Lomborg v Lomborg

Much is being and will be written about Bjorn Lomborg’s volte face on climate change. After a decade of denial — not of the reality of anthropogenic warming, but of the threat it poses to civiliation — the Skeptical Environmentalist now says:

“If we care about the environment and about leaving this planet and its inhabitants with the best possible future, we actually have only one option: we all need to start seriously focusing, right now, on the most effective ways to fix global warming.”

Is this worthy of a blog post? In a perfect world, no. But then, in a perfect world, I would be kayaking, not blogging.

On the one hand, it is good news that one of the world’s best known critics of action on climate change has changed his mind. (Although “Lomborg denies performing a U-turn” it is undeniable that he has reversed himself on the central question of whether global warming is a problem on which large sums of money should be spent. That is, after all, the political stumbling block, the one that prevents even rational, science-respecting members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives from voting for anything that might actually result in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

I can’t anticipate just what the impact of Lomborg’s shift will be at the political level, but it seems unlikely that it will harden the resolve of other skeptics and deniers of the wisdom of action. So score one for reason.

On the other hand, do we really want Lomborg to be welcomed into the arena of policy debates on the development of climate change mitigation strategies? This is a larger-than-life (or, at least for anyone who has seen him speak, livelier-than-life) character with degrees in political science, one who lectured briefly in statistics but comes equipped with few academic qualifications to weigh in on either the ecological or economic questions related to the climate.

His previous books have been thoroughly discredited as sloppy or worse. His debut on the global stage, The Skeptical Environmentalist, drew so much criticism for getting the science of the environment completely wrong, that it would be only fair to doubt he is capable of useful analysis of something as that is orders of magnitudes more challenging — how to transform the industrial foundation of the world from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources without causing massive economic disruption.

Even today, Lomborg continues to be dismissive of the basic facts. He is “deeply critical of the dominant, cutting-carbon approach,” according to the Guardian. Instead, he wants us to spend $100 billion a year on improving the efficiencies and lowering the costs of clean renewables, and maybe give some geoengineering scheme a closer look. Neither accommodates reality. First, R&D is all very well, and necessary. But it is an indirect approach that will take decades to bring about real emission reductions. And just about everyone who has actually studied the problem agrees we need to begin bringing then down within five years. Only direct government action in the form of regulations and/or taxation has a chance of achieving that goal.

As for geoengineering, increasing the albedo of the planet might keep temperatures a bit lower, and possibly forestall positive feedback loops such as methane release from the north polar tundra, but it doesn’t address the threat of ocean acidification. Given Lomborg’s history of claiming he is looking out for the best interests of the world’s population, he really shouldn’t be ignoring a problem that threatens to eliminate the source of protein for a couple of billion people.

Clouds, and their ability to reflect solar radiation, seems to be one of Lomborg’s favorite options, despite the fact that among climatologists they remain a wild card. As Climate Central’s Michael Lemonick writes, “cloud feedbacks could equally well end up being a more strongly positive feedback than the models are suggesting.”

Indeed, now that geoengineering has be subjected to serious scrutiny, it’s not looking all that effective at accomplishing much in the way of bang-for-buck.

So, welcome aboard, Bjorn. But until you demonstrate a better grasp of the fundamentals of seamanship, you can stick to swabbing the decks.

Comments

  1. #1 Christian
    August 31, 2010

    I think your analysis is good.

    He is a master of the dark arts of spin – I can see the attraction in a move which lets him continue to be the supreme contrarian in the increasingly skeptic-sympathetic media, while bringing himself closer to the policymaker communities for whom climate skepticism still doesn’t hold much sway.

    As you say, what he actually says can continue to be bunk – this is mainly a tremendously accomplished PR move. Having said that, whatever else, this is a significant symbolic downer for the denier/skeptic camp – and demonstrates (I hope) that Lomborg at least believes that their various positions will become increasingly untenable.

  2. #2 Dunc
    August 31, 2010

    Instead, he wants us to spend $100 billion a year on improving the efficiencies and lowering the costs of clean renewables, and maybe give some geoengineering scheme a closer look. Neither accommodates reality.

    Ok, so he’s switched from “we shouldn’t do anything” to “we shouldn’t do anything useful.” He’s still on the wrong side of the core issue.

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    August 31, 2010

    It is interesting that Lomborg comes from Denmark. Further north (Norway, Sweden, Finland) there is a consensus about the need to address climate change, since the effects are so obvious when you get to the Arctic Circle and beyond.

  4. #4 TTT
    August 31, 2010

    But has he changed his mind about how global warming will never threaten polar bears because they will sense the threat and deliberately instantly evolve into something else, like Pokemon?

  5. #5 John Mashey
    August 31, 2010

    If he has actually changed his mind:
    a) Good.
    b) But if someone has built up a giant credibility deficit over the years, I suggest they need to get back to zero before one starts listening to their policy views.

    And I would be very, very careful to see the details and what happens afterwards. Lomborg is one of the very best at misdirection. Try reading my analysis of Cool It!, which was misdirection well-done enough to confuse some fairly smart, sensible people. Does anyone think he’s really given up on Julian Simon? The conservative thinktanks who sponsored talks loved his message that we should avoid CO2 restrictions because it would hurt the poor of the world, a group that generally does not seem high-priority for them.

    So, be very, very careful.

  6. #6 anthrosciguy
    August 31, 2010

    It looks to me like a redirection of denialism rather than a real shift. The old tack has become so indefensible that he’s going to a “muck the ideas about what to do” strategy.

  7. #7 Turboblocke
    August 31, 2010

    IMO the deniers creed is “Too little, too late, too bad.” It seems that Lomberg is just repackaging it.

  8. #8 MadScientist
    September 1, 2010

    Unfortunately Lomborg turns around while the general population seems to be losing interest or even siding with the denialists. And as far as actual effort goes, Australia seems to be going backward while Europe and even the USA plod on ever so slowly. The denialists seem to have won a decisive victory in Australia.

  9. #9 Nils
    September 1, 2010

    MadScientist, that may be precisely the reason why Lomborg ist doing it. Before COP15 in Copenhagen, everybody was desperately looking for solutions, and all Lomborg had to offer was distraction and confusion. Sold well. Now everybody in the mainstream (diplomacy) area is rather confused, and we don’t know what to do. Along comes Lomborg, offering what he thinks amounts to a solution (probably as far from reality as what was pointed out in the Hartwell Paper). May sell equally well. But given his past “credentials” and his total indifference towards all the pressing and most important world problems his Copenhagen Consensus group came up with over the past years, I think he’s neither up to the job, nor is he really interested in it.

  10. #10 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    September 1, 2010

    Here’s a dumb headline: Noted anti-global-warming scientist reverses course

    Lomborg a “scientist”?

  11. #11 MikeB
    September 1, 2010

    ‘Lomborg a “scientist”?’

    The Guardian credited him as a ‘dissenting expert’, so its simply a lazy misstep to make him a scientist as well. I don’t know which is more depressing: the fact that Lomborg has got his name in the paper for writing yet another rubbish book, or that someone is making a film of ‘Cool It!’.

    On the other hand, apparently David King will go head to head with Nigel Lawson in November – now that sounds like entertainment.

  12. #12 Phoenix Woman
    September 2, 2010

    I’m interested in his motivation. Does he really have a conscience and the ability to empathize with people in the abstract, or was he being paid to be a denialist by people who have suddenly stopped paying him?

  13. #13 MikeB
    September 2, 2010

    Lomborg has no conscience, no shame, no empathy, no trace of self doubt and no clue as to what he is talking about. He does however have a need to be the centre of attention, a new book to plug, and great hair.

  14. #14 DavidCOG
    September 3, 2010

    Good to see so many people here seeing through Lomborg’s latest deception. The trick with Lomborg is to never accept what he says on face value. Here’s part of the conclusion from his latest book:

    * “It is unfortunate that so many policy makers and campaigners have become fixated on cutting carbon in the near term as the chief response to global warming.”

    And here is the latest article he has published:

    * Who’s Afraid of Climate Change? http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/lomborg63/English

    Do either of those make it seem like he now really accepts the science of global warming? Or is he just saying he does while advocating what he always has: do nothing about the cause of climate change?

  15. #15 LombergIsStillAnIdiot&Shill
    September 6, 2010

    Lomberg is little more than an attention junkie with books to sell and an ego driven lifestyle to maintain.

    Not buying a word of this self-serving ‘conversion’. Too little, too late, too mealy mouthed, done far too much damage along the way, and still too incompetent at basic analysis.

    So piss off and STFU, little boy, and let the grown ups deal with it. Because you clearly have no idea what you are talking about.

  16. #16 Prada handbags
    September 9, 2010

    Having been to two funerals in the last fortnight at which a variety of secular music was played and appreciated, the idea that a funeral service should not be a celebration of the deceased person’s life is a matter of the grossest possible insensitivity – but that’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from the Roman Catholic hierachy.

    For example, it is ridiculous to suggest that secular songs should be relegated to a separate wake – it is often difficult for close relatives to travel long distances to attend funerals, so the appropriate time for any such reminisces must be during the ceremony.