09 August 2008

Lomborg's new discoveries: Old wine in new bottles

In Lecture 35 I discussed Bjørn Lomborg as a practician of partisan science, of willfully deformed science designed to counter criticism of the activities of big business and its government associates. In his book The Sceptical Environmentalist" Lomborg tried (in the words of the advertising text on the book's website at Cambridge University Press) to "challenge widely held beliefs that the environmental situation is getting worse and worse". As "a former member of Greenpeace" he argued that the dangers of global climate change are exaggerated and that "there are more reasons for optimism than pessimism." Cambridge University Press even claims that his book "offers readers a non-partisan stocktaking exercise."

This was in 2001, when Lomborg was on his way to become director of Denmark's national Environmental Assessment Institute, a position he held until 2004. Now the world has moved on, and it has become impossible to close one's eyes before the evidence that global climate change induced by human activity will produce disastrous developments if we do not take correcting action very soon. Lomborg, now Adjunct Professor at Copenhagen Business School, found a new platform in the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. Last year he published Cool It - The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming, according to his personal website "a groundbreaking book that transforms the debate about global warming by offering a fresh perspective based on human needs as well as environmental concerns."

He continues, talking about himself in third person: "Rather than starting with the most radical procedures, Lomborg argues that we should first focus our resources on more immediate concerns, such as fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS and assuring and maintaining a safe fresh water supply - which can be addressed at a fraction of the cost and save millions of lives within our lifetime."

It is of course befitting for a Professor of Business to see the world exclusively through cost/benefit analysis. It is also not surprising that if you rank today's problems in order of their cost/benefit ratio, supplementing the diet of children in developing countries with vitamin A comes out on top, since some $20 - $30 are returned for every dollar spent, while the return on a dollar spent on greenhouse mitigation could be as low as 90 cents. But what can we conclude from such an exercise? That we should not spend our money on greenhouse mitigation but on vitamin supplements instead?

Lomborg should know - and being a trained academic presumably does know - that cost/benefit analysis does not help us much in the face of crisis if it is not combined with risk analysis. It is also not possible to analyze global problems such as vitamin deficiency in the Third World in isolation. If we ignore greenhouse warming today the children of developing countries will still be worse off in twenty years' time than today, because the entire ecosystem on which their food supply depends will have deteriorated dramatically. But Lomberg's book is not about scientific analysis, it is about selling old wine in new bottles.

The Weekend Australian of 2-3 August quotes Nick Rowley, former climate change adviser to the UK government, as saying that Lomberg is making a fundamental error of logic. "The level of risk we confront is a greater level of risk than virtually any other area. He views these as if they are mutually exclusive; they're not. They're intertwined and you can't see a scenario where under even two degrees of warming the most vulnerable people in the world are not going to be a lot more vulnerable. There are a lot of moral and ethical considerations that need to influence that process as well. It's not just a technical exercise."

As I said in Lecture 35: "It is not the observational evidence that makes Lomborg a partisan scientist, it is the ethical dimension of his science."