Why Bjorn Lomborg is the dunces hat” for Copenhagen Conservatives

Danish Pork: Nice and juicy, for some

Guest blogger Paulina Essunger is a freelance science writer.

One year ago, the far-right, antiscience* Danish People’s Party (DPP) (cue Sheb Wooley) requested that the annual earmarks for the controversial think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center (CCC), be tripled in the year leading up to the top climate meeting, COP-15.

The Liberal-Conservative minority administration chose to compromise on this issue, and the 2009 budget ended up containing DEK 7.5 million for the think tank run by the notorious climate contrarian Bj¸rn Lomborg. This year, Lomborg once again got to be, as one member of parliament put it, “the dunce’s hat that the DPP makes the Conservatives, wear, year after year, during budget negotiations.” In the budget finalized last month, Lomborg upped his previously scheduled earmarks, for a total of DEK 18 million over the next four years.

Last year’s decision was hotly contested by the opposition parties, prompting a special session in which then-Climate and Energy Minister Connie Hedegaard was asked why the government wanted to focus attention on Lomborg, of all people, and fund his projects, in conjunction with COP-15. As bizarre as last year’s decision was, last month’s decision is even harder to understand. (Until this morning, Wednesday, December 16,Hedegaard was president of COP-15; last month, she was named European Commissioner for Climate Action.)

The extra money allocated in last year’s agreement was tied to a particular assignment. The administration claimed that the specifications for this assignment would prevent Lomborg from assuming his trademark position, namely to argue that the global community should focus on other problems, not global climate disruption. Whether the administration really thought Lomborg’s work would be of value or the assignment specifications were just a face-saving feature is not obvious.

The budget agreement for 2009 directed CCC to consider alternatives for dealing with climate change, not-as is Lomborg’s wont-to propose alternatives to dealing with climate change. This certainly seems more reasonable than simply paying Lomborg to undermine the official government efforts with respect to COP-15 in any way he might see fit.

But that’s not saying much. Indeed, last year, Ida Auken, climate spokesperson for the Socialist People’s Party, compared asking Lomborg to conduct this analysis to asking an anti-regulation think tank to analyze how best to regulate financial markets. A bit like asking the boogeyman to babysit your children. This time around, when the new budget agreement was reached, with no pro-climate strings whatsoever attached to Lomborg’s earmarks, Auken tweeted: “18 million more to Lomborg in the budget. V and K [the administration parties] protest. Who’s running this nation, anyway?”

In November 2008, the budget agreement specified (pdf) what the additional 200 percent be used for:

[The project objective] is to clarify possible solutions to the climate challenges ahead of the climate conference. The project aims to clarify benefits and costs of different possible solution models in conjunction with an international treaty.

In the special session last November, Hedegaard explained:

“Lomborg’s [new] assignment is not to say anything about whether the climate issue should or shouldn’t be prioritized.

The budget agreement actually specifies precisely”¦what is supposed to come [from the extra funding]. It says that the project aims to clarify benefits and costs of various possible solution models in conjunction with an international climate treaty. It’s there in black and white, actually, what the assignment asks Bj¸rn Lomborg and his center to weigh in on.

So, he’s supposed to do something a bit different from what he usually does, because in this case he’s directed to consider the entirely concrete solution models that are on the table in the climate negotiations. And then he can’t say that it’s better to do all kinds of other things. The assignment is to work with entirely concrete models, that are already on the table, and tell us what the impact of these may be, and what the costs of these may be.”

The project specifications, and the way Hedegaard presented these in the special session, certainly suggest an attempt to put the best possible face on the head wearing the dunce’s hat. More from Hedegaard:

“It’s of considerable importance whether the administration has asked Bj¸rn Lomborg to offer what he is wont to offer, namely that we really should be prioritizing everything else rather than fight climate change. That’s what we’ve heard so far from Copenhagen Consensus. But even so, that’s not what Bj¸rn Lomborg is supposed to weigh in on now. He is supposed to estimate costs, and as far as that goes, I think they’re pretty clear on that themselves over at Copenhagen Consensus, because I read in the [Special Magazines’ Press Agency newsletter] today that they are going to perform economic analyses of the solutions that are on the table and consider what it [sic] will cost and and how much it will contribute to solving the problem. We do not in any way take a position on whether the one or the other is good or bad, and what the politicians should implement or not, they said. So, to that extent, it’s a pretty clear message.”

Hedegaard was referring to an interview with the CCC project manager, Tommy Petersen in which he did say:

“We do not in any way take a position on whether the one or the other is good or bad, and what the politicians should implement or not.”

(Courtesy of Special Magazines’ Press Agency, November 18, 2008)

Apparently, the CCC web designer did not get the memo:


The website also explains:

The Copenhagen Consensus Center is a think-tank based in Denmark that tells governments and philanthropists around the world about the best ways to spend aid and development money.
We commission research that analyzes the optimal ways to combat the biggest problems facing the world.
We promote the use of sound economic science – especially the principle of prioritization – to make sure that with limited resources, we achieve the most ‘good’ for people and the planet.

This confusion, if that’s the right word, about what the think tank would and wouldn’t do is a loss of face for the administration. To add insult to injury, this time around no good face, let alone best face, can be put on the decision-no special specifications meant to serve as a straitjacket for Lomborg’s “deliberate deception”** were provided this time, just money for the center and its regular projects.

It is hard to understand how the Danish government, with just a few weeks to go to COP-15 (now, at the half-way mark), with the eyes of the world focusing in on the small, flat nation, could possibly have chosen to compromise in this particular area, could have chosen to throw even more money at Lomborg than they had already committed. Administration party officials were calling for an audit of Lomborg’s center, saying that he is an entertainer, a performer, not a researcher; the climate spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s own party, had proposed, with thinly veiled sarcasm: “We should consider a cost-benefit analysis to see whether we get the greatest environmental benefit by giving the money to Lomborg’s center.” And, most jarringly, the hotly contested extra money for the COP-15 project had ended up funding a recommendation that we prioritize geoengineering solutions.

It is unclear if Hedegaard’s expectations for the Copenhagen Consensus Center COP15 Initiative have been met. What “solution-models” did she have in mind, when she claimed Lomborg would look at those that were “already on the table”? How do the “solutions” Lomborg focused on relate to those in the real world, at stake in Copenhagen today? (The minister’s own office did not offer a response to our question of what solutions or kinds of solutions Hedegaard believed were “on the table” in November 2008, instead directing us to the ministry which handles Lomborg’s funding.)

The general Copenhagen Consensus methodologies have been criticized at length. Above we saw how Hedegaard exasperatedly characterized Lomborg’s standard position to be to conclude that “we really should be prioritizing everything else rather than fight climate change.” Among the critics are also some of the projects’ own expert solution-report authors and some of the top economists doing the notorious “ranking.” The charge of “deliberate deception” mentioned above comes from a group of these authors, including Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University. Following the release of Lomborg’s COP-15 project results this past summer, Yohe wrote an op-ed for the Danish publication (English language version courtesy of Yohe):

Negotiators who will converge on Copenhagen in December surely understand that we need a portfolio of policies informed by decision-support techniques that recognize risk. I expect that they understand that, in particular, pricing carbon appropriately is an essential complementary piece to engaging in new technology development (to overcome the “valley of death” between technology development and effective and pervasive market penetration) and supporting other policies. Indeed, some technologies like carbon sequestration will not work at all unless carbon is priced – predictably and increasing over time. Flying in the face of this wisdom, the Copenhagen Consensus exercise almost precludes the identification of a policy portfolio by virtue of its very design (nothing but benefits versus costs) and its option-by-option ranking procedures.

Much of the expert criticism of Lomborg’s general projects is complex and technical, but here’s one particularly striking point: If the goal really is the most good for the most people, a form of utilitarianism Lomborg explicitly espouses, then surely the scale of the problem needs to be considered, not just the return on what may be, in context, a relatively small investment.

There’s a difference between, on the one hand, getting the biggest bang for your buck, and, on the other hand, doing the greatest good. If we really wanted to “do the most good” or “reduce the most suffering,” then surely we should consider the net benefit (benefits minus costs) and not (just) the ratio of benefits to costs. According to the expert climate economists who wrote the climate change report for the Copenhagen Consensus 08:

[I]f the net benefit (total benefit – total cost) were compared for each policy proposal, the climate policy packages would most likely be ranked higher than most if not all options considered.” (Yohe et al., The inappropriate treatment of climate change in Copenhagen Consensus 2008, submitted, emphasis added)

*All translations by this reporter.
**This characterization of Lomborg’s approach as one of “deliberate deception” is found in Global Crises, Global Solutions, p. 269, edited by Lomborg himself.

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