A history of skepticism: Bjørn Lomborg
Published 08th November 2009 - 27 comments - 2245 views -
The four stages of climate denial was concisely described in Treehugger's The Facts About Global Warming Denial. One famous "denier" is the Danish Bjørn Lomborg whose carreer goes beyond just those four stages: there is government and industry funding and whole new levels of scepticism involved.
And amazingly he's still in the business!
Stages One and Two: Skeptical Environmentalism
Lomborg catapulted himself into the debate on global warming by writing the book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World in 1998 (English translation in 2001). It is an attack on most aspects of “environmentalism” – global warming concerns included – but as represented by a Lomborg constructed straw-man environmentalist.
The chapter about climate is embarrassing. Especially in hindsight, of course. But it was clearly a work of spin. Here is a brief look at a couple of his main points. I've pulled it off the shelf again, looked up part 5, the section on global warming.
But first some facts: the greenhouse effect was discovered by Joseph Fourier in 1824 and has survived nearly 200 years of scientific development, it also observed on Mars and Venus, which can be explained and shown into the molecular details. Tough odds for stage One denialism. It almost goes without saying that increasing atmospheric content of greenhouse gases, increases the temperature of the earth. With temperature follows energy, which is why global warming will melt glaciers and the poles, but also lead to more and bigger hurricanes, suggests theory as well as observation. But Lomborg starts out arguing “the truth is very far from such worries” [1, 2].
Allegation: The UN is lying about water. “CO2 is only a tiny fraction of atmospheric greenhouse gases. Water vapour constitutes 98% and is therefore clearly the most important greenhouse gas. [...] In terms of size, our current CO2 emissions as compared with that puts a thin sheet over a quilt at night.” (p. 225)
Fact: All the modern climate models take into account the atmospheric moisture content. But water levels are both high and constant as it's involved more directly in the current climate. Is there much water in the air, we get more precipitation, when there is little, it will be “refueled” by evaporation. CO2 is offset over the centuries. The analogy to the sheets and quilt is not quite correct: Rather it should go something like “to put more and more thin sheets over a blanket at night - under which a patient lies feverish and sweating.”
Allegation: Similar warming has happened before. The temperature has fluctuated up and down lots of times. IPCC fail to mention the “medieval warm period when the Vikings discovered Greenland, and named it that way because the mild climate meant that one could use large pastures for cattle.” (p. 226-227)
Fact: One period of one island is not representative of anything, the story is an anecdote. Yes, it was warmer for some time, and became colder again, but the Greenland Vikings went extinct because they exported their culture uncritically and depleted the local ecosystem. And it is not correct, various climatic changes have not been explained by science.
Allegation: The models are not precise and never will be. (p. 227-230)
Fact: Climate models are never exact. The models are precise enough to draw conclusions from, and take into account prediction intervals The lower estimates are plenty of concern and previous estimates have often turned out to be too optimistic.
Allegation: The sunspots are to blame. (p. 230-231)
Fact: I can see proponents of this spectacular view pop up with adjusted explanations periodically. Tired old argument in new clothes. An argument recently devastated by observations of declining sun activity and rising temperatures.
Oh, and of course there is the little detail that the entire book was ruled “scientifically dishonest” by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a body under Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
Stages Three and Four: It's all hallelujah
Year 2007 Lomborg had Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming published. Discouraged by the low quality of his first book I haven't read his second. But from reviews and debates on Danish TV I still know quite a bit about it. Google it and you will find a lot more discussion of it than I suspect it deserves.
Its main point is that proposed actions to curb global warming are “emotional”. It is a continuation of his version of cost-benefit analysis used on global warming only. Investments to fight climate change should “pay off” according to his choice of parameters. The weakness of arguments aside, Lomborg et al is secured business by a media tendency to always show two sides of a story even if it has only one.
Curiously, it is also an indirect acknowledgement of his first book being wrong. And it proposes some level of carbon taxation and First to Third World funding.
But it served as a means of keeping Lomborg in the global warming debate business. While leaving behind the silliest of denial postulates it offered a menu of nice-to-hear political arguments. In fact, yesterday (Saturday the 7th of November 2009) I saw a representative of the Danish People's Party continue the Lomborg line of reasoning that the whole COP15 agenda is “hallelujah” .
Beyond the Treehugger analysis: Extended contrariness
The Lomborg clique is in symbiosis with a section of the right wing Danish political landscape. His Climate Consensus Center, Svensmarks research and similar initiatives are receiving ear-marked funding from the government. As such it is given very high priority in a time of budget cuts on science and harsh competition for research funds.
Earlier this year the Lomborg Center released the first of a promised series of geoengineering proposals each said to be better than carbon cuts. But this first proposal received so much criticism, I haven't seen anything of the following. Did they drop it? Did media ignore it? I don't know.
Part of the criticism it got was strictly scientific, showing how it was garbage (ie see A biased economic analysis of geoengineering). But an other part of it – and this is a postulate of mine – I suspect was just Danish nerves about making COP15 look nice. One Conservative asked to have “this noise generator silenced”. Being good hosts, not being obstacles of summit success, optimising opportunity to make a buck off of it.
In either case, Lomborg is rather silent right now. He'll attempt a come back later, the nature of which is entirely dependent on the COP15 outcome, I'm confident.
I'm sorry for writing this article
Well, not really. But I did plan on moving on to more progressive subjects. (Like we were advised by one panel member at the TH!NK ABOUT IT kick-off event.) Unfortunately, denialism is alive and well even here. There is especially one commenter who is copy/pasting a large quantity of garbage here. I am not going to waste another second on this person so don't worry too much if you see a comment unanswered.
But more importantly, we have TH!NKers who take part in this contrariness. The level of conspiracy theory subjectivity varies. Perhaps one is just into the joy of making snide remarks. I don't know. But the TH!NK editors seem to continue the journalistic misunderstanding of presenting two sides of a one side story? Very well. This was my answer.
But I got one last question: What does changing the line of reasoning so many times tell us of this leading scepticists credibility? Seriously, who's still listening?
 As I said: Straw men. Lomborg goes on and on about “the truth” while science isn't about the truth; see my earlier article Don’t believe the truth.
 Page references are to the Danish version. Quotes are my translations from the Danish version.
 For details on the right wing populist party holding the government partly hostage see my earlier Something is rotten in the state of COP15.
More about Bjørn Lomborg:
The Lomborg Errors website
About the author
- Monster trucks to the rescue
- India changes stance to push for a global deal at Copenhagen
- My Conceptual Framework on Climate Change
- What’s obstructing the Copenhagen deal?
- COP15: A historic failure
- Is Marina Silva a good deal?
- Danish parliament evaluating COP15
- TCKTCK: Got only 10 years to save ourselves!
- Denmark cries in Sea of Blood, 950 Whales and Dolphins KILLED…
- Micro pigs - the ultimate sweetheart energy saver
- If you want to see nude people click here
- Do we really care about our planet? Think twice before answering.
- Evolutions in the history of Environment Part 2
- Bunnies for fuels: not a good story to share in a grade school classroom