More middle muddle

Andrew Revkin is normally a great reporter, so it is particularly disappointing when he turns in a shocker. He’s fallen again for the attraction of a middle ground (see Middle Muddle for the previous occasion). If the IPCC says 2+2=4 and the CEI says 2+2=6, well Revkin reckons that Lomborg saying 2+2=5 sounds nice and sensible. But just because Lomborg is in the centre between the scientists and the think-tankers, doesn’t mean that he is right. To see if Lomborg is right, you need to look at the scientific evidence, and Lomborg always cherry picks and misrepresents the science. For example, look at what Lomborg says about polar bears.

For more comments see Jonathan Zasloff and David Roberts.


  1. #1 z
    November 14, 2007

    As I always repeat, to the point of boredom, several years ago, scientists said the North Atlantic fisheries were being overfished and suggested cutbacks. The fishing industry had an opposing point of view. The government(s), Solomonlike, split the diference, allowing a bigger annual catch than the scientists recommended, but less than the fishing industry wanted. And it worked out so well, that the fishing industry collapsed.

    In 1997, two scientists who had been working for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans published, “Is Scientific Inquiry Incompatible with Government Information Control?”, describing politically-motivated editing and suppression of scientists’ findings and reports.

    Middle ground, indeed.

  2. #2 Jc
    November 15, 2007

    How will the bears survive the loss of their habitat? No problem, says Lomborg, they will evolve backwards (p. 6):
    [T]hey will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.
    Seriously. Yet, Wikipedia notes:
    According to both fossil and DNA evidence, the polar bear diverged from the brown bear roughly 200 thousand years ago; fossils show that between 10 and 20 thousand years ago the polar bear’s molar teeth changed significantly from those of the brown bear.

    Doh! Lomborg is giving the bears a few decades to undo tens of thousands of years of evolution. In fact, most experts do not believe the bears can survive the loss of their habitat:

    And the shorter version:

    The reason why polar bears can’t survive? Well that is because they have slightly different front molas to brown bears and that sure would put them outta contention in a different environment.

    You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

    And I guess in the human species the reason why Asian people couldn’t survive in the hot climes is becasue their faces body shape were “evolutionised” for the cold steppes.

    Oh hang on Asians do live in warmer climes. Lots of them in fact.

    It really is getting silly.

  3. #3 Tim Lambert
    November 15, 2007

    JC that last comment is very silly, even for you. Polar bears aren’t found in warmer climes. If they could adapt really quickly to such environments, they would already be living there.

  4. #4 wagdog
    November 15, 2007

    It is amazing what howlers Lomborg is allowed to get away with when being interviewed on friendly territory:

    As both interviewer and interviewee make a living from crunching statistics, it is surprising how they’ve let their free market capitalist ideology blind them to their own analytical flaws. (See if you can spot them.)

    Also of interest, but more for entertainment value, listen to William Kovacs throw a hissy fit over being forced to lower his standard of living to that of (shock! horror!) a European!

  5. #5 Jc
    November 15, 2007


    I they’re found in warmer climes then what exactly is the problem with their adaptation if the high north is going to turn into a warm lake.

    So lomborg is correct. they can adapt.

  6. #6 Laser Potato
    November 15, 2007

    JC, we have yet to see proof from you that they do in fact live in warmer climes. Put up or shut up.

  7. #7 Jc
    November 15, 2007

    There’s afew that live in he NYC city zoo that looked pretty cute to me when they took a dive and looked through the glass. They had an outside area too.

    But what proof do you need other than the link which says they have a different set of teeth to brown bears. Some difference.

  8. #8 Laser Potato
    November 15, 2007

    “There’s afew that live in he NYC city zoo”…
    Er, you DO realize they have to refrigerate thier living areas and they only let them outside in warm weather for about half an hour, don’t you?

  9. #9 Laser Potato
    November 15, 2007

    Same thing with penguins in zoos. They overheat or get sick if they’re in warm temperatures for too long (the Antarctic is so cold that it slows the growth of bacteria.)

  10. #10 Jc
    November 15, 2007

    Yea Potato I do. Only for about 4 months of the year.

    As this link suggests , they seem to only differ from the brown bear by way of a couple of front teeth.

  11. #11 Jeff Harvey
    November 16, 2007

    JC, Look, at the risk of sounding impolite (moi?), I’d seriously suggest that you steer away from evolutionary biology. Lomborg has no background whatsoever in the field and his comment re: polar bears is so utterly embarrassingly fatuous that when I read it I did a triple take and one more. The only reason such utter tripe is broadcast is because Lomborg has been given a veritable megaphone by those with money, power and influence and so any of the bile he spews forth is amplified, irrespective of how appallingly bad it is.

    No wonder Lomborg doesn’t appear to want to debate population ecologists or evolutionary biologists. He’s be shredded. He pulled out of two debates with me after our one encouter in Ede, Holland, in 2002. His ‘de-evolution’ point is so comical that I won’t spend undue time democlishing it here. I am sure that has been done elsewhere. It ignores such relevqant details as the concept of the niche, neutral models, inter-sepcific aspects, carrying capacities and a whole range of other relevant details (to be fair, Lombor never studied the subject so its not surprising that his take is probably quite similar to that of a bus driver or a garbage collector – with no disrespect to these important professions).It also ignores the relkavnt time frame for such a species to adapt to a changing environment – Lomborg’s saying the results of hundreds of thousands of years of natural selection, mutation, genetic variation and phenotypic plasticity can all be changed in about 50 years. Given the long generation times in large quadrupeds, he’s thus saying that ‘de-evolution’ can occur in about a single generation. How embarrasing.

    So JC, when you write utter garbage like ‘So Lomborg is correct. they can adapt’, you are full of you-know-what. Before you humiliate yourself further, go to another thread and rant on about the wonders of neoliberal economics and the Washington Consensus. The ice under your feet is pretty thin on that one too, but to see utter laypeople like you and Lomborg wade into the area of evolutionary biology while having no understanding of the subject whatsoever except for ‘gut instincr’ is TOO much to ‘bear’ – no pun intended.

  12. #12 Davis
    November 16, 2007

    Oh Jeff, you know that Jc is such a kidder. I’m sure he took the 30 seconds of Googling required to realize that the polar bear’s adaptation to cold makes it easy for them to overheat, for example (even in cold weather). He’s just pulling our legs.

  13. #13 Jeff Harvey
    November 16, 2007


    I hope you’re right but I wouldn’t bet on it. Is Lomborg serious? I think he is. I told the news to several evolutionary biologist colleagues of mine at the Ecology Institute where I work as a senior scientist this morning and they had tears coming from their eyes with laughter.

    Other relevant aspects that escape Lomborg’s garbage-collector view of the world are the fact that it would take very man genrations (we are talking about thousands of years at least) for the animals to evolve darker coats necessary as stealth hunters in a forest environment; as it is they’d stand out like sore thumbs against a forest background. It would also take them many generations to alter their hunting behaviour in which they have co-evolved with seal populations; a sudden switch to big game such as barren ground caribou is an impossibility. Moreover, as top-level predators they’d suddenly have to compete with other top-level predators such as timber wolves and grizzly bears (the latter at the western end of their range). Its basic ecology to understand that prey availability provides a huge constraint on bottom-up processes in food webs; the sudden appearance of a top-level predator would not be possible in such a resource-limited environment. There isn’t enough to go around. Note that in most parts of the globe ecosystems only sustain one top-level mammalian predator species (or perhaps 2), and even in species-rich tropical biomes (such as central Africa) large predators have had to evolve different strategies (e.g. by occupying different ecophysiological niches) to survive. And, to reiterate, this process occurred through natural selection and concomitant adaptive radiation over the course of thousands of years. It was not instantaneous, which is what Lomborg appears to be suggesting.

    Any way you put it, if the ice goes, so do the bears, unless the process were to take tens of thousands of years. But we are talking about a human lifetime of less.

  14. #14 JK
    November 16, 2007

    “Is Lomborg serious?”

    About what? So far as I can see Lomborg has never talked about polar bear adaptation by genetic change or “de-evolution”. So far as I can see that bit is just made up so that you can make yourselves feel better by laughing at him. (The words “evolving backwards” were put into his mouth by an interviewer, to which he foolishly consented, but I think his writing is a better guide.)

    Lomborg is quoted as saying:

    “[T]hey will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.”

    This is based on a quote from the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. In context it says:

    “It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.”

    I am almost as unqualified in polar bear biology as an average garbage collector, so I am happy to be corrected. But it seems to me quite likely that this is what polar bears will do. That says nothing about how viable the strategy will be, whether it will allow them to avoid extinction or not. But it seems a very reasonable statement. In fact, to my unqualified eye, it looks like it has a better grasp of evolution than the theory that when an organism loses its environment it just vanishes in a puff of smoke.

    Most organisms are well adapted to their niches. But none are perfectly adapted. It is the constant mismatch between changing conditions and existing genetics that drives evolution. Rapid changes are often dangerous for a species – maybe polar bears will go extinct. But if a population hangs on it may eventually, after many generations, give rise to a speciation event. And of course evolved life is always constant struggle.

    Presented with the full quote (in a Salon interveiw) Lomborg replied:

    “They’re saying that it’s difficult. Their only option would be this summer lifestyle. So this is what they can do. Yes, this is not going to be easy, but this is exactly what they can do.”

    Clearly Lomborg is stretching things a bit here. But “a triple take and one more” and “tears coming from their eyes with laughter” just seems to me you’re not reading what Lomborg said. You’re pretending he thinks that evolution (“backwards”) will take place in a single generation. That would be laughable. In fact he is de-emphasising difficulties. To my mind that deserves a response.

    To be fair, Jeff does begin to flesh out such a response above but I would appreciate more biology and less ridicule. What are the best documented, most comparable, examples of organisms that have rapidly (a generation or two) been driven into new habitats and either succeeded or gone extinct?

  15. #15 Tim Lambert
    November 16, 2007

    ACIA says: “It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.”

    Lomborg turns that into: “[T]hey will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.”

    You call that “stretching things a bit”??

    I would call it a gross misrepresentation. He’s turned a statement that it is most likely that they won’t survive as a species, into a statement that can will be able to adapt to the new climate.

  16. #16 Jc
    November 16, 2007

    So you wanna stop evolution, Tim?

    What would be wrong with a bears creating a hybrid? Isn’t that what evolution is all about?

  17. #17 Davis
    November 16, 2007

    I hope you’re right but I wouldn’t bet on it.

    I was primarily being facetious, so I doubt I’m correct. But one can always hope.

  18. #18 Chris O'Neill
    November 16, 2007

    Jc: “I they’re found in warmer climes then what exactly is the problem with their adaptation if the high north is going to turn into a warm lake..

    There’s afew that live in he NYC city zoo”

    Laser Potato: “Er, you DO realize they have to refrigerate thier living areas”

    Jc: “Yea Potato I do. Only for about 4 months of the year.”

    So they can just move into all that habitat that’s refrigerated for 4 months of the year.


  19. #19 z
    November 16, 2007

    You can’t convince human beings to eat salads instead of fried salt, how the Hell are you going to convince polar bears to eat berries instead of seals?

  20. #20 Jeff Harvey
    November 18, 2007


    You make some intersting points. None valid, but nevertheless interesting. Witgh respect to Lomborg, if you’d attended my so-called debate with him, you’d be singing another tune. I have no time for obfuscators like him. Most of his book is full of such distortions, and I am not going to spend the next few hours taking it apart here. It has been done by many scientists elsewhere.

    Read my words: if the pack ice disappears in the next 50 years Polar Bears are toast. History. Finito. You cannot unravel half a million years of evolution (via mutations, a few of them benefical, resulting natural selection and adaptive radiation), and expect some sort of conserved phylogeny to bail them out. These animals are not adapted behaviourally, physiologically or morphologically to boreal forest ecosystems, any more than a Yellow Throated Euphonia that breeds in Costa Rica could shift to temperate forests if their tropical habitat disappeared. For heaven’s sake, we know if declines of birds of mammals in North America because their local habitat is disappearing, even though their are alternate habitats within their sympatric ranges. Why have Red Cockaded Woodpeckers, which habitually nest in southeastern American pine forests not miraculously switched habitats as the pine forests were cut? Why didn’t they just decide to start excavating their nests in neighbouring deciduous forests like other more common members of the Picidae do – such as the Red Bellied Woodpecker, the Red-Headed Woodpecker, the Pileated Woodpecker, the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers etc? But it hasn’t – and its numbers are probably < 2% of what they were 200 years ago, and are still falling, in spite of recent efforts at their conservation. There are many similar examples. Why is habitat loss the biggest driver of extinction? If it wasn't, we'd expect habitat specialists to be able to switch to adjacent ecosystems without much problem. But many cannot. If Mountain Gorillas lost their mountain habitats in Rwanda and Uganda, do you seriously think they will just head off to the lowland forests and set up home there? Forget it! The genome of polar berars is programmed - again through many millienia of natural selection - to exploit a specific habitat. They cannot just 'switch' and start to exploit habitats that would be very unique to the current genetic population. Moreover, if for some reason they started hybridizing with Grizzly Bears, we'd witness their demise through genetic dilution, as is happening with White Headed Duck in Europe because of the introduction of the closely related Ruddy Duck from North America with which it interbreeds. The bottom line is that Lomborg ought to keep his mouth shut when it comes to commenting on areas that are beyond his competence. Unfortuneately, that would cover just about everything in his first and latest book. As I have said to exhaustion, the only reason he gets attention is because his words resonate for those with power and wealth who don't want things to change. They have given him averitable megaphone to promote ideas that are plain wrong. Otherwise nobody would have heard of him.

  21. #21 Andy Revkin
    November 18, 2007

    Please be sure to explore the back-and-forth I did on all of this with Dave Roberts, both at Grist and on Dot Earth here:

  22. #22 bigcitylib
    November 19, 2007

    Yeah, Andy, I’ve read that twice and I am still puzzled. You seem to be saying that most of Dave’s points against Lomborg/Gingrich et al occupying the center of the CC debate are true, but you need to give them (Gin/Lom)a stroke to get a few persuadable Republicans on board. That is literally all I can make of your side of that exchange.

  23. #23 Jeff Harvey
    November 19, 2007

    Andy, You say that Lomborg represents “an intellectual lifeboat for a lot of doubtful” (those are your words).

    This is precisely wrong in my view. What I feel Lomborg is doing, and this is exceedingly cunning, is claiming to be on the left but espousing rhetoric that comes from the libertarian right. If he claimed to be on the right, then nobody would pay any attention to him at all. It appears to me that he’s marketed himself along these lines, otherwise he would have been totally ignored by the intellectual mainstream, because he has no formal qualifications in any of the relevant earth or life sciences. He even admits in the Preface of TSE that (and I quote), “I am not an expert as regards environmetnal problems”. But he doesn’t have to be, so long as he says what many people desperately want to hear.

    In my view Lomborg’s other quite cunning trait is to know just a little more than his target audience. He doesn’t care at all that scientists know volumes more than he does, because he is not preaching to them. So long as you know just a tad more than the people you are aiming to reach, you will have them. Let’s be honest here – the vast majority of people in the developed world want to do the right thing, and hate to think they are part of a political and economic system that is sending our planet’s ecological life-support systems down the tubes. But, given what we know about the combined effects of overconsumption and population, Lomborg has made a lot of people who would rather not spend a lot of time thinking about these issues much less guilty. His message is hardly intellectual.

  24. #24 Sparrow (in the coal mine)
    November 29, 2007

    With all of this middle muddle maybe Revkin needs 200 deutcsch marks.

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