Debunking Bj¸rn Lomborg — Part I, The Great Polar Bear Irony

For debunkers, Lomborg’s work is a target-rich environment. There is even a Lomborg-errors website, where a Danish biologist catalogs Lomborg’s mistakes and “attempts to document his dishonesty.” Lomborg’s latest work of disinformation, Cool It, isn’t out yet in Europe to be debunked, so I’ll fill the gap for now.

polar-bear-tongue.jpegI will start with polar bears for two reasons. First, the non-ironic reason: Lomborg starts his book with a chapter on polar bears, presumably because he thinks it’s one of his strongest arguments — it isn’t.

Second, the ironic reason. “Bj¸rn” means “bear”!! Yes, “Bear” Lomborg is misinformed about his namesake. Lomborg himself notes (p. 4)

Paddling across the ice, polar bears are beautiful animals. To Greenland — part of my own nation, Denmark — They are a symbol of pride. The loss of this animal would be a tragedy. But the real story of the polar bear is instructive. In many ways, this tale encapsulates the broader problem with the climate-change concern: once you look closely at the supporting data, the narrative falls apart.

Doubly ironic, then, that the polar bear is doomed thanks to people like Bear Lomborg, who urge inaction. Lomborg says (p. 7) polar bears “may eventually decline, though dramatic declines seem unlikely.” Uhh, no. Even the Bush Administration’s own USGS says we’ll lose 2/3 of the world’s current polar bear population by 2050 in a best-case scenario for Arctic ice.

How will the bears survive the loss of their habitat? No problem, says Lomborg, they will evolve backwards (p. 6):

[T]hey will increasingly take up a lifestyle similar to that of brown bears, from which they evolved.

Seriously. Yet, Wikipedia notes:

According to both fossil and DNA evidence, the polar bear diverged from the brown bear roughly 200 thousand years ago; fossils show that between 10 and 20 thousand years ago the polar bear’s molar teeth changed significantly from those of the brown bear.

Doh! Lomborg is giving the bears a few decades to undo tens of thousands of years of evolution. In fact, most experts do not believe the bears can survive the loss of their habitat:

Dr. Andrew Derocher, Chair of the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (a group whose work Lomborg cites), says

“no habitat, no seals; no seals, no bears…. At the end of the day, the sea ice is disappearing. Take away the habitat and the species follows shortly thereafter (or before).”

The 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, (a group whose work Lomborg cites), says

The survival of polar bears as a species is difficult to envisage under conditions of zero summer sea-ice cover.

A 2004 Canadian study finds

[G]iven the rapid pace of ecological change in the Arctic, the long generation time, and the highly specialised nature of polar bears, it is unlikely that polar bears will survive as a species if the sea ice disappears completely.

And thanks to Delayers like Lomborg, the ice will probably be gone long before the USGS projects, perhaps even by 2030.

But Lomborg believes by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, “probably we can save about 0.06 bears per year.” Seriously. As we’ll see, Lomborg suffers from an inability to even imagine the possibility of thresholds or tipping points, beyond which irreversible and catastrophic change occur.

There are so many questionable statements in this chapter alone, you could fill a book, or at least a book chapter (p. 5):

Moreover, it is reported that the global polar-bear population has increased dramatically over the past decades, from about 5000 members in the 1960s to 25,000 today, through stricter hunting regulation.

If I ever say, “it is reported,” please shoot me. [Note to self: Don’t ever say, “it is reported.”] Actually, Lomborg has a source, the New York Times, who itself quotes unnamed experts. Well here is a named expert, Dr. Andrew Derocher again:

The early estimates of polar bear abundance are a guess–there is no data at all for the 1950-60s. Nothing but guesses.

Derocher has an extended comment on this subject which serves as a complete and utter rebuttal to Lomborg’s whole polar-bear discussion.

Lomborg mocks the notion that polar bears are “today’s canaries in the coal mine” (p. 3). He uses the polar bears to argue that “we hear vastly exaggerated and emotional claims” (p. 6) and “our worry makes us focus on the wrong solutions” (p. 7) because we should be focused on stopping people from shooting bears rather than saving their habitat. For Lomborg, you simply can’t do both. You must pick one and you must pick the one that is easier to do now — even though failure to save their habitat renders all other solutions pointless.

To paraphrase Lomborg,

this tale encapsulates the broader problem with his climate-change book: once you look closely at the supporting data, his narrative falls apart.

It is Bear Lomborg who has evolved backwards, back to a time when people didn’t care about future generations. Lomborg continues his intellectual dishonesty in his discussion of sea level rise as we will see, Part II.

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8 Responses to Debunking Bj¸rn Lomborg — Part I, The Great Polar Bear Irony

  1. ana says:

    Thanks for taking on the task of a detailed debunk of Lomborg. It’s very helpful!

  2. Ben Hubbird says:

    Be sure to check Salon for a thorough debunking of Lomborg by Eban Goodstein, Professor of Economics at Lewis and Clark College and Director of Focus the Nation, a nationwide teach-in and day of action on global warming solutions.

  3. Joe says:

    Thanks, Ben, it is a good article.

  4. Kira says:

    Yes, thanks for taking this on! Here at Environmental Defense we’re mostly buzzing about his fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of risk we’re facing.

    If you have any thoughts, we’d love to hear from you!


  5. TPK123 says:

    Do you wanna see some polar bears? Why dont you people check this offer from travelpack. Leaving soon.

  6. notanidiot says:

    Unfortunately for you, the vast majority of factual misrepresentations you accuse Lomborg of kind of miss the point completely. Please, read more carefully and understand the big picture. If what you are saying is correct– and I am sorry, but I really don’t think you are much of an expert on the subject– then it wouldn’t matter anyway because when it comes down to it, his arguments still hold.

    Congratulations on wasting time attempting to prevent logical dialogue, which, as of course you know, Lomborg points out as a serious issue today.

  7. Cyril R. says:

    Notanidiot here’s a newsflash for you: you really are an idiot after all.

    Just because Lomborg argues that logical dialogue is too rare today doesn’t strenghten his actual line of thinking.

    For example, he thinks that energy technologies develop in a vacuum by men and women in white coats. That’s why he says dump the money in R&D and not in deployment. Which is of course absurd; technologies do not develop cost-effectively in laboratories and then magically sprout into reality. It just shows how little he understand energy developments and it’s economics, both current and historic.

    But then it appears that most of Lomborg’s arguments are made in a vacuum. He’s totally disconnected from reality, making all kinds of assumptions and shopping for information to suit his agenda. I might write a book about him, call it “The Budding Anti-Scientist”.

  8. Rob says:

    This post, and the associated comments, just seem to reinforce Lomborg’s point: the global-warming crusaders are guilty of ignoring, inventing, or misrepresenting science to make their case and turn what should be a logical debate into political demagoguery.

    “Lomborg suffers from an inability to even imagine the possibility of thresholds or tipping points”?

    If there is compelling evidence for threshholds and tipping points then present it; calling anyone who doesn’t share your view an idiot is not scientific debate.

    “For Lomborg, you simply can’t do both. You must pick one and you must pick the one that is easier to do now”?

    Lomborg has repeated said that you *can* do both. But you should start by doing the easy thing you can do now, and prioritize the harder, more expensive solutions in terms of what you’ll have to give up to do it.

    There are good arguments for putting emission reduction first, but this posting does not bother with any of them. Calling Lomborg names does nothing to advance the cause.