The Lomborg delayer stance

Bjorn Lomborg is a polarizing figure: a statistician who claims that most environmental problems are less severe than people believe, and who argues that spending money on climate change is wasteful. His objective claims about the state of the environment have been challenged in other places, and I won’t consider them now. Rather, I will look at why his stance on climate change is deeply problematic.

In 2002, Lomborg founded The Copenhagen Consensus: a group that sought to determine the best way to spend a hypothetical $50 billion to improve human welfare. At the top of the list were things like nutrition and fighting AIDS. Climate change was ranked as providing poor value for money.

To go from that to claiming that we should not spend money fighting climate change is where Lomborg makes a major error. In his book Cool It: A Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming he argues that the relatively low return per dollar spent dealing with climate change means those actions ought not to be taken. Sometimes, expensive things are simply necessary – even when there are other laudable places to spend money. James Hoggan sums up the argument against Lomborg’s prioritization approach well:

According to what [John] Mashey describes as the Lomborg method, you can avoid almost any spending issue that doesn’t suit your political or economic preferences. You begin by proposing a list of alternative priorities that include useful, desirable items that everyone must agree deserve attention – the treatment of AIDS or the provision of food and water to the desperate. Then you make sure that these are items that, for political reasons, will never get funded (foreign aid is a low political priority, especially in difficult economic times). Finally, you invoke the false dilemma: you suggest that your audience must accept your prioritization, because if they can’t (or won’t) pay for the items on the top of the list, it would be irresponsible to start thinking about paying for the items that are a lower priority.

As I have said before, preventing catastrophic climate change is the foundational challenge we are facing now as a species. If we wreck the habitability of the planet, all our efforts in achievements in other areas will become meaningless. Given that, to argue that we should ignore climate change while spending more on AIDS prevention fails to properly consider the totality of risks we are facing.

Carbon footprints and investment

Dylan Prazak, Katerina Prazak, Alena Prazak, Oleh Ilnyckyj, Sasha Ilnyckyj, Robert Pini, Megan Pini, Mirka Prazak, and Milan Ilnyckyj

In an era where it is increasingly sensible to think about the climatic impact of personal choices, I wonder what the implications are for investing. The whole basis for investment is the idea that someone else can put wealth to more productive immediate use than you can: so much so that you hope they will be able to achieve their productive end and return your money with interest. In a world where most economic activity involves greenhouse gas emissions, it seems inescapable that investing (particularly successful investing) has climatic consequences. That may be especially true for those who think that growth, capitalism, and climate change are deeply linked.

What is unclear is what ethical implications that has. It may well be laudable to choose to invest in things that a low-carbon world will probably involve: renewables, energy efficiency, etc. Indeed, it may be praiseworthy to do so even when that strategy entails lower returns or higher risks than an investment strategy that is indifferent to climatic considerations. Whether it is actually unethical to invest in a neutral or high-carbon way is less clear.

People who are living low-carbon lives by avoiding things like automobile ownership, excessive consumption, and air travel will likely find themselves with more savings to invest than their counterparts who don’t adopt such choices. For someone really dedicated to cutting their personal emissions, it seems plausible that the emissions induced by their investments could be a dominant part of their total footprint. As such, the secondary and tertiary effects of investment choices bear consideration.

The US and China on climate

The Economist is running an interesting debate on the topic: “This house believes that China is showing more leadership than America in the fight against climate change.”

It’s a discussion I look forward to, primarily because of how it will highlight actions that China is taking. Too many people believe that China has shown no leadership whatsoever on this issue and is in a position to eliminate any benefits that arise from emission reductions elsewhere. As it happens, I think the Chinese leadership is concerned about the issue, and is hopefully open to the kind of comprehensive international agreement that will be necessary to put the world on a pathway of declining greenhouse gas emissions.

Getting to carbon neutrality

Emissions pathways to give 75% chance of limiting global warming to 2ºC

Responding to an unusually poor article, written by Lorrie Goldstein and printed in the Toronto Sun, I wrote that: “If you want high human welfare and prosperity for decades and generations ahead, dealing with climate change is not optional. The longer Canada waits to begin the process of going carbon-neutral, the more costly and painful that process will be.”

The above graphic, included in the recent Copenhagen Diagnosis, illustrates this situation nicely. The graphic shows three different pathways, each of which would give humanity a 75% chance of limiting warming to 2°C – a target that has been widely endorsed by governments, including those of the UK and EU. In a scenario where global emissions peak in 2011, they would only need to fall to about 5 gigatonnes by 2050, a reduction rate of 3.7% per year. Waiting just four more years, and having them peak in 2015, increases that to 5.3% per year. In the scenario with the 2015 peak, humanity as a whole needs to be carbon neutral before 2050, in order to provide the 75% certainty of avoiding more than 2°C of warming. Waiting until 2020 means that emissions need to fall by 9% per year afterwards, with carbon neutrality reached around 2040.

Bear in mind that these are global pathways. Under a contraction and convergence approach, where countries cut emissions while simultaneously becoming more equal in terms of per capita emissions, Canada would need to cut even faster. This illustrates firstly how wrongheaded it is to hope for a few more years of a hydrocarbon boom before we start the process of adjustment. It also illustrates the urgency of getting an effective global agreement in place soon. This isn’t an issue on which we can simply doddle for a decade. If we don’t want to see our children living in a transformed world, humanity needs to act fast and on a massive scale.

On a personal level, this may also bring some clarity to the many discussions we’ve had here about carbon ethics. If we individually want to mirror what the world as a whole needs to do, we should be planning to have our personal emissions peak virtually instantly, and fall every year thereafter. People who are my age should be thinking seriously about the possibility of living carbon-neutral lives by the time they face retirement – and about what accomplishing that would require.

Climate Change Futures Markets

Over at FiveThirtyEight – a website that leapt to fame on the basis of statistical analysis of the 2008 US election – there is a discussion of futures markets for climate change. The idea is to let people place bets on what will happen, and the hope is that the sum of opinions backed up with money will provide reasonably high quality information on what is likely and what is not:

Personally, I’d envision a robust series of contracts on temperature, CO2 emissions, precipitation, and perhaps tropical storms that expired at various intervals along the lines of those used for US Treasury bonds — say at 3, 5, 7, 10, 20, and 30 years. I’d encourage the use of options and perhaps derivatives, which can be helpful in pricing not just the mean estimates of temperature or precipitation but also the uncertainty surrounding these estimates. I’d run the markets through a major, cross-national platform such as the United Nations, IMF or World Bank, so as to encourage participation and create liquidity. And I’d make them open to as many people as possible with few legal restrictions or transaction costs.

This is similar to the idea of using such markets to predict the outcome of elections. While implementing the idea is bound to produce some problems, it could be a good thing to try. For one thing, it could help create mechanisms through which additional insurance could be provided for climatic risks, whether of extreme weather, crop failure, or other phenomena.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis

Bicycle rack, Gatineau

More than three years have passed since the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Given that the AR5 isn’t due until 2014, it is perhaps appropriate that a group of scientists have released a more current summary of peer-reviewed scientific work on climate change, in the lead-up to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen next month.

The Copenhagen Diagnosis is intended as an interim evaluation. It was written by scientists from Germany, the US, Australia, Austria, Switzerland, the UK, and Canada (with the University of Victoria’s Andrew Weaver participating). Written by a comparatively small group of people, it doesn’t have the same level of authority as an IPCC report. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate that it be taken into consideration as states are considering what ought to be done about climate change. On methodology, the prefare to the report specifies that:

The science contained in the report is based on the most credible and significant peer-reviewed literature available at the time of publication. The authors primarily comprise previous IPCC lead authors familiar with the rigor and completeness required for a scientific assessment of this nature.

The report was published by the The University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC) in Sydney.

Some of the key conclusions of the report include:

  • Global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels in 2008 were nearly 40% higher than those in 1990. Even if global emission rates are stabilized at present-day levels, just 20 more years of emissions would give a 25% probability that warming exceeds 2°C.
  • Over the past 25 years temperatures have increased at a rate of 0.190C per decade, in every good agreement with predictions based on greenhouse gas increases. Even over the past ten years, despite a decrease in solar forcing, the trend continues to be one of warming. Natural, short- term fluctuations are occurring as usual but there have been no significant changes in the underlying warming trend.
  • A wide array of satellite and ice measurements now demonstrate beyond doubt that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets are losing mass at an increasing rate. Melting of glaciers and ice-caps in other parts of the world has also accelerated since 1990.
  • Summer-time melting of Arctic sea-ice has accelerated far beyond the expectations of climate models. This area of sea-ice melt during 2007-2009 was about 40% greater than the average prediction from IPCC AR4 climate models.
  • Satellites show great global average sea-level rise (3.4 mm/yr over the past 15 years) to be 80% above past IPCC predictions. This acceleration in sea-level rise is consistent with a doubling in contribution from melting of glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland and West-Antarctic ice-sheets.
  • By 2100, global sea-level is likely to rise at least twice as much as projected by Working Group 1 of the IPCC AR4, for unmitigated emissions it may well exceed 1 meter. The upper limit has been estimated as – 2 meters sea-level rise by 2100. Sea-level will continue to rise for centuries after global temperature have been stabilized and several meters of sea level rise must be expected over the next few centuries.
  • Several vulnerable elements in the climate system (e.g. continental ice-sheets. Amazon rainforest, West African monsoon and others) could be pushed towards abrupt or irreversible change if warming continues in a business-as-usual way throughout this century. The risk of transgressing critical thresholds (“tipping points”) increase strongly with ongoing climate change. Thus waiting for higher levels of scientific certainty could mean that some tipping points will be crossed before they are recognized.
  • If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly. To stabilize climate, a decarbonized global society – with near-zero emissions of CO2 and other long-lived greenhouse gases – need to be reached well within this century. More specifically, the average annual per-capita emissions will have to shrink to well under 1 metric ton CO2 by 2050. This is 80-90% below the per-capita emissions in developed nations in 2000. (Emphasis mine)

In short, there are many good reasons to worry about the state of the climate system, as well as what will happen within it if humanity doesn’t begin effectively reducing our emissions. Hopefully, those messages will not be lost on the people negotiating in Copenhagen, even if the prospects for a comprehensive agreement are not looking terribly good right now.

Both the full report and an executive summary are available online in a number of languages.

Wind farms and NIMBY syndrome

Over at Boing Boing, there is an interesting article about wind power and the Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome. The article suggests that the general understanding of the NIMBY syndrome is wrong, and the problem is not that people locally oppose what they support in a general sense. Rather, people who oppose wind farm on principle become energetic opponents when the prospect of it being installed locally arises. I am not sure how convincing I find the analysis, but the issue is an important one and not only for wind. Whatever our post-fossil fuel energy mix is going to consist of, it is going to require facilities being built near where people live, whether those facilities are concentrating solar plants, dams, wind farms, carbon capture and storage facilities, nuclear reactors, or something else.

The same issue was discussed in the film The Age of Stupid. There, it seemed pretty clear that the primary objection people had was local wind farms depressing property values. The Boing Boing article does discuss one partial solution there: offering the locals a share of the revenues from the project might change their thinking.

Asymmetric behaviours in climate debates


James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming neatly expresses a key assymmetry that arises in debates between those supporting and those questioning the consensus view that climate change is primarily being cause by human greenhouse gas emissions:

When it comes to staking out positions and shifting the middle ground, industry-funded strategists seem to have seized and kept the strategic initiative. Any time anyone on the science side makes even the smallest overstatement, they immediately face the full resources of a think tank echo chamber attack. And because conscientious scientists are so quick to recognize and acknowledge when something is not exactly correct, the attackers have won many apologies, corrections, or reinterpretations, which they have used to argue that all of climate science is frail and uncertain.

At the same time, the more exuberant deniers have often said things that were flat-out wrong, and then have refused to acknowledge or apologize for their misrepresentations. In response the environmental community – lacking both the resources and sense of common purpose more typical of the antiscience crowd – has been ineffective in launching countercriticism. (p. 130 paperback)

This is certainly something we have seen in discussions here. Deniers like Dan Pangburn trot out arguments that have been factually or logically rebutted over and over, while hammering at minor components of arguments being made by others. When people dutifully rebut them again, it may provide the false sense that a meaningful debate is still ongoing.

Of course, there are plenty of other circumstances in which we legitimately hold one side of a conflict to higher standards. Scientists should not stoop to the level of denying their mistakes. That said, it does seem appropriate to draw attention to this asymmetry as evidence of how one side of this debate is fighting dirty.

Monbiot speaking in Toronto

On November 28th, British journalist George Monbiot will be giving a talk in Toronto: “Countdown to Copenhagen: Who in Canada is Killing the International Climate Treaty?” The event is partially sponsored by DeSmogBlog.

Monbiot is a good writer and strong climate change campaigner. I suggest those in Toronto consider attending. I once saw him speak at Oxford’s Environmental Change Insitute. I also reviewed his book on climate change.

Date: Saturday, November 28th
Time: 2:00 to 4:00pm

Location: J.J.R. MacLeod Auditorium, Medical Sciences Building, University of Toronto
1 King’s College Circle, Toronto

Admission: suggested donation of $10-$25. Nobody will be turned away for lack of funds.

Seating is limited; come early to guarantee a seat.

Climate denial and conservative think tanks

Tree shadow in autumn

In 2008, three academics published the paper “The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Scepticism” in the journal Environmental Politics. The researchers analyzed 141 books published between 1972 and 2005, all of which expressed skepticism about the seriousness of environmental problems, including climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, biodiversity loss, resource shortages, air pollution, and others. Of these, the researchers found that over 92% were published by conservative think tanks, written by authors affiliated with those think tanks, or both.

Contrast that with Naomi Oreskes’ 2004 Science article: “Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” in which she examined the positions taken on climate change within peer-reviewed scientific articles. Of the 928 articles examined, none expressed disagreement with the consensus view that humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change.

Peter Jacques uses their survey to argue that “scepticism is a tactic of an elite-driven counter-movement designed to combat environmentalism.” That is to say, groups with an economic or ideological commitment to the present arrangement – where most energy comes from fossil fuels and the atmosphere is a free dumping ground for greenhouse gasses – are continuing to press for policy inaction by self-serving means, using information and arguments at odds with that in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. None of that is surprising, though it does demonstrate the irony of climate change deniers claiming to be an embattled and persecuted minority, concerned only with getting the truth out despite the efforts of nefarious scientists and environmentalists to silence them.