The low down on Lomborg

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Last week’s announcement that the University of Western Australia would no longer house Bjorn Lomborg’s ‘Consensus Centre’ was a fantastic outcome for science. However, the fact that the Centre is still trying to establish itself in Australia is deeply troubling.

Misinformation is harmful. Just as false information about the ‘benefits’ of tobacco misled the public and damaged health, so false information about climate change and its impacts can mislead the public and decision-makers, delaying much needed action to stabilise the climate system. Here are the top four reasons why Lomborg’s arguments about climate change are flawed.

1. Lomborg fundamentally misunderstands climate science.

Lomborg does not deny the existence of human caused climate change, but he has consistently misrepresented the basic climate science. For example:

  • Lomborg has challenged the link between climate change and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. The message from the peer-reviewed scientific literature, as assessed both in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2013) and the IPCC Special Report on Extreme Events (2012), is clear: climate change is already increasing the intensity and frequency of many extreme weather events and record-breaking weather is becoming more common around the world. For example, we know that climate change is already driving up bushfire risk in Australia, it is increasing the intensity and frequency of heatwaves and is exacerbating coastal flooding as storm surges now ride on higher sea level. And thanks to new groundbreaking scientific research in 2014, we can even identify how much of an influence climate change has had on a single extreme heat event; the record hot year of 2013 in Australia was virtually impossible without climate change.
  • Lomborg believes that global warming has ‘dramatically slowed or entirely stopped’ over the last 12 years. This is a common myth that we've busted already. The Earth continues to warm strongly. Over 90% of the additional heat trapped by greenhouse gases is stored in the ocean, and the heat content of the ocean has continued to rise strongly over the past 12 years with no easing of the rate of increase. In terms of air temperature NASA, NOAA, BoM, CSIRO, the IPCC and a long list of other trusted organizations have confirmed that yearly global average air temperature continues to climb. 2014 marked the 38th year in a row that the yearly global air temperature was hotter than the 20th century average. 13 of the 14 hottest years on record have occurred this century.And let’s not forget that the overall global annual temperature has increased at an average rate of 0.16°C per decade since 1970, with each decade since the 1970s warmer than the previous decade. This is neither a “dramatic slowing” or “entire stoppage”.
  • When Lomborg does acknowledge the impacts of climate change, he inaccurately downplays them. For example, Lomborg argues that more heatwaves mean fewer ‘coldwaves’ and as more people die from excessive cold than excessive heat, there will be fewer deaths in the future. Statements like these just don’t stack up. As the World Meterological Organisation outline in the graph below (which is based on global data), there has been a significant increase in deaths from extreme heat and a smaller increase in deaths from extreme cold as the climate continues to destabilise.

2. Lomborg doesn’t get that we need to address the cause of climate change, not just some of the symptoms.

Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre has consistently claimed that targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions are expensive and that the money should be spent elsewhere. For example, he suggests that to stop deaths from heatwaves it is better to invest the money in building water features and reducing asphalt in cities, instead of committing to significant cuts to our carbon emissions.This argument is flawed because:

  • Solutions to curb our carbon emissions are becoming increasingly cheaper. Renewable technologies are costing less and providing consumers with cost benefits too. The trend towards distributed power generation technologies like solar PV, wind and batteries is likely to accelerate globally as the cost of these technologies continues to fall.There are also cost benefits of renewable technology for the consumer, and Australia serves as a great example. Over 1.4 million Australian households have solar on their rooftops and surveys indicate that 70.4% of Australian households installed solar PV systems to save money on their power bills. Over each full year renewables are reducing wholesale electricity prices, not only in Australian states where wind and solar PV penetration is high, but in many overseas markets (you can read more about that here). By 2030, 65% of Australia’s coal-fired power stations will be over 40 years old. The nation’s older power stations cannot be made more efficient without vast expense, so replacing them over time with renewable energy technologies makes economic sense. Finally, in Australia it is estimated that the health impacts of coal-fired electricity generation costs A$ 2.6 billion annually, whilst solar and wind remain sources of clean energy that produce no emissions whilst generating significant amounts of power.
  • We need to address the cause of the problem not just the symptoms. Take Australia’s bushfire threat. Climate change is increasing the risk of bushfires in parts of Australia and lengthening the fire season. Fire severity and intensity is expected to increase substantially in coming decades. It is certainly important to better equip our firefighters and design buildings to reduce flammability, but ultimately if we don’t cut our emissions and stabilise the planet’s climate, extreme fire weather will continue to increase beyond our ability to adapt to it. Climate change has already triggered a new category of bushfire – catastrophic – that is so severe that such fires cannot be contained, even with more and better equipped firefighters. We need to invest in mitigating climate change now, so that future generations of Australians don’t have to live in a country of increasingly dangerous extremes, ones that they cannot adapt to.

3. Lomborg forgets that climate change makes many existing challenges worse

Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre has asserted that other issues need to be prioritised before considering climate change, like tackling infectious disease, poverty and malnutrition. Of course these issues are important and, in fact, climate change makes a lot of these existing problems worse. On the other hand, solutions to climate change can be integrated with tackling poverty and disease (for example, through the provision of solar energy systems to remote communities to provide electricity, instead of building centralised fossil fuel plants and expensive transmission systems). A healthy environment and healthy people are not mutually exclusive, in fact healthy and productive people depend on a healthy environment.

As Ban Ki Moon, UN Secretary General, states: “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth ... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all".

  • According to the IPCC: throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, especially in developing countries. Examples include increased risks from food, water-borne diseases and vector-borne diseases (e.g. malaria). There is also high confidence that there will be an increased likelihood of under-nutrition resulting from diminished food produced in poor regions. An essential part of addressing the spread of disease and malnutrition therefore involves tackling climate change.
  • Climate change will hit the poorest the hardest. Climate change will compound existing poverty for a whole range of reasons. For example, the geographical and climatic conditions of developing nations (e.g. low lying nations such as Bangladesh are more susceptible to coastal flooding during cyclone season as sea level rises), the higher dependence of developing nations on natural resources and their limited capacity to adapt. Tackling poverty demands that we also tackle climate change, the two issues can’t be addressed in isolation. This makes Lomborg’s arguments that ‘the poor need cheap fossil fuels’ and that ‘renewables pave the path to poverty’ particularly puzzling.
  • Countries on the frontline of climate change can’t afford to wait. Delaying our response to climate change to prioritise other issues increases the risk for nations on the frontline of climate change, like the Small Island States in the Pacific. As the IPCC points out, because of low elevation and small size, many Small Island States are threatened with partial or virtually total inundation by future rises in sea level. The considerable momentum of the climate system cannot be ignored. Only immediate action can hope to stabilise the climate system in the second half of the century, averting the worst of the projected impacts but still leaving the next generation to cope with much more severe impacts than we face today.
  • You can address more than one problem at once. Contrary to Lomborg’s suggestions, we don’t have to assume that committing to reducing our emissions means that we can’t also focus money and research on tackling issues like the spread of disease and malnutrition. We can and must do both.

4. Lomborg has no credibility in the scientific community

Lomborg is a statistician and political scientist by training, and a self-proclaimed climate contrarian whose views have no credibility in the research community.

As Dr. Frank Jotzo, Director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at ANU explains:

Within the research community, particularly within the economics community, the Bjørn Lomborg enterprise has no academic credibility. It is seen as an outreach activity that is driven by a specific set of objectives in terms of bringing particular messages into the public debate and in some cases making relatively extreme positions seem more acceptable in the public debate.

Lomborg’s message hasn’t varied at all in the last decade. For example, he has continued to argue that most greenhouse-related funding needs to be spent on the research and development (R&D) of alternative energy systems to fossil fuels before this alternative is deployed. If we took this approach to R&D we would still only be using land-lines, as mobile phone technology hasn’t been perfected yet! When it comes to renewables, whilst research and development are important, so too is large-scale deployment and increasing the proportion of electricity supplied by renewable energy. Renewable energy technologies such as solar PV and wind are already well established and installed capacity is growing significantly every year, and costs are coming down. For example, rooftop solar electricity is now fully competitive at a retail level in many places, including in most Australian cities. Currently there is over 4GW or small-scale solar installed in Australia and installation averages around 15% of houses, and up to 25% in South Australia.It is clear that renewable energy technologies like solar and wind have galloped rapidly through the research and development phase and onto commercialisation, way faster than Lomborg’s tired argument suggests.

When someone is unwilling to adapt their view on the basis of new science or information, it's usually a sign those views are ideologically motivated.