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A history of skepticism: Bjørn Lomborg

Published 08th November 2009 - 27 comments - 4929 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]."S is for...335/365" by AndYaDontStop at Flickr

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” [3].

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?

 

 

 

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] Page references are to the Danish version. Quotes are my translations from the Danish version.

[3] 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:



Category: Climate Politics, Climate Reporting, | Tags: politics, environmentalism, debate, scepticism,



Comments

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

Also check out Hemant’s Google search of the day: ‘Who’s funding climate skeptics?’

Mike on 08th November 2009:

To be mentioned in your article truly feels like an accomplishment for me.

Still denying the medieval warm period?

DENY THIS

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

Mike,

Didn’t I just write “Yes, it was warmer for some time, and became colder again,”!?

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

btw Mike, how do you feel about Lomborg having routed from the trench you’re still in?

Vitezslav Kremlik on 08th November 2009:

What I heard about the Lomborg case is rather embarassing… for the environmentalists.

Some maniac threw a cake at him in some conference.

And the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD)-  which is a trully orwellian name - behaved really unscientific. Irony (sic). They published slander against Lomborg without backing it by any evidence. Then they had to take their words back.

The ministry review said: “The DCSD did not provide specific statements on actual errors. On this point the MSTI stated “the DCSD has not documented where [Dr Lomborg] has allegedly been biased in his choice of data and in his argumentation, and ... the ruling is completely void of argumentation for why the DCSD find that the complainants are right in their criticisms of [his] working methods.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lomborg#DCSD_investigation

It is also interesting to read at http://www.lomborg-errors.dk what are the alleged Lomborg’s errors.

I am happy you have brought Bjorn in, Benno. He is worth discussing here.

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

Vitezslav,

It is true that I only provided a short version of the DCSD slam of Lomborgs first book. The slightly longer version includes your quote - the POLITICAL government party which based their faulty (since abandoned) opinions on Lomborg and asserted pressure on DCSD (huge scandal in my opinion). The stand off where the controversy was left was something like the DCSD saying “the book was unscientific but OK, it was a opinion book and Lomborg isn’t an expert in the area at all so it’s not for us to judge it anyway”.

Bottom line: Lomborgs first book and the first two stages of denial are total garbage. Even Lomborg himself has abandoned these arguments.

Vitezslav Kremlik on 08th November 2009:

I do not know. So did DCSD provide “specific statements on actual errors” or not?

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

I suspect they bailed out from fear of being shut down. The government was brutal at the time, shutting down a lot of public research.

I do not dispute the Wikipedia article which I have also supplemented. Plus the book is evidently garbage (in hindsight) as I write in the article itself.

Mike on 08th November 2009:

You deny/downplay the significance of the MWP. It was global, and it lasted centuries. Not some anecdote of a small island.

Eamonn Fitzgerald on 08th November 2009:

I am convinced that Bjørn Lomborg is a decent and honourable man who has asked intelligent questions and offered humane solutions to some of the most challenging questions of the day. The concerted efforts to denigrate his work say a lot about those engaged in these campaigns. It takes a very brave man to swim against the PC tide.

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

Eamonn,

I could also acknowledge the courage of Lomborg and his former sponsor, now NATO chief Fogh, as they at least abandon the past stages of denial and move on? But that’s what I’m asking - is it a show of credibility? Or the opposite?

Is Lomborg brave - or just doing a business of denial, reaping government funds and oil industry grants?

Mike,

Do you read the articles you comment on? I didn’t want to discuss those ten years old points of denialism. I just show them to illustrate the folly of the past. But from BBC / Climate scepticism: The top 10
“There have been many periods in Earth history that were warmer than today - if not the MWP, then maybe the last interglacial (125,000 years ago) or the Pliocene (three million years ago). Whether those variations were caused by solar forcing, the Earth’s orbital wobbles or continental configurations, none of those causes apply today. Evidence for a Mediaeval Warm Period outside Europe is patchy at best, and is often not contemporary with the warmth in Europe. As the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) puts it: “The idea of a global or hemispheric Mediaeval Warm Period that was warmer than today has turned out to be incorrect”. Additionally, although the Arctic was warmer in the 1930s than in the following few decades, it is now warmer still.”
From New Scientist: Climate myths: It was warmer during the Medieval period, with vineyards in England
“The Medieval Warm Period may have been mostly a regional phenomenon, with the extremes reflecting a redistribution of heat around the planet rather than a big overall rise in the average global temperature.

What is clear, both from the temperature reconstructions and from independent evidence - such as the extent of the recent melting of mountain glaciers - is that the planet has been warmer in the past few decades than at any time during the medieval period. In fact, the world may not have been so warm for 6000 or even 125,000 years”
Or as Real Climate ends theire article [url=”
Medieval]http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/11/medieval-warm-period-mwp”]Medieval Warm Period (”MWP”)[/url]:
“arguments that such evidence supports anomalous global warmth during this time period is based on faulty logic and/or misinterpretations of the available evidence.”

hemant anant jain on 08th November 2009:

Great post Benno. A really good insight into denialism and Mr. Lomborg. As you have noticed, I was particularly annoyed with him…It was good to read your in depth analysis.

Adela on 08th November 2009:

Everybody’s gonna jump on me for what I’m going to say next but ...

... I’ve translated Bjorn Lomborg’s TED talk on priorities, I don’t agree with everything he says there but I don’t know much other stuff about him & his environmental views but after reading your post I somehow got the feel there’s a side of the story missing.

If that TED talk didn’t make a big impression on me, your article did, in the sense that I’ve just ordered ‘Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming ’

As always, chapeau for your tenacity smile

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

Lomborgs whole prioritize agenda is missing the point too. Climate change is not to be listed along with AIDS and water and conflicts over land etc… climate change will lead to other, at least two of these three, issues. It’s a short circuit of the discussion.

Adela on 08th November 2009:

Benno, water is also a major problem. In fact, I consider it as important as climate change. What’s the use of lowering our co2 emissions if we have no fresh water to drink in a couple more decades? But that talk is not the point.

The point is that I didn’t take Bjorn Lomborg so much into account until you brought him in the spotlight with your article. Bad advertising is still advertising.

Benno Hansen on 08th November 2009:

I don’t think you get my point.

Climate change will significantly increase droughts along the tropic and sub-tropic climate belts.

Therefore, effort spent combating climate change is an effort spent fighting drought.

I fully agree, drought is a serious problem! In fact, I have been blogging about it for years. Please take a look at this post with the NATO chief and tell me what you think:
Video: NATO chief on security challenge from climate change.

Adela on 08th November 2009:

I watched Anders Fogh Rasmussen, I think he’s coming with a very crisp and clear view upon climate change & what needs to be done, including in the military area.

I liked the way he put the problem, there’s no military solutions to this, but there are political solutions.

If I understand well, he says the following. Instead of going on and suffering from climate change effects (desertification and lack of food in the south + ice melting, opening new energy routes in the north) that will come with security problems (hence military involvement), we should take the peaceful way now, mitigate and urge politicians to do the right thing at COP15.

Mike on 09th November 2009:

Benno, the work of five hundred and twenty five scientists beg to differ. Perhaps you should take a look at the map, and then the qualitative temperature differentials.

You are the one in denial here. No amount of realclimate propaganda will make it go away.

Nanne Zwagerman on 10th November 2009:

Benno - each blog working on climate change will get its own dedicated sceptical troll. It’s almost as if they are allocated.

As for the sceptics in the competition itself, this competition does not exist with the purpose of providing uniform opinion, nor do I think the competition has really featured sceptical content so prominently that you can say the editors are actively promiting this as a ‘one side, other side’ story.

What I wonder about is, why is the Danish right still subsidising Lomborg when he is becoming an irritant for them?

Jack Johnson on 10th November 2009:

@Mike, why do you keep putting this outdated and totally disproven data everywhere? You have been given enough proof that your science is wrong and out of place.
Here are some of those scientists that are in your list..
They say, they have been put in the list without their consent:
http://www.desmogblog.com/500-scientists-with-documented-doubts-about-the-heartland-institute
Now, why don’t you go and debate this denial with some real scientists.
Who knows they will give you a Nobel citation?

Benno Hansen on 10th November 2009:

Nanne,

I did not want to imply TH!NK should be about “providing uniform opinion”!

What I have experienced in the past 10+ years is a failure of journalism to cover this subject. And TH!NK to be run by journalists. That’s all.

As for Lomborg, he’s walking a fine line, taking care not to bite the hand that feeds. We’ll see.

Paul Montariol on 18th November 2009:

Your work is exemplary. It is a true work of journalist.
In more you analyze the thought of a person who is very opposite with your ideas.
You done it with much moderation.
Admirable!

Benno Hansen on 08th December 2009:

Just watched a live Bjørn Lomborg interview from COP15 at Bella Centre.

He has reached the next level!

Now he’s saying: CO2 quotas failed twice, they won’t work the third time either. Instead, invest in green tech. Because green tech is good.

Another retreat. An amazing career. First of all because media continue to praise him as an “expert”. Once again, he has abandoned come aspect of denialism/contrarianism without offending his entire base of support.

As an example, he accused 1st world solar cell buyers as being hypocrites. Only 3rd world solar cells makes a difference on The Lomborg Show. Well, then perhaps he should talk to Solar Aid like I did this Sunday?

Lomborg, you are pathetic.

Benno Hansen on 10th February 2010:

The Minister of Finance has been asked to look into how much Bjørn Lomborg has actually received in government subsidies. The result from 2002 to 2012 is 18.5 million €. Staggering.

Benno Hansen on 23rd February 2010:

Book Review: The Lomborg Deception
“But when Friel began checking Lomborg’s sources, “I found problems,” he says. “As an experiment, I looked up one of his footnotes, found that it didn’t support what he said, and then did another, and kept going, finding the same pattern.” He therefore took on the Augean stables undertaking of checking every one of the hundreds of citations in Cool It. Friel’s conclusion, as per his book’s title, is that Lomborg is “a performance artist disguised as an academic.”“

Eamonn Fitzgerald on 23rd February 2010:

I have just read Bjørn Lomborg’s reaction and it is rather scathing of Friel’s claims. The response is in the form of a PDF: http://bit.ly/bYw3fd

organic whey protein powder on 23rd June 2010:

Skeptical environment sometime confuse the men. men can not give the best in the Skeptical environment.

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