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.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “The Lomborg delayer stance”

  1. “preventing catastrophic climate change is the foundational challenge we are facing now as a species.”

    Interesting that the word “foundational” comes up here. I realize you don’t mean this, but I wonder if preventing climate change is the founding act of a new species? If we can solve this – together – are we still “humans”?

    Some new age babble, set to quite a good rock song.

  2. I mean ‘foundational’ in the sense of being underneath everything else. A habitable climate is the foundation of human civilization, and we are taking jackhammers to it.

  3. Just to say ‘hear hear’ to your entry. I’ve heard Lomborg’s argument a lot lately and all the money spent on his priorities instead of climate change is entirely wasted; if climate change isn’t mitigated its impact over the next century on healthcare, food, coastal and flood risk population centres etc will more than outweigh the short-term benefits of his plan. Admittedly for people alive now immediate spending on health and so on will offer greater direct benefits but such short-termism is how we end up with all sorts of expensive intractable problems.

  4. Also, if Lomborg really believes that AIDS is the most worthwhile thing to work on, he should probably be raising money for AIDS charities – not spending his time arguing that we should ignore climate change.

  5. FYI, there is a Munk debate tonight on climate change policy. You can watch the Live Webcast here:

    There is a Live webcast with interviews of two of tonight’s debators at 11:00am and 1:00pm today. You can watch that here:

    Munk Debate on Climate Change:

    C02 levels in the atmosphere are climbing steadily higher. Some believe this is having a devastating effect on humans and nature, while others argue that the threat has been overstated. Is this the moment for a bold international treaty to curb carbon emissions? Or are the social and economic costs of reducing C02 emissions too high in world where a billion people live on $1 or less a day?

    Just days before the United Nation’s historic Copenhagen summit, the fourth semi-annual Munk Debates tackle one of the great public policy questions of our time: How should the world respond to climate change?

    Resolution: “Climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response.”
    The case for: Elizabeth May and George Monbiot
    The case against: Bjørn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson
    THE MUNK DEBATES: Dec. 1, 2009, 6:45 to 9:00 p.m., The Royal Conservatory, 273 Bloor St. West, Toronto

  6. Debunking a Climate-Change Skeptic

    “The Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg won fame and fans by arguing that many of the alarms sounded by environmental activists and scientists — that species are going extinct at a dangerous rate, that forests are disappearing, that climate change could be catastrophic — are bogus. A big reason Lomborg was taken seriously is that both of his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist (in 2001) and Cool It (in 2007), have extensive references, giving a seemingly authoritative source for every one of his controversial assertions. So in a display of altruistic masochism that we should all be grateful for (just as we’re grateful that some people are willing to be dairy farmers), author Howard Friel has checked every single citation in Cool It. The result is The Lomborg Deception, which is being published by Yale University Press next month. It reveals that Lomborg’s work is ‘a mirage,’ writes biologist Thomas Lovejoy in the foreword. ‘[I]t is a house of cards. Friel has used real scholarship to reveal the flimsy nature’ of Lomborg’s work.”

  7. Bjørn Lomborg: $100bn a year needed to fight climate change

    Exclusive ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ and critic of climate scientists to declare global warming a chief concern facing world

    Juliette Jowit, Monday 30 August 2010 20.17 BST

    The world’s most high-profile climate change sceptic is to declare that global warming is “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront”, in an apparent U-turn that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby.

    Bjørn Lomborg, the self-styled “sceptical environmentalist” once compared to Adolf Hitler by the UN’s climate chief, is famous for attacking climate scientists, campaigners, the media and others for exaggerating the rate of global warming and its effects on humans, and the costly waste of policies to stop the problem.

    But in a new book to be published next month, Lomborg will call for tens of billions of dollars a year to be invested in tackling climate change. “Investing $100bn annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate change problem by the end of this century,” the book concludes.

    Examining eight methods to reduce or stop global warming, Lomborg and his fellow economists recommend pouring money into researching and developing clean energy sources such as wind, wave, solar and nuclear power, and more work on climate engineering ideas such as “cloud whitening” to reflect the sun’s heat back into the outer atmosphere.

    In a Guardian interview, he said he would finance investment through a tax on carbon emissions that would also raise $50bn to mitigate the effect of climate change, for example by building better sea defences, and $100bn for global healthcare.

  8. “The first point to make is that, even if Nordhaus’ calculations [about the cost of stopping anthropogenic climate change] were reliable, the costs of climate change mitigation do not see unmanageable. As Thomas Schelling puts it:

    The costs in reduced productivity are estimated at two percent of GNP forever. Two percent of GNP seems politically unmanageable in many countries. Still, if one plots the curve of US per capita GNP over the coming century with and without the two percent permanent loss, the difference is about the thickness of a line drawn with a number two pencil, and the doubled per capita income that would have been achieved by 2060 is reached in 2062. If someone could wave a wand and phase in, over a few years, a climate-mitigation program that depressed our GNP by two percent in perpetuity, no one would notice the difference. (Schelling 1997)

    Even Lomborg agrees with this. He not only cites the 2 percent figure with approval but adds, “there is no way that the cost [of stabilizing abatement measures] will send us to the poorhouse” (Lomborg 2001, p.323)”

    Gardiner, Stephen. “Ethics and Global Climate Change” in Gardiner, Stephen et al. Climate Ethics: Essential Readings. p.11 (paperback)

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