Lomborg and Playing the Long Game

[This is a guest post by John Mashey. Any formatting/link errors are mine. I also added Hoover, Manhattan, Reason to Lomborg's think tank affiliations  - TB]

Following started at ThingsBreak, as part of a long discussion on Bjorn Lomborg.


Suppose one’s goal is to avoid restrictions on CO2 production, for any of a variety of reasons, a partial list of which can be found at Deltoid.

One can use any of the following types of arguments, among others:

1) AGW science is wrong [GHGs aren't that important, the data is wrong, etc]. i.e., doubt.
2) AGW-mitigation will cost too much money, or people will be much richer, or we need to wait for technology breakthroughs, etc.
3) AGW maybe real, but there are higher priorities.

These roughly correspond to:
1) direct anti-science,
2) direct economic, and
3) political arguments (typically masking economic or ideological underpinnings).

Of these, 3), if done well, is the most sophisticated, and can be made to appeal to many people who might not be convinced by the other arguments. Hence:

BJORN LOMBORG, Wizard of misdirection & Reincarnation of Julian Simon

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg is a *political* scientist. Criticizing him for his bad science and statistics overlooks the effectiveness of his *political* strategy. I have seen quite reasonable people get confused when first encountering his work. After all, *politics* is about convincing people, not doing good science.


Lomborg’s MS & PhD are in Political Science, not Economics, Statistics, or Environmental Sciences. His long-ago research was in game theory & voting, but as far as I can tell, he does not publish economics or statistics in peer-reviewed journals. It’s unclear why anyone else would call him an environmentalist.

While he may teach (or have taught) statistics, his writings don’t seem to offer much actual statistical analysis. He shows many charts, but it’s not easy to find normal statistician’s regression analyses or confidence intervals in his own work.


I think Lomborg follows the school of thought made famous by Julian Simon (deceased), and conservative think tanks like CATO Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Fraser Institute, Heartland InstituteHoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, Reason Foundation, etc. with at least six of which Lomborg has relationships. The following are typical high priorities:

- Above all, totally free markets and no government regulation of … much of anything.
- Keep taxes down
- Resource exhaustion is no problem, and probably never will be.
- Avoid regulation of CO2, or at least, minimize the cost.
- Protect the economic interests of the country.

From my reading of their websites, the following rarely seem a high priority:
- Devote government resources to help people in developing countries.

Lomborg appears to have been raised in a political leftward environment, but then “discovered” Simon on a trip to the US. Kare Fog’s story rings true, and may offer useful insight.

In any case, the Simon/Lomborg connection is immediately visible in Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (TSE), whose first post-copyright page consists entirely of a quote from Simon’s “The Ultimate Resource 2″ (1996):

This is my long-run forecast in brief: The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations, and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards. I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.


- CEI: In 2003, Lomborg received the Julian Simon award from CEI.
- Fraser Institute: Lomborg spoke for them in 2007.
- Heartland Institute: Lomborg is on their “climate expert’s” list.
- Hoover Institution: Lomborg was a contributing author for their publication “You Have to Admit It’s Getting Better”
- Manhattan Institute: Lomborg spoke and interviewed for them in April, 2008
- Reason Foundation: Lomborg is a contributing author and spoke for their 40th anniversary celebration

Their websites do *not* reveal strong emphases on spending money or effort to help developing countries. So, why might they favor Lomborg?


Suppose someone’s real priorities are indeed tightly aligned with conservative think tanks. Everyone is entitled to their political views, and I’m happy if they advocate them openly. [Personally, I prefer government to be as small and non-intrusive as possible, and as big as necessary to solve common problems. Reasonable people can disagree on the right boundaries. Details matter!] Of course, direct advocacy of some of these would likely arouse opposition amongst many people.

Lomborg’s approach is far more sophisticated, especially with Copenhagen Consensus.

TSE argued that all sorts of problems were not really problems, but some clearly are. By now, Lomborg admits there are some problems, but wants to get them prioritized. His goal seems not to *solve* any of these problems, but to make sure that specific problems don’t get addressed any time soon.

This approach is sometimes called “false dilemma”, but it’s really more subtle than that. With the “Copenhagen Consensus” and Cool It!, he now has something that appeals across the spectrum:

- Left/progressive:
gets conflicted by appeals for working on HIV/AIDS or clean water in third-world countries. If someone has a high level of social concern, it’s really *hard* to seem to argue against someone proposing these. People get confused, thinking that Lomborg is really supporting their priorities.

I’ve met dedicated, productive environmentalists who sometimes fall into this category, who think that “environmental extremists” actually retard real progress. Since Lomborg often attacks the latter, he may appeal to the former.

- Centrist/analytical:
likes to prioritize problems and allocate resources in rational ways. Many people like his prioritization framework, not realizing the subtle ways by which climate change is guaranteed to fall off the bottom. The centrist fiscal-conservative / social-liberal / environmentalist folks commonly found around here in Silicon Valley are susceptible to this approach, especially if they start with “Cool It” and don’t know Lomborg’s earlier history.

- Right/conservative:
Is perfectly happy that the *actual* result is no regulation & minimal taxes, regardless of what anyone says. Again, CEI, Heartland, and Fraser *favor* Lomborg.

I often use an analogy in motivating a focus on climate trends rather than weather noise and oscillations. In American football, in high school, they teach defensive players:

“Watch the belt-buckle, ignore the head-fakes.” Although for climate trends, the weather noise is natural, not purposeful.

That seems applicable here as well. In politics, there is quite often a difference between what someone says and what they really want, and it takes a while to sort it out.


People expect proponents of something argue *for* it, and opponents to argue *against* it. People get confused, when someone argues *for* something, not to get it, but to avoid something else.

See Lomborg’s prioritized list (page 44 of US Cool It!, or p.51 of the UK edition), which I categorize into 3 main groups, as seen from a typical conservative think tank viewpoint:

A(+,-) : sounds good, likely won’t get implemented, but blocks X(-,-) via higher priority
B(+,+): really want these, and some may actually help developing world
X(-,-): really do not want these, make sure they are at the bottom

The letters A, B, X mean:

A: developed world countries make zero change to own internal behavior, but give more aid to developing countries

If actually implemented, this would raise taxes in developed world, but of course, truly major investments here don’t seem to happen very often, and as far as I can tell, most conservative think tanks (in US sense) don’t lead the charge for more useful foreign aid to poor countries.

B: make it easier for countries to do business, move around, etc.

Few of these create restrictions on first-world countries, and may have benefits there. Whether they are good or bad for third-world countries may be arguable on the details, and is beyond the scope of this discussion.

X: carbon restrictions

Developed-world countries will have to change their internal behavior, including regulating some activities. Fossil-fuel companies would likely be less profitable. This has relatively little effect on the poorest countries, which cannot afford to burn much fossil fuel anyway.

(?, ?) means (what is said, what is actually intended)

Sometimes legislators vote *for* a bill they know won’t pass, because it looks good at home. Alternatively, legislators may fear that a bill may pass, then add enough amendments to make the bill unpassable or get it vetoed. They might even add amendments they wouldn’t vote for themselves, if that defeats the bill. These are misdirection tactics, in which people seem to argue for something, not to achieve it, but to defeat something else.

Serious politician-watchers can usually ascertain a politician’s real priorities, but it can take time to see which policies they really push and which receive lip-service.

(+,+) Direct positive
someone says it, really wants it, and really works for it.

(+, -) Misdirection
someone says it, but really intends it to avoid something else, and do not really fight for it.

(-, -) Direct negative
someone says they don’t want it, they mean that and will fight against it.

A (+, +) (for completeness, I don’t think Lomborg’s list has any like this)

I’ve talked/donated to people who do third-world water work, who spend serious time in the developing world, who work on conflict resolution, helping poor farmers, etc. When Stanford’s Jenna Davis says, “We could do so much more with only $1/person/year from the US”, I’m sure she means it, because she actually spends time “out there” on water & sanitation problems.

When Norman Borlaug says it’s important to help third-world farmers, he means it. When Peter Gleick talks about water, he means it.

A(+, -)
But, if someone’s goal is to avoid X, the *whole* point is to put (useful, valuable) things at the top of the list, that *won’t* get funded anyway, so they don’t happen.

Then (false dilemma), try to convince people to accept strict priorities. If one cannot get the top of the list funded, lower-priority items will certainly not get funded. The proposer of (+,-) argument is not expecting it to be implemented to any great extent. The proposer is not likely to really push it, be willing to pay for it or expect anyone to pay much for it. Even if they pay a little, it may be far less bothersome than to pay for handling X, and maybe someone else will pay for it anyway. In any case, it will have minimal impact on one’s business or lifestyle, so arguing for it looks good. Of course, in the real world, priorities often work differently anyway, and individuals, businesses, and governments often mix short-term and long-term priorities.

In some cases, an A(+,-) might be a B(+,+) if the real result is to provide more government money to selected industries in the developed world.

B(+, +)
These arguments are quite consistent with conservative think tank priorities. I believe they mean what they say here.

They’d certainly like #3 (trade liberalization). I like The Economist, so I’m hardly against free trade in general! However, some people make reasonable cases that some free trade policies are good for (some) people in developed world, but not so good for (many) people in the developing world. Serious discussion is far beyond the scope of this, as the devil is in the details. See Leclerc & Hall, Making World Development Work, for example.

They certainly like #9 (lowering cost of new business) … and I do too, as that is good worldwide. Of course, occasionally, this might mean “no environmental regulations” also.

They’d like #10 (migration), which certainly is good for developed countries. It’s good for places with large inward brain drain (like here in Silicon Valley, beneficiary of (perhaps) the most intense/widespread inward brain in recent history). If the right connections develop, as with India, it may even be good for the developing countries, but otherwise, it might not, as developing countries permanently lose skilled workers. This one is another complex issue.

X(-, -)
These are negative arguments, but not of the explicit form “AGW isn’t real”, which is difficult to argue in the face of the strong science. One form is “If everybody gets rich, no problem”, which tends to be espoused by economists, especially politically-conservative ones. Many economists project the same sort of GDP growth rate we’ve had for a hundred years, so the world is 6-15X richer in 2100. This does ignore Peak Oil & Gas, of course, and any influence of energy on GDP growth, as postulated by Robert Ayres and Benjamin Warr. Of course, the conservative thinktanks fond of Lomborg also tend to run serious anti-science efforts, typically targeted for conservative audiences.

But, of course, the main argument here is that X(-,-) items are lower-priority, a much more subtle approach than direct anti-science.


Very Good
A(+,-) 1 Diseases (HIV/AIDS)
A(+,-) 2 Malnutrition (micronutrients)
B(+,+) 3 Subsidies and Trade (trade liberalization)
A(+,-) 4 Diseases (malaria)

A(+,-) 5 Malnutrition (new ag tech) might be B(+,+) if developed-world agribusiness gets grants
A(+,-) 6 Sanitation and water (small-scale water tech)
A(+,-) 7 Sanitation and water (community-managed water & sanitation)
A(+,-) 8 Sanitation and water (research on water productivity in food production), might be B(+,+)
B(+,+) 9 Government (lowering cost of new business), this *actually* might be A(+,+) as well

B(+,+) 10 Migration (lowering barriers for skilled workers)
A(+,-) 11 Malnutrition (infant & child)
A(+,-) 12 Malnutrition (low birth weight)
A(+,-) 13 Diseases (scaled-up basic health services)

B(+,+) 14 Migration (unskilled guest workers)
X(-,-) 15 Climate (optimal carbon tax $25-$300)
X(-,-) 16 Climate Kyoto Protocol
X(-,-) 17 Climate (value-at-risk carbon tax $100-$450)

Anything that would actually *bother* a developed country (and especially, certain business and political interests there) in any major way is at the bottom of the list. Is this a surprise?


If someone says they buy the Copenhagen Consensus, and likes the prioritization approach, ask them if they are actively advocating substantial raises in their taxes to pay to help third-world countries, or if they give substantial money to NGOs that do that. [Some do.]

Then, ask them if Lomborg puts his reputation and efforts towards actually *doing* that in Denmark, not just talking about it. How much time does Lomborg actually spend in the developing world, I wonder? Denmark is better than many at foreign aid. Does Lomborg actually help that, with serious effort, or not?

Many people *actually* try to help people “out there” in one way or another. Some (like Bill & Melinda Gates) actually give quite a bit of money for useful efforts. Some of the rest of us give, too, if less.

But, is this *really* a priority for Lomborg and the conservative think tanks who favor him?

Or is it clever misdirection to avoid policies that they have long fought in every other way?

18 responses to “Lomborg and Playing the Long Game

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  2. Thank you very much for this, John. I’m checking through your sources now (though I don’t doubt it’s as impeccably researched as your usual replies, I ran into a Lomborg disciple today and feel the need to be better-prepared in the future.).

    Do you have any recommendations for dealing with those who buy Lomborg’s argument (i.e. those who’d answer “yes” to your first question) but claim the argument still holds even if Lomborg is shown to be deceiving? The cornucopian I spoke to essentially decried this strategy as an ad-hom, suggesting that even if it were put forth under false pretenses it still was a good method. This is just hypothetical, as I doubt any answer would appease this particular fellow; he actually denied that Crichton espoused anti-science views and claimed that the literature pinned the current warming on the sun. However, the average intelligent person duped by Lomborg is likely duped because (as you note) Lomborg’s claims appear reasonable. Even if they are promoted under false colours, all that does is question the motivation, not the presented argument.

  3. I have seldom seen a more skilfull character assassination than that by JM of BL. But then JM is a specialist in the field.

    For example, he says ‘Many people *actually* try to help people “out there” in one way or another. Some (like Bill & Melinda Gates) actually give quite a bit of money for useful efforts. Some of the rest of us give, too, if less.

    But, is this *really* a priority for Lomborg and the conservative think tanks who favor him?’

    Just check out BL’s books Global Crisis Global Solutions and Cool It for a total refutation of Mashey’s disgusting and disgraceful insinutaions, coming from one who has never done anything for the 3rd world.

    Mashey is a good representative of those with a secret agenda of securing depopulation, through promoting Stern-Garnaut-Hansen reductions of atmospheric CO2 that will result in world famine and starvation.

    [I'm letting this one through for the sheer hilarity. - TB]

  4. Brian D thanks

    The purpose of the piece was was to discuss the differing natures of the arguments in Copenhagen Convention and ask why this structure was so popular with right-wing thinktanks and so often conflicting for progressives/centrists who would normally disagree with those thinktanks. It was also to try to get people to stop dismissing Lomborg for the frequent bad science and look at this as a political question instead and analyze the political tactics.

    I didn’t want to get off onto a long discussion of prioritizations and policy, but I’ll put together some thoughts, which involve:

    - false dilemmas & all the spending items that were never mentioned that might have been.
    - insurance
    - maintenance versus short-term
    - short-term-vs-long-term thinking
    - realistic prioritizations in real world
    - why people might *not* be vastly richer in 2100 [Peak Oil+gas, for example]
    - the weirdness of fixing drinking water temporarily while insuring either long-term drought in some areas , floods in others, and saltwater incursion in others, and sometimes floods/droughts (i.e., US West, due to snowpack reduction).

    But, meanwhile, there were several other items I should have included:

    1) Recall that Senator James Inhofe is fond of Lomborg’s views as well, for example, at Heartland.

    2) It is useful to read Gary Yohe’s comments on the Copenhagen Consensus, from which I excerpt:

    “as one of the authors of the Copenhagen Consensus Project’s principal climate paper, I can say with certainty that Lomborg is misrepresenting our findings thanks to a highly selective memory.”

    Finally, as a thought question, consider another spending item that *might* have appeared:

    - eradicate cigarette smoking
    See about WHO report, 2008.

    These days, smoking is growing in low-income countries, and WHO thinks a billion people will die of it in this century. After all, this is a business that depends on teenage addiction during brain-wiring time. That would seem an obvious win, right at the top of the list…

    One could pay for a lot of those (good) things on the list.

    but it’s not mentioned, is it? I wonder why :-)

  5. Brian D:

    In addition to my comments in previous post,
    see economist Frank Ackerman’s analysis of Cool It!, since published in Climactic Change.

  6. There are some problems with Frank Ackerman’s review of Bjorn Lomborg’s book “Cool It”. That book is clearly a follow-up to his previous book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” so it does not need to repeat all the refs. in that earlier book.

    However the main problem with Ackerman’s dissection of Lomborg is his failure to recognise the benefits of CO2 fertilisation. Without that, as proposed by IPCC and all its adherents, we are doomed. See my paper at http://www.quadrant.org.au.

  7. Bjorn looks great with pie on his face, but I think he’s shy about applying this kind of makeup himself. If enough people helped him out he could step out into a new career as a fashion icon. Anything would be more productive than what he’s been up to in the last number of years.

  8. Pingback: Explain, apologise, but never debate « Greenfyre’s

  9. Then, ask them if Lomborg puts his reputation and efforts towards actually *doing* that in Denmark, not just talking about it. How much time does Lomborg actually spend in the developing world, I wonder? Denmark is better than many at foreign aid. Does Lomborg actually help that, with serious effort, or not?

    Question: would this point prove more helpful to your argument if you answered the question? Regardless, this line of reasoning is a clunker on both sides of the debate. One could easily point right back at Al Gore’s lack of carbon consciousness in his own political activities (how much extra CO2 did “Live Earth” spew into the atmosphere) and the fact that he is making tons of $$$ in the carbon credit business, so he has financial interests in promoting a worst-case scenario on climate change..

    [Yegads! It sounds as though you've stumbled upon a case fit for Sherlock Holmes himself. -TB]

  10. Great analysis, John! As was mentioned, I’ve been spending too much energy on refuting his climate science. This redirection angle was very clever, indeed, and this analysis should be widely shared.

  11. But TB, you’ve still not answered the question you posed: How much time does Lomborg actually spend in the developing world, I wonder?

    [I think you mean that John posed. If you have credible evidence that Lomborg is actually attempting to promote the "findings" of the Copenhagen Consensus in a way that benefits people in the real world rather than as a cynical means to play down the issue of climate change, I'm all ears. I certainly can't find any, and I have been looking.]

    And it seems your version of Holmes does not live up to the much more astute original.

    [Not sure what your point there is. Gore's fortune was made independently of his involvement with carbon credits, which was the point of the Holmes parody. - TB]

  12. Pingback: Bjorn Lomborg admits his intellectual bankruptcy « Greenfyre’s

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  14. Hi – I have just referenced your two posts on Lomborg, including this one, in my post today. I have been appalled at the uncritical platform that has been provided for him by the Canadian press and I want to provide some much needed context.
    dawn bazely

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  16. Pingback: Hallelujah! … Bjorn again « Greenfyre’s

  17. Pingback: CNN's Fareed Zakaria Asks Discredited Political Scientist to Game Global Warming

  18. Pingback: Do climate change policies hurt the world’s poor? | quakerattled

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