The Island of Doubt

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Marco
    August 29, 2007

    From Amazon, the editorial review of “Cool It” by Micheal Crichton begins with:
    “Bjørn Lomborg is the best-informed and most humane advocate for environmental change in the world today. In contrast to other figures that promote a single issue while ignoring others, Lomborg views the globe as a whole, studies all the problems we face, ranks them, and determines how best, and in what order, we should address them.” Cool, isn’it?

  2. #2 MikeB
    August 29, 2007

    When David Roberts over at Grist first blogged on this, I commented that we will hear endless cheers from the ‘Economist’, the Telegraph, the WSJ and every other no-nothing publication. Endless blogs will try to refute this idiot, but he will have a fine time anyway. I also read the same review as Marco did – and got very depressed – truely the lunatics have taken over the asylum. Amazon should be ashamed of itself for getting Crichton to review it, Random House should be ashamed to publish it, and Lomborg should be ashamed for putting pen to paper. Still, all three will make money, and lots of people will have something to blog about.

  3. #3 bigTom
    August 29, 2007

    I think Lomborg does get it. He has a formula for making a living from writing books. He knows he has a ready made audience of fairly narrowlyminded readers, who are looking for debate quotes. Claiming to be a real scientist helps his cause. We will be refuting his points for years to come.

  4. #4 MikeB
    August 30, 2007

    BigTom – your totally right. Lomborg’s USP is that he is a ‘skeptic’, and ues ‘facts’ to stop the doom-mongering of all those greenies. This plays perfectly for the mass media, since they crave ‘balance’ and someone who isn’t ‘PC’.

    Of course its ridiculous, but it seems to work very well – just look at the coverage he got in the popular media last time around, even though every specialist publication completely shredded his arguments. And of course the general public remembers what he said, and what was said about him, rather than E.O.Wilson taking him down.

    Frankly, with his basically dishonest approach to the data, he’s moving towards the position of a David Irving, but one with the capacity to do far more damage.

  5. #5 ivansml
    August 30, 2007

    Your second point about bad economic arguments from Lomborg doesn’t make much sense – Lomborg thinks that spending 5 trillion dollars over 100 years to reduce global warming is too much, Salon reviewer and you think it’s too little. There is no way to say which view is right without considering the costs of global warming (and only those costs that can be prevented) for next 100 years – and such cost-benefit calculation should be better left to economists, whether you consider their science dismal or not.

  6. #6 MikeB
    August 30, 2007

    But isn’t the conclusion of the IPCC (which is by far the most conservative viewpoint), the new data coming from the Arctic, and Stern all point to the fact that you can no longer rely on a simply discount rate? Business as usual is over, and while a conventional discount rate might be OK for working out the cost of leasing a car for example, its totally inadequate for climate change.

    Chris Mooney has mentioned four possible disasters caused by hurricanes which could occur on the coastal United States http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/08/hurricane_katrina_lessons_part_1.php three of which could happen this year. Any one of these would cause a fair amount of harm to the US economy, at least on a short-term basis. More then one? Gets worse, and if there are follow-up disasters the year afterwards? Then its really time to worry.

    Would economists have been able to tell you whether it was worth upgrading the New Orleans levees? Possibly, but I bet it was on the basis of a hurricane ‘once every x years’. The reality was very different. BBC4 showed ‘When the Levee’s Broke’ last night, and one person on the film said (in relation to the state of the levees and the money made available in the past) ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.
    That sounds excellent advice for climate change as well.

    Lomborg’s problem is that he would rather cherry-pick figures than face up to reality.

  7. #7 Hume's Ghost
    August 31, 2007

    I also noticed that Lomborg has recently been added to the list of writers at Project Syndicate.

    His column is going to be on global warming. Sigh.

    http://www.project-syndicate.org/

  8. #8 dt
    September 3, 2007

    It is a good thing that the author of this article got a degree in journalism. He is not a scientist at all. For him to call himself a biologist is horrible. I can remember in approx. 1973 these same idiots were warning us of the upcoming ICE AGE. Sensationalistic blogging and reporting do nothing but spread this affliction with the disinformation provided by these tree huggers.

  9. #9 Dano
    September 6, 2007

    but Lomborg needs a better reason to ignore their advice than simply “they’re wrong.”

    No he doesn’t. Nor do the other ideologues.

    The evidence doesn’t fit their worldview and that’s good enough.

    Hellll-oooo. This is the issue. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Wake up.

    Best,

    D

  10. #10 pradeep
    September 24, 2007

    The Crichton review on Amazon looks like a paid advertisement, considering Crichton is a scientist and seems to be well educated.

    However, the Publisher’s Weekly review below the Crichton review ends with this pertinent statement: “Though he argues passionately, Lomborg’s efforts seem more about pushing his opponents’ buttons than facing honestly the complexities of global climate change.”

    The Washington Post review also takes him to task – “What, ultimately, is Cool It all about? On the surface, it’s a cry from a compassionate conservative not to waste money on combating climate change when that money could be better spent helping the poor. But why climate change rather than military spending? By empathizing with those who are concerned about climate change and poverty, and trying to persuade them to divert their energies, Cool It is a stealth attack on humanity’s future.”