On October 7, the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section featured a 1,900-word page one article by the notorious Danish statistician, adjunct business school professor, and “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg. The article exemplifies how the global warming disinformation campaign is shifting its focus from outright denialism to a more complex and misleading downplaying of harmful climate change impacts and positing of misleading arguments about mitigation. And its publication, with no alternative perspective from someone with scientific credentials, or at least a stronger reputation for accuracy and intellectual honesty than Lomborg has, shows a lack of good professional judgment by the Post’s Outlook editors, in their shaping of public discussion of the climate change problem.
Lomborg’s article—“Chill out. Stop fighting over global warming—here’s the smart way to attack it”—says this: “Wherever you look, the inescapable conclusion is the same: Reducing carbon emissions is not the best way to help the world.” The entire article reflects this sort of superficial, self-serving, misframing of the debate. It cries out for a detailed rebuttal from serious scientists and other experts, which it likely will receive. But it burns up a lot of people’s valuable time writing such rebuttals, and they don’t get circulated to the Post’s 900,000 Sunday circulation to set the record straight. Too substantive, not as entertaining as Lomborg, who is promoted with more than a full page of valuable Post real estate, including photos.
On October 10 the Post online posted a 700-word response to Lomborg’s October 7 article—“Cooler Heads and Climate Change”—by one of the leading climate scientists, Judith Curry. Curry’s article is good, it’s right on target with the limited number of words (typical length for an op-ed) it contains. Curry leads with:
In his Outlook essay “Chill Out,” Bjorn Lomborg rightly notes that skepticism about climate change is no longer focused on whether the earth is getting warmer (it is) or whether humans are contributing to it (we are). The current debate is about whether warming matters, and whether we can afford to do anything about it.
In this debate, Lomborg has positioned himself squarely in the skeptics’ camp. But he has some of his facts wrong—and he fails to appreciate the risks that global warming bring to us all….Lomborg also misrepresents some conclusions of the U.N.‘s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
As scientists continue to challenge and improve the quality and understanding of climate records and models, skepticism by scientists conducting such research is alive and well. But oversimplifying the situation, using misleading information and presenting false choices is not useful in the public debate over global warming.
Lomborg seems to have missed it, but a sensible debate has begun on how to best respond to global warming….Lomborg is correct to be concerned about the possibility of bad policy choices. But I have yet to see any option that is worse than ignoring the risk of global warming and doing nothing.
This article didn’t appear in the October 11 print edition of the Post (did we miss something?). Perhaps it’s forthcoming in print. Will it be on page one of the Sunday Outlook section?
The Post also published a review on September 9 of Lomborg’s new book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. The very critical review, by Australian scientist Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, concludes: “Cool It is a stealth attack on humanity’s future.”
Doesn’t it seem, given the red flags that have been raised about Lomborg’s current and earlier work, that the Post Outlook editors might consider whether due diligence in deciding what to publish might lead them to be more skeptical of the “skeptical environmentalist,” or at least to seek alternative views?
If the Post really wants to stimulate and enlighten public discussion with some actual experts who are vastly more interesting and qualified than Lomborg, let’s see 1,900 words by recent AAAS president John Holdren. Or Jim Hansen of NASA. Or Steve Schneider at Stanford. Or a number of others we could suggest. Don’t wait for them—go get them.
That doesn’t appear to be the way the folks at the Post look at it. Consider the response of Post staff writer Jeffrey Birnbaum to an online critic in the October 9 “K Street” Q&A discussion:
Wheaton, Md.: In recent months your newspaper has invited two embarrassingly unqualified commentators to editorialize that global climate change is basically nothing to worry about (a conclusion that runs 180 degrees counter to that of the mainstream scientific community). Advice columnist Emily Yoffe – a self-described “math moron” – has zero credentials in climatology, and economist Bjorn Lomborg’s work has been cited for academic dishonesty. Meanwhile, I’ve not seen an actual scientist with peer-reviewed publications in climate research invited to write. Does it bother Post staff that when it comes to commentary on scientific issues your paper is now viewed as being on par with borderline tabloids like the Washington Times?
Jeffrey Birnbaum: If we waited for scientists with peer-reviewed publications to write for us, we’d never have anything in the paper. Opinions can be voiced by lots of people. And those opinions are not always shared. That’s what an open democracy and press freedom are all about. Demanding that only people with certain qualifications write on certain subjects would be demeaning to millions of Americans. Disagreeing with opinion writers is one of the best things about our wonderful system.
With all due respect, we find Birnbaum’s blowing off of a good criticism to be shallow and lame, on a subject that calls out for some intellectual gravitas. (And, AS IF the Post is not VERY highly selective about which guest columns to publish. Come on, Jeffrey. As they say on the Saturday Night Live Weekend Update: REALLY.)
Nevertheless, the science community should take note of this exchange. How many of you have played your citizen-scientist role and submitted a substantial piece on climate change to the Post (or anywhere else for that matter), seeking to communicate with your fellow citizens beyond the confines of the journals? Do you guys understand why this is important?