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.