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Introducing Eric Roston who corrects Tim Flannery about Bjorn Lomborg

By Climate Guest Contributor on September 10, 2007 at 3:06 pm

"Introducing Eric Roston who corrects Tim Flannery about Bjorn Lomborg"

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Climate Progress is happy to introduce Eric Roston as a guest blogger. Eric is a former Time magazine writer and author of the forthcoming book, THE CARBON AGE: How Life’s Core Element Became Civilization’s Greatest Threat. You can read his full bio here. Eric is one of the people responsible for Time‘s great coverage on climate change over the years, and I first met him five years ago when TimeWarner was looking for help on becoming greener. Welcome, Eric!

Tim Flannery takes apart Danish statistician Bj¸rn Lomborg in yesterday’s Washington Post Book World. Flannery, whose The Weather Makers is one of the great popular works on climate science, rightfully lambastes Lomborg for cherry-picking climate research. He sees only areas of opportunity to help the world’s poor, dismissing the big picture.

Flannery is dead-wrong on two words in the last paragraph, in a sentence that reads, “On the surface, [Lomborg's book is] a cry from a compassionate conservative not to waste money on combating climate change when that money could be better spent helping the poor.” In fact, Lomborg is not a “compassionate conservative,” in the sense that the phrase was coined and would be understood by Washington Post readers.


Lomborg is liberal, even by Danish standards (although Danish standards have been moving to the right in the past several years). Still, a Scandanavian liberal of any sort still doesn’t fit very comfortably anywhere on the American political spectrum, and certainly not with those who call themselves “compassionate conservatives.”

lomborg-3.jpgIf you look at Lomborg’s picture here, which runs with the review, you can divine some of this. His hair’s permanently mussed up and he’s wearing a cotton T-shirt with a border, his standard dress in interviews, the kind of T-shirt kids wore bearing rock-n-roll band iron-on decals in the 70s and early 80s. Lomborg is a smart, youthful and fun guy, whose enthusiasm for the tools of economics doesn’t make him conservative, but does make him an emblem of the wider, myopic view of climate change that establishment economists are stuck in. That a liberal Dane became a hero of the American right is one of the stranger paradoxes to emerge in the last decade.

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10 Responses to Introducing Eric Roston who corrects Tim Flannery about Bjorn Lomborg

  1. Paul K says:

    I have not read Lomborg’s book, but I saw his testimony before Congress. He didn’t seem to be a AGW denier. He said his group had done an analysis of the best guaranteed results per expenditure on a number of problem areas. AGW did not score well in their purely economic rating system. No doubt Lomberg would call himself liberal or even progressive if he lived here. He’d be part of the emphasis on CO2 takes away from other environmental and social solutions crowd.

  2. Joe says:

    He is not a denier. He is what I call a delayer — someone who acknowledges that global warming is happening and caused by humans, but who argues that we should be in no hurry to deal with. Delayers are cleverer than deniers, but really just as dangerous. As Flannery says, Lomborg’s book “is a stealth attack on humanity’s future.”

    I’ll be doing a series of posts on Lomborg’s book starting later this week.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    Others have pointed out in talking about Lomborg’s latest book that he makes some truly amazing assumptions about both the extent to which the global can warm, as well as its consequences. I have yet to read my review copy of the book, which I just received, but it certainly sounds like yet another case of “questionable” assumptions being magnified into even more questionable conclusions.

  4. John says:

    I would describe Lumborg a Sophist — he is much like our own Greg Easterbrook — both enjoy being iconoclasts and both ride that role right to the bank. It’s a great niche: purported friend not foe of the environment, they can say, “While you might be right, you’ve forgotten X,” with X being some bit of abstract arcana from neoclassical economics that sounds vaguely credible, but which seldom bears scrutiny.

    But it feeds the press’s desire for conflict first and facts second, and it sounds plausible to lay folks, and so they get air time and money.

    I’m reminded of what physicist Uri-Gellman said at a Santa Fe Insitute colliquium on complexity theory and economics involving mostly leading economists and physicists– it opened with a week long primer on the fundamentals of economics, with emphasis on the heavy math. the physicists, of course absorbed the theory with ease. At the week’s conclusion, Gellman is reported to haves said, “Very interesting. But you don’t actually believe that sh**, do you?”

    After reading Lomborg, I’m always tempted to ask the same question — it’s too clever by a half, and lacking any grounding in either reality, or the latest in economic scholarship. Little more than Milton Friedman redux.

  5. Eric Roston says:

    John, That’s a fun anecdote. Thanks for posting.

    It’s an apt comparison that makes me want to tease out the difference between the two of them further. Too-clever-by-half is a good description of Easterbrook. His job is to tip over the cocktail-party conventional wisdom, which makes his ideas much closer to an actual parlor game than Lomborg’s. (Of course, I need to tread carefully here because that comes close to my job description, too.) He can’t or doesn’t cloak himself in the mystique of the scholarly apparatus. That said, calling the Space Shuttle disaster three years before it happened was quite a career-maker.

    Lomborg’s downfall really is rooted in cost-benefit analysis and its tendency to vaporize the context for doing anything. The Copenhagen Consensus is a budget committee. Take $50 billion and maximize quantifiable good. Put energy and climate last. It’s admirable and noble-minded. But it’s a little bit like setting the broken arm of a patient with an unstoppable 104 degree fever. It’s doable, and makes you feel good while you forget that you’re losing the patient.

    The day the first Copenhagen Consensus op-ed came out in the Wall Street Journal I was in Houston visiting with Richard Smalley (This is about a year and a half before he passed away). I showed him the article and he shook his head, having spent the previous five years or so giving a speech arguing if you solve the energy problem, all of the others fall into place.

  6. Paul K says:

    Eric,
    Is a copy of the Smalley speech available?

  7. Eric Roston says:

    Paul, Rice maintains Smalley’s Web site In Memorium. You can find a list of his presentations at this address:

    http://smalley.rice.edu/smalley.cfm?doc_id=4862

    All best,
    ER

  8. John says:

    Eric:

    Thanks. It is an interesting anecdote, but as Joe pointed out to me (he was kind enough to do it off line) I meant Murray Gell-man, the Noble prize winning Physicist, not the psychic.

    While I agree that Lumborg wraps himself in sheepskin, I do think he’s less a scholar than a professional iconoclast, and at his core he is more interested in “tipping over the cocktail conventional wisdom” (love that characterization) and selling books than in contributing to serious scholarship.

    But hey, maybe we should consult Uri Geller on the whole thing – he could bend some spoons and divine which camp Lomborg falls into.

  9. Ralph Sylvestersen says:

    Something’s rotten (even) in the state of Denmark

    Bjorn Lomborg seems to appear on the scene as an errand boy for the new Janus approach of Denmark.

    Denmark, well known for its leading role in development and use of wind energy – yes, as a matter of fact, until recently a world leader in that field – now also has become a world leader in air pollution.

    How did it come about, that a Scandinavian country shifted from being an invocative leading sustainable developer to an extremely high contributor of greenhouse gases [GHG]?

    Denmark, with an annual growth rate of 12, 7% in primary energy consumption of fossil fuels in 2006, now has the highest rate of energy growth among OECD members’ countries – even higher than the growth rate in China (8, 4%). Add thereto, the GHG-emissions from the Danish International Shipping Industry [DISI] – which now owns and manages a fleet with a gross tonnage of approximately 50 million – equal to ca. 10 percent of the entire world fleet (and with a heavy segment of high-speed container vessels, (Maersk-Line etc.)). In 2006 DISI consumed about 40 million tons of heavy marine bunker oil – more than twice of the country’s entire domestic energy consumption (total domestic fossil fuel consumption 2006: 19, 5 mill. tons oil equivalent, according to BP Statistical Review of World Energy June 2007)

    To Denmark, that gives a yearly consumption rate of 11 tons fossil fuel/capita and a corresponding emission rate of 32, 5 tons CO2/capita – far beyond the figures from US.

    So, The Kingdom of Denmark, which ironically embraces Greenland, has as a world leader in air pollution sent a messenger to play down the consequences of the global warming.

  10. How about this approach?

    I don’t like cold weather.

    I would like the weather in my part of the world to be warmer.

    Weather has in fact become warmer over the last few years. I happen to like it that way. I still think the weather in Pittsburgh is far too cold on the average and would like to make it even warmer if I could. Quite honestly, if you could give me eternal summer and eliminate winter from my life forever, I would consider that ideal.

    Therefore, I see no reason at all not to be in favour of global warming, and if anything, encourage policies that would accelerate it. For virtually all of America and Europe, warmer weather would lead to enormous improvements in quality of life.

    I said, before I read Lomborg’s book, that it is only logical to believe far more deaths occur due to cold than due to heat. Whether it’s car accidents due to snow to people freezing to death through hypothermia, lives could be saved, overall, through warmer weather.

    Furthermore, warmer weather promotes more exercise and time spent outdoors, meaning that it should result in improved health for all. (Note that, according to Lomborg, warmer weather would be mainly seen during winter, and during the night – that is, it would raise annoyingly low temperatures while having little to no effect on annoyingly high ones.)

    Yesterday, I happened to read a Columbia University presentation on the consequences of Global Warming in NYC. They said electrical consumption will increase during summer, without a corresponding decrease during winter. This is true, because air conditioning is almost all electric, and heat is made through burning oil and gas. So of course oil and gas consumption will go down during the winter, and electricity will increase during the summer. Will they cancel each other out? Remember what we said above – annoyingly low temperatures would increase, annoyingly high would stay the same. So almost certainly we would see more use of electricity, but far less use of oil and gas, which are scarce and politically sensitive resources. Would they dig, and find this out? Of course not; global warming is, of course, always bad.

    They also said that summer temperatures would increase by about 5degF, but did not note that winter temperatures would also increase. I’m sure I understand why; they know the guy on the street is in favour of warmer winter temperatures and don’t want to “confuse” him.

    Do you see a pattern here? The disadvantages of warming are discussed, but the clear advantages of it are not. This makes me think that they are being alarmist and that, pursuing a political goal, these people are not weighing advantages or disadvantages. Instead, they’re loading the dice, giving you the arguments against global warming but not even conceding that there are arguments for it, too.

    Love him or hate him, Lomborg has made such an effort. Just as I thought from the second I heard the phrase, there is an upside to global warming, and it’s a big one. More comfortable weather for almost everyone in the first world, while weather is little changed elsewhere.

    In light of the existence of benefits, then, why not do what that nice Mr Lomborg says and mitigate its bad effects while enjoying the good?

    For example, Saudi Arabia needs water. There’s lots of it locked in those polar ice caps. So in exchange for their oil, why not send giant supertankers up to the Arctic circle, grab that ice that’s about to melt and send it to the Saudis who could use it? Result: No sea level change.

    Those nice folks in Dubai could create a Global Warming Estates housing development, with every home having its own lavish lake. I’m sure Dubai residents would eat it up.

    Now, of course there are massive practical obstacles for this kind of idea. But there are just as massive ones for getting us out of our cars and SUVs and into … diesel belching busses, I guess, or subways that require such elaborate tunneling that the payback in terms of energy use will be in the 500 year range.

    What you guys are saying that if we make a titanic sacrifice, spending billions or trillions, we just might be able to postpone the warming apocalypse by making weather colder.

    Well, gosh, if you told me I could pay billions or trillions to increase the year-round temperature where I live to 78degF, I’d be on your side. But when you tell me to give up on the improved weather we’ve gotten over the last few years AND spend billions of dollars doing it, can I gently tell you that you’re doing me no favours?

    Personally, I’m ready to sign up for the idea to make Pittsburgh into a tropical paradise. I’ll order my grass skirt and put “Mele Kalikimaka” on the stereo:

    Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright
    Sun will shine by day and all the stars at night.

    A new anthem for Pittsburgh! A bit different from White Christmas, but like most people, we’ll adopt and change. You know, Lomborg was right about that, too.

    D

    [The author of this piece has lived in Pittsburgh for three winters, with another looming. For him, this is approximately three winters too long.]