PZ Myers suggested I might have something to say in response to Bjorn “The Skeptical Environmentalist” Lomborg’s resurfacing. Indeed I do. The Danish boy wonder is back with a new book, Cool It, in which he makes his case, yet again, that climate change isn’t all that bad. He was wrong with his first book, which was savaged by everyone who actually knew the subject matter, and he’s even more wrong now.
Salon has an aggressive interview and an excellent book review, and it is on the former that I will base my analysis of Lomborg’s major cognitive failure, in lieu of wasting precious time and money on his new book. And I will restrict myself to two simple issues, otherwise I could go on all day.
First, Lomborg describes climate change as a “problem” rather than a “catastrophe,” and relies on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to back him up. That wouldn’t be a bad idea, but just like in The Skeptical Environmentalist, he cherry-picks his data to the point of silliness. For example, Lomborg’s book reportedly makes much of a 4.7 °F rise in temperatures this century. But the IPCC, in reports released earlier this year and in a draft of another coming out later this year (according to Reuters), gives:
best estimates that temperatures will rise by 1.8 to 4.0 Celsius (3 to 7 Fahrenheit) this century and that sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59 centimeters.
But it says ocean levels are likely to keep rising “for many centuries” even if greenhouse gases are stabilized, because water expands as it heats up. The deep oceans will keep heating up as warmth filters down from the surface. Under a range of scenarios, such thermal expansion of the oceans alone would bring sea level rises of 0.4 to 3.7 meters in coming centuries, without counting any melting of ice in glaciers or in the vast Greenland or Antarctic ice sheets.
Lomborg dismisses concerns by people like NASA’s Jim Hansen that we could see sea level rise of several meters this century if we do take Greelandic and Antarctic ice sheet melt into account, but provides no reason for that attitude. Of course, Hansen, and the dozens of collaborators at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and eleswhere who agree with him on such matters, could all be wrong, but Lomborg needs a better reason to ignore their advice than simply “they’re wrong.”
Second — and this is Lomborg’s central argument — is the notion that doing something about climate change will cost too much, and that that money could be better spent.
This is not a scientific argument. It’s not even a good economic argument. It’s a political. one. The industrialized West is hideously wealthy and could easily afford to do what’s necessary to mitigate enough warming to avoid catastrophic scenarios, if we’re lucky and get our act together very soon. To argue that we can only afford to do something about malaria or climate change, but not both, is utter nonsense.
Lomborg has four Nobel-laureate economists on his side. But there’s a reason they call economics the dismal science. Eban Goodstein makes the case better than I could in Salon’s book review,
Suppose, as [Lomborg] believes, that Kyoto-level controls will cost a cumulative $5 trillion over the next 100 years. That is about two years’ worth of increase in global output. Suppose also that we ignore Lomborg’s advice and in the next few years freeze global warming pollution in the rich countries. That would mean that a century hence, our descendants, living in a much richer world, would have to wait an additional two years — until 2109 — until a growing global economy left them as rich as they otherwise would have been in 2107.
So even if we buy Lomborg’s inflated notions of what it would cost ($180 billion a year) to bring down our emissions, he’s still barking up the wrong tree.
That draft IPCC report, by the way, concludes that decent climate change mitigation would mean
Global gross domestic product (GDP) in 2030 would be reduced by up to 3 percent in the most stringent case that would require emissions to peak within about 15 years. Other less tough goals would mean only a fractional loss of GDP by 2030.
I’m afraid Lomborg’s real problem is not that he’s too skeptical of climate change alarmism (although he is), but that he’s too gullible when it comes to believing economic reports. It was the same with The Skeptical Environmentalist. Many of the errors in his book were due to reliance on official United Nations or Food and Agriculture Organization estimates of fishing rates, forest cover and whatnot. Scientists, those who actually work with these things on a daily basis, know better to rely on data supplied by governments with a strong interest in supplyign exaggerated or distorted data.
In this case, the IPCC is a fine group. But it has its limitations and the sooner Lomborg develops a proper understanding of skepticism, the sooner we can all stop listening to his naive ramblings about how we should just stop worrying and learn to love whatever it is he’s on about this time.