Skeptic Watch: Science Over Spin
The Select Committee staff has prepared this section of the website to help sort out the “fact from fiction” in accounts raised by various skeptics concerning the urgency of combating the climate crisis.
October 7, 2007
REBUTTAL to Bjorn Lomborg, “Chill out” Outlook piece from the Washington Post
In the October 7, 2007, the Washington Post printed an article by Bjorn Lomborg, author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and “Cool It” regarding the cost of mitigating the climate crisis compared to the cost of adapting to it. The fundamental flaw in Mr. Lomborg’s argument is that he would emphasize treatment of global warming’s symptoms (rising temperatures leading to, for example, an increase in malaria, rising sea levels, death of coral reefs and the polar bear) instead of the disease – heat-trapping carbon pollution. He favors this approach, he says, because he views it as cheaper in the short run. However, the costs of NOT reducing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are potentially catastrophic for the most vulnerable regions of the world. The most thorough economic analysis to date (The Stern Review) found that left unchecked global warming could cause the reduction of 5-20% of the world’s economic growth. In contrast, capping emissions would cost just 1% of that growth. At least a five to one return on investment seems like a good investment.
By the same token, we should not attempt to substitute the imposition of carbon caps for the implementation of an effective malaria-fighting strategy – we should do both. We can assist low-lying countries to adapt to the modest global warming we can no longer avoid while eliminating the threat to their very existence from the catastrophic consequences of global warming that we can still prevent.
In short, Mr. Lomborg sets up a false choice and then makes the wrong choice. He would have the countries least responsible for sea level rise bear the brunt of global warming’s impact on the theory that a supposedly richer world would be better able to come to their rescue when the climate reached intolerable levels. But allowing the calamitous impacts of global warming to be visited on the world’s most vulnerable nations in an effort by the developed world to put off or avoid its responsibility for causing, and stopping, global warming is unacceptable. It is penny-wise, pound foolish, and a prescription for widespread suffering in areas of the world least responsible for the problem and least able to avoid it.
In addition to this fundamental flaw in Lomborg’s strategy, his article is plagued with errors that are addressed individually below:
Lomborg: Temperatures in Greenland higher in 1941
- As a statistician, Lomborg should know better than to choose a single year from a single region of Greenland to argue against a global warming trend. According to Greenland expert Dr. Konrad Steffen, Greenland as a whole has been at least two degrees Celsius (3.6F) warmer in the last decade compared to the 1915-1965 time period. The study Lomborg pulls the 1941 date from does not calculate a decadal temperature average after 2000, missing more recent years that have registered record-breaking melting.
- The 1930s and early years of the 1940s were certainly warm in the Northern Hemisphere, but as we know by examining both natural and human influences on global climate, either one could explain the observed warming trend in the early part of the twentieth century, but in the last 30-40 years, human activities dominate as the most likely cause of observed warming, whereas natural influences do not.
Lomborg: Melt rate around Ilulissat faster in early part of last century according to a new study
- According to Dr. Konrad Steffen, the Greenland ice sheet has been shedding ice at the rate of 25 cubic miles per year. This ice loss is a recent phenomenon, and recent data shows that the melting has doubled to 50 cubic miles in 2006. This is equal to the entire ice mass in the European Alps! While this is a rather small fraction compared to the whole ice mass stored on Greenland, with the current acceleration this small part will soon become a major contributor to sea level rise.
- The disintegration of the Jakobshavn glacier at Ilulissat in western Greenland has doubled in the past eight years, from 5 to nearly 9 miles per year.
Lomborg: Kangerlussuaq glacier is growing
- After rapid retreat in 2004 and 2005, the Kangerlussuaq glacier appears to show some thickening in areas of the main truck, according to an article published in Science in March 2007.
- The same article, which mainly focused on understanding how rapidly glacier discharge can change, concluded with the following statement: “Rather than yielding a well-defined trend, our results are notable in that they show that Greenland mass balance can fluctuate rapidly. If these changes are the result of recent warm summers, continued warming may cause a long-term drawdown of the ice sheet through a series of such discharge anomalies, perhaps with a similar degree of variability.”
Lomborg: Drastic cuts in carbon emissions will cost the world trillions; Kyoto Protocol alone would cost $180 billion annually
- The Stern Review that left unchecked global warming could cause the reduction of 5-20% of gdp, but that with investment of 1% gdp the worst impacts of global warming could be avoided. At least a five to one return on investment seems like a good investment.
- Lomborg’s $180 billion figure is ~ 0.5% global GDP, but this level of cost is unsupported by any evidence of the implementation cost being experienced by the countries participating in the Kyoto Protocol. In fact just a few pages after Lomborg’s piece in the October 7, 2007 Outlook section of the Washington Post is one examining the robust EU economy that is now a magnate for investment at the same time they are cutting their global warming pollution and increasing the use of renewable energy.
- The EU has discovered the potential of the clean technology market and is moving to ensure it accrues a hefty share of what the Stern Review estimates could be a half-trillion dollar market in low-energy products by 2050.
Lomborg: IPCC has factored in Greenland (increase sea level by an inch) and Antarctica (decrease level by 2 inches because of snow accumulation) melting; one foot sea level rise not that bad;
- The IPCC has factored in some of the melting from Greenland but not all the potential melting that could occur. Their summary for policymakers clearly states that “models [of sea level rise] used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor do they include the full effect of changes in ice sheet flow.” The IPCC goes out of its way to make clear that its projections exclude “future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow”–changes we are already seeing in both Greenland and Antarctica. The IPCC explicitly says “larger values cannot be excluded.” Lomborg may feel confident that sea level will rise only a foot over the next century, but many climate scientists are not and neither should we.
- As for Antarctica’s mass balance, recent observations show it is losing mass, not gaining mass. The first-ever gravity survey of the entire Antarctic ice sheet by NASA using a satellite launched in 2002 found “Antarctica’s ice sheet decreased by 152 (plus or minus 80) cubic kilometers of ice annually between April 2002 and August 2005.” That’s as much water as the U.S. consumes in three months.
Lomborg: 2050 400000 more heat related deaths, 1.8 million fewer people will die from cold, according to “first complete peer-reviewed survey of climate change’s health effects;” easier to take adaptation measures
- There is a long history of academic analysis of the impact of global warming on health. In the latest IPCC assessment, this body of work, including work cited by Lomborg in Cool It, was taken into account and the IPCC found that “Studies in temperate areas have shown that 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 effects of rising temperatures worldwide, especially in developing countries.”
- It is not an either/or proposition. We must invest in policies that tackle disease and global warming. As the UN has found, climate change presents significant threats to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals especially those related to eliminating poverty, hunger, and disease and promoting environmental sustainability. Addressing the symptoms of global warming should not be viewed as a substitute for attacking its cause.
Lomborg: Polar bears
- The U.S. Geological Survey recently estimated that 2/3 of the world’s current polar bear population, and ALL of Alaska’s polar bear population, will be gone by 2050 in a best-case scenario for the loss of Arctic sea ice.
Lomborg: Emission cuts failed from UNFCC and Kyoto
- The UNFCCC set a voluntary global goal and relied on individual countries to adopt policies to meet it. When the voluntary approach failed, this prompted the negotiations of mandatory emission cuts that led to the Kyoto Protocol.
- EU emissions are dropping while the economy grows strongly. Some EU countries have already met their targets and taken as a whole the EU should be able to meet their Kyoto targets by 2012. The EU has further committed to reducing their global warming pollution by 20 percent in 2020.
- Clean Development Mechanism: These projects reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries by an estimated 162 million tons CO2 equivalent per year. All 2,100 projects in the pipeline (most of which have yet to register with the UN) would produce over 2.2 billion tons CO2 equivalent reductions by the end of 2012. For comparison, the current emissions of the EU-15 are about 4.2 billion tons CO2 equivalent per year.
Lomborg: “according to a wealth of scientific literature,” damage from a ton of carbon is $2
Rather than a wealth of scientific literature this $2 figure appears to come from Lomborg pressing one economist as related on page 31 of his book Cool It. In reality the academic literature shows a wide range of estimated costs of the damage from a ton of carbon ($16 - $62 per ton), with the cost increasing over time and as heat-trapping gases accumulate in the atmosphere.
Lomborg: R&D will save the day
R&D into low carbon technology is important but without a price on carbon the market has no incentive to adopt it and emissions will not decline.
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