Bjorn Lomborg has argued for more coal use abroad and fewer electric cars here in the U.S., both times contorting the facts to cast his position as a way to keep people from dying. In each instance, Lomborg cloaks his anti-environmental positions in supposed concern for public health, rather than addressing the canary in the coal mine: The fact that coal emissions contribute to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States.
In a February 19 USA Today column, Lomborg, the President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a long-time electric car critic, asserted that we should “stop our green worship of the electric car,” in part because it “surprisingly kills almost twice the number of people compared with regular gasoline cars.” Lomborg was referring to a recent University of Minnesota study, which found that the pollution associated with electric vehicles powered by coal or “grid average” electricity result in more annual deaths than the pollution associated with vehicles run on conventional gasoline. Based on these findings, Lomborg concluded that "[i]nstead of focusing on electric cars, we should focus on making coal-fired power cleaner."
Of course, that wasn't the conclusion of the study Lomborg was citing. The University of Minnesota researchers instead emphasized that “electric vehicles (EVs) powered by electricity from natural gas or wind, water, or solar power are best for improving air quality, whereas vehicles powered by corn ethanol and EVs powered by coal are the worst.” In other words, the solution is moving away from coal as quickly as possible, not scrapping electric cars.
Lomborg similarly invoked concerns about fatalities in a New York Times op-ed in December 2013, this time to argue that wealthy Western nations “should not stand in the way of poorer nations as they turn to coal and other fossil fuels.” Citing a World Health Organization report showing that millions of people die prematurely from indoor air pollution related to cooking and heating homes with “open fires or leaky stoves,” Lomborg claimed that encouraging poor countries to embrace coal-powered electricity would help them “cook in their own homes without slowly killing themselves.” However, the same 2012 World Health Organization study also noted that “the inefficient combustion of coal” is one of the “major contributors” to outdoor air pollution, which is itself responsible for millions of premature deaths each year.
So to recap Lomborg's argument: Electric cars kill people because they are powered with coal, but poor countries should embrace coal in order to prevent deaths.
Lomborg's confounding logic has found a welcome home on Fox News, thanks to The Five host Greg Gutfeld. Last year, Gutfeld celebrated Earth Day by declaring, “we are condemning coal when billions of people around the world would die for coal. ... Instead they are burning dung and they're burning twigs inside their houses, killing 4 million people.” Gutfeld returned to the subject several months later, stating: "[M]illions of poor people die each year for lack of coal. They burn impure crap that's literally crap -- dung!"
But as you might guess, Gutfeld's complaints about environmentalists "demonizing coal" did not prevent him from jumping on the University of Minnesota study to attack electric cars. The same day that Lomborg's column ran in USA Today, Gutfeld declared on The Five: "[M]ore people die because of electric cars than gas-powered automobiles. Fact."
Image at top via Flickr user Dave Pinter using a Creative Commons License.