It looks like this Lomborg-claimed “inconvenient truth” is even a bit more inconvenienced by reality than I first thought. H/T to Climate Progress]
First a bit of background on Lomborg-
Despite being called a “climate expert” by skeptic-friendly media articles (e.g. here, here, here, etc.) Bjørn Lomborg is not a climate scientist. In fact, he isn’t a scientist at all. He is an economist game theorist [Corrected, although many sources characterize Lomborg as an economist, including links in the “About” section of his personal site. My intent here is not to say that no economist or game theorist or political scientist- or whatever Lomborg considers himself- is qualified to speak about climate change, but rather to shed a bit of light on the perspective from which he approaches the discussion, as it may in part explain some of the bizarre frames he uses when talking about the “worth” of addressing climate change] and author of two factually-challenged books [also here] which purport to reject conventional wisdom regarding the environment and climate change, particularly in terms of policy. He is a master of the false dilemma fallacy. 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. Obviously, the distinction between denier and delayer is for practical purposes one essentially without a difference, as Joe Romm has pointed out repeatedly.
You can be guaranteed that the take home message from Lomborg at the end of the day will be “delay, delay, delay” “because technology, technology, technology”. Lomborg’s newest contribution to the discussion of climate change and policy is a rather inartful and self-contradictory op-ed about free speech and bad policy, published at Project Syndicate. Let’s have a look.
The Green Inquisition by Bjørn Lomborg
Not off to a very promising start. Whenever I see language that frames rejection of or disagreement with mainstream science couched in terms of religious persecution, an immediate red flag goes up. This is the tactic of the creationist, the 9/11 Truther, the tobacco-cancer denier, and so on. No one is preventing Lomborg or Tim Ball or any of the other handful of vocal dissenters from airing their views on the subject. In fact, some like Lomborg have made their living being paid to do just that. I wonder how many victims of the actual Inquisition made the medieval equivalent of the talk show circuit time and time again attempting to boost their “heretical” book sales?
Worse than the rack- Lomborg promotes his latest book on Comedy Central.
Also note the immediate conflation between environmentalism and climate science. Dissolving the boundaries between the two allows Lomborg to use the actions of one group to impugn the other and vice versa. It also allows him the freedom to attack from outside the science itself.
When it comes to global warming, extreme scare stories abound. Al Gore, for example, famously claimed that a whopping six meters (20 feet) of sea-level rise would flood major cities around the world.
The 6m/20ft figure is a fairly uncontroversial estimation of sea level rise as a consequence of either the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or Greenland Ice Sheet collapsing. There is nothing inherently “extreme” about this “factoid”, other than that a discussion of the relevant timescales of such a collapse is missing-a crucial point for those crying “extremist” and those who, like Lomborg, imply sea-level increase cannot be rapid.
Gore’s scientific advisor, Jim Hansen from NASA, has even topped his protégé. Hansen suggests that there will eventually be sea-level rises of 24 meters (80 feet), with a six-meter rise happening just this century. Little wonder that fellow environmentalist Bill McKibben states that “we are engaging in a reckless drive-by drowning of much of the rest of the planet and much of the rest of creation.”
Calling Al Gore a protégé of James Hansen is simply absurd. Gore is a former politician and current “activist”. He isn’t a scientist, and does not pretend to be one. And what would be notable about a more accomplished person “topping his protégé” in the first place? Careless language, but clearly designed to imply an escalation of rhetoric when the two scenarios are actually quite similar and based on the same evidence.
The claim regarding Hansen’s “suggestion” of 6m rise within the century is simply a reference to his warnings of the likely possibility of non-linear dynamics involved in the collapse of ice sheets inferred by paleoclimatic evidence, which is not something modeled by the IPCC AR4. Likewise, the “eventual” sea-level rise is derived from paleoclimatic findings rather than modeling in the AR4.
Given all the warnings, here is a slightly inconvenient truth: over the past two years, the global sea level hasn’t increased. It has slightly decreased . Since 1992, satellites orbiting the planet have measured the global sea level every 10 days with an amazing degree of accuracy – 3-4 millimeters (0.2 inches). For two years, sea levels have declined. (All of the data are available at sealevel.colorado.edu.)
Two years? That certainly doesn’t a meaningful trend make, and indeed when one actually examines the data Lomborg refers to, it’s easy to see that the long term trend of sea level rise has occasional years of decline- 2004 and 2005 are lower than both 2003 and 2006, for example.
Indeed, the long term data make a mockery of Lomborg’s implication that there is something amiss with our understanding of sea level increase. To somehow invoke a tiny aberration in a long term pattern as though it is contradictory to the possibility of a different mechanism of sea level increase entirely (ice-sheet collapse) is bizarre. Especially so because Lomborg walks this back moments later.
This doesn’t mean that global warming is not true. As we emit more CO2, over time the temperature will moderately increase, causing the sea to warm and expand somewhat. Thus, the sea-level rise is expected to pick up again. This is what the United Nations climate panel is telling us; the best models indicate a sea-level rise over this century of 18 to 59 centimeters (7-24 inches), with the typical estimate at 30 centimeters (one foot). This is not terrifying or even particularly scary – 30 centimeters is how much the sea rose over the last 150 years.
Strangely, Lomborg guts whatever point he was hoping to make about a lack of sea level increase over the last two years as evidence against Gore and Hansen in an apparent attempt to use the AR4 as a source to attack them. The problem being of course that the AR4 modeling doesn’t take into consideration the possibility of non-linear ice sheet collapse nor do the numbers he cites take into consideration the high end of projected warming. He’s comparing an apple to orange groves. He also ignores completely that even small increases in sea-level comprise threats to coastal cities, not due to direct inundation, but rather increased storm surges (e.g. here). I’m betting that the residents of the Florida Keys, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, and other low-lying areas find the conservative IPCC estimates “scary” indeed.
Simply put, we’re being force-fed vastly over-hyped scare stories. Proclaiming six meters of sea-level rise over this century contradicts thousands of UN scientists, and requires the sea-level rise to accelerate roughly 40-fold from today. Imagine how climate alarmists would play up the story if we actually saw an increase in the sea-level rise.
Sea-level rise has in fact been accelerating on the high end of what the AR4 anticipated, but Lomborg clearly is less interested in what the science actually has to say than he is in attempting to paint Gore and Hansen as extremists.
Increasingly, alarmists claim that we should not be allowed to hear such facts. In June, Hansen proclaimed that people who spread “disinformation” about global warming – CEOs, politicians, in fact anyone who doesn’t follow Hansen’s narrow definition of the “truth” – should literally be tried for crimes against humanity.
Lomborg apparently has a different definition of “facts” than the rest of us. What Hansen actually said was:
Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including disguised funding to shape school textbook discussions.
CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.
He certainly wasn’t speaking about the AR4 estimates of sea-level increase or anyone who merely disagreed with him. This statement was not made out of nowhere- the evidence of intentional disinformation campaigns on behalf of energy and industry groups is incredibly well-documented (see here, here, here, here, here, etc.). Hansen is clearly speaking about persons knowingly engaging in deception for profit at the expense of the public good, which (regardless of one’s feeling about what such persons’ legal fate should be) is a far cry from Lomborg’s claim that Hansen wants no one to “hear such facts” as the IPCC AR4 projection of sea-level increase or the past two years of sea-level satellite data. Lomborg is blatantly engaging in deception.
It is depressing to see a scientist – even a highly politicized one – calling for a latter-day Inquisition. Such a blatant attempt to curtail scientific inquiry and stifle free speech seems inexcusable.
Again, we see the creationist tactic of pretending that disinformation should be accepted under the guise of “free speech” and “scientific inquiry” and claiming persecution by those who see through it. Hansen said nothing about an individual’s right to speech or curtailing scientific inquiry of any kind. What “scientific inquiry” does Lomborg believe ExxonMobil was engaged in when it urged George W. Bush to oust career scientists and replace the head of the IPCC with someone who could be counted on to oppose the US stance on binding emissions commitments (the US set targets while India and China would be exempt), guaranteeing no such commitment would be made by the United States under Bush’s administration? What “free speech” does Lomborg believe Philip Cooney and the Competitive Enterprise Institute were engaged in when they were conspiring to have a high level official at the EPA fired over its report that reflected much of the same science Cooney himself spent so much time censoring before being forced to resign in disgrace? Lomborg’s sense of outrage is not simply unwarranted, it is perversely being directed at those who themselves have experienced just the sort of censorship Lomborg falsely claims they are advocating. It strains the bounds of credulity to believe that Lomborg is ignorant of all of this.
But it is perhaps also a symptom of a broader problem. 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.
More nonsense. Here we have the familiar “warming stopped in 1998” canard that has been repeatedly debunked (see here, here). All one has to do is look at the data for the last 120 months of basically every temperature record to see that the trend line is positive, even without using a common baseline. The significance of choosing 10 years (rather than 20 or 30 as one would assume anyone interested in significant long term climatological trends would do) is of course to start with the incredibly strong El Niño-boosted temperatures of 1998 and end with the La Niña-cooled 2007-2008 (this La Niña being the same, and similarly specious, source for Lomborg’s claim of “precipitous cooling” over the last year).
His intentionally vague “studies show that it might not rise again before the middle of the next decade” line presumably refers to two recent studies which attempt to use the IPCC AR4 models to perform a short term forecast for the coming years: Smith et al., 2007 and Keenlyside et al., 2008. Both were incredibly rough first passes at short term forecasting, but more importantly both studies showed that warming would continue to increase significantly in the near future- which begs the question of why Lomborg bothered to bring them up in the first place. No one is proposing policy to combat the changes in climate anticipated in the next few years- obviously the concern is with long term warming and its resulting changes to climatic norms. Whether Lomborg is not capable of this basic level of analysis or he is being deliberately deceptive, this is simply rubbish.
With a global recession looming and high oil and food prices undermining the living standards of the Western middle class, it is becoming ever harder to sell the high-cost, inefficient Kyoto-style solution of drastic carbon cuts.
This is of course bare assertion on his part, ignoring examples which illustrate that cutting carbon does not have to be either inefficient or high-cost, and focusing on a treaty that never truly got off the ground. Presenting high oil prices and carbon cuts as opposing is also puzzling here. While oil may drop a small amount in price in the near future, the growing consensus among energy, economic, and security experts is that the era of cheap oil is for all intents and purposes over. Cutting carbon in many parts of the world won’t be in opposition to high oil prices, it will be a response to them.
A much sounder approach than Kyoto and its successor would be to invest more in research and development of zero-carbon energy technologies – a cheaper, more effective way to truly solve the climate problem.
Here is where Lomborg tips his hand- all of the nonsense about no warming over the last decade and complaints regarding sea-level rise projections serve merely to give enough of an impression of uncertainty to avoid employing the solutions available immediately and in the near future in order to continue emissions growth and kick the can down the road even further. If sea levels aren’t rising and temperatures aren’t warming as Lomborg claims, what “climate problem” is he referring to? This is the classic delay-and-preach-technology tactic. Claim to accept the consensus view, meanwhile attack it and any policy meant to meaningfully address it, and put the emphasis on action in a magical future where technology has solved the problem for us.
Hansen is not alone in trying to blame others for his message’s becoming harder to sell. Canada’s top environmentalist, David Suzuki, stated earlier this year that politicians “complicit in climate change” should be thrown in jail. Campaigner Mark Lynas envisions Nuremberg-style “international criminal tribunals” against those who dare to challenge the climate dogma. Clearly, this column places me at risk of incarceration by Hansen & Co.
Delusions of persecution abound amongst those that reject mainstream science. Note also that Suzuki actually suggested that students at a university consider whether or not legal recourse was available to jail politicians who deliberately avoided their duties in regards to taking meaningful action in the face of climate change, saying:
What I would challenge you to do is to put a lot of effort into trying to see whether there’s a legal way of throwing our so-called leaders into jail because what they’re doing is a criminal act.
Which his spokesperson clarified was to be taken figuratively. Again, hardly the breathless persecution invoked by Lomborg. Mark Lynas, author of the Orwell Prize longlisted and Royal Society Prize for Science Books-winner of Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet is also grossly misrepresented by Lomborg. Lynas writes (not in response to those who may disagree with his position or want to engage in the free pursuit of science, but of those knowingly engaging campaigns of disinformation in order to protect industry profit margins):
I wonder how future juries might view the actions of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who, in full knowledge of the realities of climate change, continue to preach their gospel of denial in the service of Big Oil dollars. I wonder what sentences judges might hand down at future international criminal tribunals on those who will be partially but directly responsible for millions of deaths from starvation, famine and disease in decades ahead.
Like Hansen, Lynas is not calling for the punishment of free speech or science that comes to conclusions somewhat different than the consensus, he specifically is talking about those who run the same kind of interference that the tobacco companies’ pocket scientists ran to keep the public in the dark about the true dangers of smoking. The question is, why doesn’t Lomborg ever reproduce the quotes he references in their entirety, and in proper context? Why does he pretend that Hansen, Suzuki, and Lynas could be speaking about him unless he is knowingly engaging in the disinformation they are truly condemning?
It’s also worth noting that Lynas among others was an early voice of caution against the corporate and governmental push to make biofuels a priority in response to climate change, and David Suzuki likewise expressed skepticism regarding biofuels– something worth revisiting in light of Lomborg’s claims regarding who is responsible for their misuse:
But the globe’s real problem is not a series of inconvenient facts. It is that we have blocked out sensible solutions through an alarmist panic, leading to bad policies.
Consider one of the most significant steps taken to respond to climate change. Adopted because of the climate panic, bio-fuels were supposed to reduce CO2 emissions. Hansen described them as part of a “brighter future for the planet.” But using bio-fuels to combat climate change must rate as one of the poorest global “solutions” to any great challenge in recent times.
Lynas and Suzuki were not alone in expressing reservations about biofuels. Despite Lomborg’s implication, Hansen as well sounded caution, noting that:
Low-input high-diversity biofuels grown on degraded or marginal lands, with associated biochar production, could accelerate CO2 drawdown, but the nature of a biofuel approach must be carefully designed.
But Lomborg sees no need to qualify his claims about Hansen’s support for biofuels, without a backwards glance launching into an attack on biofuels used in a manner that Hansen never advocated and implicitly rejected:
Bio-fuels essentially take food from mouths and puts it into cars. The grain required to fill the tank of an SUV with ethanol is enough to feed one African for a year. Thirty percent of this year’s corn production in the United States will be burned up on America’s highways. This has been possible only through subsidies that globally will total $15 billion this year alone.
Because increased demand for bio-fuels leads to cutting down carbon-rich forests, a 2008 Science study showed that the net effect of using them is not to cut CO2 emissions, but to double them. The rush towards bio-fuels has also strongly contributed to rising food prices, which have tipped another roughly 30 million people into starvation.
This is typical Lomborg- tying together persons and concepts that after even a moment’s inspection are revealed to be unconnected or more often in direct contradiction to one another.
Because of climate panic, our attempts to mitigate climate change have provoked an unmitigated disaster. We will waste hundreds of billions of dollars, worsen global warming, and dramatically increase starvation.
Who is this “our” Lomborg is referring to? It’s clearly not Lynas, Suzuki, or Hansen.
We have to stop being scared silly, stop pursuing stupid policies, and start investing in smart long-term R&D. Accusations of “crimes against humanity” must cease. Indeed, the real offense is the alarmism that closes minds to the best ways to respond to climate change.
The take home message of the day- after regurgitating an embarrassing mixture of half-truths, misrepresentations, and falsehoods- delay, delay, delay. Why? Because technology, technology, technology. The irony of Lomborg attempting to dictate what should and should not be acceptable speech regarding the consequences of climate change while whining about free speech is no doubt lost on him. These consequences are alarming, but there are solutions that can be implemented now- something that Suzuki, Lynas, Hansen, and even Gore recognize. Their message is that we can take meaningful, careful, but important steps with the technology we have or soon will in order to avert the worst of climate change.
And that is the opposite of alarmism.
[UPDATE: Roger Pielke, Jr. continues the “Hansen wants to try skeptics” canard.]