Dr Lomborg’s rhetoric on climate change scepticism – helpful devil’s advocate, harmful distraction, or something in-between?
When I analyse it, Dr Lomborg’s position on climate change is not so very different from my own.
It seems that he believes that climate change is happening, that it is driven largely by human activities, that it needs to be tackled, and that there is a “sweet spot” where the amount of resource being deployed to tackle it is consistent with some form of optimal balance of costs and benefits.
Here’s a typical quote from his Twitter feed, this one from 29 April 2021:
“Climate change a real problem, but we must be careful not — in panic — spending so many resources, the cure is costlier than the affliction.”
Also, from his paper “Welfare in the 21st century: Increasing development, reducing inequality, the impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies”:
“Climate change is real and its impacts are mostly negative … ”
And from the bumf associated with his book “False Alarm”:
“Climate change is real, but it’s not the apocalyptic threat that we’ve been told it is.”
There are three main differences between his position and mine, however.
One difference is where that optimal sweet spot sits in various future scenarios of costs and benefits. He suggests over 3 degrees of warming would be optimal, whereas I’d go with economists who suggest 1.5 degrees or even lower. I’m unconvinced by the ‘outlier’ economists whose views Dr Lomborg seems to be relying upon on that matter.
Another difference is on how to respond to high impact low frequency risks, such as those presented by tipping points to a much more hostile climate equilibrium.
A further difference arises from the ways we have each communicated our thoughts on such matters.
I’ll expand on each of these differences.
The first one is essentially about an economic argument. For example, it might be expressed as “what is the optimal warming above pre-industrial temperatures?” This has important implications for how quickly we should decarbonise the global economy / human system in order to stabilise the global temperature at a new equilibrium, or at least near-equilibrium.
It’s well known that there are positive as well as negative impacts of climate change. These are differentially spread among countries, regions and between societal segments in each country. However, when aggregated at global level, and when the total negatives are deducted from the total positives, a few economists, such as Nordhaus suggest that the positives and negatives cancel each other out somewhere between 3 and 4 degrees centigrade (eg Nordhaus - 2013 – “The Climate Casino - Risk, Uncertainty, and Economics for a Warming World”, page 214).
Most economists, however, including the majority of those advising the IPCC, suggest that the optimum is a temperature rise in accordance with the Paris Agreement, ie somewhere near 1.5 degrees (eg see Hansel et al, 2021 “Climate economics support for the UN climate targets”).
There are even some economists who suggest that decarbonising our economies is already a “no-brainer” because it presents a net positive benefit, which in itself would generate better economic growth than other options, so it would add to the resource available to tackle other problems than climate (not forgetting that some solutions to climate problems also tackle other problems, like poverty, at the same time. (see Ekins and Zenghelis - 2021 - "The costs and benefits of environmental sustainability")
A key quote from that paper:
"Recent evidence suggests the short-term GDP impacts of well-designed environmental action could be positive, crowding-in rather than ‘crowding out’ the drivers of future growth. Moreover, much environmental harm is irreversible, most obviously biodiversity loss and tipping points associated with a changing climate. This paper provides evidence that not only makes the environmental case for action, in terms of its benefits for human health and welfare, it also shows how such action can generate economic returns in terms of productivity, jobs and income and reduce the costs of meeting any emissions and resource use targets. A cost effective low-carbon, resource-efficient transition can generate a cleaner, quieter, more secure, innovative, and productive economy for all countries at all stages of development."
It should be noted here that none of the views above about optimum temperature increase eliminates the possibility of passing through significant climate tipping points on the way to whatever optimal warming temperature is espoused, although stabilising at 1.5 degrees is thought to have much lower risks of passing through tipping points than stabilising at over 3 degrees. As an aside, some scientists have suggested that, even at our current warming of 1.2 degrees (as at 2021), we might already have set some tipping points in irreversible motion, although that doesn’t seem to feature heavily in Dr Lomborg’s expressed opinions. He doesn’t seem to take this aspect seriously, but instead makes general claims of it being down to “climate alarmism”.
Dr Lomborg’s inferences from believing over 3 degrees of warming to be optimal is that he advocates for what is essentially a “wait and see” strategy of:
On the subject of high impact low frequency events, Dr Lomborg seems to be quite reticent.
In contrast to this, as an example of what the climate scientists are saying, the following quote is from Lenton et al – 2020 - “Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against”
“Research in the past decade has shown that the Amundsen Sea embayment of West Antarctica might have passed a tipping point: the ‘grounding line’ where ice, ocean and bedrock meet is retreating irreversibly. A model study shows that when this sector collapses, it could destabilize the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet like toppling dominoes — leading to about 3 metres of sea-level rise on a timescale of centuries to millennia. Palaeo-evidence shows that such widespread collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet has occurred repeatedly in the past.”
We ignore risks of tipping points at our peril. It certainly provides support for deploying the precautionary principle in our responses to climate change. This is something Dr Lomborg seems to eschew.
The final area of difference between Dr Lomborg and myself is in communication of ideas.
Dr Lomborg is famous (perhaps infamous?) for his ways of communicating his thoughts on climate change. He became most well-known for his books on the subject, which include “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, “Cool It” and “False Alarm”.
These works could perhaps be described as using a “devil’s advocate” approach to the science behind the world’s current understanding of climate change, and the role of human activities in it.
His writings appear to be scientifically based. However, on closer inspection by climate scientists and others, there are many deficiencies found in his methods. These include, as described by a document written by Bob Ward, at the LSE, in 2020:
See also “Bjorn Lomborg’s lukewarmer misinformation about climate change and poverty” by the Grantham Institute (LSE) in 2018:
According to Wikipedia:
“IPCC lead author Brian O'Neill wrote a mixed review of “Cool It”, [the sequel to The Skeptical Environmentalist] concluding:
“[...] Bjorn Lomborg … has written a book that sets out to support a certain point of view, and, unless you are an expert, you will never know which facts are correct and appropriately used and which are not. You might not be aware that large (and crucial) chunks of the story are skipped altogether. But it is a well-told tale and raises some questions that are worth thinking about. So if you are going to read only one book on climate, don’t read this one. But if you are going to read ten, reading Lomborg may be worthwhile.”
More from Wikipedia:
“In 2010, Howard Friel wrote “The Lomborg Deception”, a book-length critique of “Cool It”, which traces Lomborg’s many references and tests their authority and substance. Friel has said he found "misrepresentation of academic research, misquotation of data, reliance on studies irrelevant to the author’s claims and citation of sources that seem not to exist".
A quote from Sharon Begley, Newsweek cited in Wikipedia:
“Friel's conclusion, as per his book's title, is that Lomborg is "a performance artist disguised as an academic." I don't want to be as trusting as the reviewers who praised Lomborg's scholarship without (it seems) bothering to check his references, so rather than taking Friel at his word just as they took Lomborg at his, I've done my best to do that checking. Although Friel engages in some bothersome overkill, overall his analysis is compelling.”
If Dr Lomborg's written works about climate change are taken with a very large pinch of salt, and set alongside some more academically rigorous texts, then they can provide a useful window into some of the arguments you'll sometimes hear expressed against acting swiftly on climate change. Set against that guarded expression of usefulness is the risk that some of his arguments might be used, without sufficient fact-checking, as supporting material, by some climate change deniers as part of their disinformation campaigns.
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