Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lomborg versus Schellnhuber & Co

The world will go down or it won't - in any case, the stories are always structured in the same way. After having discussed Schellnhuber's Spiegel- and Latif's BILD  interviews, here now a commentary with the opposite message written by Lomborg and published in several newspapers (here in German) . On the one hand, I am more sympathetic to Lomborg's message - raising fear permanently is counter-productive, and the apocalyptic rhetoric tends to be oversold. On the other hand, there are striking similarities to the alarmist rhetoric in the way Lomborg builds his own argument. The way he comes to his conclusion is as speculative as Latif's and Schellnhuber's conclusions.  In my opinion, the main problem is how these narratives on climate change are presented. Alarmist or not - I argue that this kind of story telling is oversold.

Yes, climate change is real, and it is man-made. But according to Bjorn Lomborg, there is no reason for worrying too much. Where does he know from? He takes a (playful?) scientific article which calculates the economic and human costs of the melting of the Arctic ice-sheets, that is, a six meter sea level rise. Things that are done by curious economists such as Robert J. Nicholls, Richard S.J. Tol, and Athanasios T. Vafeidis. Lomborg quotes (no references given) some numbers and calculations and says that the article comes to the conclusions that only 15 million people would be really affected, and managing the costs of the 'catastrophe' would only be '600 billion$' a year. That's all, just 1% of the global GDP. So why worry too much? Tokyo already managed successfully a 5 meter decline in the last centuries. The world won't go down, even though we will face a highly complex problem over a long time.
In short, that's Lomborg's anti-alarmist message.

Whatever Nicholls et al. had with their research in mind, in Lomborg's commentary it turns into the typical pseudo-scientific argument in public climate discourse. If Lomborg intends to make a political statement, he should do so with political arguments and not misuse science for this purpose. Exactly this misuse is a chronic disease in current climate discourse, be it alarmist, skeptic, or whatever.


Richard Tol said...

Here's the ref:

The paper is full of caveats. We take the model outside its range of calibration. We assume that there are no constraints on adaptation -- and refer to three papers in the same issue that discuss such constraints.

Nicholls is an engineer, and Vafeidis a geographer, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Ich finde Lomborgs Argumentation keineswegs so unwissenschaftlich.

Er warnt vor Übertreibungen anhand des absolut unmöglichen Worstcase-szenarios.

Auch in den Niederlanden ist das Land durch Trockenlegung weit unter den Meeresspiegel abgesackt, ohne dass eine Massenpanik deswegen ausgelöst wurde. Ganz im Gegenteil wurde dem Meer dadurch Land abgewonnen.

Indische Grossbauern behaupten in der Phoenixsendung "Afrikas Schätze" dass Äthiopien das Potential habe zum Brotkorb für die Welt zu werden. 3 Millionen Tonnen Getreide wollen sie jetzt schon auf ihren Ländereien produzieren.

Alarmistische Märchen zu widerlegen ist m.E. wissenschaftlicher als sie zu propagieren.

Lomborg hat das Szenario nicht erfunden und ist auch kein Klimawissenschaftler. Ähnlich wie bei der "reductio ad absurdum" kann man Katastraphonszenarien dadurch widerlegen, dass man beweist dass nicht einmal ein Superklimagau eine Katastrophe ist

Ob die Arbeit im Auftrag der Europäischen Union wissenschaftlich haltbar ist, ist natürlich eine andere Frage.


itisi69 said...

Werner Krauss said...

thanks, itisi69 -:)

_Flin_ said...

Oh, only 600 bn dollars. A Year. Well, that is a bargain. I am sure the people in Hamburg will be happy to hear that 6 meters aren't an issue. At least they won't have to be mad about this concert hall of theirs any longer.

So for Germany that 1% GDP were something over 30 billion dollars a year. Phhhhh, no, I can see why Lomborg puts "catastrophe" in quotation marks. (irony)

Fact is that no one knows for sure what exactly happens at 1 degree, 2 degree, 3 degree or 4 degree rise in global temperature.
Noone knows what this will mean for humans, noone knows what this will mean for flora and fauna that are used to current temperatures.

Everything is just guesses and nothing more than opinions (educated and reasonable ones, though).

Noone knows the damages, the injuries, the lifes lost, the number of people becoming homeless, how much food prices will rise, how many species will become extinct.

Unjusted catastrophic forecasts aren't good, neither is downplaying the issue. The forecasts of the IPCC were conservative, we will see where the next AR will differ (with more serious and less serious consequences than previously thought).

IMHO we need a price on every ton of CO2. And if the costs not to emit it are below this price, we will just not emit it. It really is this easy, isn't it?

(Apart from that I think it's really disgusting to say things like "oh, thats only 6 percent of world population".)

ingno said...

Werner Krauss,
I have some difficulties understanding your complain about the article. It is obviously a piece for discussion aimed at the general public. It does not claim to be a piece of science. It does not say that "scientists say", or "science demands". Therefore it is not pseudoscience, nor a misuse of science.

It criticize the alamistic claims that we have seen so often. It merely points out that catastrophic scenarios does not have to be so catastrophic, if you think it through.

The proper respons would be to write a counter-article for further discussion (saying for example that it IS horrible if 15 miljon people are forced to move). But arguing that Lomborg is pseudo-scientific and therefore disqualified to discuss the matter is a no-go.

Werner Krauss said...

@ fin #5
you write:
'Unjusted catastrophic forecasts aren't good, neither is downplaying the issue.'
Exactly. That's why I argue that we need other ways or storylines to talk about anthropogenic climate change.

@ingno #6

Lomborg's argument is based on the scientific study mentioned in the article. That's my critique. This study is, as Richard Tol wrote above, full of caveats. I am sure this study makes sense in some scientific context, in relation to other scientific studies. Or, to put it in another way, it is a model that relates to other models, but not to reality. Or at least not in a direct way. That's why I think Lomborg misuses this study. He is playing a trick on the public in quoting it. That was my argument: I am tired of this stupid trick which is used permanently from all sides.
I absolutely agree with the rest of your argument.

Werner Krauss said...

@anonymous yeph #2
Natürlich hat Lomborg das Recht auf eine Meinung, und zumeist sind seine Meinungen auch sehr erfrischend. Wie hier auch. Das Problem ist nur, dass er wie so viele andere auch irgendeine wissenschaftliche Studie aus der Schublade zieht, um sein Argument zu 'verwissenschaftlichen' und mehr Gewicht zu verleihen. Diese Studie kann dies aber gar nicht leisten. Das ist meine Kritik. Sie gilt keinesfalls seiner Meinung, sondern nur diesem alten Taschenspielertrick.

Anonymous said...

This discussion sounds like a remake of the controversies on the „skeptical environmentalist” some years ago. Both Schellnhuber and Lomborg act as if the climate debate will be decided by scientists or by scientific evidence alone. This form of proxy debate is not the solution but part of the problem itself. It will continue to contribute to the politicization of science by scientists and to threaten the development of effective policies. Roger Pielke did a great in summarizing the paradoxical impacts of these forms of politicization see Roger A. Pielke In "When scientists politicize science: making sense of controversy over The Skeptical Environmentalist" (Environmental Science & Policy 7, 2004).
Let us move beyond and discuss the political implications of both positions!

Werner Krauss said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for your comment. You nail it. It is a remake of an old discussion.
Concerning the political consequences: It's emission reduction efforts such as carbon cap and trade on Schellnhuber's side, and geo-engeneering on Lomborg's (as far as I know). Both are technological approaches with climate seen as outside and separated from society. I wonder how alternative approaches might look like. For example those which suggest regional appropriate mixes of adaptational and mitigational efforts. Both terms adaptation and mitigation might disappear in the long run, and new ones might come up. Such as building livable and breathable environments -:)

Leigh Jackson said...

Today's Guardian reports Lomborg to be suggesting a $7 per tonne C-emissions tax in order to raise $250 billion a year to address climate change. $100 billion would be used for RD in carbon-clean technologies. Only a billion dollars for geo-engineering. The rest to go on measures like securing drinking water supplies and building sea defences etc.