Between a hoax and a catastrophe

Posted October 9th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin, The Lomborg

The Lomborg, now brought to you by the Washington Post, still claims to be in the mythical middle ground, somewhere in between claims of climate change as catastrophe and hoax where he is looking to have “a sensible conversation” with honesty “about the shortcomings and costs of climate policies, as well as benefits.” He could start by making honest and sensible arguments himself and perhaps by acknowledging and responding to his critics, but then he might not get space on the front page of the Outlook section in the Sunday Post – or on the Colbert Report. But at least Stephen nailed him (video link) – as much as could be done in the few minutes in which he appeared on the show. Meanwhile the Post continues to demonstrate why we should all be more skeptical about what we read in the papers.
I just took another look at details about expected sea level rise in the IPCC report, which Lomborg clearly misrepresents, but see this post by Joseph Romm, who has already taken the time to sort it out – in that and in 3 earlier posts he links to. It would be nice if Lomborg included references for statements that seem like they are pulled either out of context or out of thin air itself, i.e., on what basis does he make the claim that the dramatic increase in Greenland’s melting seems transitory? And who exactly is “scoffing” that the IPCC severely underestimated the rate at which glaciers are melting? But even suppose Lomborg were right in selecting an average value for expected mean sea level rise from what is clearly a conservative estimate for reasons that have to do with the scientific process – such as a reluctance to quantify processes not yet sufficiently understood, like the speed of ice flow at outlet glaciers and ice streams that have changed more rapidly than expected. What is of concern from a policy perspective are the impacts of Sea Level Rise for which average values aren’t very helpful because they are driven by extreme but normally occurring events. As stated in the IPCC Technical Summary:

The greatest climate- and weather-related impacts of sea level are due to extremes on time scales of days and hours, associated with tropical cyclones and mid-latitude storms. Low atmospheric pressure and high winds produce large local sea level excursions called ‘storm surges,’ which are especially serious when they occur with high tide. Changes in the frequency of occurrence of these extreme sea levels  are affected both by changes in mean sea level and in the meteorological phenomena causing the extremes.

For more on scientific reticence, see this paper (pdf) by James Hansen and stay tuned for my review of Chris Mooney’s book, Stormworld.
What I find particularly annoying are Lomborg’s repeated accusations and mischaracterizations of the views of unnamed environmental groups or just plain “people.” Environmental organizations and individual advocates, and scientists who also “want to put out the fire” are quite a diverse bunch who, unlike Lomborg – or Luntz, or even Nordhaus and Shellenburger, can disagree with each other in a number of ways without setting themselves apart from and attacking all “environmental groups” and who have been trying to have an honest and sensible conversation about how best to address the climate crisis in time to avoid a catastrophe. This conversation is hardly limited to the costs and benefits of the Kyoto Protocol. Addressed in a smart way, investments in reducing carbon emissions could have numerous other benefits – e.g., see: Barack Obama’s energy plan, or Al Gore’s call for a Global Marshall Plan (UN webcast – Al Gore’s remarks don’t start until approximately minute 35) which calls for addressing the climate crisis in ways that also fight poverty. Regarding costs and benefits, see also this post here on PNT by Paul Baer on The worth of an Ice Sheet – which makes the case that to determine what an ice-sheet is worth, we have to first determine what will be required to actually save it and what the trade-offs would actually be. Thanks to the Lomborgs and the Luntzs of the world, that conversation has barely begun. Given that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is beyond anyone’s practical experience, any insistence that the costs are large relative to the benefits is pure hubris.
Update: Joe Romm dug up another paper and provides more details on the increase in ice discharge from Greenland outlet glaciers and changes in ice flow speed that have been observed. It also appears to be the paper Lomborg relied on to claim that “the Kangerlussuaq glacier is inconveniently growing.” But that is hardly what the paper says. But go read Joe Romm’s post. The Washington Post needs to publish some corrections.
2nd update: The Washington Post has not published corrections but they did publish an excellent rebuttal by Judith Curry, which should have been on the front page of the Sunday Outlook section, but at least it’s in print. Hat tip again to Joe Romm.

One Response to “Between a hoax and a catastrophe”

  1. Joe Duck says:

    Lomborg does over simplify issues, but we all do that.
    Is your concern that he is underestimating the potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming – and thus assigning too low a value to this “benefit” in a cost benefit analysis?
    I’d be interested to know how much mitigation cost would be “too much” in your opinion, or do you see it as always a positive feedback – the more we spend the more we’ll save?
    Everybody agrees warming has costs and that should do all the cheap stuff and some moderate cost things to reduce GHGs. The challenges come from deciding whether to do the expensive stuff and the things that will lower GDP. Simply stating “no, mitigation will not hurt the economy” does not make it so. Most economic analyses suggest that massive mitigation efforts will lower GDPs for at least the short term and probably for a century. This is an important challenge as we seek to lower GHGs globally.
    [Thank you for your comment. I agree that saying “mitigation will not hurt the economy will not make it so” but estimates that say it will also have very little underlying justification (for more on that see: The worth of an ice-sheet. So what we need to do first is discuss options, or what we can actually do to both mitigate and adapt. Then we can determine what the actual costs would be, and who would be the winners and losers. Ideally, money spent on mitigation will also produce many other spinoff benefits, e.g., jobs. sst]

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