The Lomborg

Posted August 29th, 2007 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Category 5 Spin, The Lomborg

Call me a skeptic – of anyone trying to claim the Middle Ground, right or left, journalist or politician. The extreme and illustrative case is what I now call The Lomborg which is essentially a variation of The Luntz, the end result of which is to drive book sales – or other forms of fame and fortune – though, as explained here, I’m not convinced that it will still work for winning elections – sometimes the rules of the game can be changed.

I have not read Lomborg’s new book, Cool It (or the last one) – in this case, the narrative or “frame” speaks for itself. According to a review in Salon by Eban Goodstein, without offering any justification, and ignoring the potential range of variability and uncertainty, Lomborg prefers the “moderate” IPCC scenario, and, in an interview by Kevin Berger, says he is just trying to claim the Middle Ground. Paraphrasing: “Left wingers say yada yada, right wingers say yada yada, science [cherry-picked and taken out of context] says whatever supports my argument…” As director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center Lomborg is in the business of manufacturing consensus.

Not that I deny the fact that policy often requires some sort of a consensus and compromise but first you have to be clear about the trade-offs, about which Lomborg is clearly clueless even though tradeoffs form the core of his argument (see Goodstein). Otherwise, “consensus” is just a cover up for unresolved conflicts, and a way to position oneself above the fray, or in that narrow space in which cherry-picked conflicting views overlap – supposedly. Note also, The Luntz and The Lomborg reinforce each other – Luntz also now preaches consensus and labels those who advocate a change as hysterical. Lomborg uses the label doomsayers, and says their argument is one that says, “Hey, I’m much more important than everything else.” It must be lucrative.

To Lomborg’s credit, he does advocate public investments in clean energy technologies. Maybe that will make it harder for Inhofe to continue calling global warming a great hoax, or maybe Inhofe will just make Lomborg look reasonable. Meanwhile, Lomborg congratulates Gore for “getting the issue on the agenda and taking it away from the people who say it’s a hoax” in the same breath in which he says Gore is exaggerating and is an alarmist. But Lomborg steers clear of supporting a cap or any other form of financial incentive that would create a demand for clean technologies, by raising the price of carbon emissions.There is indeed a trade-off here – his book sales come at the expense of the ability to respond to this dire threat, by undermining integrity in public discourse, as well as public trust in the hard-earned consensus found the hard way, in real scientific assessments.

As for trade-offs, PZ notes:

He also has a bad argument about relative spending: he suggests that spending on climate change would reduce spending on other pressing issues, like the fight against malaria. It’s a bad choice. Malaria research is already underfunded — it’s a third-world disease, don’t you know, one that mainly affects those tropical countries, so the wealthy western nations typically don’t prioritize it very highly. We don’t take our big pots of money and allocate it into aliquots appropriate to the world’s needs already, so for an economist to sit there and pretend that climate research is a drain on tropical disease research is comical. Especially since he seems unaware of how one feeds into the other. Hey, if the world warms up, tropical diseases will creep northward into Europe and North America, and then we’ll be fighting the economic effects of both direct effects of climate change and new diseases.

But Lomborg is not an economist. His credentials for preaching the gospel of Cost-Benefit Analysis? Statistics and political science. I’m not an economist either but have been told that geography is a hunting license, and have learned enough economics to know that CBA is too easily and often misused – it only works when there is agreement about the policy objective, i.e., in the absence of value conflicts. I have nothing against the method per se, but roll my eyes when it is suggested that CBA, or The Market, should determine policy objectives (which is what Lomborg advocates – even though he denies this and says he is just offering a price list so the public can decide). When there are conflicting values and interests, to say, for example, that Kyoto is too costly, you have to be more specific, i.e., to who? Lomborg doesn’t say – again, he just picks a middle figure from “main academic” macro-economic models, without questioning their assumptions. Perhaps those decreasing numbers of people who stand to gain from the status quo, value cheap labor, and believe this will somehow automatically create greater future prosperity?

Depending on what policies are adopted to reduce emissions and how it is done, the economy could, perhaps, be transformed into one that actually works by actually meeting human needs, which would make everyone better off. I may be delusional and am admittedly speculating a bit about the possibility of achieving that. But Goodstein cites a review by Robert Repetto, which concluded that energy efficiency could spur economic growth. To get beyond the cherry picking, we need to get more specific and start comparing actual scenarios that provide a more honest accounting for trade-offs between policy options, to find pathways from here to where we want to go, but will need some sort of consensus on where that is. That should also knock out the floor boards that sustain the wobbly frame on which Lomborg and Luntz are perched.

More at Island of Doubt

Leave a Reply