Bjorn Lomborg’s false dichotomies
July 2, 2006
In a comment piece for the Observer, “Climate change can wait, world health can’t”, Bjorn Lomberg argues once again that it’s not worth doing anything about global warming, and that the world should spend money on AIDS, famine, and, er, “free trade” instead. To bolster the argument along these lines put forth by his 2004 “Copenhagen Consensus” report (the “consensus” was that of a group of neoliberal economists), he says that last month at Georgetown University, “a distinguished group of UN ambassadors”, including those from “the US, China, India and Pakistan”, reached a “surprisingly close” conclusion. Should we be surprised that China’s ambassador to the UN, for example, is not much interested in reducing fossil-fuel emissions? Should we suppose that this has nothing to do with China’s rapid industrialization? Apparently we should.
Lomborg’s article contains nothing that has not already been widely rebutted. However, since its appearance is timed as part of the concerted anti-Al Gore backlash set in motion by Gore’s film about global warming – Lomborg claims smugly that his own argument is “the really inconvenient truth” – it may be worth taking some time to re-examine the misleading form of his arguments.
A section in Unspeak deals with a species of structurally misleading rhetoric called the “false dichotomy”. This article is a perfect example of it, which should come as no surprise, since it is designed by a man whose notorious book, The Sceptical Environmentalist, was in its very title a virtuoso case of Unspeak . . .
First, the false dichotomy. Spending money on AIDS and famine relief (as the Bush government is laudably doing to a much greater extent than its predecessors), are unarguable goods. However, this is evidently not an either/or problem. A habitable climate is a precondition for humanity’s being able to address other problems. Global warming is an infrastructure problem, which cannot be lined up on an equal footing with others. Say you own an old office building in Tokyo that requires reinforcement to meet earthquake-safety standards. It also needs new elevators, because the old ones creak and might fail soon. The elevators are arguably the more pressing safety problem in the immediate short term. Even so, you do not decide to replace the elevators and do nothing about reinforcement, because if the building falls down at the next tremor, the fact that it has dodgy elevators will be moot.
Similarly, to divert all current resources to disease and hunger, while shrugging one’s shoulders about the possibility of hundreds of millions of people starving and being rendered homeless in a few decades through flooding and the reduction of arable land, as well as likely increases in malaria through the expansion of areas hospitable to mosquitoes, is plainly not rational.
Of course we should spend money on all these things. The exact proportion of resources we should allocate to each problem is a real and difficult question. But Lomborg’s article, in pretending to answer this real and difficult question, actually ignores it. The rhetorical trick is in the example sum of money chosen by the so-called Copenhagen Consensus: “How could you spend $50bn to achieve the most good possible?”
The argument runs thus: a $50bn worldwide spend would not solve global warming, indeed would actually accrue fewer benefits in dollars that it costs. Therefore, rather than spend more, we should spend nothing at all. Now, the precise ways in which Lomborg and his friends decide on the dollar values of various costs and benefits have themselves been much criticised, among many others by economist John Quiggin, and lately by the Royal Society. But even if they were reliable, it is arguable that the priorities have been rigged by the nugatory sum (in global spending terms) assigned to the problem.
Try an analogy with food. If I gave you $2 and told you to buy the most delicious and filling meal you could on that budget, you would not even consider a whole grilled lobster at a local restaurant, because it would be out of your price range. Even if you could persuade the chef to sell you a single leg of the grilled lobster for $2, that would be a silly decision, in terms of maximizing nutrition, in comparison to a $2 cheese sandwich from a street stall. But if I offered you a budget of $50, you might well choose the lobster. So by only offering you $2 to begin with, I have effectively ruled out lobster from your potential menu. Similarly, by proposing an artificially tiny budget, Lomborg may have discounted in advance any really substantial contributions to mitigating the harms of global warming.
This point was put forcefully in 2004 by Columbia economist Jeffrey D Sachs in Nature:
By choosing such a low sum – a tiny fraction of global income – the [Copenhagen Consensus] inherently favoured specific low-cost schemes over bolder, larger projects. It is therefore no surprise that the huge and complex challenge of long-term climate change was ranked last […] Annual income in the world is currently about $40 trillion, of which some $30 trillion is in the high-income (donor) countries. So the project looked at investing a measly 0.03% of annual donor-country income to address the planet’s greatest challenges […] The United States alone now spends almost $450 billion per year on the military.
An alternative analogy might be one with medicine. Suppose you go to the doctor and he says: “I’m afraid you have a brain tumour. However, if I only had $50 to treat you, I could only pay for a session of shiatsu massage, which would make you feel good, but it wouldn’t cure your brain tumour. So I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.” Would you perhaps seek a second opinion?
You might indeed be sceptical of that doctor’s expertise. And Lomborg cleverly touts himself as “the sceptical environmentalist”, which is a superb bit of Unspeak salesmanship. At last, a sceptical environmentalist – someone who cares for the planet but doesn’t indulge in all this green fearmongering!
Well, for a start, Lomborg is not an environmental scientist. He studied and taught in the political-science department of Aarhus University. His one academic paper applies game theory to politics. He is now director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, part of the Copenhagen Business School. The only sense in which he is any kind of “environmentalist” is his (much-disputed) claim in TSE that he was “an old left-wing Greenpeace member” before he, so to speak, saw the light.
His avowed “scepticism”, meanwhile, is not scepticism, because it is asymmetrical. He is “sceptical” only of the higher end of estimates of global-warming damage in the confidence intervals of predictions by bodies such as the IPCC, consistently preferring the low end for no explicit scientific reason. It is consistently argued by a wide range of environmental scientists, indeed – by, for example, E O Wilson on extinction, who speaks disgustedly of “the Lomborg scam”, by Stephen H Schneider on climate, by Devra Davis on health, and in a general survey, also including population issues, in Scientific American – that Lomborg systematically misrepresents scientific findings so as to prefer his own conclusions. In a January 2006 interview [German] with Neuen Zürcher Zeitung, Lomborg said: “The fact that I already knew the conclusion while I was writing the book may have influenced many of the things that I wrote.” You never know – it might have.
Lomborg’s Unspeak self-description is clever, though, because it contains, as all good propaganda does, a tiny grain of truth. There are plenty of reasons to be sceptical about particular models or particular predictions in climate science. Science, indeed, progresses exactly by means of scepticism, by repeatedly trying to disprove hypotheses and find new ones that better fit the data.
When your “scepticism”, on the other hand, is consistently biased in one direction – towards attempting to trivialize the vast planetary scientific consensus on the dangers of human-caused global warming – it is no longer scepticism, any more than the Competitive Enterprise Institute may be called a “sceptical” institution.
It is well known that prominent global-warming “sceptics” who appear to talk about the issue on the media, so as to give debates a spurious semblance of “balance”, often turn out to be paid shills for the fossil-fuels industry. I do not mean for a moment to suggest that Lomborg is a paid shill for the fossil-fuel industry. But the disingenuous grabbing of the rhetorical territory of the “sceptical”, an adjective more properly applied to the scientific method of self-falsification and peer review, works the same way in both cases. Be sceptical of “sceptics”.