In Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bjorn Lomborg urges delay with misleading stats

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Displaying his trademark doublethink, Bjorn Lomborg’s latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal switches between recognizing the risks of climate change and rejecting the need for meaningful action in the near term. Lomborg incorporates misleading and discredited scientific information to justify dangerous delays in climate action. 

The following is a guest post from Climate Nexus and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (in PDF format here):

In WSJ op-ed, Bjorn Lomborg urges delay with misleading stats

Bjorn Lomborg’s latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal displays a brand of doublethink that has become his trademark. He switches between recognizing climate change and its risks, to rejecting the need for meaningful action in the near term. While he makes several sensible recommendations in this op-ed, he also incorporates misleading and discredited scientific information to justify dangerous delays in climate action. 

The claim:

Lomborg makes many statements that almost all climate scientists would agree with. These include:

    • Investments in hurricane resilience should be increased due to projected increases in storm intensity.
    • In the long run, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
    • Investments in renewable energy technology R&D should be dramatically increased.

However, Lomborg ends these common-sense recommendations with the conclusion that current investments in climate mitigation, including renewable energy subsidies, are wasteful. He uses a series of distracting and misleading statements about trends in extreme weather to minimize the risks we face and delay action.

The context:

    • The Wall Street Journal has a long history of reporting on the impacts of climate and environmental threats in their news pages, but minimizing and discrediting the same threats in their editorial pages.
    • In 2003, a Danish government committee found Lomborg guilty of scientific dishonesty. He was later cleared by a separate investigation, but he has been a controversial figure since.

The facts:

Lomborg’s statements on wildfires, drought, hurricanes, and economics are all extremely misleading.

    • On wildfires, Lomborg references only the number of global fires. Length of active wildfire season and total area burned are considered much more accurate metrics, and both have increased significantly along with global warming.
    • On drought, Lomborg is right that some areas across the globe have become more severely droughted, while some have become less so. This is consistent with climate predictions: dry areas get drier while wet areas get wetter. Lomborg implies that these changes simply cancel each other out, and can thus be ignored. In fact they are often devastating due to crop losses in the droughted areas and flooding in the wetter areas.
    • On hurricanes, Lomborg references Accumulated Cyclone Energy, which is still under debate as a way to measure overall hurricane activity. He also references a projected decline in damages as a percentage of GDP without stating that damages are increasing, just more slowly than GDP.
    • On economics, Lomborg implies in his op-ed that the climate problem can be solved solely through investment in research and technology. While economists are divided on the role of subsidies, nearly all agree that a price on carbon is necessary to drive innovation and change (including Lomborg himself).

Straight from the scientists:

“Lomborg loves to play the nit-picky ‘I'm the honest statistician’ role and then use this stance to imply that doing much of anything except R&D is a waste, ignoring the huge body of evidence that pricing GHG emissions can have large net benefits. We need to be putting a substantial price on our GHG emissions either with a cap and trade program or with a tax. AND we should be investing heavily in R&D on reducing the carbon and energy intensity of the economy. I’m quite sure that most economists, Republican and Democrat, would agree with these statements.”

-- William Shobe, Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies and a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Virginia

“Using number of global fires as a metric of climate-induced wildfire dynamics is wrong, in that most fires globally are human-caused for agricultural clearing. The better metrics are length of active wildfire season, which has increased by about 2 months in the western US in the last 40 years, and area burned, which has also doubled ... Future projections indicate a dramatic increase in area burned.”

-- Steven Running, Regents Professor, Forest Ecology, College of Forestry & Conservation at the University of Montana, and Director of the Numerical Terradynamics Simulation Group

“The area of drought worldwide is not really very relevant when it is particular areas being impacted with greater and greater intensity ... When those regions are particularly important to society, such as major grain-growing regions, the impacts can be very severe.”

-- Mike MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs with the Climate Institute, former senior global change scientist to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, former President of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences

“Lomborg's allusions to hurricane response to climate change are misleading in a number of respects. While it is true that one published report indicates decreasing global accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), that report was based on a hurricane data set known to have strong biases outside the North Atlantic region. Independent analyses based solely on satellite data show that the proportion of high intensity hurricanes has been increasing in most places. As to the projected decline in hurricane damage as a fraction of GDP, an even casual reading of the relevant paper shows that while actual damage is predicted to increase in most places, GDP is forecast to go up even faster, so that the ratio declines. That paper's projection of increased hurricane damage is consistent with numerous scientific studies that project increasing numbers of the most destructive hurricanes.”

-- Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at MIT

“The President did not refer specifically to hurricanes, but he did refer to extreme precipitation events. The Northeast region of the country has experienced a 75% increase in these events.  This means that routine nor'easters, especially when they follow storms like Sandy (that eliminate much of the capacity of natural protection from dunes and marshes) create much more damage ... [NYC] has invested billions over the past few years in adaptation investments. Some have worked well, but some have been overwhelmed by recent events. Only slowing the pace of climate change will allow adaptation investments ... to keep pace...

-- Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University

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14 Responses to In Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bjorn Lomborg urges delay with misleading stats

  1. Mark A. York says:

    Great takedown of the shapeshifter, Lomborg.

    Warm Front

  2. Frank Gue says:

    I am an extensively technically educated person asking, in a spirit of unemotional, uncommitted scientific objectivity, the following:

    1. Has anyone been able to separate the effects of the natural warming-cooling cycles, of which the earth has had numerous for aeons, from the effects of the recent rise in CO2?

    2. Are we dead-sure that the rise in CO2 is 100% anthropogenic? What about volcanic activity? What about subsurface black smokers? Other natural influences?

    3. Is there correlation between atmospheric CO2 and temperature for the recent 1-2 thousand years? Note that we had the "medieval warm period", ca 900-1300, the "little ice age", ca 1400-1900, and seem now to be entering another warm(ing) period, all in the last 1,000 years.

    - all evidence-based please, and spare me heated discussions of a "consensus", the IPCC reports, and such. I am 89 years old and have been an environmentalist for about 77 of those years, more concerned than most about the environment. Please, just the facts, m'am.

    Frank Gue, B.Sc., MBA, P.Eng.,
    2252 Joyce St.,
    Burlington, ON L7R 2B5
    905 634 9538

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Thanks for writing.
      Climate Science Watch is not a science eduction or science debate site -- rather, it focuses on the relationship between science, policy, and politics.
      A key site for addressing a wide range of questions raised by climate change 'skeptics' is Skeptical Science (www.skepticalscience.com) -- in particular the questions discussed with references to the scientific literature at http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php. I suggest you spend some time there. I would also refer you to the excellent ongoing discussion of climate science issues by a team of climate scientists at RealClimate (www.realclimate.org). That site is also rich with accessible climate science background that discusses a wide range of issues.
      In general, it is my view that, in seeking to translate the findings of climate research into policy and management responses, we should draw heavily on the assessments developed by the most credible scientific experts who are recognized by their publications in the field, as we do in many other areas of life where we use expert credibility as a basis for advising on decision-making. Thus, even those with technical and scientific training who are not experts in climate science really should draw heavily on the assessments provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Have you read the relevant discussion in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report volume on the science of the physical climate system (2007), or the climate science volume in the four-volume America's Climate Choices report published by the Academy in about 2010?

    • PrKing says:

      > "spare me heated discussions of a "consensus", the IPCC reports"

      Every national science academy of every major industrialised country on the planet confirms recent climate change is due to human activity as per the IPCC. No scientific body of national or international standing offers a dissenting opinion.

      13,950 peer reviewed climate papers published from 1991 to 2012. 24 reject global warming. That's 99.83% consensus.

      The IPCC reports are a synthesis of the science. Why do you reject them? Why do you think you might know better? Why have you not typed the most obvious search in to Google and learned about the science?

      But here's a starter: NASA: Climate Change - Key Indicators. http://climate.nasa.gov/keyIndicators/

      • Kathy Greene says:

        Frank Gue thinks he knows better and, thusly, rejects the science on climate change for, I suspect, nakedly political-ideological reasons. He does not want the US and other Western economies to have to sacrifice economic growth and the US lose its superpower status, to say nothing about people having to endure a massive diminution of their living standards, were intensive carbon emissions reduction measures to be implemented.
        You see, American conservatives and, possibly, Mr. Gue believe that two hidden motivations drive the call for carbon emissions reductions: 1.) The left's desire to give the developing world a major leg up over the developed world, especially the US, and, 2.) The left's utter hatred and contempt for America, which they see as the bullwark standing unshakably against progressivism and socialism, the World's self-righteous bully, and the socially-unjust beneficiary of capitalist exploitation and greed.
        Ideological, emotional, and religious a prioris have always interfered with the dissemination of scientific thought -- and the research needed to to prepare for it. Consider the matter of human evolution and age of the Earth. We still fight over these hot-button topics, and the Christian-conservative Creation Museum forcefully and uncompromisingly advocate scientifically heterodox views on these two subjects.
        I'm just concerned that unless we Americans figure out how to live with eachother without tearing eachother apart and battling about all matters governmental, we will go the way of other societies which collapsed due to their inability to live together in relative harmony.

    • Andrew Lohmann says:

      I'd like to step back just a second and address the nature of science in general.

      When we are capable of conducting experiments, then we don't really have to be concerned (as much) about "scientific consensus." We have experimental data to support our conclusions.

      However, there are vast swaths of scientific investigation that do not lend themselves to experimental testing. We cannot experiment on volcanic activity or climate change. Another example is our capacity to experiment on human behavior, which is quite restricted (and thankfully so).

      To search for truth under these circumstances, we rely on inferential statistics. We collect data and then infer the likelihood of whether anything we find was "real" or an artifact of chance. The point here is that no single study, no single aspect of research is by itself completely reliable. There is a margin or potential error. The real strength of the findings comes about through replication of the research using new data, and replication of the findings using different observational approaches.

      Here's the key: Any individual program of research will have weaknesses. But, when taken collectively -- the aggregate research, by multiple scientists looking at the same question from multiple angles -- those weaknesses are diminished, since other individual research projects won't have replicated those weaknesses.

      So, ultimately, to say we should ignore "consensus" is to say we should ignore the science. When a whole lot of research, all using different methods, point in the same direction (the results converge to the same conclusion), the proper response is to ask "what is the likelihood of all these results not being real, given the weight of the evidence."

      That said, there will never be a 100% level of confidence. What I would love is for skeptics to tell us what level of confidence they require before they accept the consensus. How I would love for just one reporter to ask Mr. Inhofe (or any other denialist) "Please, what level of evidence would you accept as substantial enough that human caused climate change is real?" Without this last question answered, then there is no role for science on the denialist side.

      • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

        Good comment.
        I am reminded of the great climate scientist Stephen Schneider's probably last interview before he died in July 10, which we did with him via skype. He talked about expert credibility and preponderance of evidence in assessing the climate change problem. Video and text here:

        http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2010/07/12/interview-with-stephen-schneider-on-climate-science-expert-credibility-study/

        He left us with this final thought:

        "Schneider: The main thing I want people to remember is that when we’re talking about expertise, we’re not talking about expertise in what to do about a problem. That is a social judgment and every person has the same right to their opinion as any person in climate. However, we are talking about the relative likelihood that there could be serious or even dangerous changes. Because before you even decide how you want to deploy resources as a hedge against a wide range of important social problems, you have to know how serious the problems are. All we’re trying to do in science is give the best estimate that honest people with a lot of evidence can, about the relative risks, so they can make wise decisions in their own lives and in who they elect about how we should deal with it.

        "If you have no idea about the risk, it’s very hard to rationally do risk management. And we feel that there many people deliberately muddying the risk waters because of a combination of ideology and special interest. We have every right to point out that they have weaker credentials in science than those who are convinced on the basis of the forty year record and longer that the scientific community has been successively examining, year after year after year. That is how we make decisions in medical, in health, or in business. We operate on the basis of preponderance of evidence. The same thing must be done for the planetary life support system. That’s why it’s so important to understand who’s credible."

      • Kathy Greene says:

        I'll add another comment: American conservatives will believe scientific findings ONLY when they coincide completely with core conservative ideological, religious (Christian), and political principles.
        Just watch Fox News. They'll tell ya!

    • Kathy Greene says:

      Your submission is interesting but not altogether persuasive.
      "Unemotional" and "uncommitted" is not quite how I would describe your personal sentiment about the subject at hand, especially in regards to your last paragraph.
      I am not a rabid carbon-hating enviromaniac, but I nonetheless do have some serious reservations about the American conservative stance against climate change theory and Mr. Lomborg's objectivity of thought. After reading Lomborg's works and listening to his interviews over several years (on Fox News), I am left to wonder if perhaps he may have some financial interest in defendinghis particular collection of views on climate change.
      Just a thought.
      And the same question holds true for the proponents of climate change, as well.

    • Marcel Kincaid says:

      "I am an extensively technically educated person "

      Clearly not, because the answer to these questions are known or easily knowable to such persons.

      "in a spirit of unemotional, uncommitted scientific objectivity"

      Clearly not, as you have recited a series of denier talking points that reflect a denier ideology. These are not the questions that a neutral person, starting from scratch, would come up with, they are all questions that are based on claims commonly made by deniers. The questions are clearly not asked sincerely with an aim of learning the truth, whatever it is, but rather are asked by someone confident that they know the answers, as a challenge and refutaion of the science of climate change.

      Complete and utter moral FAIL.

  3. Greg Holland says:

    I found the "comments" to Lomborg's article in the WSJ to be extremely discouraging. The degree of denial is terrifying. The vast majority of the commenters were critical not of Lomborg's dismissal of the urgency of climate action but rather that anyone, including Lomborg, would actually believe in any human-induced climate change. While there were a few reasoned voices, such as that of Leslie Keller, the overwhelming opinion from our business-oriented Americans seems to still be that it's all just a colossal hoax, a conspiracy of power-crazied collectivists. I wanted to respond but I couldn't since I'm not a subscriber.

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