" 'Cool It' is a stealth attack on humanity's future"

Read time: 2 mins

This tart quote is Tim Flannery's devastating verdict on the new Bjorn Lomborg global warming policy attack, Cool It .

In his own bestseller, The Weather Makers:How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Tim Flannery presented a carefully documented look at the forces driving climate change and the range of complications that may arise. It is at once scholarly and readable, even-handed and chilling.

But Flannery finds that Lomborg's approach to science and advocacy is bound less in science than in an ideology of market-economy optimism. Lomborg would have us plan for our climate future in the same way the Bush administration planned for the Iraq war: assume that everything will turn out great and make no contingency arrangements to guard against anything actually going wrong.

Flannery gets caught himself here in some casual bashing. For instance, he says, “Glib, misleading associations mark Lomborg's style.”

But then Flannery offers this example: “In his (Lomborg's) chapter on glaciers, he states that since 'we're leaving the Little Ice Age' (which, in fact, we left long ago) it's not surprising that glaciers are dwindling. Remarkably, he believes that is more good news, because 'with glacial melting, rivers actually increase their water contents, especially in the summer, providing more water to many of the poorest people in the world.' 'It boils down to a stark choice,' he lectures us. 'Would we rather have more water available or less?'”

It's classic Lomborg. He celebrates the increased flow from melting glaciers now without mentioning that once the glacier is gone, its capacity to store water for summertime use will also be gone.

Chris Mooney is right in his recent post, pointing out that we can do ourselves an injury when we get caught up in blistering arguments over the deniers' wild, narrow, diversionary asides. But serious scientists like Flannery and Naomi Oreskes deserve praise and support for their willingness to step out from the deep cover of academia and challenge hacks like Lomborg in public.

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Comments

The key take-away, imho, is this point:
“Lomborg’s approach to science and advocacy is bound less in science than in an ideology of market-economy optimism.”

It is important to understand - and, frankly, accept - this because, otherwise, debating Lomborg (and those he is attempting to persuade) is bound to fall flat.

There is a natural constituency of those who are firmly convinced that neoclassical conservative economics, especially as espoused by Reagan, Thatcher and ideological successors (and that would basically include all US, Canadian and UK governments since) is thoroughly vindicated in its belief that the “value” of non-renewable resources and ecosystem services (e.g. fresh water, atmospheric carbon sinks, etc.) is strictly defined by the costs assigned to them by the free market.

To that constituency, any discussion of potential market failures, externalities, Pigovian (e.g. carbon) taxes, international accords (such as the Montreal Protocol), etc., is readily met with counter-examples such as Julian Simon vs. Ehrlich (or Malthus, for that matter), (environmental) Kuznet’s curves and a host of other seemingly robust “victories”.

Simply countering Lomborg regarding scientific deficiencies in his argument, or mispricing in his cost-benefit analyses is not going to be sufficient for some, who will simply wave away these objections with an unwavering belief in the market and technology to overwhelm such as trifles as the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

I mention this partly because I think it is analogous to Chris Mooney’s issues about how do we “frame” science to effectively reach a wider audience.

Because it is patently clear that solutions to climate change are going to require market interventions of some sort, I think it is important to work on “framing” the economics as well. In order to get any traction whatsoever with the constituency I referred to above, they have to be persuaded that there IS room in neoclassical economics for externalities, that the economy is NOT a closed loop independent of its inputs and outputs to the environment, that markets and techologies (wonderful as they are) DO face certain limits (see again thermodynamics, etc.).

Not sure how this gets done, but I suspect that simply attacking Lomborg’s science or nit-picking his economics (or last seemingly to his constituency) may be a non-starter for an unfortunately large population.

You’re right – the flaws in Lomborg’s arguments go deeper than his take on the science, and some sort of market-oriented framing is needed.

Jon Anda, a former Morgan Stanley vice chairman, is on staff here at Environmental Defense, and what drives him nuts is the way Lomborg looks at risk.

The way Jon frames it is that we’re looking at the possibility of catastrophically bad things happening, so let’s hedge that risk appropriately. Here’s more on his take: http://environmentaldefenseblogs.org/climate411/2007/09/13/bjorn-lomborgs-fundamental-mistake/