When ‘green’ is shorthand for environmental idiocy

By | April 18, 2008

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When it comes to all things "green," common sense seems to have been abandoned. Our failure to think clearly about such matters would be amusing if the potential consequences were not so serious. Consider the recent "lights out" campaign that supposedly should energize the world about the problems of climate change by urging citizens in 27 big cities to turn out their lights for an hour. With scores of companies and municipalities signing up, and even the monarchies of Denmark and Sweden turning off the lights in their many palaces, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) quickly called it an amazing success. Newspapers around the world dutifully wrote feel-good stories about how engaged environmentalists celebrated as the lights went out around the world.
Nobody, it seemed, wanted to spoil the party by pointing that the event was immensely futile, that it highlighted a horrible metaphor, or that it caused much higher overall pollution.

Danish newspapers – coincidentally in the native country of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes – happily quoted the WWF regarding the event’s overwhelming success. But the entire savings (assuming people didn’t use more energy later in the night to make up for lost time) amounted to just 10 tons of carbon-dioxide – equivalent to just one Dane’s annual emissions for a full year. Measuring the avoided climate impact for the indefinite future, the entire combined efforts of the Danish queen, many companies, and the city halls of Copenhagen and other cities yielded $20 worth of good.

Are pointless gestures really the way to secure a greener future? And what sort of message does turning out the lights send?

As some conservative commentators like to point out, the environmental movement has indeed become a dark force, not metaphorically, but literally. Indeed, urging us to sit in darkness will probably only make us realize how unlikely it is that we will ever be convinced to give up the advantages of fossil fuels.

Curiously, nobody suggested that the "lights out" campaign should also mean no air conditioning, telephones, Internet, movies, hot food, warm coffee, or cold drinks – not to mention the loss of security when street lights and traffic signals don’t work. Perhaps recruiting support would have been much harder had the Danes also had to turn off their heat.

Ironically, the lights-out campaign also implies much greater energy inefficiency and dramatically higher levels of air pollution. When asked to extinguish electric lights, most people around the world would turn to candlelight instead. Candles are cozy and seem oh-so-natural. Yet, when measured by the light they generate, candles are almost 100 times less efficient than incandescent light bulbs, and more than 300 times less efficient than fluorescent lights.

Moreover, candles create massive amounts of highly damaging indoor particulate air pollution, which in the United States is estimated to kill more than a 100,000 people each year. Candles can easily create indoor air pollution that is 10-100 times the level of outdoor air pollution caused by cars, industry, and electricity production. Measured against the relative decrease in air pollution from the reduced fossil fuel energy production, candles increase health-damaging air pollution 1,000-10,000-fold.

Unfortunately, the lights-out campaign exemplifies the state of much of our environmental debate. We are spoon fed stories that fit preconceived frameworks. For example, the recent breakup of a massive glacier in the Antarctic supposedly proves the mounting effects of global warming. But we don’t hear that the area was ice-free, possibly just some 400 years ago, without the help of global warming. We don’t hear that the Wilkins Glacier makes up less than 0.01 percent of Antarctica. Nor do we hear that the Antarctic is experiencing record sea ice coverage since satellite measurements began.

Likewise, we all heard Al Gore talking about the dramatic hurricane years of 2004 and 2005, but we’ve heard almost nothing about the complete absence of hurricane damage in 2006 and 2007. The insurance company Lloyds of London has now begun to fret that the absence of natural disasters is putting a squeeze on its premiums.

We are endlessly presented with stories of soaring temperatures, but over the past year, we’ve experienced the single fastest temperature change ever recorded, and it’s been downward. In January, Hong Kong was gripped by its second-longest cold spell since 1885. This year’s storms in central and southern China produced the worst winter weather in a half-century. Snow fell on Baghdad for the first time in living memory.

When we get a distorted picture, we are likely to make wrong choices. Nowhere is this clearer than with the lights-out campaign. Doing virtually no good while dramatically decreasing energy efficiency and increasing air pollution merely threatens any hope for enlightened public policy.

Source: The Daily Star


Bjorn Lomborg is the organizer of the Copenhagen Consensus, adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and author of "Cool It" and "The Skeptical Environmentalist." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (c) (www.project-syndicate.org).