Thursday, September 06, 2007

Bjorn Lomborg's "Cool It" Spouts More Hot Air

Like his earlier work, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which prominent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson called a "sordid mess" and was found to have cherry-picked the facts, Bjorn Lomborg's latest effort, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming is just more hot air.

Lomborg's basic thesis, that "scare-monger" environmentalists have over-hyped the threat of climate change and that we shouldn't take any serious action to tackle the climate crisis because doing so would harm economic growth that poor people need requires a particularly slanted view of the world and rests on 'facts' selectively picked to support his arguments as he ignores a vast body of science.

As economist Eban Goodstein's writes in his review of Cool It in Salon:

"In "Cool It," Lomborg has three messages. First, the planet will warm up no more than 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit this century, and on balance, this will be bad, but not too bad. Second, all benefit-cost models show that serious limits on global warming emissions are too costly, and therefore we should pollute with virtual impunity. And -- surprisingly -- we should invest a decent amount ($25 billion per year) in clean energy technologies now so that, starting in a few decades, we will have tools to slow down global warming just a little bit through 2100."
While I can't agree more with the third point, his first two messages are quite frankly bull sh!t.

Lomborg's first argument assumes that global warming will be held to "only" 4.7 degrees F. First off, that's a swing of temperatures halfway to ice age proportions (the last ice age was only 9 degrees F colder than today). Not a big deal, eh?

Lomborg argues that as the temperatures heat up, deaths from heat waves will be offset by less deaths from cold exposure. This contradicts the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's authoritative Fourth Assessment Report, released earlier this year. The report does agree that cold deaths will decrease with warming, but says that while "climate change is projected to bring some benefits, such as fewer deaths from cold exposure ... overall it is expected that these benefits will be outweighed by the negative health benefits of rising temperatures, especially worldwide" (see pdf).

So sure, Mr. Lomborg, less people will die of cold exposure in rich countries in Northern climes. But at the same time, the IPCC report warns that literally billions of people will be affected by water and food shortages, droughts, floods, storms, etc. People in poorer developing countries, the people Lomborg supposedly cares so much about, will be most severely affected. For more on the human face of climate change that Lomborg's cold calculus brushes aside, see this post.

These aren't the made-up scenarios of "fear-mongering environmentalists." They're the warnings of an international body of the world's top climate scientists, literally hundreds of them, and the report they produced is truly a consensus document; every word in the "summary for policymakers" report I referenced above (pdf) has to be approved by representatives of 130+ countries (including representatives of the Bush Administration)! In fact, throughout his book, Lomborg cites the IPCC report like gospel, all the while selectively ignoring much that doesn't serve his arguments.

For example, in assuming that temperatures will not warm by more than 4.7 degrees, despite the inaction that he advocates, he ignores the fact that the IPCC includes a range of temperature estimates going all the way up to 10.5 degrees.

The most crucial error in the book - the most glaring oversight that disqualifies the book as a serious examination of the risks and tradeoffs of climate change - is that Lomborg ignores the existence of powerful climate feedback loops hidden within the climate system. As Eban Goodstein writes,:
"The global warming "alarmism" that Lomborg finds so distasteful is motivated by a serious, science-driven concern that hidden within our global climate system are powerful positive feedback loops. So that as we inch up from 3 to 4 and then 4 to 5 degrees of warming, we may very well cross some temperature threshold that would trigger a couple of degrees of further warming, causing a catastrophic upward spiral in global temperatures.

For example, if the Amazon heats up and dries out too much, much of it could burn down, flipping to savannah, and releasing tens of billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Similarly, as the permafrost in the Arctic melts, a huge pulse of methane may be released. The science is clear that, interacting, these and other biophysical and socioeconomic factors could drive planetary temperatures far beyond the range that Lomborg addresses. By ignoring the vast uncertainty underlying these forecasts, and every alternative outcome except his preferred "moderate" warming scenario, "Cool It" reduces to an uninteresting discussion of why folks alive today should choose 4.7 degrees of warming rather than 4.4 as the optimal outcome for our grandkids."
But there is no sound scientific reason to assume that as we sit inactively, following Lomborg's advice, that temperatures will stop rising at 4.7 degrees. In fact, there is every reason to worry that if we don't begin a proactive, concerted effort to halt warming temperatures within the next few years, we will lock ourselves in to a degree of warming that will push us past what America's top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, calls 'the Tipping Point' where temperatures and greenhouse gas levels will have increased enough to set off a chain reaction of these feedback loops that will push global warming beyond our control.

Once we pass the Tipping Point, warming will simply spin out of control and no matter what we do, we won't be able to halt or reverse the changing climate. We could stop using all fossil fuels entirely, but if we did it one day after crossing the Tipping Point - think of it as the Point of No Return - it wouldn't do a damn bit of good.

But don't take my word for it. Let's hear what Dr. Hansen has to say:

"In my opinion," he testified in 2006, "there is no significant doubt (probability > 99%)" that projections for warming in a business-as-usual future (one that Lomborg advocates) "would push the Earth beyond the tipping point and cause dramatic climate impacts including eventual sea level rise of at least several meters, extermination of a substantial fraction of the animal and plant species on the planet, and major regional climate disruptions."

Translation: unless we act soon to change course and avoid this business as usual future, we will almost certainly pass the Point of No Return.

By ignoring this fundamental and critical characteristic of climate systems, Lomborg's thesis that waiting to tackle climate change until technology develops is fundamentally flawed.

In a supposed 'rational discussion' of risks, trade-offs and benefits of climate change, Lomborg ignores the biggest risk of all: that in sitting idle, we will cross the Tipping Point. As a result, Lomborg advocates for delayed action against climate change, essentially arguing that we play Russian roulette with our lives and the fate of all future inhabitants of the planet.

There are other flaws with Lomborg's book, and I'd encourage you to read Goodstein's review for more, but I'll leave it at that for now.

Don't pick up Lomborg's book unless you're looking for more misleading, heel-dragging hot air.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just read two reviews of Bjorn Lomborg’s new book, “Cool It”.

What caught my eye was the different reactions to the book.

WSJ reviewer, Kimberley Strassel, gave an objective review without resorting to polemic, calling Lomborg’s analysis “smart and refreshing”. Strassel’s review neither attacked those who are believers in imminent “disastrous anthropogenic global warming” nor did it support those who deny that significant global warming is even occuring, or is caused by man. It just mentioned that both camps exist and that Lomborg stands in the “practical middle”.

On the other hand, Jesse Jenkins’ post was condiderably less level-headed. Citing an earlier review of Lomborg’s previous book as a “sordid mess”, it went on to trash the latest book as a “particularly slanted view of the world”, which “rests on ‘facts’ that are selectively picked to support his arguments as he ignores a vast body of science”.

Wow! Sounds like polemic rather than a book review.

Jenkins then goes on to quote a review by climate activist, Eban Goodstein, the founder of “Focus the Nation”, whose stated goal is to strengthen worldwide support for a “clean energy revolution that can avert future potential catastrophic effects of climate change” (Wikipedia).

No one expects an outspoken global warming alarmist like Goodstein to objectively review a book that questions the more hysterical disaster predictions and calls for immediate action that he espouses.

Jenkins, who is also involved with “Focus the Nation”, then cites James E. Hansen’s (far from scientifically proven) “tipping point” hypothesis as a “fundamental and critical characteristic of climate systems”. By not calling for immediate action now, Jenkins says Lomborg advocates playing “Russian roulette with our lives and the fate of all future inhabitants of the planet”.

His advice: “Don’t pick up Lomborg’s book unless you’re looking for more misleading, heel-dragging hot air.”

Seems to me it’s Jenkins that is spouting the “hot air” and having a hard time staying objective in the process.

But then I guess he is in what Strassel calls the “believer” camp, that’s driven by the fear that “humanity faces no greater threat than a warming Earth”, which makes it pretty hard for him to stay objective if someone questions his paradigm (or belief).

Max

Jesse Jenkins said...

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Jesse Jenkins said...

Another good review of Lomborg's Cool It.

Anonymous said...

Reply to Jesse Jenkins

Hi Jesse,

Thanks for mail.
Believe the problem here is that you are a firm believer in disastrous anthropogenic global warming (DAGW) as the greatest threat to the future of mankind on this planet while I am not. Your review showed clearly that you are, as you have said, biased in this regard. I am not, since I am open to any new rational discussion of this subject.

Categorically, I reject hysterical calls for action based on fear mongering, since they make me suspicious of the hidden agendas that may hide behind them. I also believe that the current DAGW “doomsday prediction” will go the way of the many others that have preceded it and vanish into thin air, to be replaced by a new paradigm.

Yes, I have gone through the IPCC 2007 “Summary for Policy Makers” in some detail. I do not believe everything that is stated in this report, since a check of available studies, which have been ignored or overlooked by IPCC, reveals several claims that are either exaggerated or false.

We could go on at nauseum discussing all the details, but believe this would be non-value added, since neither of us is likely to convince the other.

Fear is a very strong emotion that leaves little room for rational skepticism.

Regards,

Max

Anonymous said...

Jesse Jenkins over-reacts. His beleif system is challenged.

I just read the book and he does does address the 'fix everything' claim based on an examination of resources and priorities. Following Kyoto precludes the other more rational alternatives because it is ver expensive.

I would like to hear the climate lobby address some of Dr Lomborgs points - such as the unfounded hysteria over polar bears - and sea level rises.

'Tipping points' are only an hypothesis - and a very convenient one at that.

clive

Anonymous said...

If every type of scientist in existence supported a study stating that we should shoot as much smog as possible into the ozone, who would support it? Probably no one because this sort of cause has little emotional utility. (Those who did support it would simply use the study as a justification for their already-ignored contribution to pollution.)

Many people in support of global warming have already been environmentalists for a number of years.

It seems to me that for most people to vigorously support a position on an issue it takes 1) an issue that is widely hailed as a humanitarian and 2) any degree of scientific consensus about the issue itself. It has nothing to do with truth.

This is why the world needs Mr. Lomborgs.

Luke

Anonymous said...

What you forget is that science is not a consensus based thing, that is the preserve of politicians. Dogmatists on either side can cherry-pick data (as Mann did with his flawed hockey stick graph). Common sense and science dictate a simple double blind analysis of the data to eliminate bias. If is CO2 then prove it and deal with it. If it is sun activity (and remember the non water based ice is melting on other planets) then why wastse time on CO2.

Anonymous said...

What you forget is that science is not a consensus based thing, that is the preserve of politicians. Dogmatists on either side can cherry-pick data (as Mann did with his flawed hockey stick graph). Common sense and science dictate a simple double blind analysis of the data to eliminate bias. If is CO2 then prove it and deal with it. If it is sun activity (and remember the non water based ice is melting on other planets) then why wastse time on CO2.

Dan J said...

Bjorn Lomborg’s book, Cool It, outlines the platform of the “skeptical environmentalist.” Evolving from their previous argument denying the existence of global warming, the new age skeptics admit the occurrence of climate change and accept human impact as a cause, with Lomborg as their leader. Lomborg formulates our knowledge climate change in a cost-benefit model to deligitimize our emphasis on immediate drastic solutions. He proposes that in order to truly better all mankind, we should apply our resources to the solvable problems at hand, not the hypothetical threats of climate change in the future.
While Lomborg’s arguments are clear and seemingly accurate, his outlook on climate change feels limited. In determining cost-benefit predictions, Lomborg’s statistics are constraining. Building formulas by our current cost predictions, Lomborg runs cost models for the entire 21st century. However, these predictions cannot account for the vast run-away scenarios that currently are in question. For example, possible oceanic current shifts or shutdowns that would change our climate instantly and dramatically. Already in the 21st century, researchers underestimated the rate of sea-ice melt in the current decade. Lomborg’s future scenarios don’t account for the massive spectrum of potential earth feedback responses.
Along with a tunnel-vision approach towards the future of climate change, I get the feeling that Lomborg is playing the statistics in his favor. For example, in discussing a possible carbon tax, Lomborg quotes the cost of one ton of CO2 to be between two and fourteen dollars. Next, he cites “one radical report” proposing $85 per ton of carbon, and compares the costs of this proposal to the minimal two-dollar quota. By taking the extremes of these cost estimates - the two-dollar minimal projection and the radical $85 proposal - Lomborg comes up with a $38 trillion dollar cost difference. While dramatic predictions like $38 trillion dollars are certainly shocking, I question his use of statistics in this manner throughout Cool It.
Finally, Lomborg’s intentions are questionable. Acknowledging that efforts for climate change prevention are for the betterment of mankind, Lomborg sees reducing CO2 as a waste of valuable resources for this cause. However, in thinking about the current allocation of resources by the world’s superpowers, environmental legislation is far down on resource allocation priorities. Why doesn’t Lomborg propose taking money away from military spending or United States’ pork-barrel politics? Lomborg’s attacks on climate change prevention are aimed at the wrong target.
In all, Cool It is a fresh perspective in the climate change debate. While there are undoubtedly several holes in Lomborg’s arguments, his book brings up a good point: the need to settle our international humanitary priorities beyond climate change. Beyond this, Lomborg’s pile of cost-benefit assesments on climate change prevention seems too shaky when the laundry list of lurking variables is brought to the table. If even one of the several possible “run-away” effects occurs in the next century, this pile will topple like a lost game of Jenga.

Dan J said...

Bjorn Lomborg’s book, Cool It, outlines the platform of the “skeptical environmentalist.” Evolving from their previous argument denying the existence of global warming, the new age skeptics admit the occurrence of climate change and accept human impact as a cause, with Lomborg as their leader. Lomborg formulates our knowledge climate change in a cost-benefit model to deligitimize our emphasis on immediate drastic solutions. He proposes that in order to truly better all mankind, we should apply our resources to the solvable problems at hand, not the hypothetical threats of climate change in the future.

While Lomborg’s arguments are clear and seemingly accurate, his outlook on climate change feels limited. In determining cost-benefit predictions, Lomborg’s statistics are constraining. Building formulas by our current cost predictions, Lomborg runs cost models for the entire 21st century. However, these predictions cannot account for the vast run-away scenarios that currently are in question. For example, possible oceanic current shifts or shutdowns that would change our climate instantly and dramatically. Already in the 21st century, researchers underestimated the rate of sea-ice melt in the current decade. Lomborg’s future scenarios don’t account for the massive spectrum of potential earth feedback responses.

Along with a tunnel-vision approach towards the future of climate change, I get the feeling that Lomborg is playing the statistics in his favor. For example, in discussing a possible carbon tax, Lomborg quotes the cost of one ton of CO2 to be between two and fourteen dollars. Next, he cites “one radical report” proposing $85 per ton of carbon, and compares the costs of this proposal to the minimal two-dollar quota. By taking the extremes of these cost estimates - the two-dollar minimal projection and the radical $85 proposal - Lomborg comes up with a $38 trillion dollar cost difference. While dramatic predictions like $38 trillion dollars are certainly shocking, I question his use of statistics in this manner throughout Cool It.

Finally, Lomborg’s intentions are questionable. Acknowledging that efforts for climate change prevention are for the betterment of mankind, Lomborg sees reducing CO2 as a waste of valuable resources for this cause. However, in thinking about the current allocation of resources by the world’s superpowers, environmental legislation is far down on resource allocation priorities. Why doesn’t Lomborg propose taking money away from military spending or United States’ pork-barrel politics? Lomborg’s attacks on climate change prevention are aimed at the wrong target.

In all, Cool It is a fresh perspective in the climate change debate. While there are undoubtedly several holes in Lomborg’s arguments, his book brings up a good point: the need to settle our international humanitary priorities beyond climate change. Beyond this, Lomborg’s pile of cost-benefit assesments on climate change prevention seems too shaky when the laundry list of lurking variables is brought to the table. If even one of the several possible “run-away” effects occurs in the next century, this pile will topple like a lost game of Jenga.