Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Lomborg Phenomenon

Bjorn Lomborg has emerged once again as the world’s favourite global warming sceptic in the wash-up of the Stern Report. Lomborg wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal that was re-printed in the Australian on 6 November. In the article he attacks the report as flawed and scaremongering. Lomborg accepts that climate change is a problem but argues that the Stern report is error-ridden, too focussed on carbon emissions, selective and imbalanced. Lomborg thinks it naïve that the world will flawlessly implement the expensive century-long proposal and believes that China and India will not have enough incentive to participate.

Lomborg’s key position is that we are focussed on climate change to the exclusion of other important issues and this is not the best use of finite resources. Lomborg’s article has been praised as “informed debate” by the conservative commentator Christopher Pearson in today’s Australian. But not everyone is convinced that Lomborg has the credentials in the field to be taken seriously.

Bjorn Lomborg was born in 1965 in Denmark and educated at the University of Aarhus where he graduated with a Master’s degree in political science. He gained his doctorate at the University of Copenhagen three years later. He lectured in the University of Aarhus until 2005 and now works for the Copenhagen Business School. He shot to fame in 2001 with the publication of his peer reviewed book “The Sceptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the Environment”. This work immediately polarised the scientific community.

Critics pointed out his lack of credentials in the areas of environmental sciences and economics. But his supporters said his critics didn’t have those credentials either and also defended his research as an appropriate application of his expertise in cost-benefit analysis. Lomborg said he was an environmentalist and the book was a result of his personal convictions. It started out life as a counter argument what he saw as anti-ecological arguments in a 1997 Wired magazine article about university professor Julian L. Simon. The article on Simon called “The Doomslayer” claimed that Malthusian population explosion was a myth, food production in third world countries was improving, urban sprawl is decreasing and species loss was exaggerated. Simon’s optimistic view allied to a mountain of data forced Lomborg to rethink his thesis.

The Sceptical Environmentalist covered a wide range of issues, including environmental economics and science, and listed a comprehensive set of conclusions and suggestions. It challenged the status of environmentalist concerns by assembling and interpreting wide range of data. Most controversially the book suggested that environmentalists presented false claims which cause scarce resources to be diverted to environmental issues, which could be better spent elsewhere.

The book had 2,900 individual references. The book’s main argument is that problems such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, population growth and species loss are highly correlated with poverty. Lomborg accepted the reality of man-made global warming but argued the Kyoto protocol was an insufficient response. He claimed the economic cost of the restrictions to slow down or reverse global warming is impractically high compared to the alternative of coordinating the adjustment to global warming.

Lomborg was accused of scientific misconduct and environmental scientists brought three complaints against him to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD). The charges claimed the book contained deliberately misleading data and flawed conclusions. In 2003 the DCSD decided the book was scientifically dishonest, but found Lomborg not guilty because of lack of expertise in the fields in question. Lomborg appealed against the decision and the overseeing Danish ministry found that the DCSD had made a number of procedural errors in its decision. In 2004 the case was dropped on the basis that “renewed scrutiny would, in all likelihood, result in the same conclusion”.

Lomborg formed the Copenhagen Consensus Centre in wake of the book’s massive reaction. The centre aimed to establish priorities for advancing global welfare using methodologies based on the theory of welfare economics. Lomborg claimed that the best way to help was not to spend money protecting biodiversity but instead provide clean water and childhood education to developing countries. Critics argued that the centre was stacked with right-leaning anti-Kyoto scientists.

Lomborg is now the world's foremost anti-climate change expert. He is wheeled out to contradict the global warming message with every new event. As well as condemning the Stern Report, he denounced Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as a “film is full of emotion and provocative images, (but) it is short on rational arguments”. Instead, Lomborg argues, we should be concentrating on preventable diseases like HIV, diarrhoea, and malaria which kill 15 million people a year. Malnutrition, lack of education and no access to clean drinking water are also bigger problems, he contends. Lomborg does not deny global warming but he remains an inconvenient but cogent voice of dissent that suggests the way forward to solve the problems are not clear-cut. Whether he is right or wrong, his polarising influence is likely to grow as the climate change sceptics marshal their diminishing forces in the wake of growing support for worldwide action.

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