The Island of Doubt

Inside Bjorn Lomborg’s brain

I’ve never met Bjorn Lomborg. Never exchanged emails or shared a public forum with him. Although I have seen him speak twice, and I have to concede he’s a compelling character, one who’s almost impossble to ignore. Until now, I just couldn’t figure out how someone as obviously bright and dedicated could be so very wrong. But thanks to the Guardian‘s Juliette Jowit, it’s now clear that guy just doesn’t care whether he’s right or wrong.

In Sunday’s Observer, Jowit tried to find out why Lomborg believes most of the world’s polar bear populations aren’t facing any threats, despite a clear trend toward less of the arctic ice on which they depend for their primary food supply and the opinion of just about every polar bear expert on the planet. He said that according to an IUCN report from 2001, one two of 20 populations were declining and two were increasing. So there.

Jowit then produced Andrew Derocher, chairman of the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group and a biology prof at the University of Alberta, who noted that the 2001 report, and therefore Lomborg’s new anti-climate change book, Cool It!, contain outdated data. Seems that if Lomborg had bothered to read the latest research, conveniently assembled in a 2006 IUCN report, he would have known that “of 19 populations five were declining, five were stable and two were increasing; and for the remaining six there was not enough data to judge.”

[Here I would like to add that getting a grip on the latest research doesn't always mean relying on the IUCN's publication schedule. I wrote a report on Canada's polar bears in 2005, and most of the peer-reviewed science I could find led me to the same conclusion as the IUCN's 2006 report authors, or that the US Geological Survey, which just released the results of its study. Which is: the species faces some extremely serious challenges.]

So how does Lomborg explain his failure to include the most recent data?

Speaking to The Observer, Lomborg said he concentrated on the 2001 report because it was so influential in promoting polar bears as an icon of climate change, but added: ‘I would have liked to have known there was a new one.’

Of course, when he was doing the research for his new book last year he could have asked someone if there might have been anything new in the way of polar bear science since 2001. And maybe he did, but

Derocher said the author had not tried to contact him: ‘Lomborg choosing not to ask for accurate information or using outdated information reflects a lack of scholarship.’

That’s putting it mildly. The ‘borg’s problem is that he just isn’t interested in finding out what’s going on in the real world. Instead he just data-mine/fishes/cherry-picks/reaches for the low-hanging apples that best support his thesis, which seems to be that climate change ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Maybe now that it’s blindingly obvious that the guy has no interest in getting at the truth, newspapers like the Washington Post will stop giving him 1,900 words to promote his book. Sheesh.


  1. #1 Lance
    October 15, 2007

    Ursus maritimus obviously survived the last climate optimimum, 9,000 – 5,000 years ago, a period that saw ice free arctic summers for thousands of years. So I think it will do fine should future summers produce a seasonally open arctic ocean.

    Also you seem to be indicating that species counts that show a decline are somehow ominous predictors of extinction. Biological populations are constantly in flux in both directions. Rare indeed is the biological population that is constant over long periods of time.
    Perhaps a course in population biology would be useful.

    This fanciful idea that there is some “perfect static balance” of nature is endemic of the “green movement” ideology. I don’t think most people that believe this nonsense have any idea of the actual dynamics of the climate or biosphere.

    Of course emperical facts don’t seem to matter too much to some players in this debate. As Al Gore himself said after being awarded the Nobel Peace prize global warming is a ” …moral and spiritual…” issue.

    Ths science is much more nuanced, and less catastrophic, than the simplistic one put forth by big Al and his slide show.

  2. #2 Hume's Ghost
    October 15, 2007

    My favorite bit from him is the section of his new book about how global warming won’t be as bad as everyone makes it out to be because less people will die from being cold.

  3. #3 HG
    October 15, 2007

    Or taht might have been in his column … I can’t remember which.

  4. #4 Andrew Dodds
    October 16, 2007

    Lance –

    Do you have a reference for that claim? (Ice free arctic).

  5. #5 guthrie
    October 16, 2007

    Lance, like many people of his opnion, misses the big difference from X thousand years ago. That is, widespread human habitation, interference with ecosystems and predation. We kill polar bears, mess up their reproduction by pollution, and will no doubt soon be fishing their food up in the ice free waters. How this means there is nothing to worry about, I do not know.

  6. #6 Lance
    October 17, 2007

    Andrew Dodd,

    You can find a discussion of the topic with multiple peer reviewed studies in support here.


    Try to stick to one argument at a time. Human habitation and predation are quite distinct issues from ice free summer arctics.

    Indeed Lomborg argues that eliminating hunting of polar bears would be a better way to protect polar bear populations than GHG mitigation. Also you can’t really be implying that human habitation in the arctic is reaking havoc on polar bears can you? There are approximately 4 million people living above the arctic cirlce on a land mass of 14 million square kilometers. The great majority of these people live in a few cities seperated by vast expanses of open wilderness. In fact polar bears are attracted to human settlements and can become serious nuisances. Human impact on the polar bear’s habitat is minimal.

  7. #7 MikeB
    October 20, 2007

    While its good news that Jowit did actually bother to check Lomborg’s raving with a real expert, its kind of sad that the Guardian’s Environment section on Wednesday ran a full page article by him. This included the Kangerlussuaq glacier ‘growing’ (which of course had already been debunked by Judith Curry, the stuff about fewer people dying from cold, as well as this gem:
    ‘A 1ft rise in sea level isn’t a catastrophe, though it will pose a problem, particularly for small island nations. But very little land was lost when sea levels rose last century, and it costs relatively little to protect the land from rising tides. We can drain wetlands, build levees and divert waterways’.

    What I find worrying is that the Guardian gave him a whole page of free advertsing without any attempt to hold him to account, even though a minute on the internet would have shown he was even more useless than last time. And this was after their fellow paper had given him a kicking.