Tag Archives: Bjorn Lomborg

A test for establishment climate journalists

Image courtesy of Flickr user just.Luc

Over at Keith Kloor’s blog, I wrote:

Keith, respectfully- either you can acknowledge that [Bjorn Lomborg] engages in blatant misrepresentation of key indicators of climate change like [sea level rise] and [temperature] trends, or you cannot.

If you can’t, I’m not particularly interested in whether it’s a refusal to do so due to adherence to some imagined journalistic allegiance to neutrality or out of a lack of ability to understand that he’s doing it.

If climate journalists either can’t see what he’s doing or refuse to acknowledge it, then we’re in far worse trouble than I ever imagined.

I’ve submitted a similar question to Dot Earth. Can establishment climate journalists acknowledge what Lomborg does? If not, what hope is there that the general public can make an informed assessment of his credibility?

Untold gallons of figurative ink have been spilled over the efforts of climate “skeptics” to discredit Michael Mann and colleagues’ paleoclimatic reconstructions on the grounds of bad statistics. Republicans even went so far as to get “statistics expert” Ed Wegman to put an official seal on the supposed discrediting, and we can see how that’s all working out for them. Meanwhile, the overall conclusions of the Mann et al. papers have been upheld by independent reviews, other multiproxy reconstructions, and independent lines of paleoclimatic evidence, even though some of Mann’s initial statistical choices could have been better.

By contrast Lomborg takes a metric like temperature or sea level rise and then cherry-picks an interval to get the lowest possible trend out of it. If it’s an interval of two years at the time of press, so be it. If he needs to write another article and using the same interval no longer gives the lowest possible trend, he’ll use four. It’s inarguable that using his own intervals from previous claims completely contradicts his current ones, and that there is no physical, statistical, or logical justification for doing so. He is just cherry-picking. Period.

But you’d never know it reading Andy Revkin’s or Keith Kloor’s blogs. Why not? What good is climate journalism if it must slavishly attend to largely unfounded claims of “skeptics” but can’t identify clear-cut cases of misrepresentation by people like Bjorn Lomborg?

“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?

Did Lomborg really change his delayer tune?

Way back in July of 2008, I wrote this about Bjørn Lomborg:

Lomborg, similarly to Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, and Roger Pielke, Jr. is not actually a climate change denier per se- he claims to accept the underlying principles whereby anthropogenic emissions warm the planet and alter the climate, though he often underplays or otherwise attempts to minimize the expected impact- rather these “non-skeptical heretics” argue against emissions regulation policies and instead push for increased investment in future technologies, which presumably will come to fruition at an unspecified later date that will arrive in time to prevent the most severe negative consequences otherwise expected…

You can be guaranteed that the take home message from Lomborg at the end of the day will be “delay, delay, delay” [pricing and reducing emissions] “because technology, technology, technology”.

Has Lomborg changed at all? Lomborg was recently (21/9/10) interviewed by New Scientist, in a piece headlined: “Bjørn Lomborg: Use technology to fight climate change“. He argues for the same in an op-ed in the Australian earlier this month:

Galiana and Green find that devoting just 0.2 per cent of global GDP, about $US100 billion a year, to green energy R&D would produce the kind of game-changing breakthroughs needed to fuel a carbon-free future. Not only would this be a cheaper fix than trying to cut carbon emissions, it would reduce global warming much more quickly.

There is no currently available “breakthrough” energy technology, nor is one on the horizon. Banking on this myth is like betting that you don’t have to have a fire evacuation plan for your office because you hope to ride a unicorn out of the burning building.

The “breakthrough” needed to develop cost-competitive alternatives to fossil fuels is to actually price in the negative externalities from carbon-intensive fuels, in order to let the market most efficiently determine the “winning” substitutes. This is basic, market-based economics. Funny how the “alarmist” greenie commies are the ones that constantly need to point this out, isn’t it?

The Danish Tailor and Emperor Establishment

The vestment of credibility proffered by Lomborg to those opposing substantial mitigation efforts is as imaginary as the clothes in Andersen’s parable. How long before the pundits and Serious Thinkers who heralded Lomborg as one of their own [Time magazine named Lomborg one of the world's 100 most influential people in 2004. In 2008 he was named "one of the 50 people who could save the planet" by the UK Guardian; "one of the top 100 public intellectuals" by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazine; and "one of the world's 75 most influential people of the 21st century" by Esquire] acknowledge that he’s left them naked and mocked?

Kåre Fog, John Mashey, Climate Progress, Tim Lambert, Rabett Run, this blog, and others have been trying to tell them for ages.

[Via Deltoid]

delayed.oscillator fisks Lomborg so you don’t have to

Keeping up with Lomborg’s myriad misrepresentations of climate science can be exhausting, thankless work, so it’s nice to see delayed.oscillator obliterating his latest. Although I rather doubt anti-regulation propaganda organs like the op-ed section of the WSJ will stop printing his rubbish any time soon, media outlets who actually value their reputations might want to take note and avoid giving this serial obfuscator a platform to further spread his nonsense.

Who does the Washington Post consider to be an “expert” on the science of global warming?

WaPo has a new section called “Planet Panel: Views and Debates on Climate Change Policy”.

In it, you’ll find opinions by ten ostensible experts on the question (emphasis mine) “What Doubt is There About the Science Behind Global Warming?

How many of the experts actually have a relevant science background?

  • Rick Edmund – pastor, United Methodist Church (edu –?)
  • Donald Boesch – biological oceanographer
  • Lars Josefsson – energy co. CEO (edu – engineering/”technical physics”)
  • David Hales – college president (edu – poli sci)
  • David Hone – adviser to Shell (edu – petro engineering)
  • Robert Shapiro – business consultant (edu – econ)
  • William O’Keefe – CEO Marshall Institute, former API CEO (edu – ?)
  • Bill McKibben – environmentalist/350.org (edu – journalism)
  • Bjorn Lomborg – director Copenhagen Consensus Centre (edu – poli sci)
  • Reid Detchon – UN energy foundation VP (edu – ?)

I am not proposing that one must have a doctorate in a relevant field in order to have an opinion on climate as a topic, but if the Washington Post is going to make the question explicitly about the science, how can they justify having a single scientist with a somewhat-relevant background? Several, perhaps all, of the other experts listed might be experts on policy questions (although in the cases of and O’Keefe and Lomborg, doubtful), but that isn’t what the question was asking. Nor is it any better that the answers were largely in agreement about the reality of the scientific consensus on the need for mitigation. If you had the resources of the Washington Post and wanted to assemble a panel on a question about the science of a specific topic, how many relevant scientists would you have included? My guess is more than one.

This is simply disgraceful. Although hardly surprising, from the paper that elsewhere counts George Will among its authorities on climate.

James Fallows explains how the media enables liars

James Fallows- congratulating the NY Times for actually having the stones to point out that the “death panel” claims are, in fact, lies- succinctly sums up why shameless fabricators like Marc Morano, Bjorn Lomborg, and Ian Plimer are so effective in distorting the public discourse:

In general, even on the most extreme, out-of-the-realm-of-fact political claims, every powerful instinct in the news media shies from calling something “false” in favor of adjectives like “controversial” or “disputed,” or sometimes “partisan.” …[T]he “objective” instincts of the news media can tie it in knots when one side to a political argument is perfectly willing to say obviously false things. It’s hard for mainstream publications to say outright that something is false or a lie.