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Bjorn Lomborg and the Climate Change Catastrophe at the New York Times

Two days ago, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Bjorn Lomborg titled, “The Poor Need Cheap Fossil Fuels.” He began: “There’s a lot of hand-wringing about our warming planet, but billions of people face a more immediate problem: They are desperately poor, and many cook and heat their homes using open fires or leaky stoves that burn dirty fuels like wood, dung, crop waste and coal.” He reported: “About 3.5 million of them die prematurely each year as a result of breathing the polluted air inside their homes.”

Lomborg’s remedy for both global poverty and the cookstove fatalities: “Let’s face it. What those living in energy poverty need are reliable, low-cost fossil fuels, at least until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future.”

Lomborg cited no published source to support his claim that “cheap fossil fuels,” including coal, are the solution. Nor did he explain how building a massive fossil fuel infrastructure throughout sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of his piece, is at all consistent with a “transition to a greener energy future.” For one thing, there wouldn’t be any “green” future in Africa or anywhere else. And Lomborg’s fossil fuel advocacy isn’t supported by the published sources on these topics.

For example, a 2011 World Health Organization reportendorses “improved biomass cookstove designs that can substantially reduce indoor air pollution, as well as biogas stoves that very efficiently burn methane produced by sewage and animal waste as a clean household fuel.” The WHO report said nothing about fossil fuels.

Furthermore, in a 2011 resolution, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. The resolution’s chief concern was “that over three billion people in developing countries rely on traditional biomass for cooking and heating, [and] that one and a half billion people are without electricity.” While advocating “modern energy services for all,” the resolution issued no express preference for fossil fuels, and emphasized “the sustainability of energy sources … for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including … the protection of the global climate.”

Lomborg’s idea of deploying fossil fuels on a huge scale in the developing world also would increase human exposure to outdoor air pollution. Citing a UN report, Reuters recently reported: “Air pollution is an underestimated scourge that kills far more people than AIDS and malaria and a shift to cleaner energy could easily halve the toll by 2030, U.N. officials said. Investments in solar, wind or hydropower would benefit both human health and a drive by almost 200 nations to slow climate change, blamed mainly on a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from use of fossil fuels.” The same Reuters story also observed: “A 2012 World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 3.5 million people die early annually from indoor air pollution and 3.3 million from outdoor air pollution.” Thus, Lomborg’s fossil fuels solution would increase (a) outdoor air pollution, (b) human disease due to outdoor air pollution, (c) atmospheric CO2, and (d) global warming.

Lomborg’s proposal in the New York Times to use more fossil fuels is but one brick in a massive façade of such writings, featuring his long-standing opposition to worldwide cuts in CO2 emissions, which, he has argued, including in his 2007 book, Cool It, would be attempted to the net detriment to humans.

Along the way, Lomborg’s serial mistake-making, more serious than this example from the Times, has been convincingly exposed by the likes of Edward O. Wilson (Harvard), Stephen Schneider (Stanford), Thomas Lovejoy (Heinz Center), Stuart Pimm (Duke), Jeff Harvey (University of Chicago), John Holdren (Harvard and Obama’s science adviser), Jerry Mahlman (National Center for Atmospheric Research), Lester Brown (Worldwatch Institute), John Bongaarts (Population Council), and Joseph Romm (Climate Progress). (See The Lomborg Deception, 3-18).

The documentation of Lomborg’s critics is so substantive and persuasive, and Lomborg’s case in support of more fossil fuels and against CO2 cuts is so factually challenged, scientifically absurd, and environmentally reckless, that his access to the New York Times’ op-ed page would be inexplicable if not for the entrenched policy of editorial indifference at the Times toward even the most important issues, including climate change.            

The New York Times Company may be the only Fortune 1000 business not to have updated its core product offering – Times’ editorial policy and the news and opinion-page commentary that flow from it – in over a hundred years. The newspaper’s editorial policy, as we generally know it today, was established in 1896 by Adolph Ochs, who declared that the Times was “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect, or interest involved.” The line of Ochs-family publishers since Ochs’s death in 1935 have committed themselves to Ochsian “impartiality” as the paper’s editorial credo. (The Record of the Paper, 89.)

However, it seems that “impartiality” was never formally defined, and the concept has evolved in problematic ways over the years. In 1944, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, who succeeded Ochs as publisher, lectured a twenty-year-old Arthur Gelb, then a copyboy, that the Times “was not a crusading newspaper.” In his 2003 book, Gelb describes how a Times managing editor, Clifton Daniel, once told him “to keep [his] crusading spirit under control.” Abe Rosenthal, a top editor in the 1960s, frequently pleaded with the Times’ bureaus to keep the paper from drifting to the left. “Center,” Rosenthal reportedly said, “was where the paper must always be.”

Gay Talese, in his renowned book on the Times, explained how things worked: “Better to be a little dull than to dazzle, the thinking went, and as long as they [editors and reporters] remained faithful to the principles of Ochs, a sense of responsibility and caution, the old morality, they need not worry.” Talese observed: “Threats to world survival seemed not to disturb the inner peace of the Times building…. If it sometimes seemed a bit crusty and out of touch with popular trends, this was not so bad. It was, like Ochs, never frivolous. It was almost never caught out on a limb.” (The Record of the Paper, 88-90.)

The in-house insistence that the Times function as a non-crusading, centrist news outlet not wanting to get caught out on a limb – a widely emulated editorial policy – has seriously diluted the First Amendment mandate under which it operates, and undermined what should be its government-watchdog function. Its official adherence to “impartiality” has effectively prevented the Times from choosing sides even on the most important issues of the day, perhaps of human history. This obviously includes human-induced climate change, about which an enlightened scientific consensus exists, and which commands fast and deep cuts in CO2 emissions.

Institutionally speaking, the Times operates with detachment about the issue. When one goes to the front page of the Times Internet edition, the main coverage categories, listed on the left side of the page, include Style, Arts, Sports, and something called Dealbook, but not climate change. Is climate change less important than sports?

Within the coverage category listed as World, at the top of the list, there is no climate change sub-category. Is climate change not a World-related category? Isn’t it arguably the most important one?

In the coverage category listed as Science, there is an Environment sub-category, but no climate change category. Isn’t climate change a major science-related issue? The fact is that the Times barely covers climate science, which is an approach to climate-change that the Times’ Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin has excessively consideredand contemplatedand ponderedeven as the published climate science grew increasingly grim – and largely unreported in the Times.    

In the sub-category Environment, one can locate the even lower sub-category of “Global Warming,” which is listed in 8-point type, which is very small.

By now, the message is clear and consistent with what Gay Talese wrote years ago: the non-crusading, centrist New York Times isn’t going out on a limb to cover climate change, which, with the advent and ongoing deployment of nuclear weapons, is the most important issue in the history of the human race. And, no, the Times hasn’t gone out on a limb about nuclear weapons either, or any of the dozens of other critically important issues of our time.

The Times takes “impartiality” to the point of indifference, and indifference to journalistic malfeasance, when it selects guest commentary that advocates in 2013 – twenty-five years after James Hansen’s wake-up callto the Congress in 1988 – the burning of fossil fuels, including coal, on the scale proposed by Lomborg, which in fact would disproportionately and more quickly doom the world’s poorest populations to a climate hell.

The Times should be focused on the published climate science as the core of its climate coverage, along with what that science is telling us needs to happen on virtually every conceivable front. And it should feature that coverage regularly and prominently as a Page One category in something larger than 8-point type. It should also update its nineteenth-century editorial policy to better address the twenty-first century challenges facing its readers and their world.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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