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.

1 comment:

Mike M. said...

Fortunately, your religion is led by hysterics. You don't stand a chance of passing any meaningful legislation You may have a majority of scientists who believe Man is the cause but you certainly don't have a consensus of scientists who support all of your doomsday scenarios. Just look at how hotly debated the hurricane issue is. So go ahead. Get some California congressman to propose legislation to raise the tax on a gallon of gas by $2. How about one to ban Nascar? No? Ok let's see you really make an impact and tax meat right off the market. I REALLY want to see this happen, like fall 2008. C'mon you pussies, we're all going to die. Start really acting like it's a crisis instead of wallowing in your self-righteousness.