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The Lomborg Deception: About Yesterday’s Front-Page Story in the Guardian

Howard Friel's most recent book is The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straigh about Global Warming (Yale University Press, 2010)

Yesterday, London's Guardian newspaper, an important paper with some of the West's best journalists, including Johann Hari, Suzanne Goldenberg, George Monbiot, and Chris McGreal, printed a front-page feature article about a new book on climate change edited by Bjorn Lomborg, which mistakenly depicted him as a converted climate change activist.  

The article began: "The world's most high-profile climate change sceptic is to declare that global warming is ‘undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today' and ‘a challenge humanity must confront,' in an apparent U-turn that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby."

The article then quoted Lomborg as follows: "Investing $100 billion annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate change problem by the end of this century." In an accompanying interview, the Guardian described Lomborg as "the dissenting climate change voice who changed his tune."

Has Lomborg really changed his tune? To answer this question, one would have to know the original tune, and listen to this new one with a more finely tuned ear. Unfortunately, the Guardian appears to have been misled by what Lomborg says in his soon-to-be published edited volume, Smart Solutions to Climate Change: Costs and Benefits.

In the Introduction to this new book, Lomborg wrote "it is vital to emphasize the consensus on the most important scientific questions" about global warming, and "we have long moved on from any mainstream disagreements about the science of climate change." This indeed is a departure from Lomborg's previous characterizations of consensus climate science, when in 2001 in The Skeptical Environmentalist he mocked the "dire" assessments by scientists and environmentalists about the threat of global warming, and in 2007 advised the world to "chill out" about climate change, and to "Cool It"-the title of his book that year-wherein he argued that man-made warming was "no catastrophe," and there was little need to reduce CO2 emissions.  

Three years later, and six months after the publication of a book that exposed his serial misrepresentations of climate science, Lomborg writes that we should no longer argue about climate science. That concession is thus more convenience than conversion. And Lomborg's climate endgame-his opposition to reducing CO2 emissions-remains intact.      

In his Conclusion to this new book, Lomborg writes: "Drastic carbon cuts would be the poorest way to respond to global warming"; "It is unfortunate that so many policy makers and [climate] campaigners have become fixated on cutting carbon in the near term as the chief response to global warming"; "It is easier to understand why a single-minded focus on drastic carbon emissions reductions has failed to work"; and "Kyoto has shown the futility of betting everything on rapid cuts in carbon emissions to very specific targets and timetables." Thus, the Guardian did not serve its readers well by reporting that Lomborg is a newly minted climate activist who wants to spend $100 billion annually to "tackle climate change," without making it clear that he is still opposed to reducing CO2 emissions.

Contrary to what Lomborg says, reducing CO2 emissions is essential as a policy response to climate change because it is the most dangerous and pernicious greenhouse gas. And there is abundant evidence that ignoring CO2 reductions as a response to climate change would be catastrophic


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In February 2009, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that warming due to CO2 atmospheric concentrations is likely "irreversible" for a thousand years after emissions stop, that CO2 increases this century will "lock in" sea level rise for the next thousand years, and that a peak in CO2 atmospheric concentrations of 450 parts per million to 600 ppm would likely lead to "dust bowl" droughts in southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern United States, and western Australia. (Solomon, et al., "Irreversible Climate Change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 6, February 10, 2009.)   

We are currently at a CO2 concentration of about 390 ppm. In January 2009, the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change projected a median CO2 concentration "without policy"-which essentially means without effective CO2 emissions reductions-of 860 ppm by year 2100. (Sokolov, et al., "Probabilistic Forecast for 21st Century climate Based on Uncertainties in Emissions [without policy] and Climate Parameters," M.I.T. Joint Program, report no. 169, January 2009.)

An atmospheric concentration of 860 ppm by year 2100 without doubt would be a catastrophic outcome. Note in comparison, however, that Lomborg claims in his new book that his approach, which rejects a focus on CO2 reductions, "could essentially solve the climate change problem by the end of this century."

In November 2009, the Copenhagen Diagnosis, which consists of more than two dozen IPCC scientists, most lead authors, reported that the 2008 CO2 atmospheric concentration of 385 ppm-not 860 ppm but 385 ppm-was higher than any time in the last 800,000 years, potentially higher than the last 3 to 20 million years, and that CO2 emissions were tracking worst-case emissions scenarios. It also reported that summer melting of Arctic sea ice has exceeded the worst-case projections of the 2007 IPCC assessment report, that global ocean surface temperatures were the warmest ever recorded for each of June, July, and August 2009, and that the Greenland ice sheet "may be nearing a tipping point where it is committed to shrink" with low reversibility. About the Amazon Rainforest, it reported: "If anthropogenic-forced [man-made] lengthening of the dry season continues, and droughts increase in frequency or severity, the system could reach a tipping point resulting in dieback of up to about 80% of the rainforest." ("The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science," Climate Change Research Center, The University of New South Wales, November 2009.)

In April 2008, a team of climate scientists led by James Hansen reported that to "preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted ... CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm [per 2008] to at most 350 ppm," and that "if the present overshoot of this CO2 target is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects." (Hansen, et al., "Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?" Open Atmospheric Science Journal, April 7, 2008 )

Despite all this and more not mentioned here about the certain catastrophic impacts of neglecting to reduce CO2 emissions, and despite his claims to have no further quarrels with climate science, Lomborg still argues, as he has over the past decade, that it is bad policy to focus on reducing CO2 emissions. While doing much over the last decade to assist the right-wing and industry-backed campaigns against global warming and CO2 reductions, Lomborg argues today that reducing CO2 is bad policy because it has not worked in the past. This goes beyond mere cynicism.  

While spanning the globe for "smart solutions" to climate change and to improve the human condition, Lomborg ignores an obvious major source of human suffering, economic deprivation, human rights violations, and vast amounts of wasted money-that is, perpetual war and global military spending-which now totals approximately $1.5 trillion per year. While Lomborg argues on cost-benefit grounds, by citing a select group of climate economists, that it is too expensive for the world's economies to reduce CO2 emissions, he voices no opposition to the state of perpetual global war and sky-high military expenditures.

Lomborg is not a responsible climate commentator, and it would be good if responsible news organizations finally figured that out.

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