Don’t worry. Be happy.

I was ill earlier this week and spent my time on the couch watching youtube. Of course, being the wonk that I am, I spent my youtube time not watching funny cats or silly dancing girls and men, but watching videos about global warming.

I watched Bjorn Lomborg’s five part series, “The Facts About the Environment” since he claims if you watch his presentation, you don’t have to buy the book, “The Real State of the World”. Always interested in saving trees and money, I took him up on it.

His lecture in a nutshell?

Don’t worry. Be happy.

Yes, that’s right, folks. As far as I can tell, his message is this:

We can’t make proper decisions if we think we have a gun at our heads. Alarmism on the part of environmentalists and climate scientists prevents a rational discussion. We can’t properly prioritize our goals and objectives if we feel under threat.

Luckily, there is no gun.

 

 

There is such a thing as global warming, and it is important, but not as important as people have led you to believe.

His main points flow from one to the other:

  • There is no gun to our heads. The sense people have that things are getting worse is a myth. Things are getting better and better.

No, really.

  • The whole “limits to growth” argument is wrong. It’s a myth created by the interest groups including climate scientists and environmentalists and the media, who want you to be afraid so you will focus on their issues as opposed to others and buy magazines and newspapers. We have more food, more resources, and our resources are cheaper and easier to get due to technological developments. We’ve always used technology to find more resources and cheaper resources and will in the future. He quotes Sheikh Yamani, who said “The oil age will come to an end, but not for a lack of oil. Just as the stone age came to an end but not for a lack of stone.”
  • Ergo, the problem of global warming will take care of itself because we will stop using fossil fuels sometime in the mid-21st century when we transition to renewables. We will do so because by then, renewables will make good economic sense. Speaking of economic sense, Kyoto wouldn’t have worked anyway and would have cost trillions of dollars that could be better spent. Even if it had been implemented globally and perfectly, it would have only reduced temp when compared to BAU from 2.1 degrees to 1.9 degrees by 2100.

 

  • Yes, we are committed to some warming regardless of what we do, but it will hurt the poorest in developing nations the most.  Ergo, we have to ensure that our policies do the most to help them. Now that we don’t have to worry about Kyoto-like solutions, since they won’t work anyway and we happily realize we won’t run out of resources and will be transitioning to renewables by 2050 or so, thus solving the problem of global warming, we can focus instead on using those trillions of dollars to save human lives. What we should be asking is how efficiently do we save human lives?
  • According to a cost benefit analysis, to save one human life requires the following investment:
  1. health = $19,000,
  2. residential = $36,000,
  3. transportation  = $56,000,
  4. employment = $350,000,
  5. environment = $4,200,000.
  • Lomorg: “Spot the bad investment.”

In other words, now that we know there is no gun and it certainly is not loaded, we can prioritize our goals. If our goal is to save lives, it makes sense to spend more of our dollars on those investments that bring the most return — economic rather than environmental policies.

I don’t know about you, but I have some discomfort with his presentation. Oh, I’m sure his audience liked it — it was delivered, after all, at the Sir Ronald Trotter Lecture. Sir Ronald, for those not in the know, was a pre-eminent businessman in New Zealand, knighted for his service to business.

It seems to me that all of his analysis rests on this assumption that – there is no loaded gun.

My question is this: is there?

Before I accept the argument that there is no loaded gun at my head, I want to see some concrete evidence. Lomborg provided none.

If there is a loaded gun, I would think it’s important to know that fact because that fact is the overarching fact you need to take into account. Loaded guns are dangerous things because they kill a lot of people and if you have one pointed at your head, it might go off. If there is a loaded gun at your head and you pretend it isn’t there, thinking that the pressure against your temple is likely just your anxiety, or a toy, you might get shot. The main priority would be to know if it is a gun and then to ensure it does not go off. To prevent its discharge. To disarm the bandit.

Climate scientists say there is a loaded gun. The IPCC, which Lomborg admits is the institution best able to present the information on climate change, says there is a gun and that it is loaded, but the IPCC doesn’t tell us whether it makes sense to hand over our wallet or resist.

Despite his statistics on starving people (which is not proof of the existence of a climate change gun anyway) and his faith in the future being even better than today, and his assumption that we will find a technological solution to the problem because we have done so before, Lomborg provides no evidence to confirm or deny the existence of a loaded gun. He merely asserted that there isn’t one. He is asking us to act on faith – faith in human progress and technology.

Things are better than ever and will continue to get better than they are currently.

We will prevail as we have in the past.

In effect, he is saying that we must have faith.

Sorry — but faith isn’t going to cut it for me.

Yes, he is right — we have made strides in addressing absolute poverty. However, even though there is a smaller proportion starving, the sheer number of people who live on the edge of starvation and could be adversely affected by climate or any other crisis such as crop failure or market failure, is much greater today than three decades ago.

Just because things improved in the past doesn’t mean they will continue to improve. There is no evidence that things can’t get worse.

Yes, he is right — if renewables become as cost-effective as fossil fuels, it makes sense that we might shift to them but there is no certainty that we will do so. Shifting from one source of energy to a different source is complex and fraught with difficulties and costs. There is a lot of money invested in fossil fuel extraction, processing, transportation and sale and a lot of money to be made from it. Will fossil fuel companies just give up?

There is no certainty as to when this will happen either. I agree that we should invest heavily in R&D in renewables as part of our response to climate change. But I don’t think it is wise to rely on the hope that it will happen because similar transitions have happened in the past. There could be events in the intervening decades that prevent this or delay it. We can’t just rely on faith and hope that what held in the past (progress, technological breakthroughs) will hold true in the future.

Lomborg argues that any warming we see will likely be at the lower end of the model predictions. He provides no evidence as to why we should accept this is the case. Given the uncertainty in the models, it may in fact be the case that we see warming at the higher end of the model predictions.

What Lomborg has done is muddy the main issue with irrelevancies, such as resource levels and starvation levels and pollution levels and has obscured the main issue — is there a gun at our heads and is it loaded? Instead, he focuses instead on issues that do not directly bear on the question of whether we should enact policies to address global warming. He discredits environmentalism (the environment is getting better like everything else, and besides, the environmentalists are an interest group hoping to make you fear so you will focus on their issue!), discredits conservationism (we won’t face limits on growth – even when we use up resources, we leave our children with more and better access to cheaper resources!) and  discredits the precautionary principle (it’s not a threat so we don’t need to act because it will take care of itself due to progress — look at the global cooling scare!).

His conclusion is that since there is no loaded gun pointing at our heads, environmental policies are just not worth the effort and cost, if one looks at costs and benefits. Economic policies offer the best bang for the buck because they save more lives for less money.

Every day in every way, things are getting better and better.

Don’t worry. Be happy.

[edited for grammar]

About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

14 Responses to “Don’t worry. Be happy.”

  1. Thanks for sitting thru it, for us. Having read The Skeptical Environmentalist, I now prefer second hand encounters.

    It isn’t necessary to consume all of a bad apple. Kare Fog’s Lomborg-errors website is available.

    http://www.lomborg-errors.dk/

    • I’d never actually read or heard anything from Lomborg so this was my first time. I don’t need to bother reading or hearing anything else. Oh, and thanks for the link to the lomborg errors website — it’s great!

  2. It seems that Lomborg’s point of view actually hasn’t evolved much since his book Cool It. It’s all just marketing shtick. So, thanks, TPL, for sparing me the trouble of buying his new book or watching the Youtube videos. And, I hope you’re feeling better.

    There’s a review of his movie, also titled Cool It in Salon.

    http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/our_picks/index.html?story=/ent/movies/andrew_ohehir/2010/11/12/cool_it

    The review contains the quote: Lomborg isn’t a climate-change denier and never was, but you might say that he plays one on TV, allowing all sorts of nutso right-wingers, creationists, free-marketeers and oil companies to wrap themselves in his quasi-scientific mantle. (Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a leading denier who has a decent claim on being the craziest person ever elected to national office in the United States, is a big fan.)

    I have always been a little puzzled as to why exactly Lomborg is such a big hit among the denialati. After all, has he not said that the IPCC reports are “the gold standard in climate change science” and “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront”? Also his remedies comprise additional taxation and massive government-knows-best research funding. So how does he win the approval of those who believe the science is a massive hoax and that small government, lower taxes and invisible hands will be able to solve everything?

    Two answers spring to mind: a) The everything’s-for-the-best-in-this best-of all-possible-worlds meme, as elaborated above by The Policy Lass or; b) Lomborg really pisses off the alarmist establishment, so what’s not to like, even if he does validate hoaxes and believes in government-led solutions.

    I think the embrace of Lomborg by “skeptics” is clear evidence that their position is not an alternative, coherent worldview, rooted in rigorous and objective scientific criticism. Rather, it is a heart-felt need to see the worrying AGW diagnosis–and the consequent need for painful treatment–dispatched by any means possible. Denial, in other words.

    • I agree that both points are probably involved in the skeptics’ favoring Lomborg. He admits there is global warming, but downplays its significance. He also validates their views on growth as being unlimited. That is a necessary mantra.

  3. Lomborg is an excellent marketeer and far better at misdirection than most.
    See this.

  4. The Policy Lass wrote:
    Given the uncertainty in the models, it may in fact be the case that we see warming at the higher end of the model predictions.

    I’m a climate science sceptic. I am sceptical that the higher end predictions are necessarily as bad as things can get. We are conducting a planetary wide experiment, that has never been done before, on a system that we don’t fully understand. Problem is, we’re in the test tube and there’s nowhere else we can go to escape the consequences…

    Arguing as Lomborg does (but on the other side of the coin), I see no absolute reason why things could not be worse than the top end forecasts. If Lomborg is convinced that the changes will be less than forecast, then he is making a value judgement based upon his assessment of the risks. He cannot complain if others consider that there may be “unknown unknowns” in addition to the “known unknowns” and the common or garden uncertainties, that have already been delineated by the existing science about the physics of the atmosphere/ocean systems.

    It comes down to this. No credible sources of climate knowledge (and also Lomborg) dispute that CO2 is increasing; that we’re largely to blame; that the planet is warming because of this and will continue to warm. The only real dispute is about how much, how quick, will it be bad for us, OK for us or good for us.

    From paleo history we know that climate has changed, often very fast and far with natural forcings which appear to have been less than the AGW CO2 forcing we are applying right now. Clearly climate was vulnerable to big swings when pushed a little bit in the past.

    Lomborg is betting that magically, the climate is no longer prone to big shifts and that the big forcing we are applying won’t do as much as the natural small/moderate forcings did in the past (which occasionally eliminated huge numbers of species etc).

    Lomborg is the punk, faced by Dirty Harry with the Magnum. Neither knew for sure if there was a bullet left in the gun. The punk felt lucky… and died.

    If Lomborg was the only one who would suffer he has a perfect right to his “feeling lucky” stance – as do all the denialists and ideologues out there.

    One teeny tiny problem. The consequences of such as Lomborg, and the rest of the pathological sceptic crew, getting their way just might vary from uncomfortable to catastrophic for the rest of us. They have their “rights”. I say they must recognise that their duties to everybody else, our future descendants and the wider life we share the planet with, should overwhelm their rights.

    If there are “unknown unknown” positive feedbacks in the physics, that the cock-sure IPCC scientists have missed, life, and planetary conditions as we know them, could be devastated for centuries, possibly thousands of years.

    Do we feel lucky, punks?

    • You’re right — it could be worse than the worst model predictions. It appears that on many counts, but not all, we are at or above worst-case scenarios.

    • I don’t feel lucky. Nick this is an excellent perspective. Richard Alley made the same point at the latest science hearings in DC this week…that the real “other side” of the debate never gets talked about namely that the unaccounted for feedbacks (biological and physical) could result in something worse than the worst case projections.

  5. Thanks to John Mashey for that link. I spent the best part of an afternoon following the links in that article.

    In doing so, I stumbled across this link to a generally positive review of Lomborg’s previous book (Cool It) by the eminent climatologist William Ruddiman (I love his textbook, BTW), who seems to have been misdirected by Lomborg’s expertise.

    http://www.atmos.washington.edu/2008Q2/111/Readings/Ruddiman2008_Lomborg_review.pdf

    It’s perhaps worth comparing Lomborg’s supposedly radical proposal of a $7 per tonne carbon tax with the $20 per tonne of CO2 that we in BC are currently paying. Life goes on here and the carbon tax isn’t even much of a political issue any more. One of Lomborg’s tricks is to to portray carbon taxes as costs, whereas they are really just a reallocation of resources. In BC, for example, the carbon tax is revenue neutral by design, which means that we get the money back through lower income taxes.

  6. Any S:
    Actually, quite a few people were misdirected, including some very smart friends of mine, including one who is on the board of EDF (Environmental Defense Fund). The post I did at TB evolved from discussion I had with various sets of people trying to articulate the ways in which Lomborg managed to appeal to quite reasonable people outside the conservative thinktank turf. The cleverness is the appeal to different groups for different reasons.

    I think Bill R was fooled in a similar fashion, I emailed him about it, and over the last few years, he has not only continued with some terrific research (to appear soon in The Holocene), but has become much more informed on anti-science tactics and has been much more active in fighting them. Recall he spent many years at U VA before “retiring,” and is still well-connected there, so is all too well aware of Cuchinelli’s antics.

  7. Ruddiman was not gullible:

    > At times, he [Lomborg] does undercut his credibility by recycling disingenuous arguments from global warming skeptics.

    Here is Ruddiman’s wording of Lomborg’s pet argument:

    > Lomborg asks whether it makes more sense committing a relatively large amount of money to try to reduce future global warming by suppressing carbon emissions or spending a smaller amount to deal with many of the problems that currently afflict humans and the environment.

    In my opinion, this argument sells well because it combines three ingredients. First, it reminds something that is plausible: we must tackle other societal challenges, which are important and less expensive. Second, it provides a dilemma: either we tackle these challenges or suppress carbon emissions. Third, this dilemma implies that if you are for suppressing carbon emissions, you are against tackling other societal challenges.

    There is an obvious problem with this argument. If these important societal challenges are inexpensive, tackling them should not prevent us from suppressing carbon emissions. When trying to put forth a dilemma, one usually tries to argue that doing both prongs is impossible. Lomborg can’t do that, since he wants to convey the idea that not trying to solve important societal problems first would be inhumane, as they cost next to nothing compared to cutting carbon emission.

    The simplest way to deal with Lomborg-like arguments is to agree with the most plausible premises and rebut the dilemma. We could also put Lomborg’s societal matters into perspective: no environmental challenge matters if there is no environment left.

    This is more direct than trying to network-analyze him. Network analysis should always be complementary to a direct counter-argument. Without a direct counter-argument, network analysis amounts to guilt by association.

  8. Inspired by Shewonk’s sacrifice I’ve started watching it as well. IMHO the loaded gun analogy is completely inappropriate. A cancer diagnosis analogy would be much more applicable.

  9. the Sheik quote is LOL. Still stones, even after the Stone Age is gone!
    I can’t imagine listening to Bonk Lomborg for hours when I was sick. That’s sick!

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