Friday, November 21, 2014

Blinded by the Light

NEW YORK – On the evening of March 23, 1.3 billion people will go without light at 8:30, and at 9:30, and at 10:30, and for the rest of the night – just like every other night of the year. With no access to electricity, darkness after sunset is a constant reality for these people.

On the same evening, another billion will participate in the environmental event “Earth Hour” by turning off their lights from 8:30-9:30.

The organizers say that they are providing a way to demonstrate one’s desire to “do something” about global warming. But the stark reality is that Earth Hour teaches all the wrong lessons, and actually increases CO2 emissions. It may inspire virtuous feelings, but its vain symbolism reveals exactly what is wrong with today’s feel-good environmentalism.

Earth Hour teaches us that tackling global warming is easy. Yet, by switching off the lights, all we are doing is making it harder to see.

Notice that you have not been asked to switch off anything really inconvenient, like your heating or air conditioning, television, computer, mobile phone, or any of the myriad technologies that depend on affordable, plentiful energy electricity and make modern life possible. If switching off the lights for one hour per year really were beneficial, why would we not do it for the other 8,759?

Hypothetically, switching off the lights for an hour would cut CO2 emissions from power plants around the world. But, even if everyone in the entire world cut all residential lighting, and this translated entirely into CO2 reduction, it would be the equivalent of China pausing its CO2 emissions for less than four minutes. In fact, Earth Hour will cause emissions to increase.

As the United Kingdom’s National Grid operators have found, a small decline in electricity consumption does not translate into less energy being pumped into the grid, and therefore will not reduce emissions. Moreover, during Earth Hour, any significant drop in electricity demand will entail a reduction in CO2 emissions during the hour, but it will be offset by the surge from firing up coal or gas stations to restore electricity supplies afterwards.

And the cozy candles that many participants will light, which seem so natural and environmentally friendly, are still fossil fuels – and almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs. Using one candle for each switched-off bulb cancels out even the theoretical CO2 reduction; using two candles means that you emit more CO2.

Electricity has given humanity huge benefits. Almost three billion people still burn dung, twigs, and other traditional fuels indoors to cook and keep warm, generating noxious fumes that kill an estimated two million people each year, mostly women and children. Likewise, just a hundred years ago, the average American family spent six hours each week during cold months shoveling six tons of coal into the furnace (not to mention cleaning the coal dust from carpets, furniture, curtains, and bedclothes). In the developed world today, electric stoves and heaters have banished indoor air pollution.

Similarly, electricity has allowed us to mechanize much of our world, ending most backbreaking work. The washing machine liberated women from spending endless hours carrying water and beating clothing on scrub boards. The refrigerator made it possible for almost everyone to eat more fruits and vegetables, and simply to stop eating rotten food, which is the main reason why the most prevalent cancer for men in the United States in 1930, stomach cancer, is the least prevalent now.

Electricity has allowed us to irrigate fields and synthesize fertilizer from air. The light that it powers has enabled us to have active, productive lives past sunset. The electricity that people in rich countries consume is, on average, equivalent to the energy of 56 servants helping them. Even people in Sub-Saharan Africa have electricity equivalent to about three servants. They need more of it, not less.

This is relevant not only for the world’s poor. Because of rising energy prices from green subsidies, 800,000 German households can no longer pay their electricity bills. In the UK, there are now over five million fuel-poor people, and the country’s electricity regulator now publicly worries that environmental targets could lead to blackouts in less than nine months.

Today, we produce only a small fraction of the energy that we need from solar and wind – 0.7% from wind and just 0.1% from solar. These technologies currently are too expensive. They are also unreliable (we still have no idea what to do when the wind is not blowing). Even with optimistic assumptions, the International Energy Agency estimates that, by 2035, we will produce just 2.4% of our energy from wind and 0.8% from solar.

To green the world’s energy, we should abandon the old-fashioned policy of subsidizing unreliable solar and wind – a policy that has failed for 20 years, and that will fail for the next 22. Instead, we should focus on inventing new, more efficient green technologies to outcompete fossil fuels.

If we really want a sustainable future for all of humanity and our planet, we shouldn’t plunge ourselves back into darkness. Tackling climate change by turning off the lights and eating dinner by candlelight smacks of the “let them eat cake” approach to the world’s problems that appeals only to well-electrified, comfortable elites.

Focusing on green R&D might not feel as good as participating in a global gabfest with flashlights and good intentions, but it is a much brighter idea.

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    1. CommentedDavid Lewis

      @Godo Stoyke: "In February 2003, Lomborg filed a complaint with the Ministry, and in December 2003, the Ministry found that the DCSD's handling of the investigation in the case had been improper, and remitted it for re-examination. In March 2004, the DCSD stated that since its finding had been to acquit Lomborg of the charges of scientific dishonesty... there was no basis to re-open the investigation, and dismissed the case."

        CommentedKaare Fog

        @ David Lewis, Godo Stoyke, and others:
        If you want to understand what actually happened concerning the complaint to the DCSD, I suggest that you study this:

    2. Commentedjimmy rousseau

      Why Mr. Lomborg continues to have a forum to try to denigrate any actions to contain and stop anthropegenic global warming is beyond me. Once again he proves to be uncanny in the deceptions he will practice to help fossil fuel consumption.

    3. CommentedBruce Katz

      The answers tend to be a little more complex than what is described. Let's start with global warming, or is it global cooling? Are temperatures on Earth affected more by C02 emissions or the output of the sun and other conditions throughout the solar system and universe?

    4. CommentedJeffrey Scofield

      Again Bjørn Lomborg misses the point entirely, and not by accident.  The real issue is that climate denial and myths being perpetuated by both religious fundamentalists and free market fundamentalists like the CATO institute and Donors Trust. The problem is that there are few people who understand global warming and it's consequences because they do not have relevant training in these disciplines.

       Bjørn Lomborg is not an ecologist or a climate scientist, he actually has no relevant degree, but rather is an economist pushing an ideological agenda. Notice how carefully he evaded discussing how water dependent many of our current forms of electricity are? Awareness is the goal, of the both the reality of anthropogenic climate change  and that consumption must be reduced severely to limit more long term consequences such ocean acidification. The real goal is to understand waste and resource misallocation. Many people consume far too much, and waste too much to justify our current level dependence of on dirty energy. And as a nation, we are already subsidizing fossil fuels and nuclear energy in a multitude of ways that hide the true cost of this waste.

    5. CommentedMichael Zanette

      I tend to agree with most pundits here when it is stated that Lomborg's factual basis for some of his claims are negligible.

      However, in a skewed way, Lomborg is right about one thing: "Earth Hour" is a rich person's feel good moment. There are politics at play here. The asymmetries in wealth and power across the world do situate billions of people in positions where the environment is far behind in a long line of concerns.

      Although I am not a fan of Lomborg for a multitude of reasons, this piece does raise issues concerning global ethics--of which the environment is a key concern.

    6. CommentedPete Nowner

      Reading an article from Lomborg for the first time. Can't believe he is so famous in this field. This article is not professionally written (as commented by other readers) and has a tinge of cynicism.
      "Instead, we should focus on inventing new, more efficient green technologies to outcompete fossil fuels." I wonder what are the more efficient green technologies that he talked about?

    7. CommentedGodo Stoyke

      Bjorn Lomborg doesn't know what he is talking about. The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (Danish ministry group) found his writings "clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice", but he could not be accused of gross negligence due to his lack of scientific expertise. Germany already gets 25% of its electricity from renewables, and the cost per installed watt (PV) is half of that in the US, creating 250,000 jobs on the side. Solar (electric) costs have been dropping by a factor of 100 in the last 40 years, and are already lower than capital costs for grid installations in 100 (developing) countries around the world. Plus, efficiency is mostly CHEAPER than any form of energy. While research is almost always a good thing, waiting to act when technological solutions are ready to be deployed is not. Oh, yes, and the "Institute" Lomberg quotes and that falsely claims that the rising German energy costs can be blamed on renewables ("800,000 German households ...") is actually funded by Exxon Mobil ( and similar organizations. Interesting that Lomberg doesn't mention that, isn't it?

        CommentedMike Cherepov

        @Godo Stoyke: A recent Economist article says that in sunny places like California photovoltaic is already competitive with the more expensive parts of the traditional market. So it's quite hard to believe that in cloudy Germany photovoltaic can be competitive with the average traditional sources. Furthermore, Wikipedia says: "However according to the OECD factbook 2011-2012, Germany attains 9.3% of its total energy requirements(including electricity and other energy needs) from renewable energy sources, which is below the world average of 13.1%." This is at odds with your claim that Germany gets 25% from renewables, it seems.

    8. CommentedKaare Fog

      Here in Denmark in a relatively northern climate, I recently bought a house of 140 m². It is heated entirely by electricity - two new very efficient air-to-air heat pumps, and modern efficient electric heat panels. I had solar panels installed on the roof 1½ motnh ago. At the start of February, in the cold winter, with a dim sunlight not quite penetrating through the clouds, the panel produced enough energy to more than compensate for the whole electricity consumption in the entire house. Even though this happens only at daylight, it is still a splendid idea.

    9. CommentedKaare Fog

      The link about the 800,000 German households refers to the Institute for Energy Research, which is said to be funded by the Koch Industries. So it is not necessarily very reliable. Energy prices have risen partially because Germany started phasing-out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster.

      Peak costs are the biggest costs power companies face. Renewables help significantly reduce these costs.

      In the US, lighting is 12% of electricity use:
      Assuming that the ratio is the same elsewhere, cutting 12 % of all electricity use in the world for one hour would certainly save much much more than 4 minutes of energy consumption in China.

      Should we abandon subsidizing solar and wind ? Subsidizes favoring the fossil fuel industry are larger, so more would be won by abandoning those first.

    10. CommentedBill Thomas

      Lomborg is at it again with his usual mix of lies, distortions, and fallacious reasoning.

      > "Earth Hour teaches us that tackling global warming is easy."

      Lie. It does no such thing. Earth Hour works to raise awareness about the need to take urgent action on climate change. It's really not hard to understand - and the rightwingers and science deniers have it explained to them every year but never understand for some reason.

      > "rising energy prices from green subsidies"

      Lie. The average German household is paying 9 Euros per month for the Energiewende. Energy prices are rising primarily because of fossil fuels which Germany are now increasingly avoiding due to renewables: OneTrillion Savings From Renewable "...Germany is saving EUR 8 billion a year in fossil fuel import costs right now (about 10 percent of the whole bill) and expects that the cumulative savings up to 2040 will reach more than EUR one trillion."

      In fact, the article Lomborg cites says this: "Anyone who blames renewable energy for rising electricity prices is deceiving consumers ... more than two thirds of the price increases have nothing to do with renewable energy."

      And one page is even called **Gazprom fleeces German customers**. This is typically dishonest cherry picking from Lomborg, exactly as he does with his climate science denial.

      > "In the UK ... the country’s electricity regulator now publicly worries that environmental targets could lead to blackouts in less than nine months."

      Lie. There's a pattern forming here.

      > "Focusing on green R&D"

      Lomborg's usual call to do nothing to curtail GHGs - just keep renewables in the lab indefinitely until some unspecified breakthrough is made. Fortunately, the markets are not paying any attention to this has-been attention disinformer because renewables are growing exponentially.

    11. CommentedHottie McCool

      The Earth Hour doesn't ask anybody to "eat dinner by candlelight". Now you're just making things up.

    12. CommentedHottie McCool

      Did stomach cancer rates actually drop, or is it simply no longer the most prevalent cancer? Per capita cigarette consumption in the U.S. is double what it was in the 1930's, so even in the absence of refrigeration I'd be shocked if stomach cancer remained the top men's cancer.

    13. CommentedHottie McCool

      Earth Hour is in late March. Who runs their heating or air conditioning in late March, anyway?

    14. CommentedAlexander Stingl

      I agree with the author, that the "wrong lessens (sic!)" are really to be avoided; yes, I, like the author or like Zizek, am not the biggest fan of this feel-good environmentalism. At the same time, pure polemics and "counting individual peas" - to transport a German idiom - is no better. While I often enjoy and appreciate Lomborg's perspectives, this one is yet another one of those unfortunately increasing number of pieces that leads me to doubt his scholarship has general merit, despite the occasional gem of wisdom. What's next? should we stop riding bikes, because bikers breathe heavier and therefore are a CO2 risk? Well, lucky for Lomborg, a Washington State Republican beat him to the punch on that one.... As for facts, among others, it isn't the 'green costs' in and of themselves that have led to ridiculous energy prices in Germany. It is an effect of the creation of an oligopoly thanks to a sloppily executed privatization of the sector, and the material energy net-transfer costs, etc. The recent green energy subsidies, etc. are only a tip of an iceberg of costs that the post-democratic creation of the illusion a free market in the energy sector has sent towards the path of consumer shipping lanes.

    15. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      I agree with the author, such "feel-good", romantic action cannot achieve anything, not even raising awareness as people only remember negative experience not a "mildly positive" action.
      Moreover actions here cannot really help since the problem is not what we do, but how we thing, our attitude towards each other and the world.
      Here is an example: at the moment in New Zealand there is such a drought, that in the capital, Wellington for example the water supplies are enough only for another 19 days, and any meaningful rain until then is uncertain.
      Most of the country already looks like a desert.
      But individual people are happy with the unprecedented warm and dry summer, they keep on watering their gardens, joking how they forgot to turn off the tap overnight only realizing in the morning that it was on, etc.
      Our awareness, concern does not even go beyond the fence of our own garden.
      Even the threat that perhaps in 3 weeks I have no tap water cannot disconnect me from my usual comfort.
      Unless we change basic self centered human nature, behavior, attitude, no changes will occur possibly until true suffering, "within our fences" will force us to reconsider how we live.
      People cannot comprehend that in a global, interconnected world I belong to the whole world, and the whole world belongs to me. There are no fences or boundaries, enemies or friends, we are all cells, organs of the same body.
      But we cannot blame people, such a notion is completely against our instinctive nature.
      But still, instead of waiting for imminent disasters, or existential threat we should still need to try to "reprogram" human beings, making them aware of the true reality we live in, so we can all exit our own closed, black boxes, merging with everybody else to mutually working together, complementing each other instead of destructive, selfish competition, solve our pressing crisis situations.
      And this can only happen through a global, integral education program which explains the nature and laws of the global, interconnected and natural world system we evolved into, and the attitude, behavior humans could adapt to such system.
      Any action without such awareness and attainment is futile and causes further crisis.

    16. Commentedwalter palmetshofer

      from "has resulted in up to 800,000"

      refers to

      Besonders für schmale Haushaltskassen sind die Energiekosten – bei seit Jahren mehr oder weniger stagnierenden Realeinkommen – kaum noch tragbar. Im Jahr 2009 gaben die Deutschen ungefähr 100 Milliarden Euro für Energie aus – das waren im Schnitt 2500 Euro je Haushalt. Sozial- und Verbraucherverbände klagen, dass bis zu 800 000 Haushalte in Deutschland ihre Stromrechnung nicht mehr bezahlen können....

    17. Commentedwalter palmetshofer

      fact-check not done by Bjorn Lomberg

      hilarious original source additional to wrong interpretation and translation

      as usually ...