Obama's science advisor no fan of Bjorn Lomborg

If the “skeptical” Dane Bjorn Lomborg had any standing with the White House it will quickly evaporate with the incoming Obama administration.

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen John P. Holdren as his science advisor - a man who was one of the most vocal critics of Lomborg’s famously inaccurate book The Skeptical Environmentalist”.

The Skeptical Environmentalist” was so offensive to the scientific community that Scientific American published a ten-page evisceration authoured by four actual researchers, including Holdren.

Lomborg tried to refute this critique on his website but apparently knew so little about science that he sent a blanket email to his supporters pleading for help. It read:

“Naturally, I plan to write a rebuttal to be put on my web-site. However, I would also love your input to the issues – maybe you can contest some of the arguments in the Scientific American, alone or together with other academics. Perhaps you have good ideas to counter a specific argument. Perhaps you know of someone else that might be ideal to talk to or get to write a counter-piece.”

Holdren, wryly noted: “It is instructive that [Lomborg] apparently did not feel he could manage an adequate response by himself. (In this, at least, he was correct. But he could not manage it with help, either.)”

It looks like Obama has chosen not to take science advice from the likes of Lomborg. Sorry Bjorn. I think your race is run.


I had to read The Skeptical Environmentalist and critique it when it came out.  What a joke. I didn’t throw that pie, but I sure felt like it. 

Lomborg is a *political* scientist.  Mocking him for his bad science and statistics overlooks the effectiveness of his *political* strategy, and I have seen even quite reasonable people get confused by his work, which is the whole point.

Do *not* underestimate the cleverness of his arguments.  Following started at: http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/2008/07/22/willful-idocy,

a long discussion on Lomborg, with my comments at

http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/2008/07/22/willful-idocy/#comment-46, from which I adapt:

1) Lomborg’s MS & PhD are in Political Science, not Economics. His long-ago research was in game theory & voting, but as far as I can tell, he does not publish economics or statistics in peer-reviewed journals.

While he may teach statistics, his writings don’t seem to do a lot of actual statistical analysis. He offers lots of charts, normally from others, but his own regression analyses, confidence intervals, etc are hard to find. Also, it’s very unclear that he most people would call him an environmentalist.

The following may be useful (although check the source, of course, Kare Fog is *not* a Lomborg fan):
This bears on the Julian Simon comments later.  Lomborg discovered Simon, and the rest is history.

Remember that *politics* is about convincing people of things, not doing good science.

2) I think Lomborg is of the Julian Simon/Cato Institute school of thought [i.e., the #1 priority, above all, is free markets and no government regulation of … anything. Keep taxes down, and there are no problems with any resource exhaustion whatsoever.]

See: Julian Simon, “The Ultimate Resource 2″, for example. The very first page after the copyright of Lomborg’s TSE is a quote from Simon:

This is my long-run forecast in brief:

The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely. Within a century or two, all nations, and most of humanity will be at or above today’s Western living standards.
I also speculate, however, that many people will continue to think and say that the conditions of life are getting worse.”

3) Suppose a person’s #1 priority is in fact “free markets, no regulation, less taxes, no bother to fossil fuel wealth”. This could be advocated openly & politically, but Lomborg’s approach is far more sophisticated, especially with Copenhagen Consensus. TSE argued that all sorts of problems weren’t problems, at least some of which are clearly science problems.  So, he now admits there are some problems, but wants to get them prioritized, so that no actiosn are taken on certain ones.

With the “Copenhagen Consensus” and “Cool It!”, he has something that appeals across the spectrum:

Left/progressive: gets conflicted by appeals for things like working on HIV/AIDS or clean water in third-world countries. If someone has a high level of social concern, it’s really *hard* to argue against these things.  People then get confused, thinking that Lomborg is really with them.

Center: agrees that it is important to prioritize problems and allocate resources in rational ways. Many people like this framework, not realizing the subtle ways in which climate change is guaranteed to be at the bottom.  The centrist fiscal-conservative/social-liberal/environmentalist folks commonly found around here in Silicon Valley are surprisingly susceptible to this approach, especially if they tart with “Cool It”.

Right/conservative: is perfectly happy that the *actual* result is no regulation, minimal taxes, regardless of what anyone says.

4) To see this, go down the prioritized list (page 44 of US Cool It!, or p.51 of the UK edition), and categorize them:

A: developed world countries make zero change to own internal behavior, but help third-world countries more.

If actually implemented, this would raise taxes in developed world across the board, but of course, truly major investments here don’t seem to happen very often, and as far as I can tell, most conservatives (in US sense) don’t lead the charge for more foreign aid to poor countries that actually helps them. [If you’re a conservative who gives to such cuases, I applaud you and apologize in advance, but I’d stand by the general idea.]

B: make it easier for countries to do business, move around, etc.

Few of these have any negative effects or restrictions on first-world countries.
The extent to which they are good or bad for third-world countries is beyond this discussion.

X: carbon restrictions: developed-world countries might have to change their internal behavior, including regulating some activities, and fossil-fuel companies would likely be less profitable.  After all, the poorest countries don’t really generate much CO2 in comparison.

My guess at a list (I’ll explain the (?, ?) notation later.

A: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13. (+, -)
B: 3, 9, 10, 14 (+, +)
X: 15, 16, 17 [climate] (-, -)

What a surprise! Anything that would actually *affect* a developed country in any major way … is at the bottom of the list.  What a coincidence!

(?, ?): this means (what is said, what is actually intended)

People may be familiar with the sort of thing that happens in Congress, where someone votes *for* a bill they know won’t pass, because it looks good at home.  People may also be familiar with the trick of taking a bill you *don’t* want passed, and loading enough extra things into it, that it finally becomes unapassable.

(+,+) someone says it and really wants it, and thus really fights for it

(+, -) someone says it, but they really intend it to avoid something else, and in practice don’t really fight for it.

(-, -) means: someone says they don’t want it, and they mean that and will fight against it.

A (+, +) I’ve talked/donated to people who do third-world water work, who spend serious chunks of their lives out there, who work on conflict resolution, helping third-world farmers, etc. When somebody like *that* says “Water is important and needs more support”, or
HIV/AIDS is a problem” I believe they really mean it.  If they say, “We could do so much more with only $1/person/year from the US”, I’m sure they mean it.  When I’ve heard Peter Gleick  talk about water issues, I *know* he means it.

A(+, -) But, if someone’s goal is to avoid X, the WHOLE point is to put (useful, valuable) things at the top of the list … that *won’t* get funded … so they don’t happen. If one goes by strict priorities, and one cannot get the top of the list funded, that assures that the bottom of the list doesn’t get funded. I’d call that a (+, -) argument: it’s a positive argument, but in real practice, it’s not expected to be implemented to any great extent, because the arguer is not likely to really push it or be willing to pay for it or expect anyone to pay much for it.  Even if they pay a little, it’s a lot less bothersome than to pay for handling X, and in any case, such things may get paid for by overall taxes or donations, i.e., spread  around.

B(+, +) These arguments are quite consistent with Simon & CATO worldviews.

I believe they mean what they say, and I certainly think these things are useful to developed countries, and I generally like free trade … but there are certainly people who make good cases that some policies are really not so helpful to developing countries.  Again, beyond the scope of this. These arguments appeal to many business people.

X(-, -) These are negative arguments, not of the form “AGW isn’t real”, which is difficult to argue in the face of the strong science, but of the form “There are higher priorities.” or “If everybody gets rich, no problem.”  Many economists project the same sort of GDP growth rate we’ve had for a hundred years, meaning that the  world is 6-15X richer in 2100.  This does ignore Peak Oil & Gas, of course, and any influence of energy on GDP growth.

So, if somebody says they buy the Copenhagen Consensus, and likes the prioritization approach, ask them if they are actively advocating substantial raises in their taxes to pay to help third-world countries, or if they give substantial money to NGOs that do that.  Ask them if  Lomborg puts his reputation and efforts towards actually *doing* that in Denmark, not just talking about it.

Again, I ask people to consider the subtlety of the political approach Lomborg uses, which actually does manage to confuse reasonable people.  HE ISN’T ABOUT SCIENCE, he’s about avoiding awkard science that might generate policies he doesn’t want.

Think of him as a Danish reincarnation of Julian Simon…

1) Competitive Enterprise Institute

In 2003, Lomborg got the Julian  Simon award from CEI:


2) Fraser Institute

spoke for them in 2007:


3) Heartland Institute

on climate expert’s list:


From quick perusal of these orgnaization’s websites, I don’t find a great emphasis on raising taxes to provide more foreign aid for poor countries,  but perhaps I missed them in my quick scan.  Still, they all seem to like Lomborg.