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The Lomborg Deception: The Septical Environmentalist (sic) says 16 feet of sea level rise wouldn’t be so bad, absurdly claims it would only “force the relocation of 15 million” people

By Joe Romm on March 14, 2010 at 3:48 pm

"The Lomborg Deception: The Septical Environmentalist (sic) says 16 feet of sea level rise wouldn’t be so bad, absurdly claims it would only “force the relocation of 15 million” people"


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Another op-ed by Bjorn Lomborg, another Gish Gallup of non-stop disinformation.  The good news is that the task of debunking the Septical Environmentalist (sic), has been made easier by the publication of whole book dedicated to that tedious task, The Lomborg Deception.

And yes, “Septical Environmentalist” is not a typo.  Sure, it may seem like a mistake to use the word “environmentalist” to describe Lomborg.  But it’s the very fact that he calls himself an environmentalist while dedicating his life to spreading disinformation and delaying serious action on the seminal environmental issue of our time that makes him septical.  What else would you call the Typhoid Mary of anti-science syndrome (ASS)?

Lomborg’s op-ed,”Cars, bombs and climate change” repeats many of his favorite howlers, and adds some new ones.  Let’s start with one of his favorite targets, one I’ve covered many times (see “Debunking Bj¸rn Lomborg “” Part II, Misrepresenting Sea Level Rise“), but here with a new bizarre twist:

If we actually face, as Al Gore recently put it, “an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventative measures to protect human civilization as we know it,” then no price would be too high to pay to stop global warming in its tracks. But are the stakes really that high?

The answer is no. Even the worst-case scenarios proposed by mainstream climate scientists — scenarios that go far beyond what the consensus climate models predict — are not as bad as Gore would have us believe.

For example, a sea-level rise of five meters — more than eight times what the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expects, and more than twice what is probably physically possible – would not deluge all or even most of mankind. Of course, such a rise would not be a trivial problem.

It would affect about 400 million people, force the relocation of 15 million, and imply costly protection of the rest. But it would certainly not mean the end of the world. Estimates show that the cost in terms of adaptation would be less than 1% of global GDP. In other words, the price of unchecked global warming may be high, but it is not infinite

Maybe this version of the Gish Gallup — “drowning the opponent in half-truths, lies, straw men, and bullshit to such a degree that the opponent cannot possibly answer every falsehood that has been raised” — should be called the Lomborg leap.

Lomborg knows that entire argument is crap best flushed down a septic system.  Why?

First, he never puts a date on when the 5 meters would occur.  You won’t find any serious climate scientist who says that five meters is not physically possible.  The IPCC’s 2007 Synthesis Report says on this subject (click here), “Partial loss of ice sheets on polar land and/or the thermal expansion of seawater over very long time scales could imply metres of sea level rise” and “Rapid sea level rise on century time scales cannot be excluded.”

Second, if he means 2100, then he knows the the IPCC clearly states “models [of sea level rise] used to date do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks nor do they include the full effect of changes in ice sheet flow.”  He knows there have been about a half-dozen major studies that “expect” much higher levels of sea level — see Sea levels may rise 3 times faster than IPCC estimated, could hit 6 feet by 2100 and this excellent new RealClimate post “Sealevelgate.”

Third, 5 meter of sea level rise would “force” the relocation of many more than 15 million.  Absent uber-costly adaptation, it would force the relocation of 300 to 400 million.  Now Lomborg can assert that people would spend hundreds of billions of dollars so people wouldn’t be forced to move, but that isn’t what the literature says.

Even in the Netherlands, a rich country with extensive experience in flood protection, where much of the country is already below sea level, a study interviewing Dutch experts about two different scenarios of 5 meter sea level rise over 100 years concluded:

Both scenarios indicate that the Southwest and Northwest of the Netherlands would be abandoned after the sea level rise.  Although most experts believe it is geo-morphologically and engineering-wise possible to largely maintain the territorial integrity of the Netherlands, there are some reasons to think that such is not likely to happen. The costs of such works would be enormous, annually a few percents of GDP.

Another 16-coauthor study led by Richard Tol (!) “Adaptation to 5 m of sea level rise” (again with expert interviews) concluded:

The face of London would change dramatically, while the Rhine and Rhone deltas would be largely abandoned. In the case of Rhine, this would imply a major relocation of population and industry for one of the world’s bigger economies. Compared to other climate change impacts, this is a very large impact. Note that France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are not particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Large impacts in these countries, imply much larger effects elsewhere. Although we do not know the probability of a WAIS collapse, let alone how this probability responds to greenhouse gas emission reduction, this does present itself as a clear case for precautionary emission abatement.


So the Rhine and Rhone deltas would be largely abandoned.  What do you think is gonna happen to Bangladesh and poor countries?

Here’s 5 meters SLR on Florida (and New Orleans) and Southeast Asia:

The potential impact of a 5-metre sea level rise in Florida (left) and Southeast Asia (right) (map/graphic/illustration)

It is conceivable that you could put a 10 meter levee system around Miami to deal with SLR and storm surge, but let’s remember two crucial things.  First, this is hurricane alley and everybody knows what happened to another major city that was under sea level and hit by a massive storm surge from a major hurricane.  In the 5 m SLR scenario, the planet is probably 5°C warmer and that means more Category 4 and 5 hurricanes (see “Nature: Hurricanes ARE getting fiercer “” and it’s going to get much worse“).   And remember, the land currently surrounding Miami protects it from hurricanes coming from other directions.  Ff you turn Miami into Singapore, aren’t an island (or a city behind a moat), then any approaching hurricane, even those from the south and west, won’t weaken before landfall.

But hurricanes are NOT the reason why cities will be abandoned under a multi-meter SLR scenario — and I don’t think the threshold is 5 m SLR over a century, it is probably under half that.

There are basically two scenarios for multi-meter SLR.  Expected (i.e. “slow”) and unexpected (i.e. fast).  In the unexpected  scenario, very rapid SLR over a short period of time, say a couple of decades, obviously people haven’t had time to prepare, so abandonment and “forced” relocation is almost a given.

In the “expected” scenario, abandonment is probably more likely.  That’s because this whole notion of 5 m of sea level rise is misleading.  There aren’t any plausible scenarios where sea levels rise of 5 meters over a century simply stops.  Indeed, I don’t think there plausible scenarios where sea level rise of 2 m over a century simply stops:

In just the 1.4 meter case, sea levels are probably rising 1 inch a year or more by 2100.


Note:  We are currently on the A1F1 emissions trajectory (see “U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm“).  And if we listen to Lomborg, we’ll pretty much stay on track for 800 to 1000 ppm this century.

In the 5 meter (16-foot) SLR case, sea levels probably reach a rise of more than 2 inches a year — maybe 2 feet a decade for a long, long time (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years”).

And don’t think this can’t happen:

So the notion that a 16-foot SLR would only force the relocation of 15 million is absurd.  Indeed, if the analysis by Rahmstorf in other leading peer-reviewed studies is correct, we’re looking at 100 million “forced” relocation by centuries end just from SLR.  [That doesn't count the relocation from the loss freshwater supplies from inland glaciers and Dust-Bowlification.]

And if you think the West Antarctic ice sheet is stable, well, I’ve been meaning to blog on a recent study that suggests otherwise, but for now, let me just quote the New Scientist magazine from January:

A major Antarctic glacier has passed its tipping point, according to a new modelling study. After losing increasing amounts of ice over the past decades, it is poised to collapse in a catastrophe that could raise global sea levels by 24 centimetres.

Pine Island glacier (PIG) is one of many at the fringes of the West Antarctic ice sheet. In 2004, satellite observations showed that it had started to thin, and that ice was flowing into the Amundsen Sea 25 per cent faster than it had 30 years before.

Now, the first study to model changes in an ice sheet in three dimensions shows that PIG has probably passed a critical “tipping point” and is irreversibly on track to lose 50 per cent of its ice in as little as 100 years, significantly raising global sea levels.

The team that carried out the study admits their model can represent only a simplified version of the physics that govern changes in glaciers, but say that if anything, the model is optimistic and PIG will disappear faster than it projects.

The time to ignore Lomborg is now!


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32 Responses to The Lomborg Deception: The Septical Environmentalist (sic) says 16 feet of sea level rise wouldn’t be so bad, absurdly claims it would only “force the relocation of 15 million” people

  1. From Peru says:

    “Note that France, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands are not particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise”

    London-Thamesis Bay is at near sea level and the Netherlands are already below sea level. Both depend on a high-tech levees and automated barriers to stop the sea from flooding them. Both suffered from severe flooding caused by storm surges in last century.

    How could those areas be qualified as “not particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise”?

  2. richard pauli says:

    Lomborg has an easy job: pandering to people’s fantasies.

  3. Sou says:

    People sometimes compare AGW to Y2K. What most don’t seem to realise is that there were no major problems with Y2K simply because they were attended to in time.

    We are not yet taking sufficient action to prevent the worst of AGW. If we do manage to reduce CO2 and other emissions enough to prevent rapid sea level rises, then I will happily put up with all those people who will say “the predictions were wrong”. Much better than acknowledging after the event that “the predictions were right”.

  4. Alex A. says:

    “La La La Lomborg”

    @From Peru (#1)

    I think that Netherlands and UK are not considered “particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise” because they don’t get hit by tropical storms.

    As Joe points out: the sea-level rise is bad, but the storm surge is what really gets you.

  5. mike roddy says:

    Debunking Lomborg is a cottage industry, since you can find a lie in just about every paragraph of his written and spoken work. The incredible part is that he still finds people to listen to him, and feature him in denier conferences and borderline serious events.

    Colbert once dissed him on his show, and Lomborg wasn’t even aware of it. The comedy treatment for people like The Dane is the best strategy.

  6. Bill Waterhouse says:

    US coastal cities and states need to do studies now of the costs of constructing seawalls, protecting potable groundwater from seawater intrusion, and other adaptations for sea level rise. These studies should determine at what point it becomes economically infeasible to protect low-lying areas if sea level rise continues. Resort cities that depend upon attracting tourists to beaches need to consider the loss of tourism as the beaches disappear, which will be exacerbated by construction of seawalls. These costs need to be recognized as among the real costs of doing nothing to reduce GHGs. Perhaps these studies can help mobilize wealthy waterfront coastal elites to understand the need for action now.

  7. J Bowers says:

    Information is Beautiful made a nice graphic for the Guardian, on sea levels (click on the pic):

  8. Guillaume Tell says:

    Obviously, the Lomborg Levees would not be limited to the coastline. They would have to extend up every river and tributary that is less than 16 feet above high-tide and storm-surge sea level.

    All storm water will have to be pumped over the Lomborg Levees.

    But the consequences aren’t all bad: airplane travel will become safer.
    Terrorist efforts will be redirected, to blasting holes in the Lomborg Levees.

  9. Richard L says:

    The more immediate effect I am concerned about is agriculture. I am a gardener and farmer wanna-be and have been practicing small scale production and studying large scale production for years now.

    Changing rainfall patterns, increasingly intense storms, etc. will have a significant effect on our sustenance. I know the distinction between long term climate and short term weather is hard to make. However, as the storm intensity increases we may all feel the effects of hunger in a few short years. Even excessive rainfall without flooding elevates plant disease and affects planting and harvesting capabilities.

    Can the significance/prominence of this issue be discussed in an urgent priority too, perhaps ahead of the eventual sea rise?

  10. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    What does the future hold: permanent sprinkler bans, farm input costs rising faster than grain prices, fuel poverty (people dying because they can’t afford to heat/cool their home). That part of future is already here, but it will get worse.

    Scientists are so busy defending the position that sea levels will rise they are falling behind on how nature is changing. They are so busy defending low ball projections that the probable rise is still being worked on.

    How did Lomberg come up with 15 million people being forced to move by a 5 meter rise? That figure is patently ridiculous, it would be almost that many in the US alone.

    Finally you are posting on the fact that sea levels will continue to rise after 2095.

    We will not spend millions defending a single suburb, when those defences will be washed away? People can be pretty stupid, I suspect there will be many protection attempts that will be obviously doomed before they start.

    Great work Joe. We need your posts, unfortunatly those who most need to read them don’t.

  11. Michael T says:

    Alex A. (#4)

    Those countries may not be in danger from tropical storms, but they’re vulnerable to the cyclonic windstorms that can hit Europe. James Hansen believes that as Greenland begins to melt faster, the icebergs will cool the high latitude oceans while the middle latitudes continue to warm. The increasing temperature gradient will drive stronger cyclonic storms like, Xynthia for example, that hit Europe a couple of weeks ago. Now I’m not saying global warming made this storm stronger, but that is the type of storms that combined with rising sea level will hurt low lying countries in Europe.


    Hansen talks with David Letterman (at 7:15) about the storms:

  12. David Stern says:

    Lomborg’s claim on 15 million is clearly ridiculous. Maybe he meant 150 million? Even that is too low obviously. The IiB chart is definitely wrong too. Downtown LA is 80-120m above sea level. Malibu beachfront, Marina Del Rey and LA-Long Beach port would be hit but that’s it.

  13. Lou Grinzo says:

    Never forget that this is only part 1 of Lomborg’s game plan. Deny, obfuscate, etc., until things hit the fan and then execute The Lomborg Pivot (gasp!). That’s when he goes from saying “Nothing to see here, move along.”, to “Holy crap! We need to spend endless billions on adaptation programs! And we need to do it now!!!”

    Guess which part of the ideological spectrum contains the people who run the companies that would get those contracts.

    Am I being absurd? Maybe. Someone tell me things won’t play out exactly as I said, assuming things get bad within Lomborg’s lifetime. I double-dog dare ya.

  14. This op-ed is also published in Australia’s national newspaper, The Australian. Tim Lambert has a series running on “The Australian’s war on science” of which the latest installment (#47) is http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/2010/03/the_australians_war_on_science_48.php

    The Australian’s headline for Lomborg’s op-ed is, “Fixing climate change shouldn’t cost the Earth” – see http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/fixing-climate-change-shouldnt-cost-the-earth/story-e6frg6zo-1225840644967

  15. Leif says:

    We are all personally aquatinted with the adage of: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

    With respect to global climatic disruption Lomborg and all disregard this basic assumption.
    First, it is ludicrous to assume that a 5 meter sea level rise will only displace 15 million people which he callously regards as relatively insignificant. None the less, let’s assume for a moment that his number is correct for arguments sake. Those 15 million will have to be reestablished some where and the last time I looked around, even today good property is hard to come by, as the good parts have been long settled. Just who is going to pony up the cash for resettlement? Will it be the third world who’s populations will be the most affected? I think not. They were not the prime cause of the displacement as we all know. So, guess who? If the rich nations decide to only be responsible for their own, (given our response to Katrina appears unlikely as well), then you are looking at a whole bunch of ticked off folks with not much more to lose. A volatile cocktail in my book.

    Second, as pointed out, sea levels will not STOP rising at 5 meters so the displacement does not stop. Each century we relive the same or worse disruption with dwindling surface area. Recall that the oceans of the world are aquatic desserts as well because of ocean acidification. It does not take much of an imagination to visualize much worse scenarios.

    On the other hand a successful effort at mitigation will endow humanity with predictable weather, forests and fields that continue to produce, oceans with diversity and productivity, rivers and streams for fish and wildlife, and even a bit of fossil fuel for future generations. I can only guess at the price of the last gallon of fossil fuel.

    Once again, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

  16. Chad says:

    Lomborg’s central premise is fundamentally flawed: cost-benefit analysis does not work on long time frames, as the discount rate matters far more than any input. For example a cost or benefit that occurs in the year 2100 has a “value” sixteen times greater if one assumes a 2% discount rate than if one assumes a 5% discount rate, which are the kinds of differing assumptions between Lomborg and say, Nicolas Stern. Worse yet, these assumptions only grow more absurd with time. Using Lomborg’s methodology, if we learned tomorrow that some catastrophe was going to wipe out every human on earth in the year 3000, and that we could prevent this today for one penny, Lomborg would conclude that it wasn’t worth doing. Assuming we had ten billion people then, worth $10 million each, that is only 10^19 pennies of value we would be protecting, which would have to be discounted at a factor of .95^990, or ~1e-22. Lomborg would conclude that we would be much better off investing in just about anything, because our heroic planet-saving penny would only bring us .001 cent in benefits.


  17. jon says:

    OK, I’ll try a ‘what if’. What if the sea level shifts up 16 feet and 15,000,000 people are displaced, I rather think that a low ball figure but I playing the game, would that loss of be of no significant value?

    As according to Richard Alley, there is an extra 200 feet of water piled up on land so isn’t there a better than even chance of a rise in sea level to be even more significant than a paltry a 16 foot rise?

    And what of the time line of this occurring? From what I have read that the current interglacial melt should last several more centuries, maybe more like a millennium, do we build walls every century to prepare for sea rise?

    What if human pollution far exceeds what is imagined and all ice is melted from the retention of heat?

    But I am just playing ‘what if’?

  18. jyyh says:

    As he’s danish maybe he meant 15 million in Europe? *checks numbers* I gotta stop blurting nonsense, I meant 1,5 million in Denmark.

  19. Peter Wood says:

    We could be on a worse than an A1F1 emissions trajectory, and ‘business as usual’ is likely to be worse than A1F1. See for example:

    Garnaut, R., Howes, S., Jotzo, F. and Sheehan, P. (2008), ‘Emissions in the Platinum Age: the implications of rapid development for climate change mitigation’, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, vol. 24, pp. 377-401.

  20. johna says:

    Thanks Mr Friel for performing a nearly thankless task! I tried to track down a couple of the claims in that book myself last year. The references Lomborg uses are exceedingly vague. Books are cited but no page number is given. Science papers are referred to by newspaper coverage rather than the source article. And if I remember right, the d#@%& thing even lacks an index.

  21. James says:

    Sea Level rise doesn’t just mean land is lost to the sea it also means that seawater contaminates ground water supplies. This has serious effects, not least for for irrigation. Exactly the last thing you want when global population is increasing.

  22. Lou Grinzo says:

    New interview with Lomborg:


    Notice his assertion that it’s a 50-100 year problem, and that the only solution in the short term (not the best, but the only solution) is geoengineering. As I said above, watch for the Lomborg Pivot.

    I have never understood how anyone can study our situation and not understand the extreme urgency caused by timing. The very long lifetime of atmospheric CO2, the level of committed warming we’ll face no matter what we do, and the latency in initiating meaningful action and then actually reducing CO2 emissions significantly all add up to an emergency situation right now. As Bill McKibben pointed out some time back, this is NOT a case of buying insurance in case our house catches fire, but grabbing a fire extinguisher because the building’s already burning.

    I’m not suggesting that Lomborg is so naive that he doesn’t get it. I think he understands things as well as any of us, but he’s being steered by ideology away from reaching the obvious conclusion.

  23. jorleh says:

    Lomborg brand is making money.

    Telling the old story (lie) once more and again; success is sure (money coming) and Bjorn having a big laugh. Rather good business.

  24. Mike#22 says:

    A 5 meter rise in sea level will make it a lot easier to canoe around the Washington Monument.


  25. Peter Lundell says:

    @ From Peru (#1), Alex A. (#4), and Michael T (#12): “Vulnerable” in this context refers to socio-economic vulnerability to the impact of sea-level rise, not physical vulnerability. They are countries with large GDPs and would be better able to cope with the impact than would, say, Bangladesh.

  26. I think you meant:

    There are basically two scenarios for multi-meter SLR: “expected” (i.e., slow) and “unexpected” (i.e., fast).

    [JR: Doh!]

  27. Bill R says:

    The idea that a 5-meter rise would not be a major catastrophe for civilization has got to be among the most crazy things I’ve ever heard this man contend. How expensive would it be to rebuild ALL of our coastal ports in the world. The idea that we are going to build levee systems around all of these cities in the century of peak oil and coal is a piece of fantasy.

    The man is a represenation of how divorced pure free-market ideology is from the phyisical sciences. If we have enough money, we should be able to build whatever we want!

  28. sigh…

    The real point is that Lomborg’s handlers have told him to get out there and confuse the public on sea level rise.

    Their minion wmar on Dumb Earth has taken to saying variously that sea level rise doesn’t exist, isn’t rising fast, or has risen in the past, and so what?

    RealClimate is busy talking about SeaLevelGate.

    Do you not get it!?!

    Just in case you don’t — what this all means is that once again Big Oil and Big Coal have succeeded in getting out in front and taking control of the discussion on real events.

    Do you think companies with off-shore drilling platforms don’t know that the sea is rising???

    What about their port facilities where their tankers off and on load?

    What about their super tankers that are getting hit with stronger and higher waves?

    They know exactly what is going on out there — they have to pay for the fuel to transport all that oil and gasoline across the world’s oceans. Do you think they have not noticed that their costs are going up?

    What about the insurance companies — do you think they haven’t decided to charge more to container ship owners?

    Lomborg is a puppet. He has no brains of his own.

    Follow the money.

  29. Bjorn Lomborg is a man without shame. I have debated him three times (twice when I was Executive Director of Sierra Club of Canada and once after I became leader of the Green Party of Canada.) He has invented padded footnotes to buttress points without foundation. I tracked all his footnotes for Skeptical Environmentalist. The bibiliography (Author and Work list) to footnote (Author and page number) chase is deliberately structured to defeat all but the most diligent fact-checker. What is striking is the number of quite outrageous claims where the footnoted article does not support Lomborg’s claims. A large number end up being “personal communication” or web sites that no longer exist.

    He has been found guilty of authoring a book of academic dishonesty — a charge later dismissed on a technicality.

    Neither skeptical, nor an environmentlist, he is a champion of sophistry over substance.

    He is also dangerous. His laughable calculations continue to be reported as though valid by a gullible (complicit?) media. He obfuscates and charms his way into nearly saturation media coverage.

    At the Copenhagen climate talks, when 20,000 ngos were shut out in the last few days, Lomborg was always in the room. With a conservative Prime Minister in Denmark, with a record of appalling ineptitude in the managing of the conference by that same PM, one has to wonder, how much influenece does this charleton actually have?

  30. Dorothy says:

    Thank you, Elizabeth May, for your comment. You have probably known Lomborg longer than most of us and understand him better. In fiction, his character would be laughable; but in real time, in our real world, he cannot be ignored.

    Clever catalysts like Lomborg may get through their own lives unscathed, but they can profoundly effect the fate of many innocent people. They should be confronted at every opportunity.

    And thank you too, Joe, for blowing on the coals of our (tired activists’) hearts.

  31. ken levenson says:

    Richard L. #10,

    SLR will is already having direct effects on agriculture and will put terrible pressure on countries’ ability to feed their populations. In the Nile delta and the Ganges delta the little bit of SLR already experienced has made “large” areas of formally productive land brackish and unusable. Egypt’s agricultural lands are submerging – it is an unfolding tragedy….now.