Tag Archive: lomborg


The centre-left, human-rights-aware liberals do not need convincing that climate change is a big deal. Conservative (with a small ‘c’) middle England may be harder to convince, and to keep from objecting to future legislation. Here are five suggestions for reaching out to them.

This story, unusually, starts with a poster in a toilet. I was at London’s Frontline Club on Monday, at an event dealing with U.S. foreign policy (an audience with Scott Malcomson promoting Generation’s End: A Personal Memoir of American Power after 9/11 if you’re interested) and saw an out-of-date list of other events on at the venue which included “Should human rights be at the heart of climate change policy? This got me thinking, that inevitably such an event, while no doubt being informative, preaches very much to the converted, as does much of climate change thinking that focuses on human rights and the impact on the world’s poorest. The Guardian newspaper tends to be mocked as read by sandal-wearing, beardy types, so much so that I knew a temporarily unemployed (and decidedly both intelligent and liberal) middle-aged professional who ruled out reading its job section because “The Guardian is for people going nowhere”.

Reaching out to middle England – why it’s different

Sadly, talking about the world’s poorest, human rights, “the environment”, perhaps also peak oil and renewable energy seems to have no impact on a certain section of middle England. There are a number of possible barriers here

  • Belief in climate change
  • Belief that it will affect them and is not just an overhyped concern of the sandal-wearing (or perhaps closet sandal-wearing in the case of the Liberal Democrat leadership)
  • Belief that this is a policy issue worthy of wide interest and concern in the way that education or health is, not a niche concern for a minority of activists

Perhaps needless to say, concerns about fish stocks, colony collapse disorder in beekeeping and many other issues face the same kinds of barriers. The goal for communicators targeting this group should be to neutralise mainstream opposition to climate change legislation. Michael Jacobs, Gordon Brown’s advisior on climate change and energy issues while he was in power, referred in a recent talk (at the LSE hosted by the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy) to the “sphere of relative non-punishment” for government decisions. This is an area in which the public and media tacitly support a policy enough for the government to be able to follow it without any serious attacks.

Following “climategate” and other knocks to the credibility of climate change policy, there is a risk of important legislation sliding out of that category and gathering a vocal lobby of opponents capable of making it harder for the UK government to legislate. The Daily Mail presents such opposition regularly, and recent developments in the U.S. far right suggest a risk of this growing over here as well. This is also about the medium-term battle: so far climate change policy has been slight, low-profile and relatively painless. If the kind of emissions cuts envisioned by Stern and by the government’s legal obligation under the 2008 Climate Change Act (34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050) are to happen, all three of those characteristics may quickly change.

A second goal, of course, is to move the gentle believers into passionate activists, but that’s a question for another time.

FIVE WAYS TO WOO MIDDLE ENGLAND

1. – Conservation

Attenborough: Prepared to stand up for wind-farms

Conservationist feeling tends to come from a very different segment of the population to the typical liberal Guardian reader. I particularly remember this from the diaries of 1980s Conservative minister Alan Clark, who was irritated by a member of his staff talking about human rights (“his Guardianesque obsession”) rather than the British interest on a trade mission, but felt strongly about cruelty to animals and passionate enough about anti-fur legislation to consider resignation from the government when it was blocked by the Prime Minister.  Conservation groups like the RSPB tend to be singing from the same hymn sheet as Friends of the Earth (environmentalist) and Oxfam (development-focused) on this.

At present the middle England conservationist perspective risks being turned against climate change in general by windfarms. A more traditional form of environmentalism, focusing on leaving natural habits untouched and preserving landscapes is pitted against the strands of environmentalism that argue strongly for renewable energy wherever possible. As well as the RSPB’s support of windfarms, David Attenborough, as the popular face of conservation is a potentially powerful force against opposition, having spoken out in favour of a turbine in a local dispute a two years ago.

2. – Hard-nosed Economics

I have written in the past of the inportant influence of the Stern Review in presenting the economic case for climate change. Some have subsequently pointed to the differing conclusions of other economists like Tol and Nordhaus, but these criticisms are deftly dealt with in Stern’s more recent “Blueprint for a Safer Planet“, which allows Stern to demonstate the full range of his intelligence and understanding outside the confines of the more technical report. Experts disagree, of course, that is in many ways their jobs, but attempts to paint Stern as a lightweight or unduly biased by his political mandate should be dismissed as the nonsense they are, and details of argument and counter-argument can be found in this book.

Another aspect of the focus on economics is what I would describe as “industries of the future” rhetoric, drawing on the language and concerns of business and commerce.  and perhaps even fear of losing commercial ground to other countries, as in a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times on on China’s growing investment in low-carbon technology. This was highly recommended by an article in The Guardian a little over a year ago, but on reflection this a good step but not the whole story – I strongly suspect that to a certain kind of worldview this kind of rhetoric is dismissed as overly-slick government (or at least “establishment”) rhetoric. Or just as “bullshit”. It tends to come out of the mouths of politicians in the Tony Blair mould (including, in this context,  Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg), all of whom risk seem a bit too polished and media savvy to be trusted when these kinds of optimistic claims are made.

3. – Steal the position of the “grumpy cynic”

Clarkson: Tells us a lot about middle England

Part of the ideological division on climate change may be categorised as the “Monbiot vs. Clarkson” problem. Guardian journalist George Monbiot can be classified as intellectual, globally engaged and interested in liberal concerns like aid, foreign policy and, of course, climate change. One of his most impressive features is his staggering grasp of detail. Jeremy Clarkson, best known as presenter of the BBC’s “Top Gear” on new cars tends to argue from the perspective of middle England, arguing for “common sense” rather than detailed grasp of the facts.

This attitude is described by two major reports on climate change communications, Warm Words and Warm Words II, by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) as “settlerdom”. To quote from their first report:

‘Settlers’ (so-called because they have sustenance driven needs associated with the home) tend to look backwards to yesterday, which was better, and tend to dislike anything new or different as they feel this threatens their identity, belonging, security and safety.

In this context, ‘settlerdom’ rejects and mocks the alarmist discourse – and with it climate change – not through any form of expert discourse or argument but through invoking ‘common sense’. This repertoire constructs itself (in other words, the speaker and implied audience) as ‘the sane majority’ in opposition to ‘the doom-mongers’ or ‘the global warming brigade’ who are ‘keeping us all awake’.

Increasingly, in my experience, that cynicism is shifting to a cynicism towards the sceptics. It is, as I have repeatedly argued, an unfair generalisation to dismiss all disagreement, however moderate and independent, as oil-company-funded lies. It may, however, be a useful generalisation to live with, if every time your grumpy cynic reads piece shedding doubt on climate change, they roll their eyes at them rather than at us. The idea that we’re all doomed due to government incompetence also seems to fit well with the traditional “settler” position. In the aftermath of Copenhagen, there seemed to be a sense of “the bloody government has let us down again”. This kind of attitude may be one that can be capitalised on.

4. – Include the moderate sceptics in the discussion

There is a tendency to vilify all climate change “sceptics” in the left-wing press. An article in The Guardian entitled “Coalition of denial” includes Bjø rn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson, even Freakonomics authors Levitt and Dubner in its list of enemies, contributing to the impression that climate change circles are intolerant and blood spitting. In reality all of the above make it clear that climate change demands government intervention and all propose different policy approaches to do this.

Lomborg: Not as sceptical as the critics claim

Despite this, Lomborg and Lawson in particular have become poster boys for climate change scepticism in the UK, much more so than hardline sceptics like  journalist Christopher Booker and Martin Durkin and the oil companies’ misinformation campaign that plays a big role in providing their information, whether they realise this or not. Lomborg has been accused of a “U-turn” on climate change in his most recent book “Smart Solutions to Climate Change” published earlier this month, arguing in it that climate change is a major problem facing the world. The idea that this is a changed position is obviously nonsense for those who have read his earlier work, which has long held that climate change is a major problem, just badly approached and less so than some claim. Both he and Nigel Lawson not only acknowledge that climate change exists (or at least probably exists in Lawson’s case) and both think it’s serious enough to merit policy action. Rather than demonising them, point out that while they disagree on the severity of climate change risks (an area in which there is wide discussion and disagreement in public and academic circles) they’re having the same conversation. The most high-profile sceptics can be treated as supporting the general conclusions of the consensus. I say “presented”, but this would not be illegitimate spin, it would be the reality of their arguments, detached from the rhetoric that typically surrounds them. Middle England is wary of a unified front of the environmentally friendly – the more we present consensus, the more it looks like there isn’t enough real debate. Such is the paradox of the modern media and its desire to present argument and debate. By acknowleding debate but pointing to areas of agreement, it establishes a baseline of shared understanding.

5. – Assume, assume, assume

This is perhaps the most successful and universally applied strategy to win over those dubious about climate change: assume the major conclusions to be certain. This is a powerful psychological tool, advocated strongly by the aforementioned Warm Words reports and practiced earlier this week when Ed Miliband told the Labour party conference of the need to act on climate change. No debate, no discussion of disagreement – it was presented, as it should be, like just one more policy issue that needs a solution.

The case could be made that this creates a dangerous orthodoxy, but this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Experts will continue to understand the detail and hold their nuanced positions irrespective of political speeches, newspaper columns or anything else aiming for a more popular audience. Climate change has never suffered from lack of informed debate, but frequently from ill-informed squabbling.

Concluding thoughts

There is a constantly fine balance between explaining seriousness of climate change and appearing alarmist. This demands that we keep our messages serious but not over-serious, and avoid flights of rhetorical fancy that alienate where they should inform and persuade.

It is essential to convince governments to take action on climate change and to provide a show of public support for legislation, but perhaps the most important thing for influencing the public mood is to keep climate change in that “sphere of relative non-punishment” to let policymakers get on with it.

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Superfreakonomics: caused a freak out in the popular discussion of climate change

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner has stirred up more comment than many books focusing specifically on climate change. It’s semi-official, I’ve been researching the number of references to various climate-change-related books and films in broadsheet newspapers since 2008 and my figures at this stage show more mentions of Levitt and Dubner’s work than of all of James Lovelock’s put together (in the period January 2008 to June 2010) in climate-change-related contexts. Admittedly, the vast majority were in the Guardian, but still.

The section of Superfreakonomics on climate change is not bad though a little prone to stating points that are fairly well known already (e.g. methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) as if they are EXCITING NEW DISCOVERIES FROM BRILLIANT FREAKONOMICS ANALYSIS! Apparently Al Gore exaggerates to get his message across and the media tend to report things in an overly dramatic manner. What next, evidence that environmentalists tend to worry about climate change and that endangered species of bears tend to defecate in woodlands? I’ll allow them all that, though, in the name of popularising the discussion.

It gets interesting, however, when they start talking about geoengineering, their proposals to deliberately manipulate the climate to counteract the effects of climate change. Their case is as follows

  1. Anthropogenic climate change is a very real problem, although over-hyped by the media and particularly Al Gore
  2. Tackling it by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (mitigation) is very expensive, but effective geoengineering could be much cheaper. Injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere could stabilise the climate at a cost of $250 million, compared to the Stern Review‘s $1.2 trillion
  3. There are uncertainties and risks of side effects, so technologies should have cautious test runs
  4. The aforementioned injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effect of volcanoes is the most promising method, but cloud seeding, spraying seawater into the atmosphere to create more, cooling clouds, should also be considered

Perhaps surprisingly, many climate change activists and writers are ardently against geoengineering. Here, for example, are the key points of a New Internationalist article on the subject, and the growing campaign against geoengineering solutions.

  1. “Unproven scientific ‘fixes’ for global warming are a major threat to the planet”
  2. Injecting sulphur into the atmosphere to mimic volcanoes is dubious: “Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.”
  3. The actors involved in geoengineering propositions are largely unaccountable and not subject to due process: one scientist has already started in Russia. A Friends of the Earth International spokesman argues: “The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.”

An unmanned cloud-seeding ship, floated as a possibility by Superfreakonomics and the preferred approach of Bjørn Lomborg

Myself, I am cautiously in favour of geoengineering being explored. I do accept the principle that kicking-off large-scale climatic change is a risky process full of potential unintended consequences, but given the scale of potential climate change damages, we should absolutely do our homework on this one. Perhaps the solution lies in a variety of small-scale geoengineering projects coupled with mitigation and with adaptation to some level of inevitable climate change.

A thorough and accountable process for testing and investigating geoengineering projects seems like a necessity, but a poor process does not mean a poor idea. There is a risk, admittedly, of side-lining mitigation in favour of geoengineering, when until geoengineering can be proved to work, mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions should continue at full steam. Like most people, I am not in a position to assess the viability of geoengineering technology, but we should absolutely be giving it a chance. There is no question of not saving the planet, but its better still if we can save the planet money along the way.

P.s. I’m very suspicious of cloud-seeding, also the preferred geoengineering method of Bjørn Lomborg (see his article for the New Statesman). Everything I hear about the physical science of clouds stresses uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. The uncertainty bar in the 2007 IPCC report dealing with clouds as a cause of climate change is huge (see “cloud albedo effect” on the bar graph on the relevant page of the IPCC website). This is not a reason not to try, but bear that in mind.

A piece on the Panorama programme on climategate recently appeared on climate progress, a major climate blog, heavily criticising the programme for giving too much air time to sceptics. Having watched and reviewed it myself, I disagree strongly with much of what this post says and why is written below.

Agreement

First, however, let me lay out what I agree with, unfortunately not an awful lot. This is partly because honestly the last thing I want to do is get into a blogging dogfight, especially with blogs and readers from the climate consensus! If you’re reading this, I’m your team, guys.

The second is that I dislike the adversarial style of much of the climate change discussion that goes on in the news media, in the books and online, much of which has to do with cheap point-scoring, defending predetermined positions and ad hominem attacks (attacking people rather than arguments). The climate progress blog’s arguments are reported in italics.

“Representing the climate science camp, Panorama use a grey haired climate scientist (Dr Bob Watson) and a London climate policy academic (Bob Ward) who manage reasonably good communications but are weaker than Lomborg, a well trained and well presented media spokesperson.”

I don’t have much to add to this, except that I don’t think it’s Panorama’s fault that Watson and Ward weren’t as media savvy as Lomborg. Our lot need to get better at this. That said, I certainly don’t consider it Panorama’s job to adjudicate on how presentable their climate consensus interviewees are (or, indeed, to only interview hunch-backed, scarred and incomprehensible sceptics!)

The “balance as bias” thesis that underpins this article

This is the argument, drawing on the work on Maxwell Boykoff, that news media principles and other factors have produced a balanced portrayal of the sceptic vs. consensus debates when the science is overwhelming dominated by the “consensus” side (hence the name, “consensus”). Absolutely. I have some reservations in this context (see below) but I accept the general principle. There should, of course, be some role for minority voices in any discussion, but the proportion is often wrong in the case of climate change reporting

Disagreement

The piece complains that the BBC description of the show begins with the line “To some, it’s a massive conspiracy to con the public. To others, it’s the greatest threat to the future of our world.” Is unfair because “There is 0.00% chance hat global warming is a massive conspiracy to con the public…Nicely balanced “sides,” BBC.”

What the line says is that some people think it is. That’s not a comment on what the truth is, it’s a comment on public perceptions. This is a bit of excessive rhetorical flair, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that no one interviewed in the programme said anything of the sort.

The programme features the “thoroughly debunked Bjorn Lomborg”, and “the long wrong John Christy” and “the utterly discredited purveyor of hate speech” Lord Monckton.

1. Bjørn Lomborg has not been “thoroughly debunked” because a book of criticisms of him has been published, any more Michael Mann, also featured in the documentary can be considered “thoroughly debunked” because of Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion”. Criticisms are part of an ongoing debate. (Lomborg is, as many of the comments on that post point out, can only barely be classed a sceptic – he has repeatedly stated his thinks climate change is a major problem facing the world. He mostly thinks the rhetoric is out of control and that we should favour adaptation over mitigation. In the words of one of the comments “He is hated and despised by a lot of denialists who see him as insufficiently radical for their fanatical anti-environmentalism”)

2. I have to admit I don’t have a fully formed opinion about John Christy, though was pleased to see interview footage of him so I can understand his opinions in more detail. He featured prominently in “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, but that film was so riddled with complaints of misrepresenting its interviewees views that I am suspicious of what I saw of his there. Also the man was well-respected enough to be a lead author of the IPCC 3rd Assessment Report, I think it’s fair to treat him as a serious scientist. (The linked blog post criticising Christy Should you believe anything John Christy says? I also have a fair few reservations about)

3. Lord Monckton… ok, actually, I agree here. Monckton is not a serious figure. All that was shown however, was a brief clip of him arguing with some protesters. Ideally we wouldn’t see him at all, but

“John Christy, atmospheric scientist and mild sceptic (one of the only real scientist in the world out of thousands of qualified scientists who has some skeptical views), is given equal air time than climate scientists Bob Watson and Michael Mann (who is critiqued whilst Christy is not). This is balance as bias.”

I am mostly very sympathetic to the “balance as bias” argument (as stated earlier), but this is a piece about the credibility of climate science. It is right to give sufficient air-time to the critics in this context. Furthermore the piece was excellent at allowing the interviewees to explain their positions in detail, and the fact that Christy explains that he believes in anthropogenic global warming to some extent and, to his credit, explicitly says he knows he’s in the minority of scientists. This level of explanation does us more good than harm by clarifying what is agreed on.

Mann is critiqued because he has been under huge scrutiny recently. To ignore this is to ignore accurate context.

“The introduction suggests reporter Tom Heap speaks to both sides of what is a science argument yet Bjorn Lomborg (not a climate scientist), and other non-scientists appear.”

Science is not the only aspect of the climate change debates, that’s why the IPCC has “Impacts and Adaption” and “Mitigation” reports. Both sides of the science argument are represented (John Christy on the one hand and X and Y on the other), but the programme had other interests besides the science. Lomborg’s appearance is alongside Bob Ward, both of them primarily policy rather than science expects.

“Panorama gives voice to an average UK family man whose non-scientific opinion suggests global warming ‘is natural’. Research shows that large parts of the population identify with this kind of person as they do not understand climate science and look to peers for guidance.”

This part of the programme was… well, a bit dull, but the idea that a BBC programme shouldn’t interview the public on a social issue is ridiculous. I would not expect that BBC to be slammed to interviewing someone in the street for their opinions of the coalition government, for example. Yes, climate change is more complicated, but one of the main points of the programme was to honestly report the uncertainty in the general population. He was also there next to his wife, who was equally lacking in expert knowledge and believed the opposite.

“Panorama publicize Lomborg’s upcoming sceptic film ‘Cool It’ without critique but focus on negative aspects of Al Gore’s film.”

This was part of Lomborg’s biography, and a reasonable thing to do in the context of explaining who he is. It’s difficult to critique a film that hasn’t come out yet. Conversely controversies over “An Inconvenient Truth” have been part of public discourse since it came out.

“Panorama focus on UK government climate change minister saying ‘it is up to behavior [sic] change’ when clearly national and international policy must lead mitigation not individuals”

While I completely agree that national and international policy must lead mitigation, it isn’t a fact. In an ideal world there would be a counter-argument to this, but it’s a half hour programme and clearly there are limits to which these debates can all be engaged with in detail.

Conclusion

Was there a needless anti-consensus bias in Panorama? I don’t think so. As a concerned member of the public, I want to know what the disagreements are on major policy issues, even when the disagreements come from minority perspectives. The scope and urgency of climate change is a reason for rigorous debate, not for the shutting down of opposition. I also do not what sound production decisions by a documentary, where figures and controversies are given in reasonable context, good or bad, to be compromised by needlessly exacting standards on bias.

In lots of contexts with climate change reporting there is an issue where balance is bias. In a discussion of the validity of science after climategate, however, balance is pretty key.

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.