The Bjorn Irrelevancy: Duke dean disses Danish delayer

I don’t have time to debunk Bjorn Lomborg every time he writes a disinformation-filled WSJ op-ed [and yes, that is redundant].  I’ve debunked him enough [see “Lomborg skewers the facts, again” and “Debunking Lomborg “” Part III and “Voodoo Economists 4: The idiocy of crowds or, rather, the idiocy of (crowded) debates“].  But I’m happy to feature the work of guest debunkers (see “Lomborg’s main argument has collapsed).”  Today’s guest debunker is the uber-accomplished Dr. Bill Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, in a post first published on his Green Grok blog. Lomborg is at it again on the pages of the Wall Street Journal. (See previous Lomborg posts here and here.) No action on climate change, he argues, because it’s too hard *and* too easy. Cool argument.

I woke up this morning to find one of my favorite columnists in the journal’s op-ed pages. In “Technology Can Fight Global Warming” (Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2009) Lomborg outdoes himself in his sleight-of-hand pseudo-logic arguing against imposing emission reduction targets through a global climate agreement. In Lomborg’s worldview, the whole climate problem will go away if we just throw a few dollars at the problem and stand back. Actually, I thought that’s exactly what we’ve been doing over the last two decades or so, and look where that’s gotten us.


A Lomborg piece would not be a Lomborg piece without a healthy supply of misinformation, and his latest does not disappoint:

  • Lomborg cites studies purportedly showing that avoiding dangerous climate change would require a “staggering” 12.9 percent reduction in world gross domestic product. He even states that “some economic models” find that the only way to avoid dangerous climate change is to reduce “world population by a third.” I agree: these scenarios are staggering “” they are also absurd. They do not represent the economic community’s main findings. Virtually every economic assessment of the impact of a global effort to avoid dangerous climate change puts the impact on global G.D.P. at three percent or less. (See economic analyses here, here, here, and here [pdf].) How is it that Lomborg neglected to mention these other studies?
  • Lomborg argues that we should lower methane emissions and plant trees. Great ideas, but guess what? Both those measures are included in the menu of options for lowering greenhouse gas emissions through a proposed global treaty (and, by the way, U.S. legislation also). So how is this at all relevant to whether a treaty is needed?


Lomborg argues that geo-engineering can be a substitute for cutting greenhouse gas emissions: for example by seeding clouds over the ocean to cool the planet and offset the warming. He fails to mention the logistical challenge of deploying ships all over the world’s oceans to continuously spray seawater into the atmosphere.

Lomborg also doesn’t mention that such “solutions” leave the problem of ocean acidification from enhanced carbon dioxide unsolved. And he does not acknowledge the host of unanticipated consequences of our geo-engineering. If you’re thinking geo-engineering is a panacea, read this by Gabriele Hegerl of Grant Institute in Edinburgh and Susan Solomon of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But hey, why sweat the details?

Sleight of Hand

Technology plays an interesting role in Lomborg’s piece. Note how he telegraphs it in his title “Technology Can Fight Global Warming,” as if using technology runs counter to the intention of a global treaty to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, technology is the answer to getting us out of our climate change pickle. The question is how to get the new technologies we need developed and implemented. Many economists say the most effective and least expensive way to make this happen is through market forces. Internalize the cost of greenhouse gas pollution by putting a “price on carbon” (e.g., mandating lower emissions) and allow the marketplace to wind down our dependence on carbon-intensive energy sources and industries.

But Lomborg doesn’t want to go down that path “” it is simply too expensive and too difficult to even try. But don’t despair. Lomborg claims to have a better way.

The Technology-Led Effort

Lomborg’s alternative to requiring emission reductions is a “technology-led effort.” He claims that a paltry $100 billion investment per year “in noncarbon based energy research could result in essentially stopping global warming within a century or so.” Wow, I had not realized it could be that easy. Instead of requiring emission reductions, just invest a small sum in energy research and presto chango, emissions will fall of their own accord. I like it. Sign me up.

But wait a minute. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2008 “total clean-energy investment last year grew “¦ to $155 billion.” So, by Lomborg’s metrics, we are already there! We don’t need to spend anything additional. Like Marx’s rise of Communism, in Lomborg’s climate manifesto stopping global warming is an historical inevitability “” all we have to do is leave everything alone.

There is however this little nagging problem. It’s a consistency thing. You see, according to Lomborg, a global treaty mandating emission reductions through the development of new technologies will cost us 12.9 percent of world G.D.P. “” that’s equivalent to about $7 trillion per year. At the same time Lomborg claims we can solve the global warming problem with an investment of $100 billion per year. It seems that the key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions is to not require any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Like I said, cool argument.

12 Responses to The Bjorn Irrelevancy: Duke dean disses Danish delayer

  1. Rick Covert says:


    In the 2006 Stern report the conclusion was that stabilizing CO2 emissions to 500 – 550 ppm would cost 1% of global gdp. The Stern report says that stabilizing to 450 ppm would be too difficult and costly. Dr. James Hansen says we must stabilize CO2 concentrations at 350 ppm to preserve a livable climate and yet the Stern report is often used as a rationale for action to reduce CO2 emissions with the implicit assumption we are talking about meeting a 450 ppm CO2 concentration. Pardon the question but what’s up with that?

    [JR: Where does Stern say 450 is too difficult and costly?]

  2. Dan K. says:

    Good piece on the politics of the climate bill, seen in the light of the healthcare debate, deniers or no deniers:


  3. Lyle Brecht says:

    I just wrote a note regarding Michael Lynch’s op-ed in the NY Times on Peak Oil deniers that could have also been written about Bjorn Lomborg’s denial of climate change. The note discusses the basis and potential cost of denial and preaching falsehoods. Both Peak Oil and climate change intersect at the need to decarbonize the world’s economies and to allocate adequate capital for that purpose.


  4. Leif says:

    For the sake of argument, I will see Bjorn’s 12% GDP and population lose of action, (an obvious bluff), and raise with a quick estimate of the loses to inaction and the status quo. (No bluff here folks.)
    Yearly deaths to extreme heat. This gets tricky right off the get go. Do we just count the old folks that die because of lack of AC? What about starvation due to agriculture failure? Of course we could add in the folks that get some of those pesky diseases from the hot and humid equatorial regions that are predicted to expand. In fact are expanding as we speak. Perhaps we should save a few categories as this looks to be rather inclusive.
    Yearly costs of disruption from extreme weather events and eco-exiles from useless lands.
    Costs of having an ocean filled with jelly fish as opposed to more palatable species.
    Costs of forests with trees soaking up carbon dioxide as opposed to treeless burnt carbon blackened expanses? Note photos of current pine bark beetle damage! LA fires and others around the world.
    Costs of preparing or moving our coastal cities and peoples from rising sea levels?
    Costs of species loss to humanity?
    For brevity will quit there but a quick calculation of those numbers look to be rather high and even divided by 4 or 5, US share of world emissions, quickly add up to more than the deaths and expenses of 9/11. Even if you throw in the Far-off-istan wars.
    So, what will it be folks, choose your poison… or just deny the whole disagreable mess.

  5. Lomborg says we don’t need cap-and-trade, just spending on energy research. Does that sound familiar?

    Maybe The Breakthrough Institute can give him a job as a fellow – if TBI is willing to reveal its anti-environment bias.

  6. paulm says:

    The awful ‘fact’ is leif we are going to be doing most of these adaptations even at a 3C increase. But we still have to mitigate.

  7. The Wall Street Journal is printing out the failed mumblings of a dying, choking, parasitic form of capitalism that enabled this mess.

    Pity. They could and should be leaders in change.

  8. TokyoTom says:

    Bill Chameides is right, and Lomborg is wrong, of course, but Chameides gives insufficient emphasis to the chief reason.

    As I have pointed out any number of times, such as when Lomborg, Yohe and Tol were going at it at Prometheus last September,, Lomborg`s glaring error is (1) to ignore all of the benefits in conservation, efficiency and private investments in GHG-lite technologies that can be gained from even a modest tax, in favor of (2) having government choose what “noncarbon based energy” technologies to research AND to bear all the costs of investment, presumably off the backs of ordinary taxpayers.

    Putting disagreements aside as to whether governments or industry and markets can better determine what investments makes sense, if one grants Lomborg`s case for governments running massive research programs, simply by passing the costs onto industry and energy users via carbon pricing the government would stimulate rapid changes in carbon-heavy energy use AND incentivize even greater private investment.

    Anyone really serious about climate change would neither leave all of these benefits on the table, nor leave all of the investment decisions with governments, with ordinary taxpayers and general revenues footing the bill.

  9. Donald B says:

    People need to view conservation like buying an annuity; but here the annuity pays an increasing (!) dividend with time. Buy extra insulation as the principal and get back the dividends which increase (in real terms, automatically adjusted for inflation) as the cost of fossil fuels rise.

  10. John Mashey says:


    I think this is Lomborg magical misdirection, yet again.

    Does Lomborg *really* want government running massive R&D projects?
    Does Lomborg *really* want government tax increases to pay for helping poor countries?

    Or does he just *not* want CO2 restrictions in developed countries?

  11. Rick Covert says:


    In response to your question I read it in a Wikipedia entry here:

    Here’s the specific bullet point in the summary of the review:

    Central estimates of the annual costs of achieving stabilization between 500 and 550ppm CO2e are around 1% of global GDP, if we start to take strong action now. […] It would already be very difficult and costly to aim to stabilize at 450ppm CO2e. If we delay, the opportunity to stabilize at 500-550ppm CO2e may slip away.

    I would be more than happy to be wrong on this point. So is what is being summarized here inaccurate?

    [JR: Well, first, this is CO2e. Second, this doesn’t seem to be “net” costs. But yes, 450 ppm CO2e is “difficult” depending on how you define that vague word. It’s very difficult politically. Costly is a relative matter. An investment of 2% to 3% of GDP with a net cost (not counting climate benefit) of 0.1% to 0.2% of GDP doesn’t strike me as costly — but it is a lot of money.]

  12. Mark says:

    Forgive me if I don’t hunt for all the links to provide the evidence for what I say in this post, but the Lomborg article in the WSJ makes one aware of two inconsistencies.

    The first is perhaps a bit sad, as it concerns a promising situation that could have made a real difference but in the end did not – or at least till now has not – come about.

    Some may recall that Rupert Murdoch, who owns the WSJ, a couple of years ago sent an eloquent, well-argued message to all his media outlets worldwide that global warming was real and a threat and that his outlets should take a leading role in helping address it.

    This sounded very good, and given Murdoch’s drive, could have been good.
    Yet, since, his The Australian, for example, while being a bit more “balanced” than the 110% denier previously was, has also continued to give oxygen to deniers like Plimer and Bob Carter.

    And I recall the WSJ has set up a green business page – and yet still provides a pulpit for Lomborg.

    Certainly an inconsistency there, and a shame – what Murdoch said in the message I referred to was in my opinion really good, and his outlets would have been a big extra shoulder to the wheel.

    The other inconsistency is more trivial and, of course, more comic. This is the continual inconsistency in Lomborg’s position – from global warming is real, but other things are more important to spend on, to now spruiking geo-engineering, and at a global level? One would have to check – but does he ever say – “I now see global warming is a bigger problem than I thought”? And of course, the inconsistencies in what he writes – particularly the cherry picking of research to try to suit his case. Does he really believe in his own position, I wonder, and not see his cases are full of holes, or does he do what he does for other reasons – the attention, for example?