Lomborg! Plus some bonus thoughts on Nordhaus and Shellenberger


I really don’t want to write about Bjørn Lomborg, but I don’t think it can be avoided. He’s now on the editorial pages of the Washington Post pushing the same line about global warming that he’s been pushing for several years now: global warming is too expensive to deal with; it’s not that big a problem; there are better things to spend money on; etc.

Some of his arguments are interesting in the abstract. Many are predicated on dubious statistics or plainly false readings of the available data. This has all been written about a thousand times elsewhere, and is not the reason I’m feeling compelled to consider Lomborg.

Here’s the reason: the global warming debate, such as it is, is taking on new contours. Denialism has run its course, and the various interested parties are claiming new territory as the landscape shifts. Many who formerly sought to deny global warming are now coalescing around Lomborg’s position, and so it is a position that must be grappled with. (Note that this is not the same thing as suggesting Lomborg is a denialist. He is not.)

But here’s where I think this situation gets a bit more interesting. Several other observers have noticed overlaps between the policies advocated by Lomborg and the policies advocated by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their new book, Break Through. Further, N&S have found a welcome reception in some strange quarters. For example, Reason Magazine describes N&S as “a truly welcome relief from the human-hating animus behind much coming out of the Green community.” (It should be noted that Reason Magazine writers last encountered an actual environmentalist in 1968.)

Naturally, this state of affairs makes many environmentalists eager to “debunk” N&S. I think this approach is exactly backwards. N&S are committed environmental advocates who seem to have hit on a policy formulation with some evident appeal to a swath of the population not normally invested in climate change. This policy formulation is flawed, but rather than harp on its flaws, we should be seeking to understand its strengths.

I’ll have more to say on this in the coming weeks. (And for the record, I was ahead of the curve on this topic when I wrote about Jim Manzi last month.)

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  1. Chad - October 10, 2007

    I usually agree with you Adam, but here I believe you are dead wrong. Lomborg is right, and you are wrong for disagreeing with him, or at least you are wrong for disagreeing with him in the manner that you do.
    I have read both Lomborg’s “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, which is written in layman’s language and brought him his fame. I have also read the very technical “Global Crises, Global Solutions” where groups of experts were brought together to debate their individual areas of expertise and then the results compared.
    When people (you included) claim things like “Many are predicated on dubious statistics or plainly false readings of the available data”, what you really mean is that some experts disagree with some of the assumptions and/or models chosen by Lomborg. In GCGS, you can read ad nasuem about the advantages and disadvantages of each, if you are interested. But to simply dismiss his arguments because there is some disagreement about how to interpret the data is being disingenuous. You are dismissing the arguments because you don’t like the conclusions.
    Lomborg is right. When you read GCGS, the experts are arguing whether action on global warming is beneficial on net AT ALL. They generally conclude that is it, something on the order of two dollars returned for every dollar invested. Now, this varies depending on exactly what assumptions you make and models you favor, but they all were using pretty standard ones.
    In the meantime, the experts on something like HIV or AIDS were not arguing over whether action was a net positive for society. Of course it was. The question was whether we got back 40 dollars for every one invested or rather 100.
    Do you see the difference? Even if you fiddle with some assumptions and models concerning global warming, even if you assume worst-case scenarios, you don’t come close to matching the return on investment found in providing basic health care. You are an order of magnitude short in the closest scenarios. That is why fighting global warming came at or near the bottom of his list of priorities. If you have $10 bucks and your goal is to eliminate human misery, buying compact CFL’s is not the way to go. Donating to the poor in the third world is.
    That being said, I do not feel there is anything illogical about using our time and money to fight global warming. Why? Because I am responsible for global warming, and therefore have a responsibility to clean up my mess. As sad as they are, it is not my fault that someone in Africa has malaria, and whatever responsibility I have to solve this problem is of a much lower level than the responsibility I have to solve a problem I have helped cause.

  2. Daniel Kirk-Davidoff - October 10, 2007

    This is the crucial flaw in Lomborg’s argument. The issues of global warming and of third world poverty are on completely incomensurate scales. Of course we should be spending much more than the paltry sums currently allocated to improving public health in poor countries. But preciselly because of the cheepness of solutions to their problems, they have exactly nothing to do with global warming. Lomborg could be making exactly the same arguments about millitary spending: why does Denmark spend about $3 billion /year on it’s millitary, when that amount of money could do so much good in Africa, and Denmark faces no external millitary threats? Spending money to prevent global warming is not going to prevent us from spending money to solve public health problems in the third world. We could fix those with our pocket change, if money were the only obstacle.

  3. richard schumacher - October 10, 2007

    Much of the good we can do in the 21st century, much of the payback we can achieve will eventually be wiped out unless we also deal with global warming at the same time. Even in purely economic terms it would do little good to get a 100-to-1 payback on $100 billion of investments only to lose hundreds of *trillions* later.

    Lomborg focuses on middle ground estimates of the near-term effects of global warming to conclude that we don’t need to do very much about it, and that we would get a better return from investing elsewhere. If global warming were to follow that middle ground and comes to an abrupt and permanent halt in the year 2100, then he would be right. Sadly, it will *not* stop suddenly 93 years from now; if we do nothing the ice caps will eventually melt, and all the world’s coastal regions will drown; never mind the effects of what climate changes occur over the remaining land area. Lomborg does not even try to estimate the costs of dealing with a billion refugees and of losing most of the world’s great cities to the sea, or of the futility of building thousands of miles of 30-foot-tall seawalls, or of compensating for the loss of millions of hectares of existing cropland, because he knows that would reveal the hollowness of his argument.

  4. Tracy - October 10, 2007

    I fear I need to now read “The Skeptical Environmentalist.” At this point, I’ll offer only that it appears the “investment” model is simply based on miscalculated cash flows and a duration that is far too short.

  5. Anonymous - October 10, 2007

    Lomborg is trying to sell us something (in this case a $19.95 book). And some we will buy it because it offers a glimmer of hope (however true or false it may be). Others will buy it and see it as the opponent’s playbook. Either way, the guy is in it to make a buck. Perhaps we shouldn’t stare too long at the finger that is pointing to the sky.

  6. Chad - October 10, 2007

    Richard, it is clear that you are critiquing a book you have never read. I am not even sure if you have read some of his interviews, as so much of what you say is dead wrong, both concerning the science AND what is or is not contained within the books you apparently hate so much without having read them.
    Tracy: Read the books. Even if you still disagree with them after actually having read them, you will find that you learn more reading things you disagree with than being part of the preacher’s choir.
    Anonymous: Ad hominem arguments need no refutation.

  7. Jim Manzi - October 10, 2007


    I’m the Jim Manzi that wrote the earlier article advocating a technology-focused approach to AGW that you reference. As an aside, you refer to the “noxious” politics in my article; in fact, I worried a lot about including that section for fear it would be mis-interpreted. The article was meant to convince conservatives to propose a path forward in place of fringe pseudo-science, and part of this (in the real world) is convincing conservative politicians that such a path can be politically feasible.

    When considering such an approach, keep in mind the following: the UN IPCC projects something like a 3% reduction in GDP resulting from global warming over 100 years from now. That’s the consensus view, though to be sure there are responsible scientists who are more-alarmists and less-alarmist, and the uncertainty in the projections is real (a subject on which I have written another article). All of the “end of the human race” rhetoric is really just rhetoric.

    The quantitative problem with using rapid, immediate emissions abatement to forestall some of these costs is that while 3% of GDP is a huge amount of money, it would be very expensive to get lots of carbon out of the energy cycle and 100 years is a long time to wait for the payback.

    The real risk (and it is real) is that the problem might turn out to be much worse than scientists currently project. So what we need is an insurance policy against disaster. No real political entity is going to actually suffer huge economic costs to buy this insurance policy (nor, in my view, should we), if we have to rely on current technology to do it. We must have new technology to enable such a transition if it turns out (contrary to current expectations, as per above) to be needed. So, investing in technology development now as a way of providing options in case we need them later is a rational approach (and I hope you’ll agree, at a minimum, a defensible and good faith approach) to deal with the risk.

    I should have another article coming out in a couple of weeks going into some of this detail.

    Jim Manzi

  8. Adam Stein - October 10, 2007

    Hi Chad,
    You write:
    When people (you included) claim things like “Many are predicated on dubious statistics or plainly false readings of the available data”, what you really mean is that some experts disagree with some of the assumptions and/or models chosen by Lomborg.
    That’s not really what I mean. Lomborg has a tendency to make arguments that are disingenuous or embarrassing. He continually asserts that the IPCC predicts a modest sea level rise, despite the fact that this is flatly untrue. He raises the silly point about polar bear hunting at every opportunity, as though the biodiversity threat from climate change can really be boiled down to “polar bears might die.”
    And so on. I do think that Lomborg is raising arguments that are interesting in the abstract. How much should we spend to prevent global warming? What might be the unintended consequences of spending that money? But either unwittingly or by design (I suspect the latter), the guy has turned himself into a useful idiot for the James Inhofe set.
    I admit that I have not read his book (don’t plan to either — my reading list is long), so I can only go by his media appearances and magazine essays. Maybe the book-length version skips over the bogus polar-bear arguments. I’m sure he raises some interesting points. Anyway, he’s certainly got the ear of a lot of people, so I have no doubt we’ll be hearing a lot more from him.

  9. Chad - October 10, 2007

    Adam, the latest IPCC predicted sea-level rises of 18-59cm. While more recent evidence indicates this is probably low, anything within this ballpark qualifies as “modest”. It is the panic-inducing “Sea level rises of 20 meters if Antarctica melts” being spewed by environmentalists which are dubious, not Lomborg’s citations of official IPCC data.
    Strangly enough, I was just thinking about polar bears during lunch. The whole issue around this single poster-child species is exactly what Lomborg is trying to point out. Yes, polar bears will fare poorly under global warming. Other species will thrive. Did you know that far more butterfly species are expanding northward than are contracting southward, for example, due to increased spring and fall temperatures? Or that while global warming will be bad for US corn and fruit production, it will be good for soybeans and cotton? While the net changes will probably constitute a negative, they are not likely to be apocalyptic. Of course, to a true environmentalist, any change is negative by default, which is why they are impossible to reason with.
    I agree with Jim on a particular point. Action on global warming, to me, is a form of insurance against the very likely scenario that it DOES turn out to be much worse than we think. The odds are small, but so are the odds that my house burns down.
    In reality, though, global warming will likely be mildly annoying and nothing more. It deserves a response, but one that is measured, reasoned, and as cost-effective as possible.
    I agree that fools like Inhofe use quotes from Lomborg and the like for their nefarious ends. But that does not make what either person says untrue.

  10. Adam Stein - October 10, 2007

    20 meters? That’s not alarmism, it’s a strawman. The latest IPCC report explicitly excludes certain sea level effects that are not well captured by current models. It’s just disingenuous to pretend that 59 cm is in any way an upper bound. Journalists can be forgiven for not understanding this. Lomborg knows better.
    And the biodiversity argument is just absurd. A species going extinct is not somehow balanced out by more butterflies. Unfortunately, there is a hard limit on the left tail of a population distribution: you can’t have fewer than zero animals of a given species. Point being, the effects on biodiversity are not a mixed bag of positives and negatives. It’s just negative.
    Finally, my point about Inhofe is not that Lomborg is being innocently misused. He seems pretty happy with the situation.

  11. Geoff - October 10, 2007

    This situation presents me with the rare opportunity to be the optimist. Whether the IPCC’s view of climate change or Lomborg’s turns out to be closer to reality–the odds favor the former–what action to take certainly provides a more productive basis for debate than whether or not the planet is warming, or human activity is a major contributor. As I’ve said in my own recent posting on Lomborg’s views(http://energyoutlook.blogspot.com/2007/09/flip-side.html) the propositions aren’t either/or, but rather yes/and. If warming proceeds along the current path, some of his strategies will be useful for minimizing the consequences of climate change, rather than as alternative uses of the money to combat it.

    As to the discussion above over the range of likely sea level rises, I think all of this reflects a case of over-confidence in the models. A century out, I doubt we can say anything meaningful about what is likely, as opposed to possible.

  12. Jim Manzi - October 10, 2007


    I take your point about sea potential level rises. I agree that 20M is a strawman. But this issue is a great example of how hard it is to use long-term climate science as a useful guide to policy. Here’s how I would summarize the way the IPCC states this situation:

    1. Range of modeled sea-level rises by 2100 based on a variety of reasonable population growth, economic growth and technology scenarios: 18cm – 59cm (I haven’t gone back to the WG1 Report to check this, but it sounds right from memory, and I am relying on the prior post)

    2. Potential impact if a catastrophic AGW-driven event occurs: who knows, but big enough to be very bad, and by definition unlimited

    3. Likelihood of such a catastrophic event: “Abrupt climate changes, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, rapid loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet or large-scale changes in ocean circulation systems, are not considered likely to occur in the 21st century, based on currently available model results.” In other words, it is beyond our ability to model quantitatively (at present), so we really can’t assign numerical odds to it, other than to say (very crudely) that it is not considered likely. Of course, BY DEFINITION, any projection from any physical model (including F=MA) must admit the possibility that the model might be wrong.

    So, sure sea level rises might be catastrophic, but recognize this is very different than “science says” we must do X to avoid this catastrophe; we are really saying that we must admit the possibility that our models might be wrong, and the situation might be worse than we currently project.

  13. (the other) Jim - October 10, 2007

    Regarding Adam’s No. 10. I can honestly say that every biologist I know (and I know quite a few having worked for several environmental consulting firms) will agree with Adam and find absurd the notion that the propagation of one species (like butterflies, to use the current example) will somehow balance out the negative effect of another disappearing from the face of the earth. Most species of plants and animals (save for perhaps rapidly-reproducing insects and the like) take hundreds of thousands (as with humans) and often millions of years to keep up with (ie. evolve) the earth’s “naturally” (that is, “in the absence of human beings”) changing environment. Most species simply don’t possess the ability, on a genetic level, to evolve, and therefore survive, a climate that is changing faster than the one they evolved in. Humans have managed to survive as a species by absorbing the adverse impact we have always had on our local environment. This is the very mechanism that has given rise and fall to civilizations around the world: each responds to their local rhythm. This cause-and-effect can be seen in the archaeological record spanning several thousand years and in every corner of the planet. However, I and many other archaeologists have come to recognize that for the first time in human history we are seeing the negative effects of our behavior not on the local level but on a global scale: we are all dancing to the same drummer this time. As an archaeologist I must say this scares the hell out of me.
    Now, we can sit around in our smoking jackets and argue theory all day long but one thing seems to be clear to most of us who subscribe to Terrapass: the time for action, any action, however small, is upon us. Let’s argue with one hand but promise to use the other to replace all those old coal-burning light bulbs, or install a high-efficiency pellet stove, or maybe even wave to a neighbor and agree to carpool three times a week. Let’s get moving here people.

  14. Monty - October 11, 2007

    Maybe I am just too stupid to follow the line of thinking here, but — what is the point of this debate? Who cares if sea levels rise an inch or a few meters? What is the point of debating the amount of money spent on global warming versus poverty?
    The bottom line is that it is the richest countries in the world that need to change their ways, right? As new countries reach the ‘rich’ level (China, India, etc), then they become part of the problem, as well.
    Simply put, finding ways to decrease emissions is something we all have to do. We have to do everything we can possibly do to change this.
    Is anyone truly thinking that it is okay to just ignore this problem? That the richest countries in the world simply can not afford to do something about it? That it does not matter because there will be other countries joining the rich club later that will mess it all up? That it costs too much money versus the other nifty things we could spend it on?
    This is absurd, if that is truly the thinking. If we can afford to live in our McMansion in the suburbs with our three car garage and collection of Starbucks mugs — we can afford to spend some money to reduce emissions.
    The question is not whether we can spend the money, but whether technology (electric cars, trains, etc) can allow us to continue to live in our private suburbias, and whether we can learn to adjust to the areas where there is no technological solution. The money the change costs is irrelevant.
    Or, maybe that is the part I am missing. That we are ‘okay’ with the changes we are making to our planet. That, over the next 50 years, the changes might actually be positive in some places. Of course, that line of thinking is also absurd since a couple generations down the road they will never forgive us for ‘debating’ the finer points of this issue. (Can you imagine if we continue down this path what our planet will be like in 200 years from now?)
    Maybe I simply do not understand what everyone is talking about. I hope that is the case, because right now it seems like this debate is just silly.

  15. (the other) Jim - October 11, 2007

    No…I think you understand the situation just right. It is important to remember not to get seduced by the ego-driven (and sometimes highly pursuasive) shoving matches. And don’t let people convince you that the problem is more complicated than it actually is. We need to curb our addiction to oil by finding alternatives and passing legislation and begin to work with other countries to do the same, period. Thanks for saying it so clearly.

  16. richard schumacher - October 17, 2007

    Unchecked, global warming will cause on the order of hundred trillion dollars of loss and damage; preventing this will cost fifty trillion dollars (a payback of 2:1). Uncured, AIDS and malaria will cause a trillion dollars of loss and suffering; eliminating them will cost ten billion dollars (a payback of 100:1). The error of Lomborg et alia is in focussing on relatively easy problems *because* they have big payback ratios while dismissing the really big problem *because* it has a relatively small payback ratio. I think (I hope!) that we here are in violent agreement that that we ultimately can’t afford to ignore any of these problems.

  17. Patrick - October 17, 2007

    The point from all this argument seems to be simply a repeat of the same ages-old arguments in a different context: conservatives generally represent a population that has benefited from the status quo and does not want to see things change (which is understandable; nobody wants to be put in an unfamiliar environment which may not give them the security they are used to.) When hardline conservatives failed to convince the public that global warming wasn’t happening, they sought out firmer ground to justify not changing any more than necessary. It is a position often born out of self-interest and a drive for profit and/or self-preservation in the short term. However, in cases such as this, such a position becomes untenable in the long term.
    I wholly agree that “replacing” species is not a viable argument (unless of course the aforementioned butterflies are artic-dwelling, semi-aquiatic and carnivorous, thus replacing polar bears in the food chain.) Also bear in mind that warmer temperatures generally provide hospitable environments for some of our more notorious disease carriers such as mosquitos, which is a losing proposition for humans in general.
    Finally, to Chad’s comment of “Ad hominem arguments need no refutation”: while Ad hominem arguments are no way to win an argument, you would be foolish not to understand the motivations of your information sources. More often than not, you will find that they consciously or unconsciously have the goal of influencing over informing. I’ll still believe the overwhelming consensus of the 2,000+ climate experts on the IPCC over economists when it comes to reliable information about global warming any day, for very obvious reasons.

  18. David Roberts - November 11, 2007

    The way I see it, this argument is entirely beside the point. Efforts to combat climate change will have net positive effects on our health, economy, politics, and life satisfaction, so who cares whether we “have to” do it or not. It is the opportunity of a generation.