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Voodoo Economists 4: The idiocy of crowds or, rather, the idiocy of (crowded) debates

Once again, three climate activists who are not terribly good at debating agreed to participate in a decidedly unscientific format against people who mostly make stuff up. And what a shock, it had a bad outcome — although this one seems to be partly a result of gaming the vote as much as anything else.

In 2007, it was the now-infamous climate science debate, broadcast by NPR on the proposition “Global warming is not a crisis” (see Why scientists aren’t more persuasive, Part 2: Why deniers out-debate “smart talkers”). The pro-science side lost to the anti-science make-stuff-up side (Michael Crichton, Richard Lindzen, Philip Stott) on that one.

So you can imagine what happened when the debate proposition moved over to economics, “Major Reductions in Carbon Emissions Are Not Worth the Money” — especially with the ‘pro’ (i.e. delayer) side handled by three world-class economist-loving liars make-stuff-uppers: Bjorn Lomborg, Peter Huber, and Stott (details here, transcript here and, for true masochists, NPR audio here).

NOTE #1 TO ALL PRO-CLIMATE-ACTION DEBATERS: It is very hard to win a staged debate with people who make stuff up. It is next to impossible to do so if they are skilled debaters. And you are guaranteed to lose if it isn’t a one-on-one debate. Why? The only way to out-debate somebody who makes stuff up is to call them out on it. And if they keep doing it, you have to keep calling them out. Even the most skilled debater has difficulty publicly questioning the honesty and integrity of opponent again and again (which is why you rarely see anyone attempt it). But you’ll never convince an audience that multiple ‘experts’ are making stuff up.

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The final result of this absurdly unscientific and meaningless activity was preordained. It was also so bogus that even the organization that put on the pointless debate actually acknowledged in its own press release (here) that part of the audience (the conservatives, of course) gamed the system:

The audience … initially didn’t favor the motion, with 49 percent opposed, 35 percent undecided and only 16 percent supporting it….

The sentiments of the crowd changed after the debate, with 48 percent still for paying to cut carbon while 42 percent now convinced it wasn’t worth the price. (Ten percent said they were still undecided.) After the debate, participants decried the format as no way to get at ideas and Huber had an inkling why his side succeeded: strategic voting. In other words, many of those already convinced that cutting carbon is a boondoggle pretended to be undecided.

When an organization staging a debate puts out a press release that openly undercuts the results, you have to wonder why a serious media outlet like NPR would even bother covering it.

As for the debate itself, Lomborg is one of the craftiest people I’ve ever debated. His knowledge of climate science is encyclopedic, which is the biggest clue that he is a compulsive liar. His biggest trick is that he hides behind the IPCC report, but he thoroughly mischaracterizes it and simply ignores the parts he doesn’t agree with:

We’ve entrusted the UN Climate Panel, the so-called IPCC, with its thousands of scientists, to outline the most likely climate consequences. They do not support Tickell, or any of the other, more alarmist writings of recent times.

Actually, the IPCC does (see “Absolute MUST Read IPCC Report: Debate over, further delay fatal, action not costly”). And, of course, the 2007 IPCC report is almost certainly a serious understatement of what is likely to happen on the business as usual path (see “Hadley Center: Catastrophic 5–7°C warming by 2100 on current emissions path”). And, even more pathetically, as Lomborg well knows, the entire thrust of the IPCC report is to argue that the cost of inaction is much higher than the cost of action (which the IPCC puts at about 0.11% of GDP a year for stabilizing at 450 ppm).

What the IPCC does tell us is, yes, sea levels will rise, somewhere between six and 24 inches over the coming century. Such a rise is entirely manageable, and not dissimilar to the about 12 inches we barely noticed, have risen over the last 150 years.

Lomborg knows that he is misstating what the IPCC said (see “Debunking Bj¸rn Lomborg — Part II, Misrepresenting Sea Level Rise”) and that the IPCC explicitly says it is omitting ice dynamics that could lead to much higher rates of sea level rise. Most important, Lomborg knows that the scientific literature since the IPCC report (whose analysis is based on reseach only through about 2oo5) is all on the side of much more alarming rates of sea level rise of the kind Tickell warns about (see “Startling new sea level rise research: “Most likely” 0.8 to 2.0 meters by 2100“). Heck, even the Bush Administration acknowledged as much last month in a major report reviewing the scientific literature of the last few years (see US Geological Survey stunner: Sea-level rise in 2100 will likely “substantially exceed” IPCC projections).

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Tickell spoke next, but pretty much let Lomborg get away with this nonsense. He should simply have said that Lomborg’s comments were factually wrong, that they were at odds with every recent study. Instead, he talked about what happened 55 million years ago, but as a stand-alone argument, I just don’t think that’s compelling to people. It was, after all, 55 million years ago.

I do not want to waste a lot of time criticizing allies or debunking somebody who has been debunked as much as Lomborg (see “Lomborg skewers the facts, again” and Debunking Bj¸rn Lomborg — Part III, He’s a Real Nowhere Man).

But Lomborg was mistakenly labeled an economist by the debate organizers (see here), and he repeatedly cites economists to defend his do-nothing approach:

We must save the world, yes. And here’s how. At The Copenhagen Consensus Project last year, a panel of the world’s most distinguished economists looked at a wealth of research of all the major problems in the world, and the possible solutions to them. And they showed us where we can do the most good.

They agreed that global warming’s real, and they were unanimous that the best way to tackle it is by investing much more in research and development in low carbon energy technologies. The economists also found that carbon emission cuts, tonight’s motion, would be the poorest use of our money.

They confirmed that we can do so much more good elsewhere, that we need to ease our preoccupation with cutting carbon, and focusing much more on fixing the real problems of the here and now. This is about saving everyone’s world.

Now citing a bunch of distinguished economists as evidence that we shouldn’t spend serious money mitigating greenhouse gas emissins now (as opposed to delaying for an unspecified amount of time) is like … citing a bunch of ‘distinguished’ right-wingers on the same point [see, for instance, Voodoo economists, Part 2: Robert Mendelsohn says global warming is “a good thing for Canada” and Voodoo Economists, Part 3: MIT and NBER (and Tol and Nordhaus) — the right wing deniers love your work. Ask yourself “why?”].

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You can read about the Copenhagen consensus and its flaws at Wikipedia here. Lomborg conceived and organized, hand-picking the largely anti-Kyoto group of economists to get the outcome he wanted, but that wasn’t tough since these are (friggin’) economists!

As The Economist (!) magazine itself wrote of the effort that it co-sponsered (!):

… there is little reason to suppose that politicians or the wider public will go along with a consensus reached among a group of economists, a tribe renowned in the wider world for its desiccated view of human welfare.

Ouch!

Even The Economist magazine sees economists as having a view of human welfare that is “drained of emotional or intellectual vitality,” as Merriam-Webster defines the word. I don’t even think the word ironic does justice to that. I’m gonna have to make up a word — hyper-irony or meta-irony or irony squared or maybe irony factorial (irony!).

The Copenhagen consensus of economists doesn’t prove that combating climate change is the poorest use of our money. It proves that if you want to combat climate change, funding economists is the poorest use of our money.

For the record, here is the list of Lomborg-loving desiccants that should once and for all disprove the “wisdom of crowds” theory — Nobelists (!) are asterisked:

  • Jagdish Bhagwati
  • Robert Fogel*
  • Bruno Frey
  • Justin Yifu Lin
  • Douglass North*
  • Thomas Schelling*
  • Vernon L. Smith*
  • Nancy Stokey

Compared to Peter Huber, Bjorn Lomborg is Sir Thomas More. I’m not certain that any energy analyst in the world has been so conclusively debunked as Huber.

Huber and Mark Mills simply made up a bunch of numbers involving the energy used by key components of the Internet (like routers) to argue in Forbes magazine back in 1999 (here) that already the Internet used 8% of U.S. electricity — and that the electricity consumption of the Internet was rising so quickly that:

It’s now reasonable to project that half of the electric grid will be powering the digital-Internet economy within the next decade.

It’s 2009, boys — how is that prediction looking now? [Pause for laughter, indefinitely.]

Electricity demand growth has been singularly unexceptional since the explosion of traffic on the Interent. If anything, the Interent is a net energy saver, as I and others have shown (see “Ignore the media hype and keep Googling — The energy impact of web searches is very LOW”). Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has an entire website devoted to a point-by-point technical debunking of Huber and Mills.

I am loathe to quote Huber’s lies at all, but his core argument — that there’s nothing we can possibly do to stop the developing country’s from burning every lump of coal, that developing countries will never embrace renewables and that rich countries shouldn’t either — must be addressed:

In fact, it betrays a profound ignorance about how difficult it is to get huge amounts of energy out of these very dilute, thin forms of fuel, like sun and wind. Renewable technologies are not moving down the same plummeting cost curves that we’ve seen in our laptops and our cell phones.

When you replace conventional with renewable everything gets bigger, not smaller — much, much bigger — and costs get higher, not lower. China and India won’t trade three cent coal for fifteen cent wind or thirty cent solar.And if we force those expensive technologies on ourselves, we will certainly end up doing more harm than good.

There are lies, damn lies, and Peter Huber’s remarks.

Everything he said is made up. It is incredibly well documented that renewables have been moving down the cost curves for over two decades. See, for instance, the International Energy Agency report, Experience Curves for Energy Technology Policy. Yes, in the last few years, that price drop has stalled, because of incredible 30% growth year after year (driven in large part by dropping prices) and generally soaring commodity prices that have caused coal and nuclear power plants costs to double in cost or more (see “Power plants costs double since 2000 — Efficiency anyone?”).

Anybody have the cost curves for laptops and cell phones over the past two decades? They stopped “plummeting” in cost quite some time ago.

And “three cent coal” vs. fifteen cent wind or thirty cent solar is crap, true voodoo economics. It is comparing the cost of coal electricity from fully paid off coal plants with power from new renewables — and then arbitrarily doubling the price of power from the best new wind and solar thermal baseload. Or, rather, he is quoting the wind price from a decade ago and ignoring concentrated solar thermal and only quoting the high end for solar PV. Huber is stuck in the 1990s, the last time he was right about anything.

For the record, a Moody’s analysis from last May put the cost of new coal at over 11 cents per kWh using a relatively optimist capital cost (see here).

You might think it surprising that Huber would peddle such amateur, easily debunked stuff, but it is quite effective in a debate, if you don’t get called on it. The next speaker, Adam Werbach, never rebutted it. Our side typically doesn’t, which is why their side keeps lying making stuff up.

NOTE #2 TO ALL PRO-CLIMATE-ACTION DEBATERS: The most effective way to win a debate (i.e. persuade an audience to your point of view) is to find one or more clear factual errors in your opponent’s remarks and beat over the head with them. Doing that a couple of times is infinitely more effective than sticking with your spiel and ignoring what they said, which is the equivalent to the audience of agreeing with them. If you can make them backpedal on one key point, the audience will tend to dismiss everything they said.Compared to Philip Stott (“biogeographer / revivalist preacher”), Peter Huber is Albert Einstein:

Let me therefore start, by science, I’m not going to say much on science… It’s actually not very much about the science, it’s always been about economic and political choice.

No, it’s always been very much about the science about the fact that unrestricted emissions of greenhouse gases will have devastating consequences for life on this planet, including ours.

The deniers and delayers like to pretend they aren’t going to dispute the science, but they must or else they would lose every debate. That’s why Lomborg does. And Stott, too:

But I just want you to have one image, and it’s a very serious scientific image, I want you to think of the world… I want you to think of the world from inner Siberia, to Greenland, then to Singapore, and then come to the Arab states and to Sahara. What, ladies and gentlemen, is the temperature range I have just covered. It is from minus 20 degrees C, to nearly 50 degrees C, a range of 70 degrees C, in which humanity has adapted and learnt to live. [APPLAUSE] We are talking about, ignoring the extremes that Oliver said, a prediction of 2 to 3 degrees C, what a funk! [LAUGHTER, [APPLAUSE]

I’m very serious, what a funk! Humanity lives successfully from Greenland to Singapore to Saudi Arabia. 70 degrees C. And what is more, the carbon reductions will not produce an outcome that is predictable. Climate is the most complex, coupled, nonlinear, chaotic system known to man. Of course there are human influences in it, nobody denies that. But what outcome will they get, by fiddling with one variable at the margins. I’m sorry, it’s scientific nonsense. And a very serious nonsense. [APPLAUSE]

Classic rhetorical trick, as befits a revivalist preacher: Say you aren’t going to spend time taking on the science, and then do so anyway.

This line of argument is a standard denier talking point, but it is laughably weak. The issue is not whether humanity can adapt to wide-ranging local climates around the planet, but what 5.5°C planetary warming (or more) — not “a prediction of 2 to 3 degrees C” local warming — would do.

Even 3°C warming this century takes the planet back temperatures last seen when we were ice free and sea levels were 80 meters higher. Even 3°C warming this century wipes out 40% to 70% of all species, according to the IPCC.

The fact that the climate is complex, coupled, nonlinear, and chaotic is precisely the reason we can’t risk warming above 2°C. The response to this is easy. Repeat one of his words. Yes, the climate is “nonlinear.” That’s why all the latest science says we are close to tipping points, close to set off amplifying feedbacks that will greatly increase the rate of warming. We must act now to avoid the catastrophic nonlinear response.

Stott’s mocking attack minimizing the threat of climate change works only if his opponent doesn’t bother rebutting it. My friend and former colleague Hunter Lovins did not — as I suspect Stott knew, since that is not her thing.

NOTE #3 TO ALL PRO-CLIMATE-ACTION DEBATERS: The central debating tactic of the deniers and delayers is to raise arguments they know you are unprepared — or unwilling — to rebut. When they debate climate scientists, they typically raise points outside of that scientists’ area of expertise and/or focus on issues of cost, which they know climate scientists are very reluctant to talk about (since scientists are by and large trained not to opine on matters outside of their disciplin). When they debate people knowledgeable about cost issues, they talk about the science. Either way, they score unanswered points and spread their disinformaton.MY FINAL PLEA: If you aren’t prepared to defend both the science and the solutions/cost side of the issue, please, do us all a favor and turn down any debates you are offered. You aren’t helping the cause of preserving a livable climate. Quite the reverse. And if you are going to debate professional debaters and make-stuff-uppers like Lomborg, Huber, and Stott, please do some homework. Review their core, repeated arguments and be prepared to rebut them very hard. Or stay home.

Bonus suggestion: If you are debating an economist, remember that The Economist itself said that economists have a view of human welfare that is desiccated, “drained of emotional or intellectual vitality.” Let ’em try to rebut that!

UPDATE: Do read Bill McKibben’s comments below.