“Cool It” yourselves

Since it looks like it’s going to be wall-to-wall Lomborg in the press for a while, it’s probably worth reviewing why he is not only not taken seriously by many people actually concerned about climate change, but why a great many people actively dislike him. It’s not that he proposes “alternatives” to mitigation efforts like cap-and-trade, although he would certainly love for people to believe that.

It’s because he presents himself as someone credible, someone who isn’t a climate denialist- i.e. he proclaims to accept the reality of anthropogenic warming and to consider it a serious threat. But as anyone who has dealt with denialism knows, few if any people in the grips of denialism actually consider themselves to be denialists. There are plenty of “intelligent design” proponents who claim not to reject biology but rather believe that key aspects of evolution are overstated (e.g. irreducible complexity). Many anti-vax denialists claim to support vaccines but only want to “make them safer/greener”.

It’s not so much what someone professes to believe that determines whether or not they’re engaging in denialism, but the way they misrepresent evidence.

And Lomborg has quite a history of doing just that. Let’s take a look at just three such cases:

On polar bears:

Lomborg has frequently and grossly misrepresented scientific data and literature on polar bears and other aspects of climate change.

He has claimed that the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment says polar bears have nothing to worry about, they’ll just devolve into brown bears:

The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment finds it likely that disappearing ice will make polar bears take up “a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.”

The implication is that polar bears aren’t actually threatened by (anthropogenic warming-induced) sea ice decline, because they can just go back to acting like brown bears and everything will be fine. It sounds ludicrous, so much so that an an interviewer for Salon.com asked Lomborg if that is actually what he was claiming. Lomborg made it crystal clear that it was, and that it was his genuine understanding of the Impact Assessment report:

Salon: Are you saying that polar bears will be OK, that the species will survive if they evolve backward?

Lomborg: Yes, that’s certainly how I read it.

But the Impact Assessment said no such thing. Sea ice decline presents a dire, possibly fatal threat to polar bears. In a summer ice-free Arctic, there is no “okay” scenario. Polar bears face demise or might eke out a grim survival among threats from other species of bears and humans. The Impact Assessment states:

It is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer sea-ice scenario. Their only option would be a terrestrial summer lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved. In such a case, competition, risk of hybridization with brown bears and grizzly bears, and increased interactions with people would then number among the threats to polar bears.

Far from representing a scenario in which polar bears are “okay” living like brown bears, the Impact Assessment presented it as a last hope, fraught with major threats of its own.

In good company with many other climate denialists, Lomborg has also tried to give the impression that polar bears aren’t really in danger from anthropogenic warming because their populations are increasing, not decreasing.

He does by citing historic population levels at 5,000 in the 1960s and present numbers at 25,000. He conveniently omits population estimates that put historic numbers at 18,000-20,000 and the present numbers as low as 20,000. In other words, given the spread of the estimates, it’s possible to cherry-pick numbers that give you anything from no increase whatsoever, to a modest increase, to a monstrous increase of 20,000 bears. Lomborg chooses the latter, without justification for doing so or informing his audience of the full range of estimates.

But suppose we ignore this blatant cherry picking. According to Lomborg’s numbers, had polar bears been recovering from a low brought about by unregulated hunting? Yes. Does this recovery mean that they aren’t threatened by global warming? No.

Or, characterized this way by UCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group Chair, Andrew Derocher:

The various presentations of biased reporting ignore, or are ignorant of, the different reasons for changes in populations. If I thought that there were more bears now than 50 years ago and a reasonable basis to assume this would not change, then no worries. This is not the case.

The bottom line here is that it is an apples and oranges issue. The early estimates of polar bear abundance are a guess. There is no data at all for the 1950-60s. Nothing but guesses. We are sure the populations were being negatively affected by excess harvest (e.g., aircraft hunting, ship hunting,self-killing guns, traps, and no harvest limits). The harvest levels were huge and growing. The resulting low numbers of bears were due only to excess harvest but, again, it was simply a guess as to the number of bears….

Comparing declines caused by harvest followed by recovery from harvest controls to declines from loss of habitat and climate warming are apples and oranges. Ignorant people write ignorant things.

Derocher is saying that such claims (even granting their numbers) are at heart a combination of two forms of fallacious reasoning, the cherry pick (polar bear populations are increasing during a certain interval) and the non sequitur (therefore they are not threatened by anthropogenic warming). The claim that polar bear populations are rising only holds true because the period is selected to begin at a low point brought about by unregulated hunting. Once hunting restrictions were put in place, populations had begun returning to their historic norms.

However, that does not mean that polar bear populations are increasing across the board. The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group found in 2005 (well before the 2007 publication of “Cool It!”) that of the 19 polar bear subpopulations, only 2 were increasing, while 5 were flat and 5 more were actually in decline (there were insufficient data for the remaining 7). Relative to their historic levels, only 6 subpopulations were believed to be “not reduced” while 6 were “reduced” or “severely reduced” (there were insufficient data for the remaining 7).

(In case anyone is curious, in 2009 the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group found that only “1 of 19 subpopulations is currently increasing” while “3 are stable and 8 are declining” with insufficient data for the remaining 7.)

Lomborg does not appear to have corrected or retracted his claims.

[Edited to add: this of course doesn’t even get into the discrepancies between Lomborg’s “don’t worry” attitude and the scientific literature on projected polar bear population trends as sea ice declines. I may add that in later.]

On sea level rise:

Lomborg also has a nasty habit of claiming that sea level isn’t rising as fast (or at all!) as mainstream climate science believes. To do so, he picks whichever start and end points he can to get the smallest trend in sea level rise.

Writing in the Guardian in March 2009, Stefan Rahmstorf exposed Lomborg’s cherry-picking as the dishonest misrepresentation that it was:

Why does Lomborg cite the trend [2005-2008 1.6mm/year]? Last October, he cited that of the previous two years. Why now four years? Because the trend of the past two years (2007-2008) is now + 3.7 mm/year? It is even worse. The trend since the beginning of any year of the data series varies between 1.6 mm/year and 9.0 mm/year, depending on the start year chosen. Using 2005, Lomborg cherry-picked the by far lowest.

Sound familiar? This kind of dishonesty is all the more reprehensible because Lomborg is (was?) an associate professor of statistics! This isn’t the naive error of someone acting in good faith, it’s entirely, despicably deliberate.

On Global Temperatures:

In much the same way that Lomborg is fond of misrepresenting polar population dynamics and sea level rise, he also enjoys misleading the public about global warming’s most well-known symptom: rising temperatures. It’s occasionally claimed that while there is political disagreement about what to do about global warming, no credible scientist or policy wonk actually doubts that the planet is warming. Judging by surveys of scientists and statements by various governmental organizations, that’s probably broadly true.

And then, there’s Lomborg:

It is hard to keep up the climate panic as reality diverges from the alarmist predictions more than ever before: the global temperature has not risen over the past ten years, it has declined precipitously in the last year and a half, and studies show that it might not rise again before the middle of the next decade.

This was Lomborg writing about cooling back in 2008, as we were experiencing a fairly strong La Niña. Cooling! No warming since 1998! Claims at home in the comments section of the most ignorant and paranoid of climate denialist blogs (or George Will columns).

Most people relatively conversant with major features of the climate system, let alone “climate experts” holding international conferences and writing books on the subject, are aware that La Niñas don’t equal global cooling. In case there was some confusion about the La Niña and the appearance of a lack of warming among the general public, climate institutions like Met Hadley and others had handy pages explaining that, no we weren’t cooling several months prior to Lomborg’s claim.

Lomborg (like other denialists) was simply taking one slice of time (1998-2008) out of a much larger data set- without any attempt at justification- to get the results he wanted- results in complete opposition to what a serious examination of the data would show, requiring an ignorance of basic physics, meteorology, and statistics to believe.

A Question for Journalists:

What is it about Lomborg that allows you to engage in collective amnesia about his dishonesty? Have you forgotten that people like Kåre Fog and Howard Friel (not to mention the blogosphere) have exposed him for what he is?

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8 responses to ““Cool It” yourselves

  1. I too look forward to Revkin’s upcoming Dot Earth post soliciting Qs to ask Lomborg.

  2. Pingback: Lomborg si tinge » Ocasapiens - Blog - Repubblica.it

  3. Well, I wonder how Lomborg would explain the sudden weather changes. Is it just coincidence? And what about the visible human´s impact on the environment? Is it normal from his point of view? Every reasonable human being should recognise what is fiction and what is reality; no matter if the person can read and understand statistics data or not…

  4. Daniel J. Andrews

    Lomborg managed to massacre my field (wildlife biology/ecology) with his cherry-picking and sloppy research/deliberate obfuscation(?) with The Skeptical Environmentalist. Several experts wrote very strong rebuttals, each one tackling a Lomborg distortion, in some popular science magazine (forget which one, but I have photocopies of the articles somewhere in storage)–it’s probably listed in the Lomborg Errors page linked in the post above.

    One good thing that *may* have come from this is that shortly after the Lomborg book, Dr. David Suzuki coauthored a book called Good News for a Change, which seemed to counter Lomborg’s claim that environmentalists are all doom and gloom. Don’t know if this was coincidence or a partial response to Lomborg’s doom/gloom claim.

    Regardless, Lomborg has as much credibility among ecologists, species at risk biologists, as he does among climate scientists (and I’d bet his standing as a statistician is falling rapidly too).

  5. “It’s not so much what someone professes to believe that determines whether or not they’re engaging in denialism, but the way they misrepresent evidence.”

    Dead on. Outstanding post, one of your best.

  6. Pingback: A test for establishment climate journalists | The Way Things Break

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

  8. Oh for crissakes…. Bother to actually learn something. Why does Lomborg cite figures like that on sea level rise? Oh, I don’t know… maybe because they’re the ones in the IPCC report? You see, he says that the sea level rise will be about a foot over the next century – and guess what? The IPCC agrees with him.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2007/03/the-ipcc-sea-level-numbers/

    But, yeah, keep huffing into that paper bag and saying “Lomborg’s dishonest”. You should joint the NatRev crowd as they do the same thing about Michael Mann.

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