More clear thinking about climate change from Bjorn Lomborg

In the Washington Post today Bjorn Lomborg has a  nice short article about why the climate conference in Copenhagen is falling short of expectations and why it’s time to start focusing on different approaches to limiting global warming.

As one of the most articulate folks working to fight the alarmism about climate change, Lomborg is often spuriously called a “climate skeptic” when in fact he has always accepted the excellent IPCC work and the obvious fact of global warming and even accepted the likelihood that most of the observed warming is caused by humans.  But Lomborg rejects the many misguided, expensive approaches alarmists are suggesting to mitigate these changes.

If we are to respond effectively to global warming then we don’t need any more feel-good summits, or exaggerated but empty declarations of success from politicians. We need action that actually does good.

Yes Mr. Lomborg.   But there is no climate Santa Clause, and ironically we’ll see that the inaction continues in the political arena.    Hopefully innovation will trump all the inaction and hype and we’ll have some major energy breakthroughs, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Hot Air and the CO2 Problem

A few years ago I felt compelled to learn a lot more about global climate change because I kept hearing about all the pending climate caused catastrophes looming just over the horizon. Hearing this not just from poorly informed journalists and TV news looking to stir the pot to increase viewers and thus ad revenue. I was increasingly hearing these alarms from the very scientists I felt would be responsible, objective, unbiased voices on the topic.

Like Joe Friday on the ancient crime series DRAGNET, I figured NASA, USA, UK scientists would take a “Just the facts please” approach and give me the objective information I needed to make informed decisions about how much economic well-being we should sacrifice to appease the climate change god who was threatening us with rising seas, monster storms, and killer heat waves. Something just wasn’t adding up here. I know science and I know how stable large systems tend to be and I know a catastrophe when I see one, and climate just wasn’t looking catastrophic to me. A lot more research would be needed.

Enter the controversial author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg. A statistician, teacher, and environmentalist, Lomborg’s initial enthusiasm for the “Green” movement led him to skepticism as he “did the math” on a variety of environmental issues and concluded there was more than a little fuzzy math being used to support many well accepted talking points about pending environmental collapse.

Lomborg’s analyses made him both famous and infamous in science circles where, in a series of articles in Scientific American, Lomborg was attacked as if he was an enemy of reason itself – accused of using the same data “cherry picking” tactics he’d suggested often lie at the heart of many environmental concerns, but more often than not simply attacked as an enemy of good science. This struck me as odd because Lomborg was easy to read and to understand and it appeared to me he was generally starting with a common sense question and looking for the answers in the math rather than using the math to support his contentions. Ironically this approach seemed very unlike the scientists who in the same Scientific American series had been attacking Lomborg almost exclusively on personal grounds rather than by carefully addressing his many reasonable points about how alarmism appeared to be trumping reason even within the scientific community.

This in turn led me to a very interesting private exchange with the editor of Scientific American who seemed overly alarmed I’d been “taken in” by Lomborg’s misleading math. He encouraged
me to spend more time studying the issues. Armed with my reasonably robust background in the sciences (BS Botany & Psychology, MS Social Sciences) I started to review the IPCC reports, participate actively at and – the two most intelligent Climate Blogs, and more.

RealClimate is written by several of the top climate researchers in the world so it was conspicuous to me how often they seemed to be waxing very philosophically about climate catastrophes and defending even the most flagrant propaganda points in the film “An Inconvenient Truth” and in the papers by James Hansen, NASA’s top climate spokesperson and an often cited proponent of pending climate catastrophes. Comments at RealClimate are even worse – personal abuse and reckless pseudo-science are tolerated when they support the case for catastrophic warming while reasoned questions are often moderated or attacked irrationally if they challenge the prevailing groupthink. In the blogOspheric chatterbox that kind of intolerance is nothing new, but RealClimate pretends to take a higher road and be a watering hole for intelligent climate debate. Unfotunately that is only a pretense, and this realization has led me to question how much personal bias has infected climate science itself.
Preliminary conclusion: Personal biases of climate scientists affect their generalizations a lot. So much so that the studies are always at risk for opportunistic data analysis( “cherry picking” ), influences from grant money (studies that “find” warming are much more likely to get headlines / additional funding) and perhaps most importantly a bias that insulates skeptical research from funding. Skepticism lies at the heart of good science and the newfound tendency of otherwise respectable scientists to disparage global warming skeptics as “corporate shills”, “deniers”, and worse is simply dispicable and outrageous. Just the facts please, and if you don’t agree address the idea, not the person. Of course the *reason* for this approach is that the science behind global warming hysteria is much weaker than advertised – a concern I’d actually rejected until recently.

I don’t think the weakness of the human caused warming hypothesis is enough to throw the basic warming hypothesis into serious doubt, but enough to want more support for human caused warming than we’ve seen so far from heretofore unreliable and non-falsifiable computer modelling and the fact that – since 1998 – the global surface temperature trend is DOWN. This fact is discarded out of hand by climate alarmists but it is important for the very reasons you won’t see discussed at RealClimate. CO2 is going up while temperatures are going down. The models did not anticipate this and there appears to be no good explanation other than the natural variability that is (quite reasonably) invoked to explain a lot of climate fluctuations. But if nature routinely swamps out the effects of human caused CO2 then why are so many suggesting we should forego trillions in GDP to stem the CO2 tide? Why are people deluding themselves into thinking the developing world will go along with our CO2 efforts even as their people clamor for more development?

The answer is simple: They are thinking politically, hysterically, irrationally. OR they aren’t looking at the data. Usually it’s both.

Another preliminary conclusion is that Lomborg’s analyses are spot on.

There is global warming and it’s probably mostly caused by humans but the significance is exaggerated and – most importantly – it is totally unreasonable to assume we’ll be able to do enough reduction of CO2
to make enough of a difference to matter much. Far better to focus on the *existing catastrophic conditions* in much of the developing world than a massive, expensive, quixotic CO2 fight we are going to lose anyway. This is not to suggest we should do *nothing*, rather that we should seek cheap ways to mitigate CO2 while spending the big money on mitigating dead children in the developing world, noting that raising standards in poor countries leads to lower birth rates so even the most Machiavellian or population obsessed among us should support expansion of food and health aid to developing world as long as it reaches the needy.

The Hockey Stick Controversy …

You are well advised to avoid the globally frustrating mistake of getting interested in the underpinnings of climate science as it relates to global warming, climate models, paleoclimate reconstructions, the IPCC, Al Gore, and the academy awards.

However if you fall into the trap of actually looking at the science you’ll be interested in an excellent lay summary of the hockey stick controversy by Bishop Hill. I wish he’d left out the perjorative stuff because I think he’s done a nice job of documenting some of the irregularities that seem to shape the modern debates among scientists, statisticians, and political forces.

Here’s a harder to read but perhaps more objective review of the Hockey Stick at Wikipedia.   This debate is important more from a political view than a scientific one as the graph is a key cornerstone for global warming activism even though it is NOT a cornerstone for the science, which to most experts clearly indicates human caused global warming is a problem.

Although warming is clear and human causes are likely, a reasoned review of the science hardly suggests catastrophe is looming.   This is the advanced debate which is only just beginning – given that we have warming caused by humans, how aggresssively should we work to stop it?   At what cost should we work to keep CO2 from rising?

I remain confused about how much problematic math and insider politics within the climate scientist community should affect our perception of global warming’s threat to the planet, but no reasonable observer can maintain that pristine science has shaped the current debate over global warming.    Spend an hour at reading the defense of the film “An Inconvenient Truth” by several internationally prestigious climate scientists to see what I mean.

Ironically as the scientific debate becomes far more nuanced than it was even a few years ago, the *political debate* is effectively over.   The political/alarmist camp says that Global warming is destroying earth and we need to make drastic changes … yesterday … to avoid climate castastrophes of greater-than-biblical proportions.

Catastrophe isn’t looming, but it’s also true that we are damaging things possibly beyond repair.  That does not mean we should spend trillions trying to fix these problems while greater problems loom so large on earth, but it suggests we should do every cheap thing we can and find better ways to pull energy from our environment.

Lomborg on Zakaria GPS: Painfully Correct Thinking

More kudos to Zakaria’s GPS on CNN for bringing key global thinkers to the news table.

Today GPS featured Bjorn Lomborg, a figure who is controversial for the very simple reason that he has challenged sacred cows with common sense. When the sacred cow includes global warming alarmism even many otherwise clear thinking scientists have attacked Lomborg, generally on personal grounds rather than on the statistical high ground squarely occupied by Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus.

Bjorn Lomborg’s economically optimal approaches to finding solutions for global development, poverty reduction, global health, and more are thoughtful and rational. So rational and thoughtful that it’s always painful to hear his critics disparage him as a “global warming denier” (he is NOT even a GW skeptic as Zakaria very unfairly branded him during the introduction).

Lomborg’s main point is simple: We should seek the most effective solutions to global problems, which means seeking the most effective spending approaches given our current understanding of the problems.

I am very confident that history will show that the approaches taken by the Copenhagen Consensus were a sort of early “best practices” for Global problem solving, one of the first efforts to powerfully integrate science and economics in a rational rather than political or emotional way towards the vision of a better world.