Friday, November 30, 2007

Bjorn Lomborg burns a few "witches"

In the Vancouver Sun, Lomborg maligns those who are concerned about global warming, telling us the debate is filled with a A tsunami of nonsense.

Economized version of his article: Lomborg is not too concerned about global warming. He doesn’t believe rising temperatures and sea levels will be a significant problem; they may even bring more good than harm. He thinks a little research and development will solve all our problems, though he’s not too specific about this. For everything else: business as usual. He would like us to focus our resources on eradicating disease, corruption, and starvation.

Here’s a more detailed dissection of his essay, broken down into topics:

  1. Hyperbole: Lomborg tell us there is too much hyperbole surrounding global warming. How does he tell us? With hyperbole. For example, he tells us that those who are concerned about the more extreme possibilities of global warming are like inquisitional witch burners. While doing this, he ignores the hyperbole and animosity that exists on the other side of the argument, e.g. Senator Inhoffe comparing “An Incovenient Truth” to “Mein Kampf” and comparing those concerned with global warming to Nazis. In addition, Lomborg doesn’t consider the power (of the purse) and momentum/complacency that exists on the cynics (do nothing) side of the debate.
  2. Scare tactics and nonsense: Lomborg tells us that global warming activists, as well as the media, aim to frighten the public with never-ending reports on the potential negative effects of global warming. He has a point. But surely he understands that the press--devoted to assorted and sordid horrors real and imagined, true atrocity and false tragedy, O.J. Simpson or Paris Hilton—is going to fill the pipeline with global warming trivia. A more earnest discussion is required. Is Lomborg willing to participate in it? Or even lead it? Rather than wasting his time--and ours--singling out and maligning as inquisitionists those who believe global warming may be a significant problem?
  3. Cost-benefit analysis: Lomborg argues that we should perform a cost-benefit analysis, e.g. telling us several times how many people might die from heat. But he never tells us how many will be saved from decreased cold. I’ve read that far more will die from more severe summers than will be saved from less severe winters. What does he think? And what of drought? Or affects on crops? If he’s going to argue for cost benefit analysis, perhaps he should be forthcoming, honest, and more specific in his writings. He doesn’t seem to be.
  4. Tsunamic metaphor: Lomborg builds his entire idea for this article on the idea of a tsunami. It’s catchy, providing a riff through which he threads his argument. But the tsunami was a real tragedy. And his argument can be interpreted as saying the following: we should ignore that tsunami because there are other people dying in the world. This is analogous to arguing that we should ignore plane crashes because there are far more automobile accidents in the world. True, we do need to consider the tradeoffs, but some tradeoffs exist on paper rather than in fact. And often tsunamis are important.
  5. Global warming not the only problem: Lomborg points out that the world has other problems: disease, starvation, and corruption. Why doesn’t he mention crime and militarism? Why does he not mention all the enormous amounts of money spent each year on the military? If we’re going to perform cost benefit analysis, shouldn’t we look at everything?
  6. R&D is the solution: Lomborg largely argues for increased R&D, not for directly cutting carbon production. R&D is great. No argument here. But there are two issues to consider: (a) If global warming is a serious problem, like the smoker--shouldn’t we stop smoking? Shouldn’t the doctor tell the man who is smoking that he needs to stop, and not just that “it’s ok, we’ll spend more on cancer research.” Sometimes it makes sense to stop smoking. Do we have time to wait for that next generation low-tar, low-nicotine cigarette? (b) Lomborg ignores the issue of when future R&D might reduce carbon production. He doesn’t consider at all whether we might have to start capping at some point, with or without the fruits of R&D.
  7. How bad can it be?: Lomborg mentions a hypothetical sea level rise and temperature increase caused by global warming. He says both are manageable. Yet he provides absolutely no costs associated with them. His only argument: sea levels have risen before. Nor does he provide any ranges to help his readers understand how high temperatures and seas may rise.
  8. What is the limit for CO2 production?: Lomborg never states whether we can have too much CO2 in the atmosphere. Does he believe there is any limit at all? If we can’t R&D our way to that limit, is he willing to support carbon taxes? Or caps? And is he willing to tax or cap at a level that will limit the CO2 levels in the atmosphere?

So where are we in this debate? In particular, what is Bjorn Lomborg’s position? Here are some questions we should ask ourselves in order to better understand:

  1. Is the globe warming?: Lomborg seems to be saying yes.
  2. Are humans a source of this warming?: Lomborg seems unsure. He seems to say yes, but not always. He seems to leave it open to doubt in the way he discusses the topic.
  3. What will be the cost and/or benefit of this warming on the planetary ecosystem and human society? Lomborg says it might not be that bad.
  4. If humans are a cause, and we don’t like the costs, should we take action? Lomborg says let’s do some research.
  5. If we decide to take action, what form will it take and when will it be implemented?: Lomborg doesn’t say.
  6. If humans are a source, what are the best and worst case scenarios (and associated probabilities)? Lomborg doesn’t say.

If Lomborg wants to show us the path forward, he should answer the following questions:

  1. Is there a maximum level of carbon that humans should emit into the atmosphere? What is that level?
  2. Is he willing to promote limits on carbon production, through outright caps or carbon taxes, if we cannot reach those limits through R&D?
  3. What are the time frames that he proposes for R&D and, more importantly, for reductions in carbon production?
  4. Who are the voices on both sides of this debate that he proposes should take part in the solution?

Right now, Lomborg seems focused on creating what might be called comparative strawmen (tsunamis versus malaria, for example). And engaging in what I call hyperbolic hypocrisy—global warming activists are alarmist and he’ll prove it by being alarmist himself—comparing them to witch burners. Lomborg has demonstrated himself as a writer. He turns a mean phrase. But many questions remain to be solved, in the science and policy realm, and he seems bent on burning witches rather than engaging in a reasoned and balanced debate.

Perhaps everyone should stop burning metaphorical witches and instead have an honest look at what the science is telling us, including the risks and probabilities associated with the many possibilities that exist between “climate change deniers” and the inquisition. This is difficult when people are referred to as witch burning inquisitionists or Nazis.