TCS Daily


A Conversation with Bjorn Lomborg

By Jason Miks - November 30, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's note: TCS Contributor Jason Miks recently interviewed Danish statistician and author Bjorn Lomborg.

TCS: It is five years this year since the English-language edition of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World was released. Looking back, are you surprised by the controversy it caused?

LOMBORG: I was probably surprised by the fact that it generated so much attention, and so much irritation, when I was saying that actually a lot of the things we are doing to the environment are making it better. I would have imagined that a lot of people would applaud that. Not to mention the fact that it's true. But we also had had the same discussion in Denmark, and many people were up in arms when we had the discussion then. And that way I kind of knew that you really have to realize that people also have very strong emotions in this area, and that for some reason we have come to believe that it is almost crucial to believe that things are going in the wrong direction, otherwise we don't feel comfortable.

TCS: Do you think the debate has matured since then?

LOMBORG: I think for a while it really was moving in the right direction and people were understanding the issues and the arguments better. But I think what is happening now is that we are increasingly seeing a tailspin into hysteria over the global warming discussion, where it is almost commonplace to say things are worse than we thought.

It's at the stage where people are saying its even worse than we thought yesterday, and that it is going to be catastrophic, and chaotic and disruptive - all these kinds of words. This has actually led to one of the lead modellers in the UK to come out and say it's bizarre that before we had the debate between the climate change skeptics and the scientists, and that now we have the debate between the scientists, who are now becoming the skeptics, and those who are saying it's all going to end in chaos, when it is going to do nothing of the sort - and this is not what the UN panel is telling us.

Perhaps this is most clear when you look at the movie from Al Gore. Everything he says is technically true. He says for instance that if Greenland melts, sea levels will rise about 20 feet. This is technically true. But of course the very evocative imagery of seeing Holland disappear under the waves - or New York, or Shanghai - leaves the impression that this is all going to happen very soon. Where in fact the UN climate panel says that the sea level rise over the next 100 years is going to be 30 cm - about 20 times less than he talks about. So there is a dramatic difference between what we're being told and what we're actually seeing. Which is also why I am writing a new book which comes out next fall on climate change, and I will address some of these issues.

TCS: To what extent do you feel global warming overshadowing the debate on other environmental challenges?

LOMBORG: It clearly does. Global warming is an important issue and one which we should address. But there is no sense of proportion either in environmental terms, or indeed in terms of the other issues facing the world.

If you just take the environmental problem first, it's very clear that what causes by far the majority of deaths is lack clean drinking water and lack of sanitation. Millions of people are dying each year from this. Also taking the new WHO estimates of what really kills people, these are the huge issues.

The second biggest problem is indoor air pollution, which probably kills somewhere between 1 and 3 million people each year, basically because people are too poor to use good fuels and end up using dung or cardboard or whatever they can find. Only a very distant third comes climate change, which the WHO puts at 150,000 to die right now.

This of course ignores those people that are no longer dying from cold-related deaths. For some inexcusable reasons, I would argue, they have the idea that they will only look at things that are going to be bad and don't have to look at will be good from climate change.

One of the top climate change economists has modelled - and several papers that came out a couple of weeks ago essentially point out - that climate change will probably mean fewer deaths, not more deaths. It is estimated that climate change by about 2050 will mean about 800,000 fewer deaths.

There is a total lack of a sense of proportion about where we are in terms of the environment but also on non-environmental issues, which is of course what I am looking at now with the Copenhagen Consensus, where we try to look at what are the big issues of the world, and where can we do a lot of good, and where can we do a little good. And the bottom line is there are many problems in the world where we can do much more at much lower cost. So presumably, if our goal is to help people, then there are many other things we should do first. If our goal is to help the environment, then there are also many other things we can do first.

TCS: Do you think that there are times when policy choices can actually do more harm than good? Are there any past examples of environmental policy that should give us pause?

LOMBORG: The use of DDT is probably the best example of this and its use in the third world was badly mismanaged. DDT is not dangerous to humans, but it is dangerous to some animals. So if you're in a rich country where you have malaria under control, clearly you should ban DDT or severely restrict its use.

But our concern about DDT in the early 70s basically meant that most of the developing world restricted their use as well. That was probably an immensely bad judgement because yes, it harms animals like birds, but it also saves human lives. These actions undoubtedly led to many millions of lives lost. So that is one example of where we need to be very careful about what we do.

But I think we are doing a little bit the same thing with climate change discussions right now. We have spent so much time over the last 10 years trying to do something about climate change. We have a treaty that will essentially do nothing whatsoever about climate change and it will still end up costing us quite a bit. And you've got to ask yourself, couldn't we have spent that amount of time and effort and consideration on addressing some of the issues in the world where we could have done an enormous amount of good?

So if we stand back, as Al Gore asks us to do, and look at it from the coming generation's point of view, they are going to ask 'what were they thinking?' They tried to do a tiny little bit about climate change at a fairly high cost, but have done very little good, whereas there are many other problems that they could have tackled that would have left a much better world behind.

TCS: Is there anything you wrote in "The Skeptical Environmentalist" that you now think was wide of the mark, or that you would change?

LOMBORG: I would so much rather be able to answer yes, there are some things that were wrong, because it somehow seems a little more reasonable. But not really, no. However, it is important to remember that when "The Skeptical Environmentalist" came out in English it was already the result of a Danish debate and a Danish book. So in a sense it had already gone through many rounds of discussion and debate by 2001.

TCS: Thank you for your time.

LOMBORG: Thank you.


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289 Comments

The Force be with you Bjorn, and your new book - - - - - -
We have to ask why such lame, tawdry movements as global warming, against all logic, are so popular among certain power grabbing types (mostly on the left). Global-warming has become global-boring, and few ordinary folks are paying any attention, because they have long since developed truth filters that protect them from crooked used car salesmen and political scam artists.

This is why we see a continuing flow of "new" articles in the coconspiring MSM with no new information, but hysterically insisting that the situation is even more dire than even they suspected, so we all must obey them. When this horse is beaten to death, there will come a newly invented drisis for the wolf criers. Recall Y2K, acid rain, swine flu and now bird flu. Stay tuned - - -

The Fear Formula
For government, fear is a goldmine of power: Scare the folks to the point they're willing to exchange their freedom with the government to endow it with the power needed to quell the source of their fear.

Two examples: The Patriot Act and global warming.

The fear motivating the Patriot Act is legitimate: terrorists really are trying to kill enough of us to terrorize, weaken and eventually enslave us. They've said so themselves. So we give up some of our civil liberties so government can better protect us from violent death at the hands of terrorists. I've got no problem with this so long as we get our civil liberties back once the terrorists are defeated. But knowing how government operates, there's a very good chance we won't, for the freedom we give and government takes away we never seem to get back because this would require government to voluntarily give up power.

Global warming is just the opposite: the threat is not real because its scale is unknown and its benefits are ignored. Yet those who would task government to combat global warming demand from the whole of mankind the surrender of his economic freedom to government in perpetuity. We all know where this leads - it's called the road to serfdom - and we know that it's a one-way street. And besides, when one reduces the arguments for endowing the government with the kind of power it demands, one realizes that what Fat Al and his choir of Chicken Littles are asking mankind to buy into is the notion that government can control the weather 50 years down the road.

It'll be interesting to see what fears governments and the MSM whip up after their GW gig fails. Just in this forum I've seen many, eg (1) global class war - rich against poor in WWIII, (2) demographic suicide, and (3) the Islamification of Europe.

The antidotes to fear are love and courage, which require one to value other things above one's own life, liberty and property, such as family, faith and duty-honor-country. Those who find such values incomprehensible because they are purely selfish - men such as Kerry and Rangle - often betray themselves by expressing pity for the selfless.

Time to get off the soapbox, now.

Lomborg has not realized: It's about religion
The "secular" left has turned Global Climatism into a religion. They've got Heaven (like the communists from whom they derive), Hell, a Savior, Saints, Heretics, etc.

It isn't a real relgion of course, just more of the stunted, delusional sickness that produced the charnel houses of the last century. So far it looks like they will do less damage than the communists and national socialists, but that's only because they lack REAL power so far.

The global Left is as banally evil as ever. This is simply their latest strategy. The really, really bad part is that they have damaged science itself so profoundly that it may never recover. The reaction to Lomborg's eminently sane book was over the top fury by men who claim to be scientists. They might as well be called imams instead.

I have one thing to say to Lomborg...
NAS!

Just kidding. It is nice to have his sane, calm, and reasoned voice weigh in on AGW. I will definitely put him on my reading list.

Lomberg's a statistician, not a climate scientist.
And even his conclusions are directly contradicted by the recent Sterne report to the British government. Lomberg's ideas about other useful actions on world problems are certainly interesting, but they also certainly don't preclude action on carbon & other emissions.

As for the stuff about carbon concerns being religious: the news about the potential problem comes directly from the work of thousands of scientists, whose results indicate that we are looking at potential problems. To characterize calls for action on these problems as 'religious hysteria' is preposterous. It means that the opposition has totally exhausted rational argument and has gone off the deep end.

I mean you have one set of people who say: science indicates we have a problem, let's do something. the other group says, we don't care what science say, the science must be wrong, because we know there isn't a problem. And side A are the irrational nutjobs???

Oh, please
This is ridiculous.

You have one set of people who say: science indicates we have a problem, let's do something. the other group says, we don't care what science say, the science must be wrong, because we know there isn't a problem. And side A are the delusional irrational nutjobs??? C'mon.

Benefits of GW
Can anyone steer me to the studies Lomborg cites that describe decreased mortality attributable to GW?

Your the only one who believes that there is any truth in the Stern report.
It's been shredded so many ways it's starting to look like your mattress.

when you believe in something that the science has shown doesn't exist, then you're into religion
Science has not shown that AGW is going to kill us.
Science has shown that AGW is so small that we will barely be able to measure it.

Greens don't want to do something
However Lemuel whenever someone on the sceptical side suggests that we can do something like stratospheric dust or ocean CO2 absorbtion or even turning over to nuclear power the true believers (with the exception of James Lovelock) all turn round & scream heresy. They are scared stiff somebody will take their catastrophe way.

Use the phrase "pro-active solution" at any "environmentalist" do & you'll get lynched.

Go ahead, prove your God does exist
Oops, my bad! Your God is algore, the king of the world's AGW alarmists. I guess your God is real, he is just a con man and a liar. Really, I'm surprised you weren't at Waco, David the prophet seems like your kind of savior.

And cigarettes are harmless
lots of smokers don't die from them.

This isn't a religious issue
It's a scientific one. And Gore is the crank who's denying science: that's you guys.

British government doesn't seem to think so
Or the academy either. What do they know??

Who are you talking about?
Has, for example, Gore said anything like this?

Well, Greenpeace & Gore for starters
Since you asked Lemuel this is Greenpeace's attitude towards CO2 free nuclear power:

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/nuclear

& Al Gore isn't much less opposed "Gore dismissed nuclear power, saying he doubted it would "play a much larger role than it does now" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/raymond-j-learsy/the-inconvenient-truth-ab_b_24103.html

They both know a world that got its power from nuclear would burn little CO2 but they are scared somebody will take their catastrophe away.

Why not exaggerate some more?
Do you really think the only reason anyone might have questions about nuclear power is fear that "somebody will take their catastrophe away."

C02 issuse is having people take a second look at nuclear power. But the issues that were there before about waste and security remain, and are hardly trivial.

Not relevant
to the debate over climate change. Please stick to the topic.

correction
This is not a relgious question, it's a scientific one. And Gore ISN'T the crank who's denying science: that's you guys.

As are all AGW alarmists
Considering that AGW theory rests entirely on computer models that makes them statisticians as well.

Not one single weather event attributed to climate change has been has been proven to be caused man-made emissions of carbon dioxide.

And if you would care to look at the history of climate alarmism provided by me and many others here, you would see that a great many scientists can indeed be very wrong. Once again you stupidly link consensus to good science.

By the way...
go to realclimate.org and tell me the ratio of climate scientists to computer model experts.

No, cigarettes are harmFUL...
it's the second hand smoke that isn't.

Both security and waste issues
have answers. I am prepared to agree that there can be legitimate concerns about waste and security if you are prepared to agree that some, not all, greens are opposed to nuclear power on essentially theological grounds unrelated to the specifics of these two issues and hence will oppose any solutions proposed to these matters.

Read his first book
Some of the data should be updated (it is 5+ years old after all) but the basic structure of his argument is there.

Actually dummy...
one side says: "our models show a possible effect from human carbon emissions but we have no physical proof and we won't allow skeptics to review our base data".

The other groups says: "there is much debate on your theory so we will do something when you actually have something to base policy on".

We have seen the alarm raised before: the end of oil, the population bomb, global warming, then cooling, then warming, then cooling, etc.

You're out of touch with the debate
The "groups" you refer to are groups of scientists within the climate science community who look at the same data and draw different conclusions. Yes, there are skeptics with their heads in the sand, but there are 15,000+ legitimately skeptical scientists who oppose the politicizing of the issues based on science which is hardly settled.

Correct your correction...
Which is worse: denying science (or as others call it: consensus) or extrapolating complete, global destruction from a slight shift in climate?

the topic is belief in science
And the scientific debate about whether humans are changing the climate is at the same stage as the scientific debate about whether cigarettes are hamful to health.

And you'll believe anything, as long as someone on the radio tells you it isn't PC
All those "experts," they don't know anything.

this is an utterly false dichotamy
Do you really think that we have to be certain we are facing "total global destruction" before doing anything? And how are you so sure we are only facing a "slight shift" in climate?

The state of science
with respect to cigarettes has nothing to do with the state of science of global warming. The first is established, the second is not.

"Dummy" = I know I don't have a case, so I'm going to namecall
You should take your characterization of what science says to the National Academy or the AGU and ask them what they think of it. They will tell you it is utterly wrong.

>The other groups says: "there is much debate on your theory "

The problem is, in scientific (as opposed to political) circles, this statement is untrue: the debate has been resolved.

>We have seen the alarm raised before: the end of oil, the population bomb, global warming, then cooling, then warming, then cooling, etc.

You are repeating bogus energy front group talking points.

Who cares?
You don't need to be an expert of any kind to understand that the assumptions made by the Stern report are complete nonsense. The discount rate in the report was ridiculous and the focus on the A2 scenarios to the exclusion of anything else was absurd. Given that the Tyndall Centre provided much if not all of the research, Stern loses any credibility to constitute expert advice.

I think you're referring to the completely discredited Oregon Petition
The National Academy of the US (and parallel organizations in other countries have reached consensus on this. The science is not completely settled, but now the question is not whether but how much.

Again: tell the Brits this
An official report by a government agency but you know it's all a crock. But Lomborg is dead on. OK, sure.

The science shows that cigarettes are dangerous, just as the science shows that CO2 isn't.
try again light weight

No Subject
"You are repeating bogus energy front group talking points."

And you are repeating bogus environmental lobbying group talking points. Of course, Tlaloc has actual history on his side regarding the pendulum of fear swinging from cooling to warming and back again over the past century or more.

"The problem is, in scientific (as opposed to political) circles, this statement is untrue: the debate has been resolved."

And you have this exactly reversed. Healthy debate still goes on over just what the data say. It is politicians and GCM modellers who believe that consensus = truth.

The science shows that CO2 is not dangerous
There are models that show otherwise, but:

1) Models aren't science.
2) The models don't get anything right when they are used to predict current and past climates, so why should we believe them when they are used to predict future climates.

What experts?
All of the studies have shown that second hand smoke isn't harmfull.

The Greens don't have any representatives in Congress
Sure, you have some environmental extremists who are against almost anything. This is a tiny fraction of the community concerned about climate change, and to brand eveyone in this community as a eco-religious loon is grossly dishonest.

eric finally says something correct, and it's probably by accident.
"And Gore is the crank who's denying science"

Who wants to bet that before the day is out, eric will deny having written the above?

There is no science behind the claim that increased CO2 is harmfull.

And your credentials on this are what??
On one side you have the National academy. On the other you have a guy who doesn't know what carbon dioxide is. the National academy says the science works. Tlaloc is sure it's wrong. Hard choice.

And for this we have your say-so
Many, many scientists disagree. But you know better, do you?

There's no science for us to deny, just a handfull of broken models.
...

accurate dichotomy
Given the huge tax increases and societal controls demanded by the Kyoto crowd, you had better be very sure that global destruction is the alternative to doing nothing.

As to the slight shift in the climate, we are sure of it, because that's what the science is indicating.

And "why"
"The science is not completely settled, but now the question is not whether but how much."

Yes, the global temperature is rising. That's pretty much a fact that no one with a brain can dispute. And yes, the question of how much it has risen and will rise in the future is an important one to answer.

HOWEVER, the *REASON* for the increasing temperatures is still hotly debated among legitimate climate scientists, as are the specific interactions of the immensely complex feedback systems present in our climate.

Your favorite experts: the Easter Bunny and Puff the Magic Dragon
That's where you get all your ideas. In this field, many real studies show quite different conclusions, studies that have convinced authorities that the threat is real. But deny away.

I'm glad you agree
that many scientists disagree over global warming. I can't think of any who disagree over the effects of smoking.

Noise
Except you don't have sources. Never. Ever.

eric the asshat complains about namecalling. Now that's funny.
As to the debate being resolved, tell that to the 100's of thousands of scientists who still disagree with the notion that CO2 increases have been proven to be harmfull.

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