In a recent op-ed in Washington Post, Bjorn Lomborg argued that efforts to reduce global warming pollution can wait, because “coping with climate change is something we know how to do.” To bolster that claim — which goes against the consensus of practically every scientific body in the world — Lomborg cited “the fact that the best research we have – from the United Nations climate panel – says that global sea levels are not likely to rise more than about 20 inches by 2100.” Lomborg concluded that “fears of a supposedly imminent apocalypse threaten to swamp rational debate about climate policy”:
Obviously, whether it involves dikes or buckets of white paint, adaptation is not a long-term solution to global warming. Rather, it will enable us to get by while we figure out the best way to address the root causes of man-made climate change. This may not seem like much, but at a time when fears of a supposedly imminent apocalypse threaten to swamp rational debate about climate policy, it’s worth noting that coping with climate change is something we know how to do.
Because Washington Post editorial editor Fred Hiatt did not bother to fact-check Lomborg’s column, the Wonk Room took on the task. We chose to test the new Climate Science Rapid Response Team, a scientist-run initiative to link top climate scientists with the media officially launched today. After we submitted questions about Lomborg’s claims to the team, we received comprehensive answers from three top climate scientists within 48 hours, even though we made our inquiries before the official launch.
In separate e-mail interviews (the scientists also offered to conduct phone interviews), the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology’s Ken Caldeira, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Josh Willis, and Rutgers University’s Alan Robock independently confirmed that Bjorn Lomborg had misrepresented the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report.
Caldeira, who believes “one meter (or three feet) per century from melting ice sheets is probably in the right ball park” for future sea level rise, explained what Lomborg left out when citing the “20 inches by 2100” figure:
Like mercury in a thermometer, seawater expands and rises as it heats up. Melting ice also causes sea level rise. The third assessment report considered only thermal expansion of the ocean and not melting glacial ice.
Willis discussed the details of the IPCC report further:
Bjorn’s claim that the IPCC report says that global sea levels are not likely to rise more than about 20 inches by 2100 is incorrect. You have to remember that the sea level projections in the 2007 IPCC report had a big asterisk by them. The report was very clear that the 20 inch projection was probably too low because it did not account for the kinds of dynamic changes in the glaciers and ice sheets that we see today. In fact, the IPCC report was careful to say that they could not place any upper bound on the amount of sea level rise that is likely over the next century.
Robock’s response reaffirmed Willis and Caldeira. Furthermore, when asked the research the IPCC summarized still “the best research we have” on the likely range of sea level rise, Robock said, “Absolutely not”:
Absolutely not. It was the best we had five years ago, but there has been a lot of work since then, including better observations of the rate of melting from Greenland and Antarctica and better models.
Robock also explained that Lomborg mischaracterized the work of the world scientific community when he argued that those who call for the immediate reduction of global warming pollution are relying on “fears of a supposedly imminent apocalypse”:
His choice of words is very alarmist and cherry-picking from other alarmists. The IPCC and the world scientific community do not say “supposedly imminent apocalypse.” They engage in rational debate. He is saying that extremists on one side are much more influential than it seems to me that they are. In fact it is the extremists who argue against any response to global warming who have been much more effective so far.
He is also wrong in asserting that we know how to adapt to climate change. If that were true, nobody would be worried about it. How do we adapt to massive extinctions of natural species? How do we adapt to all the major coastal cities of the world having to deal with flooding from stronger storms and rising sea level? Dikes will not do it.
And there are no geoengineering techniques that have ever even been tested, let alone shown to produce less risks than the risks of global warming.
But I agree that adaptation is not a long-range solution. Mitigation is, but we have to get started immediately.
Of course, none of this is actually news. At Real Climate, top sea-level specialist Stefan Rahmstorf explained the IPCC sea level numbers back in March, 2007. At Climate Progress, Joe Romm debunked Lomborg’s lies about sea level rise back in September, 2007. And climate scientists have been warning the presidents of the United States of the “vast geophysical experiment” of global warming since the 1960s, and calling for reduction in fossil fuel use by the 1970s.