right? And you talk about how every society ultimately, even though we don’t like talking about life in economic terms when it comes to policies and the impact of policies on the population, we sort of have to do it. We already sort of do it. And interesting, you end up with this kind of rough figure that the statistical value of life is about 50 times GDP per person, roughly. So I know this is just for analytical purposes, and it sounds a little bit weird to discuss life in these terms, but I’m just interested in you maybe commenting on how did you come to the conclusion that not only is human life a net positive, but that this is what it’s actually worth from a from a policy perspective?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yeah. So first of all, on the general argument, you’re absolutely right that that a lot of people get annoyed about this. Because if you think there’s just one thing that we should be discussing, clearly you don’t want to confuse the conversation about talking about tuberculosis and education. But for most of us on the planet who actually believe that there are a lot of different issues and we need to take time to address all of them, you know, it’s kind of obvious that we should talk about how do we deal with, for instance, education really well. And then we need to know what are the smart things, not necessarily listen to the people who say, oh, lower class sizes and that’s it. No, look at the evidence. And it turns out it’s, you know, teach at the right level, for instance. And I should just say it’s not the only thing we discuss in the chapter. But, you know, we’re trying to cut it short here.

 

Fred

Yeah.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

So fundamentally, it’s about getting it right on this issue. And I think you’re right that a lot of people would suggest that actually maybe we shouldn’t have as many people, but they don’t want to put it out there as loudly. I think a lot of people actually do say it pretty loudly. But I also find that they, you know, they almost inevitably end up saying, yeah, too many of you, but just enough of me. So it’s this kind of sense of nobody’s volunteering to sort of go out in the in the quiet night here. You know, one thing I think everybody sort of neglects is that right now about half of humanity, so a little more than 4 billion people are fed with artificial fertilizers from fossil fuels. You know, if you want to go organic, you’re basically saying 4 billion people have to leave. And as the Nobel laureate who actually won it for the first Green revolution, liked to say, I don’t see 4 billion volunteers. And certainly, it’s rarely the people who are arguing for this. And most people don’t seem to feel that their own kids are a liability. They actually really, really value them, just like they do with granny and everybody else around them. And I think, you know, fundamentally, we all agree that having people not die and having people not suffer is actually a good thing. I’m a little surprised that you have to sit and, you know, justify it. But I think-

 

Fred

It’s strange-

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

-people would feel that way and would actually agree. The reason why we need an actual number of this, of course, is the fact that we’re trying to estimate. So for every dollar spent on, for instance, tuberculosis, you save this many people… what is that worth in money? And that makes people very uncomfortable because surely you can’t put a value on that. Well, we do implicitly, because as we talked about before, you know, we actually enforce and I think that’s great. We say people who need to wear seat belts and you need to have air bags in there and you can’t drive in, except if you’re a German, you can’t drive infinite speeds on your on your highway. Right. So we actually do put in regulation to make sure that not as many people die. But we also say, but it’s not three miles or five kilometers an hour. That’s the speed limit, because that would be just silly. It would save more lives. But we have so many other costs, we wouldn’t be able to have it. You know commonly integrated economy. We wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, you know, that kind of stuff. So we make these tradeoffs and we make them very, very clearly in two places. So in road design, for instance, when you decide one of the most dangerous things that happen on roads is if you have fairly high-speed roads with just one lane going in either direction because if somebody veers over on the other side across the middle, you die and very likely the other people that you hit will also die. It’s very, very deadly accident. So one way to put up a center divider that has cost, but it also very clearly has benefits. Now, you very clearly put it in where there’s a lot of death and it’s very risky and there are lots of traffic. So you actually help a lot of people, right? You don’t put it in up in, you know, near Whitehorse or some other places in northern Canada where there’s virtually no traffic. Right.

 

Fred

What are you saying? Are you saying that lives in Whitehorse? I hear it just yeah, you’re concretely you have to make those decisions as a government.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yes. And we make those decisions all the time. We say we’re going to do it when there’s lots of lives to save at low cost. We don’t do it when there are very few lives to save at very high cost. When you try to find out what is that level, it turns out. And now I’m just going to skip an enormous amount of the intermediate calculations. It turns out that the right values’ about 50 times GDP, and that’s not true in general. It depends on how rich and so on, but it’s sort of that number and it also crops up another place. If you actually ask people to work very safe jobs and they get some wage. But if you ask them to go down in a mine and work a very unsafe job where they have a much higher risk of dying, you have to offer them what the Brits call, you know, a safety addition. No, sorry, it has a funny or maybe a death add-on or something. It’s a funny expression. I’ve forgotten it right now. But the idea you actually and explicitly say you’re going to get more money because these are higher risk of dying and people accept this.

 

Fred

So it’s an argument of explicitness. If I understand it. You’re the I love the argument. It’s a again, a piece of pragmatism. It’s not a principled argument. You’re not saying a human life should be worth that. Ideally, we’re way more wealthy as a society, and a human life is worth 100 times GDP or 200 times. It’s just that, practically speaking, we do make those decisions. We have to make those decisions. If we pretend that we don’t make those decisions, we make them implicitly. And it’s just way better to run the actual calculations and understand explicitly what we’re doing. And now we can have a much more transparent and rational argument about the whole topic.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Thank you. You should just interview you because I present to you much better than I do. That was very, very well put. Yes, thank you.

 

Fred

It’s pragmatism as opposed to principled. It’s you’re not making a top-down principle. You’re not coming here saying, Bjorn, this is what I what it should be. You are clearly not doing that. You’re saying implicitly we must do it as we make policies. We must do it. And if we don’t make it explicitly, we’ll end up making it implicitly and then not being aware of what we’re doing, right?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

And very likely make it very badly if we don’t talk about it, because then we’ll end up focusing on the lives lost that make it on the nightly news or that I click on my on my web page that I go to for news and forget all the others. And that’s very likely a very, very bad thing, because then you end up with the things that look sexy on TV rather than the things that actually are important.

 

Fred

That’s right. And that’s like kind of like a major pattern that I see in your work is this pragmatism. And maybe just to close the loop on pragmatism, another concept that I really love again, because a lot of the principled ideas, one of one of the downsides is that we assume no tradeoffs. We assume no opportunity cost and we assume no, there’s no scarcity, basically. Right. But you keep confronting the issue of scarcity because it actually exists, and these tradeoffs actually exist. And so then to be pragmatic and to make pragmatic determinations, you have to do that. So another concept that you write about the Best Things First, and I think it’s a great other piece of the puzzle when it comes to pragmatic thinking is the danger of a kind of a politics of everything, right? So, saying yes to everything, having a never-ending list of positive goals, whenever you come up with a positive goal, the answer is yes, yes, yes. You know, the easiest thing for politicians is just to say yes to everything. Basically pretend that in reality there are no constraints or anything. And you’re right, this I have your quote here because I reelected. The unfortunate reality is that politicians like to deal in noble sounding, aspirational vows that have delivery dates far into the future. They get the glory now and the difficulty of delivering on these often vague or impossibly ambitious promises is somebody else’s problem. And you give the example of the Millennium Development Goals that the UN adopted in 2000, which only had 18 specific targets compared to the much more ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, which have over 160 targets. More positivity, more positivity, but interesting. There was way more progress when there were fewer goals and not more goals. And so I’m interested in getting your thoughts on a pragmatic level. Why is it that having too many goals can actually hurt effective action?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Well, fundamentally, because if you have too many priorities, you have no priorities. So, you know,  fundamentally, what we’ve shown now to the world with the Sustainable Development Goals having, you know, goals for everything, saying everything is priority means that you don’t focus at all, and that you basically lose out on pretty much all of them. So not only don’t you do very much good, you also up wasting money on a lot of things that you couldn’t really fix. Remember, the point is not that we don’t want to fix everything. I’d love to live in a world where we fix everything. But the reality is some things are easy and cheap to fix and other things are incredibly hard and expensive to fix. Given that we know these two things, it seems to me that maybe we should fix the easy and cheap things first. That’s really sort of the summary of this.

 

Fred

Very fair.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

And there’s something almost absurd about the way that people almost gravitate to these incredibly complicated but very, very impossible, very, very expensive policies first. And I’m simply the annoying guy saying, Well, you know, I think we should perhaps just do the easy and cheap first. And it turns out that that will deliver a lot more good. And if you try to do everything at once, you will end up doing pretty much everything badly. And most of these things will be of the incredibly expensive and very hard-to-do category. And so we’ll end up actually delivering very little good for the world. I get why it gets politicians, you know, tickled, and it sounds better, but it doesn’t do better.

 

Fred

And again, it’s not a principled, you’re not saying this is in the absolute more important than this you’re just saying this we can fix. We know how to fix. We’ll get the benefits. And as we get the benefits, benefits will start spreading to other stuff as well. So it’s again, this very practical take. So just to conclude, I mean, first of all, thank you. That was really, really very educational and very, very enlightening, as always. Steven Pinker, again, in Enlightenment Now he has this saying intellectuals hate progress and, you know, looking at our insanely divisive and conflictual politics, looking at the negativity-drenched media, it feels like people sometimes believe in progress less and less. And I guess, you know, we’ve talked about this. People get a lot of career leverage and generate a lot of energy focusing on problems and not on this kind of rational, constructive, pragmatic problem-solving that you do in your work. And it seems to be this very attention-grabbing, endless pessimism. It’s almost like entertaining pessimism seems to be the thing that we’re drawn towards. And I think that leads people to search for a savior. And then guess what? They are the savior, right? So it’s like getting people really, really interested in all the problems. And then it’s like, oh my God, what do we need? We need somebody to swoop in and, oh, by the way, like, that’s me, right? And it feeds very well into kind of zero-sum politics or using the power of government through a kind of a politics of fear. But it doesn’t seem to me to be conducive to actual progress, which often happens. Pinker writes about this as well, much more behind the scenes, much slower, much more incremental, and sometimes even, I guess, more boring ways. So I just want to know, first of all, I want to thank you for your work and for everything that you do. And I’m curious if I’m sure over the years you’ve thought about this, how do you think we can get people more excited about and engaged with this kind of progress?

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Yeah. So I think you’re very right about many of these analysis. I don’t think I don’t really believe in the Pinker that intellectuals hate progress. I think, you know, if you focus on a particular area, you will inevitably end up focusing on the problems because, you know, everybody knows about successes. We’ve already described those. The problems and the next thing, and we should be very, very thankful. I mean, I’m glad my doctor is not constantly or, you know, no, he doesn’t actually do that. Research. Medical researchers don’t look at all the progress and just sit back and say, wow, we did really well. What they should be looking at the next problem. So it’s great. We have a system of lots of people looking for a lot of problems. But we should not believe that then the world is the sum of all those problems, because it’s also the sum of all those other people who fixed the last generation of problems. And so we need to sometimes step back, realize that the world is getting much, much better. Remember that almost everyone in the rich world now believes that their kids and their grandkids are going to be worse off than they are. And unless we make really, really bad policy choices, I can see that could happen. But it seems almost implausible that we’ll actually end up there. They will be better off. That’s also what all the long-term prognoses from economists, from OCD, from the U.N. estimate. Our kids will be much, much better off. Poorer people’s kids are going to be phenomenally much better off because we will have fixed a lot of problems that we have as problems right now.

 

We need to recognize this both as just a factual and very plausible outcome, but also because it makes us much better able to not panic and make bad choices, but to realize, oooh, this is actually a good planet. Let’s work to make it even better. And that’s where I think the real nub is that we stop believing that there is just one problem, and this is where we should throw all of our money. And that’s the problem of the day that we all talk about. And remember, a couple of decades ago, it was all about acid rain or the ozone layer. And those were not untroubling issues. They were only one issue. And it sort of took up all the oxygen in our conversation. And of course, it probably also led us to forget a lot of other issues. But climate change is that one thing that everybody focuses on. It is a problem. We should deal with it, smartly. We’re dealing with it very poorly. We’re likely setting ourselves up to spend way more money than we’re actually going to make the world better off. And that’s dumb. We should still do some, but that also means we need to recognize all the places where we’re sort of spending too little, where we have too little attention. And if you get this more sort of realistic worldview that you are not alarmed out of your pants, but you actually realize, eh, this is a pretty good planet and is getting much better, then you can start saying, all right, what needs fixing next? Be happy about all the people who are looking into problems, but keep asking them not just this is a problem, but how much will it cost to fix it, how much good will it do? And compare that to everything else? And then we have, you know, a set of priorities and we should do the smarter stuff first.

 

Fred

It’s amazing. I really hope more people in government and more people in positions of power start applying this this brand of, I guess, more awareness, more optimism, but very pragmatic, very evidence based. I think this would improve things tremendously, and it’s very refreshing to hear that in these times. So I want to thank you for your time. Dr. Lomborg It was really, really, really, really an honor and a pleasure, and I learned a ton and I’m sure people will be able to look into all of these things. We’re going to be publishing via all the different resources and references to the studies that you mentioned. And hopefully this can be the starting point for a lot of people to really sort of build up their awareness of these issues. So I want to thank you.

 

Dr. Bjørn Lomborg

Thank you so much.

 

 

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Chapter 3: The Economics

 

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Chapter Title: Fighting the Apocalypse

 

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Chapter 4: economic development

 

Chapter Title: Economic Development and progress

 

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Title: Do Poor Countries Have a Right to Abundance too?

 

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Chapter 5: Best Things First

 

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Chapter title: Best Things First

 

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Chapter 6: The value of a Life

 

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Chapter Title: The Value of Life

 

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Title: How we calculate the economic value of a human life

 

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