The Island of Doubt

What to do with Bjorn Lomborg?

Bjorn Lomborg, the ex-Greenpeace bad-boy of statistics, is back at it. In last week’s National Post, Canada’s right-wing embarrassment of a newspaper, he once again takes on climate change activists. The problem with Lomborg, a man trained to play with numbers but seemingly devoid any understanding of how to understand what those numbers really mean (recall The Skeptical Environmentalist, his widely discredited attempt to argue that things aren’t really all that bad), is that he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Here’s his essay, and my attempt to show why almost everything he says is wrong.

Global warming’s dirty secret
Bjorn Lomborg, Project Syndicate, 2007

Last week, the European Union declared that it had practically saved the planet.

Unwarranted hyperbole. Most quotes I came across were tempered with the acknowedgement that much remains to be done. For example: “We want to make our contribution to averting the global threat of climate change. But for that, we need allies throughout the world,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

With European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso claiming that Europe will lead the way on climate change, the EU has promised to cut CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990-levels by 2020. Of course, with the EU already having promised an 8% cut by next year in the Kyoto Protocol, this new target seems slightly less ambitious.

That’s not what the Kyoto Protocol calls for. Targets don’t take effect until 2012.

Moreover, in continuing the fundamental problems besetting the crippled Kyoto Protocol, the EU has essentially gone and made a worse deal. Man-made climate change is, of course, real and constitutes a serious problem. Yet the current cut-emissions-now-before-it-is-too-late mindset neglects the fact that the world has no sensible short-term solutions.

Really? By using but failing to define terms like “sensible” you can say pretty much whatever you want. No one’s arguing that there are easy solutions, but there are options at our disposal that are practical and technically possible to implement, including carbon taxes, high-mileage requirements for automobiles, a return to a serious investment in mass transit, and so forth.

This seems to be why we focus on feel good approaches like the Kyoto Protocol, whose fundamental problem has always been that it is simultaneously impossibly ambitious, environmentally inconsequential and inordinately expensive. It required such big reductions that only a few countries could live up to it.

First, of all, Kyoto is not impossibly ambitious nor inordinately expensive. Study after study has shown it’s economic impact will be even less measurable than its ecological impact. If Lomborg has evidence to the contrary, it would be nice to see it, rather than just reading oblique references to it.

Some countries, like the United States and Australia, chose to opt out of its stringent demands; others, like Canada, Japan and a raft of European states, pay lip service to its requirements but will essentially miss its targets. Yet, even if everyone had participated and continued to stick to Kyoto’s ever more stringent commitments, it would have had virtually no environmental effect. The treaty’s effect on temperature would be immeasurable by mid-century and only postpone warming by five years in 2100. Nonetheless, the cost would have been anything but trivial — an estimated US$180-billion per year.

Actually, Kyoto’s effect on global warming will be even less than Lomborg thinks. Nature published a prediction about six years ago (I can’t find the reference, sorry) that has a fully implemented protocol (including non-signatories United States and Australia) forestalling the warming by just one half of one tenth of one degree Centigrade. This is not the point, however. Kyoto was a symbolic first step that showed international agreement was possible. It was also intended to be financially feasible, and again, if Lomborg has good proof that will cost $180 billion, he should at least give a passing reference to such a study.

With its high-pitched rhetoric, you would be forgiven for believing that the EU has now single-handedly taken the major step toward solving the problem. Mr. Barroso called the agreement “historic,” Tony Blair extoled its “groundbreaking, bold, ambitious targets” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel even ventured that the promises “can avoid what could well be a human calamity.”

High-pitched rhetoric?. Maybe to someone on Quaaludes. Wake up, Bjorn, this is standard, middle-of-the-road stuff.

But nobody sees fit to reveal the agreement’s dirty little secret: it will do next to no good, and again at very high cost. According to one well-established and peer-reviewed model, the effect of the EU cutting emissions by 20% will postpone warming in 2100 by just two years, yet the cost will be about US$90- billion annually. It will be costly because Europe is a costly place to cut CO2, and it will be inconsequential because the EU will account for only about 6% of all emissions in the twenty-first century. So the new treaty will be an even less efficient use of our resources than the old Kyoto Protocol.

Again, where’s this well-established and peer-reviewed model he loves so much? The truth is, for every study cranked out by climate change contrarians that shows it will be costly to do something about the problem, there’s another that shows it will actually create jobs and bolster the economy. The reality is probably somewhere close to a wash. After all, we’re not talking about spending more money, just spending it on alternative technologies, along with reducing consumption. Sure, the folks who are getting rich off fossil-fuel consumption will lose money, but those with stocks in biomass, wind, geothermal, fuel-cells, mass-transit and other replacement technologies will make money. Yes, we will have to subsidize some of the alternative. But it’s not like the $27 billion the U.S. already gives to the oil industry each year as subsidies is Monopoly money. This is elementary.

It is important to learn from the past. We have often been promised dramatic cuts in CO2 emissions far into the future, only to see the promises vanish when we got there. In Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the West promised to stabilize emissions, but overshot by 12%. In Kyoto, we were promised a 7% reduction in world emissions, but will probably achieve only 0.4%. Of course, those promises were made by politicians who in all likelihood will no longer be in office when the time comes to fulfill them.

So that means we shouldn’t even try? It’s a good thing Lomborg’s ilk weren’t at the helm when we needed to rapidly convert American industry for the Second World War. Perhaps he would have given up after NASA lost three astronauts on the launch pad, rather that keep going to the moon.

We will not be able to solve global warming over the next decades — it will take the next half or full century. We need to find a viable, long-term strategy that is smart, equitable and doesn’t require inordinate sacrifice for trivial benefits. Fortunately, there is such a strategy: research and development.

No one argues that we don’t need more R&D. If ever there was a straw man argument, that’s it. The facts suggest we need to reduce emissions as fast as possible while we try to develop clean alternatives for the long term.

Investing in R&D of non-carbon emitting energy technologies would leave future generations able to make serious and yet economically feasible and advantageous cuts. A new global warming treaty should mandate spending 0.05% of GDP on R&D in the future. It would be much cheaper, yet do much more good in the long run.

That’s it? 0.05%. Methinks Lomborg doesn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the problem. But again, it’s not an either-or scenario. We can easily invest that kind of money in new technologies, while we implement that ones we have on the shelf now.

The EU’s new global warming agreement may help win elections for leaders faced with voters scared by the prospect of climate change. But it will do virtually no good, at high cost, and — as with many other lofty promises from the EU — it will carry a high probability of failure. Let us hope that the rest of the world will keep its cool and propose a better, cheaper and more effective solution for the future.

A conclusion based on what? Lomborg attributes not one element of his argument to anything remotely resembling a source one can verify. Could it be that he thinks we just trust him? Not after The Skeptical Environmentalist. I read the whole thing, and was appalled by just how poorly he understood the science underpinning his thesis. Among the book’s primary problems was an inability to distinguish reliable, peer-reviewed scientific publications from grey-literature propaganda. It appears he didn’t take any of the mountains of criticism that book generated to heart.

technorati tag: Lomborg

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Platte
    March 28, 2007

    He’s an attention whore. Unlike the Discovery Institute idealists this boy is “unconventional” because that gets him stage time at TED, etc.

  2. #2 Danelaw
    April 7, 2007

    Lomborg is not even trained as statistician. He is a political scientist (or used to be one).

    See http://www.lomborg-errors.dk for at full run-down of flaws, omissions and deliberately misleading statements in the skeptical environmentalist.

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