The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg

I am a climate change skeptic.     I am a scientist and I think skepticism is crucial to the way the scientific method works.  Seek out the key facts – not all the facts just the key ones.  On the basis of these come to a decision.  Then look for any reason to junk the decision.

This isn’t perhaps how non-scientists imagine scientists work, and I dare say not even all scientists work that way.  But that is how I work, and it gets the job done.  It means ignoring a huge amount of apparently relevant information.  And the information I do select doesn’t need to be very detailed.  But it seems to work pretty well.  As a chemist working in product development the problems I work on are generally not too important to anyone other than the guys paying my salary.  But they let me know when I am wrong pretty quickly, so it’s a good discipline for developing decision making skills as well as a reasonable way to make a living.

Let’s apply my method to climate change.  There are a few key facts.  Carbon dioxide is a green house gas.  If you put more of it into the atmosphere you would expect it to make the planet warmer.  We know that we have increased the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, and we know the planet is indeed getting warmer.  It seems pretty obvious that climate change is real and man made.  This could well be disastrous and we ought to take action to stop it.  Having come to that decision, I have no interest whatever in looking at piles of data that simply confirms this. I want to hear arguments against what I believe.  If I am wrong, I want to know about it.

So I am very grateful to someone like Bjorn Lomborg who has taken the time to marshal a strong case against the idea that climate change is the biggest single problem facing mankind.  He does a great job and everyone who has, or has at least tried, to modify their behaviour in the light of the climate change issue owes it to themselves to read this strong counter-argument.  (The book is quite a bit broader than just global warming, but that is the most controversial bit and the one that has attracted all the attention.)
First off – he is not a conspiracy theorist or a flat Earther.  He accepts the scientific consensus that climate change is man made and real.  He deals in facts and data not hyperbole and backs up his argument with references to respectable studies and journals.  His case is not that climate change is not happening, nor even that it is not a problem.  He accepts it is real, and that something needs to be done about it.  His case is simply that the magnitude of the effect is small enough to cope with and we should devote our resources to other problems.
This book is a very visual one with lots of graphs summarising huge amounts of data. The approach is forensic and clinical.  If you are generally sympathetic to the causes dear to the hearts of environmentalists you will find many of your sacred cows slain before your eyes.  For instance, is global warming causing more extreme weather events? More heat in the system driving more tornadoes and gales and the like?  It sounds plausible and I would be ready to believe it. But it turns out there is no actual data to support it. Sea water levels are going to rise?  A bit maybe, but not enough to drown low lying cities.
His case is a strong one and it is not one that is easy to dismiss.  However I am going to proceed to dismiss it, without much in the way of counter-evidence. I think there is one aspect of climate change that he has underestimated.  It isn’t just that the climate is changing from one regime to another.  The risk is that we are facing a higher degree of variability.
I am inclined to agree that if the climate changed slowly it is quite likely that we could adapt to the change.  And there is absolutely no reason to think that a slightly warmer planet would be any harder to live on than the one we currently live on.  It might even be more productive.
As Lomborg points out, the world will be richer in the future and so will be even more able to cope with the problem than we are.  But suppose that the change in the climate is modest, but the variability of the climate increases.  This would be very hard indeed to adapt to.  Imagine food crops worldwide facing totally unexpected weather year after year.  You would need one heck of a lot of technology and wealth to cope with that.  The Skeptical Environmentalist is a great book and well worth reading.  Ultimately it didn’t convince me on global warming, but you always need to keep an open mind.  There is a lot of other interesting stuff as well. If you are a firm believer in global warming you should read the global warming chapter of this book.  If you are convinced global warming is a myth, I suggest you find a good book that puts the case for global warming clearly and convincingly.

2 Comments

Filed under Environment

2 Responses to The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg

  1. We do have climate proxy records (e.g. ice core and sediment cores), and one thing that jumps out of these records is variability. It's as if the system has metastable states which it tries to maintain in the face of forcing change, jumping to another arrangement when it can no longer resist. Thus, the real climate system seems to show sudden jumps which, AFAIK, the models don't.
    Climate is a sleeping dragon. I don't want to know what it can do if it's disturbed. And I hate to think what our great-grandchildren will say about our stupidity if we get this wrong.

  2. I think that is a good point Threlkeld. Lomborg is one of a number of ' yes its happening but it may not be too bad' apologists. They may be right, but it is when heck of a risk if they aren't.

Leave a Reply