Bjørn Lomborg: "The Skeptical Environmentalist" and the consummate economic rationalist

One of the more interesting figures in the climate change debate is Bjørn Lomborg. The Danish self-styled “skeptical environmentalist” has been named one of the world’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century in Esquire magazine (2008) and one of the “50 people who could save the planet” by the UK Guardian (2008) and gave a TED talk in 2005. He has also generated much controversy, including a run in with the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty and a website devoted specifically to detailed criticisms of his work. In the last year he has had articles published in The New Statesman (on geoengineering through cloud control), The Spectator (“Man-made global warming is real. The solutions being touted are not”), The Wall Street Journal (“Technology can fight global warming”), and his “Copenhagen Consensus” conference of eight Nobel Laureate economists has proved both influential and controversial.

In brief his views (see also his views on YouTube) are these:

1. Climate change is a major problem, it is just over-hyped by popular discussion

2. The cost of mitigating climate change is high, and more good could be done by spending that money elsewhere, on things like communicable diseases and economic development

3. Adaptation to climate change will happen automatically, and where it won’t we should consider the many occasions when adaptation be cheaper than mitigation

4. When the major impacts of climate change strike in the future, economic development will mean those people at risk will be much richer and much less vulnerable

Lomborg is highly critical of the climate change consensus, particularly Al Gore, who he challenged to a debate who, in what might be dismissed as a stunt, he challenged to a debate at a conference last spring, which Gore declined (see Wall Street Journal coverage here). He disagrees with Gore in detail in Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming in a chapter that spells out, one by one, his disagreements with Fred Peace, George Monbiot, The Stern Review, the IPCC and Mike Hulme, in a section that reads like a who’s who of the climate consensus. Unlike the climate sceptics, however, he takes less interest in the science than many and happily cites the IPCC as his source for many of his figures, and centres his discussion on the economics, the ethics and the nature of the discourse, acquitting himself well in all areas. His reputation as a heavyweight thinker is well deserved.

Nevertheless, his great strength, of constant analysis of the figures and a heavily rationalist perspective on the economics, is also his great weakness. He is rightly critical of the disdain for engaging in number crunching by other actors like George Monbiot, for instance, who refuses to compare the costs and benefits of mitigation and spending  that money elsewhere in “an amoral means of comparison”. While this should be dismissed as “a weak argument” by not even attempting examine the relative merits of mitigation and other spending (Lomborg, Cool It, 201o edition, p.192) Lomborg fails to explain that economic analyses are underpinned by ethical considerations.

  1. His figures on economic damage are given without significant explanation of how they value human life, and how that varies from place to place (other arguments, like his explanation of heat waves being less dangerous than cold strokes are based on number of lives lost, which is a more sound premise)
  2. While he mentions with the limits of money as a measure of social wellbeing, he fails to get to grips with it in detail: “While people in the rich world perhaps sometimes just tend to scoff…[and claim that] increased richness ‘just means we can buy an extra DVD player’ it neglects that increased income in the developing world means that you can feed your children better, treat them from easily curable diseases and afford an education for them. […] In the developed world…[money] gives you the ability to control your circumstances, because you can weather outside shocks, such as unemployment and illness.” (Cool It, p.54-55) He then points out that over the next century developed-world incomes are expected to increase six times over and developing-world incomes twelve times over. How much increased happiness can the developed world, in particular, seriously expect to get from six times the wealth of the present day? Some academics argue that the link between money and happiness falls off at about £10,000 pounds, worldwide. Whether you believe the detail or not, clearly there is some truth to the assertion that when you’ve got food, shelter, healthcare, education and reasonable security, financial developments on that are at least much less significant
  3. He assumes that natural capital, such as the benefits of biodiversity or a reduced chance of extreme weather are perfectly substitutable for human capital. Would we and future generations like to be richer but more at risk from hurricanes? Perhaps, but surely that is open to the kind of scrutiny that purely economic figures don’t provide

For a more detailed discussion of the issues surrounding the economics and related ethics of climate change, see of Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree on Climate Change (chapter four).

Lomborg has a film coming out to accompany Cool It. That will be one to look forward to.