August 27, 2002
Skepticism Toward the Skeptical Environmentalist

I cannot be the only economist who was disappointed by Bjorn Lomborg's column in the New York Times on Monday, August 26. Lomborg makes a number of good points: it is definitely the case that we are pumping enough CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to warm the earth; that many of our environmental problems are the diseases of poverty, early industrialization, and the absence of democracy; that the Kyoto Protocol would be hideously expensive; that it would delay the warming trend for a decade at most; that projected temperature rises up to 2100 are bearable; and that it would almost surely be better to spend the resources that would be sucked up by the Kyoto Protocol on third-world public health and infrastructure instead.

But as I read I kept waiting for another shoe to drop, and it did not. It seemed to me that Bjorn Lomborg's argument was radically and dangerously incomplete. It seemed to me that there were three more critical points that Bjorn Lomborg desperately needed to make, but did not. And because he did not it seemed to me that the net effect of his piece was not to reveal wisdom, but to darkeneth counsel.

So let me make these three missing points:

First, climatologists' model-based central projections of the effects of global warming over the next century are just that: model-based central projections. There is enormous uncertainty about what will happen. It might be the case (although most scientists would bet heavily against it) that our pumping CO2 into the atmosphere will have little effect on climate--that the CO2 will be quickly absorbed into the oceans and terrestrial biosphere (making gardening much easier), and that any residual warming will be largely balanced out by the cooling effects of industrial soot. It is likely to be the case that the central projection of a 4 to 5 degree Fahrenheit warming over the next century will be roughly accurate. It might be the case that something horrible might happen--bubbles of methane trapped beneath the sea floor being liberated to greatly increase the greenhouse effect, global warming disrupting the Gulf Stream and causing a local cooling in Europe that would give Rome the climate of Oslo and produce 400 million Europeans anxious to move someplace else. The central projection of the effects of global warming over the next century looks bearable, but the extreme possibilities may well not be. Any approach to dealing with global warming that does not create the capability for massive and swift action should things be worse than currently expected is fatally flawed.

Second, those who will suffer from global warming are largely in the global south. If global warming does (say) increase the magnitude of major typhoons and does raise the sea level a bit, by the latter part of this century more than 100 million people in the Ganges delta will be at risk of drowning if a high tide accompanies the storm surge of a major typhoon in the Bay of Bengal. The managers and shareholders of companies like Halliburton that will gain from inaction on global warming are a different and distinct group from the tropical peasants who stand to lose their health and their lives. Any claim that "instead of Kyoto we should be doing X" has to be accompanied by a plan to actually do X. Otherwise, the claim that inaction on global warming enhances world welfare is likely to be very false indeed, as it is hard to believe that on the scale of human happiness higher incomes in the global north will outweigh nastier, more brutish, and shorter lives in the global south. It is one thing to say that the resources the Kyoto Protocol wants to use to fight global warming could be used to provide first-class public health and economic infrastructure to the global south. It is another to say that these resources, instead, will be used to get every American household a second DVD player and every tenth American household a power boat.

Third, global warming produced by a fossil fuel-burning civilization may be bearable and managable up to the end of the twenty-first century, but the warming trend is unlikely to stop there. Humanity will have to move to greenhouse gas-free industry at some point unless you want to see temperatures rising not by five but by ten or fifteen degrees. We need to start doing the research and industrial development now so that countries developing in 2050 can be offered an attractivge choice of greenhouse gas-free technologies as they industrialize. We don't want the climate in the twenty-second century to be shaped by an industrial China that in 2080 is still burning its brown coal, do we? So Lomborg's argument has to be a call not for inaction, but for rightly-directed action on global warming--which means a lot more money spent starting today on developing the technological alternatives we will need to have available for the end of the twenty-first century.

How do these three points change Lomborg's argument? He may well still be right that inaction on control of greenhouse gas emissions over the next twenty years is the best policy--but that claim needs a footnote warning that we need now to build the institutions necessary to take swift action if it turns out that things are worse than expected. He may well be right that the resources that Kyoto would suck up would do more for human welfare if spent creating a more human world by boosting public health and economic infrastructure--but that claim needs to be accompanied by a plan to make sure that these resources are devoted to their best alternative use in the global south. "Would" cuts no ice here. "Will" does.

And, most disappointing of all, is Lomborg's failure to even mention the importance of technological development. If it is the best policy to wait for a technological fix to the problem of global warming, then we need first to fix our technology so that it will be able to do what we ask of it when we need it.

It's not my field of expertise, but as a card-carrying economist I can't help but think that Lomborg is probably right when he condemns Kyoto as a worthless waste of the world's wealth--as something that will be ineffective at fighting global warming and so expensive as to foreclose options to do other things that would be more useful. Lomborg's flaw, however, is that he doesn't spell out what the "other things" we should be doing are. And that's what he needs to do if he wants to advance the ball.


The Environmentalists Are Wrong:

There is no doubt that pumping out carbon dioxide from fossil fuels has increased the global temperature. Yet too much of the debate is fixated on reducing emissions without regard to cost. With its agreement to the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty, Europe has set itself the goal of cutting its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. This is more than 30 percent below what they would have been in 2012. Even with renewable sources of energy taking over, the United Nations Climate Panel still estimates a temperature increase of four degrees to five degrees fahrenheit by the year 2100. Such a rise is projected to have less impact in the industrialized world than in the developing world, which tends to be in warmer regions and has an infrastructure less able to withstand the inevitable problems.

Despite our intuition that we need to do something drastic about global warming, economic analyses show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adapting to the increased temperatures. Moreover, all current models show that the Kyoto Protocol will have surprisingly little impact on the climate: temperature levels projected for 2100 will be postponed for all of six years.

Yet the cost of the Kyoto Protocol will be $150 billion to $350 billion annually (compared to $50 billion in global annual development aid). With global warming disproportionately affecting third world countries, we have to ask if Kyoto is the best way to help them. The answer is no. For the cost of Kyoto for just one year we could solve the world's biggest problem: we could provide every person in the world with clean water. This alone would save two million lives each year and prevent 500 million from severe disease. In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services. Isn't this a better way of serving the world?

The New York Times

August 26, 2002

The Environmentalists Are Wrong

By BJORN LOMBORG

COPENHAGEN
With the opening today of the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, we will be hearing a great deal about both concepts: sustainability and development. Traditionally, the developed nations of the West have shown greater concern for environmental sustainability, while the third world countries have a stronger desire for economic development. At big environmental gatherings, it is usually the priorities of the first world that carry the day.

The challenge in Johannesburg will be whether we are ready to put development ahead of sustainability. If the United States leads the way, the world may finally find the courage to do so.

Why does the developed world worry so much about sustainability? Because we constantly hear a litany of how the environment is in poor shape. Natural resources are running out. Population is growing, leaving less and less to eat. Species are becoming extinct in vast numbers. Forests are disappearing. The planet's air and water are getting ever more polluted. Human activity is, in short, defiling the earth — and as it does so, humanity may end up killing itself.

There is, however, one problem: this litany is not supported by the evidence. Energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so. More food is now produced per capita than at any time in the world's history. Fewer people are starving. Species are, it is true, becoming extinct. But only about 0.7 percent of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not the 20 percent to 50 percent that some have predicted. Most forms of environmental pollution look as though they have either been exaggerated or are transient — associated with the early phases of industrialization. They are best cured not by restricting economic growth but by accelerating it.

That we in the West are so prone to believe the litany despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary results in an excessive focus on sustainability. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the discussion on global warming.

There is no doubt that pumping out carbon dioxide from fossil fuels has increased the global temperature. Yet too much of the debate is fixated on reducing emissions without regard to cost. With its agreement to the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty, Europe has set itself the goal of cutting its carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. This is more than 30 percent below what they would have been in 2012.

Even with renewable sources of energy taking over, the United Nations Climate Panel still estimates a temperature increase of four degrees to five degrees fahrenheit by the year 2100. Such a rise is projected to have less impact in the industrialized world than in the developing world, which tends to be in warmer regions and has an infrastructure less able to withstand the inevitable problems.

Despite our intuition that we need to do something drastic about global warming, economic analyses show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adapting to the increased temperatures. Moreover, all current models show that the Kyoto Protocol will have surprisingly little impact on the climate: temperature levels projected for 2100 will be postponed for all of six years.

Yet the cost of the Kyoto Protocol will be $150 billion to $350 billion annually (compared to $50 billion in global annual development aid). With global warming disproportionately affecting third world countries, we have to ask if Kyoto is the best way to help them. The answer is no. For the cost of Kyoto for just one year we could solve the world's biggest problem: we could provide every person in the world with clean water. This alone would save two million lives each year and prevent 500 million from severe disease. In fact, for the same amount Kyoto would have cost just the United States every year, the United Nations estimates that we could provide every person in the world with access to basic health, education, family planning and water and sanitation services. Isn't this a better way of serving the world?

The focus should be on development, not sustainability. Development is not simply valuable in itself, but in the long run it will lead the third world to become more concerned about the environment. Only when people are rich enough to feed themselves do they begin to think about the effect of their actions on the world around them and on future generations. With its focus on sustainability, the developed world ends up prioritizing the future at the expense of the present. This is backward. In contrast, a focus on development helps people today while creating the foundation for an even better tomorrow.

The United States has a unique opportunity in Johannesburg to call attention to development. Many Europeans chastised the the Bush administration for not caring enough about sustainability, especially in its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol. They are probably correct that the United States decision was made on the basis of economic self-interest rather than out of some principled belief in world development. But in Johannesburg the administration can recast its decision as an attempt to focus on the most important and fundamental issues on the global agenda: clean drinking water, better sanitation and health care and the fight against poverty.

Such move would regain for the United States the moral high ground. When United States rejected the Kyoto treaty last year, Europeans talked endlessly about how it was left to them to "save the world." But if the United States is willing to commit the resources to ensure development, it could emerge as the savior.

Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Environmental Assessment Institute in Denmark and author of ‘‘The Skeptical Environmentalist.’’

Posted by DeLong at August 27, 2002 01:23 PM | Trackback

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>> And, most disappointing of all, is Lomborg's failure to even mention the importance of technological development<<

Lomborg pays a good amount of attention to technological development in his book, and also to the other items you criticize him for omitting here. After all, there's room to fit only so much into a Times op-ed piece -- your critique of the piece is 110 words longer than it is.

(The editors there can be pretty insistent about what one and does and doesn't fit in as well -- one doesn't necessarily have a free hand to even try and cover most of the bases regarding a complex subject in that brief space. So for counsel that enlightens rather than darkeneth, seek ye the book and make its publisher joyous.)

Posted by: Jim Glass on August 27, 2002 03:10 PM

"Humanity will have to move to greenhouse gas-free industry at some point unless you want to see temperatures rising not by five but by ten, fifteen, or twenty degrees."

Not true. CO2s marginal impact on temperature decreases with output.

The Creataceous period -- about 4,500 carbon PPM compared to 450 or so today -- was only 10 degrees warmer.

This is also why global warming largely occurs in the most uninhabited, coolest places (e.g. Siberia) -- there are not as many C02 molecules from human activities in these places.

Posted by: Ram Ahluwalia on August 27, 2002 03:25 PM

I haven't read his book, but I did read the extensive excerpts he submitted to SKEPTIC magazine. His much-vaunted footnote collection was full of entries like "Ibid, p. 254", "ibid, p.256", "Ibid, p.257" and so on - which is an undergrad's trick for trying to make a thinly-researched paper more authoritative (not related to the undergrad's trick of playing with fontsizes and margins to make a 7-page paper into a 10-pager). He made a big deal of this all-consuming "Litany" of environmental woe that he's crusading against, but he has a hard time coming up with actual scientists to disprove; one long section hammering away at a false prediction turned out (when I checked the footnotes) to be arguing against something written by Isaac Asimov back in the early 70s. If "The Litany" was the all-devouring hivemind he portrays it as, why couldn't he come up something other than long-dead strawmen to knock down? More fundamentally, he acts as if he's some kind of brave iconoclast for, say, disproving the conclusions of a twenty-year old research paper - which had long ago been overtaken by newer, more accurate theories. It was this kind of fundamental misunderstanding of science - that science regularly disproves itself; it's what it does, it's how it works - that puts "Skeptical Environmentalist" in the same category as "creation science".

Posted by: FMguru on August 27, 2002 04:15 PM

global warming produced by a fossil fuel-burning civilization may be bearable and managable up to the end of the twenty-first century, but the warming trend is unlikely to stop there

Come ON.

Climate modeling is nowhere near the ability to project levels and trends with any kind of predictive power into the distant future.

This statement is pure, unsupported fantasy.

I have to remind you, Brad, of your own inability to forecast mid-summer temperatures in Washington DC, on a far shorter time horizon. :)

Posted by: George Zachar on August 27, 2002 04:46 PM

You don't really explain why you think the benifit : cost ratio of the Kyoto accords would be smaller than one. I am ready to be convinced, but I need some argument.

In an other life, I have been raised to believe that economic incentives work best at forstering necessary technology innovation. It would thus seem that tradable CO2 emission permits would accomplish the task at a relatively low cost.

If there is an option value than maybe what we should do is start with humble reduction targets. This would at least have for advantage to teach us about the viability of such a system at the global level.

But then again, I am obviously no expert. By the way, how is W going to reconcile his CO2 trap argument with his new drive to clear-cut the West Coat? Just kidding, of course...

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on August 27, 2002 05:20 PM

Hot polemics, handle with care.

From David Appell's Quark Soup archives, May 2002
http://homepage.fcgnetworks.net/appell/Weblog/Archives/May02.html
this excerpt of a letter to Andrew Sullivan's Book Club:
"Lomborg has no credentials to back up his arguments. Lomborg is an Associate Professor of statistics in a history department, has never published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, nor has he subjected this book to peer review. His startling lack of ecological knowledge isn't hidden by his nearly 3000 footnotes to this work."

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on August 27, 2002 09:10 PM

seem to be working on a very ... neoclassical ... growth model there Brad. Unless I misinterpret you, you seem to be suggesting that we should take the money that the Kyoto agreements would have cost and instead, "spend it on" improving technology so we use less carbon?

What would your response be to someone who expressed polite, well, scepticism, about this utterly mysterious process whereby huge lumps of government money were automagically turned into just the invention we need? It strikes me that necessity is the mother of invention, not the NSF, and that Kyoto is more likely to stimulate the necessary technological progress _exactly_because_ without it, the economic penalties are strict.

After all, what was it that brought us the semi-electric Honda you were talking about a while ago; fifty years of subsidised research, or an otherwise draconian and insane regulatory regime in California?

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 27, 2002 11:16 PM

Vanishing Point
by E.O. Wilson

12 Dec 2001
My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval. The question is: How much load should be tolerated before a response is necessary? Lomborg is evidently over the threshold.

Lomborg's estimate of extinction rates is at odds with the vast majority of respected scholarship on extinction. His estimate, "0.7 percent over the next 50 years" -- or 0.014 percent per year -- is an order of magnitude smaller than the most conservative species extinction rates by authorities in the field. Here is my brief response to the analysis of extinction rates in The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Before humans existed, the species extinction rate was (very roughly) one species per million species per year (0.0001 percent). Estimates for current species extinction rates range from 100 to 10,000 times that, but most hover close to 1,000 times prehuman levels (0.1 percent per year), with the rate projected to rise, and very likely sharply. To wit:

Based on the work of Stuart Pimm of Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, anywhere from one to several bird species go extinct annually out of 10,000 known species -- hence, say 0.01-0.03 percent of living bird species are extinguished per year. But birds are unusual in that threatened bird species receive an extraordinary amount of human intervention: The real figure of observed extinctions would be much higher, very likely 10 (0.1 percent) per year or more, were it not for heroic efforts to save species on the brink of extinction. Captive breeding, strict protection, and maintenance of reserves especially designed for bird and mammal species have many species hanging on that would otherwise have gone globally extinct in the past several decades. See, for example, the special treatment accorded the nine critically endangered but extant psittacids (parrots). If you look at non-bird species -- for example, terrestrial and freshwater mollusks, a relatively unprotected group -- the extinction rates are much higher.

The above consideration confirms the likely current extinction rate of 0.1 percent, 1,000 times greater than prehuman levels. That figure is also supported by the following indirect measures:

Area-species curves. Ecological research across a wide range of habitats shows that the number of species inhabiting a patch of land increases exponentially with the size of that patch. Different studies have produced different estimates for the species-area exponent; the higher the value of the exponent, the steeper the general relationship between land area and species diversity, so that a small change in land area has a large effect on diversity. In The Diversity of Life, I use the conservative values of the area-species exponent and rate of tropical deforestation to arrive at about 0.25 percent of tropical forest species extinguished or committed to early extinction annually. Since most species likely occur in tropical forests, these ecosystems are a good proxy: Even if no extinction occurred elsewhere, the planetary rate would still be 0.1 percent annually.

What do we mean by "committed to early extinction?" Studies from tropical America, New Guinea, and Indonesia (cited in The Diversity of Life) show that when forest fragments are reduced to anywhere from one to 27 square kilometers, 10 to 50 percent of the species in the fragment go extinct within 100 years, consistent with the Diamond-Terborgh models of exponential decay. The area-dependent decline in mammal species of the U.S. and Canadian western national parks also accords with the picture of committed extinction by area reduction alone.

The velocity of passage of species through the categories in the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, from less endangered to extinct. This movement is also consistent with an extinction rate of 0.1 percent annually, at least for the best-known animal groups.

Population Viability Analyses. These studies assess the risk of extinction for individual small populations. Although not enough species have been studied this way to produce regional or global extinction rate estimates, the high risk evident in the populations that have been examined is consistent with a high ongoing extinction rate.

At current levels of habitat destruction, extinction rates are destined to rise, and -- I believe every researcher would agree -- dramatically so. Consider that at an area-species exponent of 0.27 (a typical middle level), half the species are extinguished or committed to extinction by a 90 percent reduction in habitat area. But only another 10 percent reduction (to zero habitat) eliminates the rest of the species locally, and globally for species endemic to the patch.

Now consider that some 35 percent of Earth's land vertebrates and 44 percent of its plant species are limited to 1.4 percent of its land surface, the 25 widely recognized "hotspots," which contain about the land mass of Alaska and Texas put together. Consider, too, that the forests and other habitats in these remaining areas have been reduced to 10 percent of their prehuman levels (see, for example, Norman Myers et al., Nature 403, 2000), and most are at immediate risk of disappearing.

Finally, consider that species extinction is increasingly enhanced by pollution, climate change, and the growing flood of invasive species -- hence the foregoing estimates of extinctions based on habitat reduction are, sadly, minimal and modest.

- - - - - - - - -

A Harvard professor for four decades, biologist Edward O. Wilson has written 20 books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species.

Posted by: Vanishing Point on August 28, 2002 12:25 AM

Hostile Climate
On Bjorn Lomborg and climate change

by Stephen H. Schneider

12 Dec 2001
Bjorn Lomborg's chapter on global climate change is a clever polemic; it seems like a sober and well-researched presentation of balanced information, whereas in fact it makes use of selective inattention to inconvenient literature and overemphasis of work that supports his lopsided views. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and other honest assessments don't have the luxury of using such tactics, given the hundreds of external reviewers and dozens of review editors.

It would take several pages to document how Lomborg lines up his citations to diminish the seriousness of climate effects while ignoring most literature that would stress the seriousness. (For that kind of documentation, see a review by my colleagues and me in the forthcoming January 2002 issue of Scientific American or Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey's review in the Nov. 8, 2001 issue of Nature.) Lomborg does acknowledge an aggregate $5 trillion benefit of controlling and minimizing climate change, but then contrasts this to an estimated cost of controlling global warming of "from $3 to $33 trillion."

Note that Lomborg offers a wide-ranging estimate for how much it would cost to control climate change but only one figure for how much the climate change itself would cost us. In reality, the cost of climate change itself is generally considered -- by the very economists whom Lomborg quotes for costs of control -- to be much more uncertain than the cost of controlling climate change. In other words, this putative statistician quotes a range of costs when convenient but not a range of benefits when inconvenient. Neither does he tell us, as any assessor should -- let alone a statistician writing a popular book! -- that these are very crude estimates grounded in subjective assumptions at every stage. To imply that the costs are empirically determined is to completely misunderstand the situation, or misrepresent Bayesian statistics (subjective) as frequentist probabilities (objective).

Moreover, one of the reasons the IPCC Working Group 2 did not put much credence in the aggregate climate damage numbers -- a move Lomborg decries as politically motivated -- is because the benefits of avoiding climate damage must be measured in more than commodities traded in markets (that is, money per ton of carbon abated). There are also human lives lost, species lost, distributional effects, and so forth. That makes putting a price on climate change very difficult, so to represent this by one number is a gross misunderstanding of the assessment process -- or a deliberate polemic. You decide which.

Analyze This

Meanwhile, Lomborg's analysis does not even address the cost that climate change will exact on nature, despite the media clamor that ensued after the Working Group 2 concluded that the monitoring data show a "discernible" impact on plants and animals due to recent temperature increases. Plants and animals breeding earlier or altering their ranges didn't make the Lomborg climate discussion, but fertilization of crops with carbon dioxide (considered a "positive" outcome of global warming) certainly did -- a good example of the one-way selective filter that Lomborg uses throughout the book.

Emissions scenario.

Finally, Lomborg asserts that most of the six representative emissions scenarios from the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) are implausible and that only their lowest emissions scenario is "likely." The scenarios Lomborg attacks were prepared in three drafts over the course of three years by the SRES team, and were subjected to three rounds of reviewers. So on what grounds does this statistician who does not conduct environmental research, who does not even explain subjective versus objective assessment, and who uses ranges of estimates inconsistently and in a biased manner declare specific SRES scenarios with high emissions "fairly implausible" but those with low emissions "much more likely"? Note that the dozens of authors and hundreds of IPCC reviewers who assessed the emissions scenarios recognized the tremendous uncertainties involved in constructing such scenarios and judged all scenarios to be "equally sound."

Now, as you can see in a piece I authored in Nature (May 3, 2001) -- and in the Wigley and Raper or Reilly, et al. pieces in Science in the summer of 2001-- we're all for trying to estimate subjective probabilities for scenarios so that a risk tradeoff can be made. But first, analysis please! From Lomborg we get selective quotes from a tiny fraction of the literature and no balanced discussion of the wide range of available studies. How dare this guy announce the likelihood of various scenarios to which the SRES authors are very uneasy about assigning probabilities? Worse, how can he do so on the thinnest reed of literature citation and superficial analysis? Moreover, it is my understanding that most of these criticisms were leveled at Lomborg when the shorter Danish version of his book was published -- yet the same problems haunt the English edition.

On the Media

The real travesty is that the mainstream media have quoted The Skeptical Environmentalist as if it contained something new -- some original analysis the rest of the community had missed, or some more balanced assessment. The sooner Lomborg's own unbalanced and incomplete "analysis" is exposed, the better we will all be. But will the mainstream media notice corrective coverage in scientific journals such as Scientific American and Nature, or in alternative venues such as Grist?


The Skeptical Environmentalist also raises questions about the role and the responsibility of the publisher. Why did Cambridge University Press, a publisher with so excellent a reputation in the natural sciences (it even published the IPCC reports), publish a polemic under its imprimatur? Did CUP have the book competently reviewed? Why did only the social science side of the shop handle this book, given that it is mostly grounded in badly garbled natural science assertions? Did the opinion of economists or the bottom line trump all other considerations? (The book has been a big seller on Amazon.com.) I hope there will be some soul-searching at CUP, as well as an internal investigation of its assigning this multidisciplinary topic to only one disciplinary branch.

What a monumental waste of busy people's time countering the scores upon scores of strawmen, misquotes, unbalanced statements, and selective inattention to the full literature. If Lomborg at least had spent time in meetings with the people who really do debate these issues, this book might have been a useful contribution to the field. But for a non-participant like Lomborg to drop in flaunting a flimsy Greenpeace connection (the group denies he was a significant member, incidentally) and using sheer volume of citations -- most to secondary sources and many to the same pieces over and over again -- as a way to feign serious scholarship and thus get serious attention almost defies imagination.

It is incumbent upon those of us who remain committed to sound science and good policy to point out the large amount of disinformation in Lomborg's pretentious claim to be "measuring the Real State of the World." Those of us who have spent decades grappling with the numbing uncertainties involved in environmental protection would never claim to know the real state of the world, let alone pretend that selective citation to fuzzy historical data would tell us.

- - - - - - - - -

Stephen H. Schneider is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies, and professor by courtesy in the Department of Civil Engineering at Stanford University. He has served as a consultant to federal agencies and White House staff in the Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, and was honored in 1992 with a MacArthur Fellowship.

Posted by: Hostile Climate on August 28, 2002 12:27 AM

Specious
On Bjorn Lomborg and species diversity

by Norman Myers

12 Dec 2001
Bjorn Lomborg opens his chapter on biodiversity by citing my 1979 estimate of 40,000 species lost per year. He gets a lot of mileage out of that estimate throughout the chapter, although he does not cite any of my subsequent writings except for a single mention of a 1983 paper and a 1999 paper, neither of which deals much with extinction rates. Why doesn't he refer to the 80-plus papers I have published on biodiversity and mass extinction during the 20-year interim?

In this respect as well as others, Lomborg seems to be exceptionally selective. As my 1979 book emphasizes, the estimate of 40,000 extinctions per year was strictly a first-cut assessment, preliminary and exploratory, and advanced primarily to get the issue of extinction onto scientific and political agendas. If Lomborg had checked my many subsequent analyses (totaling one quarter of a million words) in the professional literature instead of taking me to task for providing "no other references or argumentation," he would have found more documented, modified, refined, and generally substantiated estimates.

Lomborg is equally sloppy in his analyses of the utilitarian benefits of species and their genetic resources -- for example, "aspirin from willow trees, heart medicine from foxgloves." It is simply not true, as Lomborg claims, that, "Most of this medicine is now produced synthetically." In several instances, scientists have tried for decades to synthesize plant-derived alkaloids and other biocompounds in the laboratory, investing huge amounts of money in the effort, to little or no avail. Yet Lomborg goes on to assert, "But so long as we do not even have any practical means of analyzing even a fraction of those plants already known to us, this cannot be used as a general argument for the protection of all species, for example in the rain forest." He might check with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., where scientists have demonstrated that certain families of plants appear to be sound bets for medical breakthroughs.

But again, Lomborg seems disinclined to undertake even a fraction of the homework that could give him a preliminary understanding of the science in question. He does not cite any of the findings of the dozens of pharmacognosy experts and economists who have demonstrated that, for example, the two anti-cancer drugs derived from the rosy periwinkle generate commercial sales on the order of $400 million per year, with economic benefits vastly greater (based on the $12 million value for each of the 30,000 American lives saved each year). The extensive literature on this issue seems to have entirely escaped Lomborg's attention. More important, as concerns the myriad benefits of safeguarding the planetary spectrum of species, Lomborg appears indifferent to what may be the most important benefit of all: the "ecosystem resilience" stemming from the abundance and variety of species. Again, there are stacks of documentation and evaluation of ecosystem resilience that Lomborg ignores. Nor does he offer even a passing mention of the existence value, the bequest value, and other non-market values invoked by economists specializing in the field of biodiversity and species preservation.

Extinction Is Forever

Similarly, Lomborg ignores or is ignorant of much of the work on extinction rates. (Although this doesn't stop him from sniping at scientists who are experts in the field: On extinction estimates generally, Lomborg writes that, "Biologists have a clear opinion of where the debate between figures and models should end. There are many grants at stake." This is one of many instances in which Lomborg casts extraordinary slurs on the professional integrity of biologists.)

Lomborg asserts that despite the heavy deforestation of the eastern forests of the United States, only one forest bird has become extinct. But what he fails to recognize is that this is plainly a forest bird whose existence is known and whose conservation/extinction status is likewise known. What about the unknowns? How about the extensive analyses of Stuart Pimm, John Gittleman, Tom Brooks, and others who conducted in-depth assessments and came up with findings quite the opposite of Lomborg's assertion? Lomborg goes on to speak of "the largest tropical study of the correlation between rain forest and the extinction of species," viz. Puerto Rico; but detailed studies have been conducted in far larger islands such as New Guinea, the eco-zone of Polynesia/Micronesia and elsewhere. With respect to Puerto Rico, the findings of Ariel Lugo cited by Lomborg have been repeatedly rebutted by long-standing experts such as Storrs Olson, who are not mentioned.

Lomborg quotes Heywood and Stuart to the effect that, "Recorded extinction figures for mammals and birds are 'very small,'" before extrapolating the extinction rate to all other species. Note the vital word "recorded." As Lomborg has earlier indicated, the vast majority of species are still unknown to science, hence their existence/extinction status is likewise unknown -- except that there is extensive evidence that many species that once existed are now gone. On the Centinella mountain ridge in Ecuador, Al Gentry discovered "something like 90 species of plants found nowhere else." Shortly after Gentry's visit, the ridge was totally deforested, but in subsequent years he "refound at least 17 of the previously assumed lost species." Lomborg cites that as if it is a triumph, but what about the remaining 73 species? Is that not a significant loss?

The unknown-species factor, crucial to any analysis of extinction rates, suggests that unrecorded extinctions are surely frequent, to say the least. If Lomborg wanted to check on the latest extinctions findings by scientists of global stature, he could consult the work of Peter Raven, Michael Soule, and David Woodruff, among dozens of other well-established and highly credentialed biologists. To be sure, there is not always "clear-cut evidence" available. But when we are dealing with a phenomenon, like mass species extinctions, that involves unique entities undergoing irreversible injury, we should take into account even evidence that is less than definitive.

Skeptic Tank

In summary, Lomborg adopts an exceptionally cavalier approach to mass extinction, utterly failing to acknowledge it as a phenomenon that will impoverish the planet for millions of years to come. Extinction ranks as the environmental problem that will exert far and away the most enduring impact on future generations. As such, surely it warrants a more informed, considered, and generally professional response than the one offered by Lomborg -- a man who demonstrates repeatedly that he is not acquainted with the basics of the issue. I presented a detailed critique of the naysayers' viewpoint in my 1994 debate book with Julian Simon. While Lomborg cites certain other writings of Simon, he seems indifferent to this one, and to my detailed rebuttals. If he had looked, he would have seen an evaluation of the key factor of scientific uncertainty, which remains as apt a response to Lomborg as it was to Simon:

A skeptic might still object that if the extinctions are occurring in large numbers right now, why aren't they individually documented? How much precise evidence is there? To this, the pragmatic scientist responds that it is far easier to demonstrate that a species exists than that it does not. To achieve the first, all one has to do is to find a few specimens. To achieve the second with equal certainty, one would have to search every last locality of the species' range before finally being sure. This is alright for the purist. Unfortunately, we live in a world without sufficient scientists, funding, and, above all, time to undertake a conclusive check. Given that we are witnessing a mass extinction of exceptional scope, should it not be sufficient to make a best-judgment estimate of what is going on -- and in cases of uncertainty ("Has the species finally disappeared or is it still hanging on?"), assume that if a species has not been seen for decades, it should be considered to be extinct until it is proven to be extant? Conservation organizations generally require that a species fail to be recorded for 50 years before it can be designated in memoriam. In Peninsular Malaysia, a four-year search for 266 species of freshwater fish turned up only 122 of them, yet they are all officially regarded as still in existence.

Let us bear in mind, above all, that we are dealing with the irreversible loss of unique life forms. It is not always possible to detail the precise survival status of tens of thousands of threatened plant species and millions of animal species. In light of these factors, why shouldn't the burden of proof be shifted onto the shoulders of the skeptics, so that they must prove a species' existence rather than the reverse?

This brings up a key question as concerns species extinctions. What is "legitimate scientific caution" in the face of uncertainty? Uncertainty can cut both ways. Some observers may object that in the absence of conclusive evidence and analysis, it is appropriate to stick with low estimates of species extinctions on the grounds that they are more "responsible." But how about the crucial factor of asymmetry of evaluation? A low estimate, ostensibly "safe" because it takes a conservative view of such limited evidence, may fail to reflect the real situation just as much as an "unduly" high estimate that is more of a best-judgment affair, based on all available evidence with varying degrees of demonstrable validity. In a situation of uncertainty where not all parameters can be quantified to conventional satisfaction, let us not get hung up on what can be counted today if that is to the detriment of what ultimately counts. Undue caution can readily become recklessness; and as in other situations beset with uncertainty, it will be better for us to find we have been roughly right than precisely wrong.

- - - - - - - - -

Norman Myers is an Honorary Visiting Fellow of Oxford University. He has served as Visiting Professor at universities from Harvard to Stanford and is a foreign member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He works as an independent scientist, undertaking research projects for the U.S. National Research Council, the World Bank, and United Nations agencies. He has received the UNEP Environment Prize, the Volvo Environment Prize, and, most recently, the 2001 Blue Planet Prize for being "the first to alert the world to the mass extinction underway, and warning of many other fundamental challenges."

Posted by: Specious on August 28, 2002 12:29 AM

Bjorn Again
On Bjorn Lomborg and population

by Lester R. Brown

12 Dec 2001
Some years ago, well before many outside Denmark knew Bjorn Lomborg's name, a group of his fellow faculty members at the University of Aarhus took the unusual step of developing a website specifically to warn the scientific community and others about flaws in his work. Appalled by Lomborg's scientific pretensions and unfounded conclusions, these faculty members, including a former head of the Danish Academy of Sciences, actively disassociated themselves from him.

These faculty members did not want to be associated with Lomborg's work because it is fundamentally flawed. The thesis of Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, is that the environmental movement has overstated the magnitude of environmental threats. A serious test of this hypothesis would require a systematic review of the research output of the leading environmental groups, tabulating both the instances where they have overstated and where they have understated threats to the environment. This exercise would also include determining which threats identified by environmental groups turned out to be real and which did not. Finally, it would include tabulating those issues that environmentalists either missed entirely or identified only belatedly. Only with such an approach could one decide whether environmentalists as a group have overstated or understated the threats to our planet. In failing to take such an approach, Lomborg's book becomes nothing more than a diatribe.

I have not undertaken such an assessment, but I have on occasion gone back to review the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World reports, of which I was the senior author for 18 years. In doing so, I have been struck more by the issues that we understated or discovered after the fact than by those that we overstated or issues that turned out to be unimportant after all.

Lomborg's fellow faculty members are concerned that his work does not satisfy basic academic standards. Other reviewers have pointed out that he has never published a single article in a refereed scientific journal. There may be a reason for that.

Earth in the Imbalance

Take Lomborg's analysis of population problems. He dismisses the idea of population sustainability as largely meaningless because it is a local concept, dealing only with the local sustainability of support systems. Local imbalances between people and resources can be remedied, he says, either by international trade (shades of Julian Simon) or by people simply moving to cities. He describes the projected growth in Third World cities as though it were an unproblematic solution to local population and resource imbalances.

Cozy, not crowded.

It is sometimes possible to import goods and services when they are not locally adequate -- but often it is not. For example, when the demand for firewood leads to deforestation, the cost of importing firewood or, indeed, any fuel, may be prohibitive. The usual alternative is to burn crop residues, thus depriving the soil of much-needed organic matter. Moreover, in some instances the resource system may be pushed to its limits not only locally but also globally, as with oceanic fisheries. At that point, we have a problem. As we look at oceanic fisheries, rangelands, forests, aquifers, and croplands, we see that these natural support systems are often overtaxed at both the regional and global level. As population increases, so does pressure on these systems.

While the goods that natural systems provide can sometimes be imported to locations where they are lacking, the services they provide often cannot. For example, if local forests are decimated, lumber can be imported, but the flood control that the forests provide cannot. Lomborg has difficulty dealing with the services that natural systems provide, just as Julian Simon did.

For these reasons, relocating people to cities or importing non-local goods does not solve the problems created by burgeoning populations.

Population Bummed

Lomborg's protestations to the contrary, population growth is putting unprecedented pressure on natural systems. For example, the world's forested area, measured in terms of healthy, productive stands of trees, is shrinking. According to recent meticulously detailed research by the World Resources Institute, the shrinkage and deterioration of the earth's forests is apparently proceeding even faster than the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization data suggest.


Forty-five years ago, I lived in a village in central India on the Deccan plateau. To reach the village, I had to travel from the nearest train station for hours on a dirt road in a bullock cart through heavily forested terrain. Like many other parts of India, the forests in this region have now largely disappeared, replaced in some cases by cropland, but more often by wasteland. One wonders if Lomborg has traveled in developing countries.

Lomborg dismisses concerns about the availability of water for an ever-increasing number of people, but his grasp of the issue is shallow at best and fails to adequately take into account the sustainable yield of aquifers. The depletion of aquifers is a new problem, one that has emerged only in the last half-century with the advent of diesel and powerful electrically driven pumps. Unfortunately, water tables are falling in major food-producing regions around the world, such as the North China Plain, the Punjab of India, and the southern Great Plains of the United States. When the aquifers are depleted, the pumping will necessarily be cut back to the rate of aquifer recharge. When you factor in the reality that most of the 3 billion-person increase in global population over the next half century will occur in countries that are already facing water shortages, you can begin to sense the dimensions of this fast-unfolding problem.

Analyzing environmental issues requires examining the interactions between the global economy, the earth's ecosystems, and world political arrangements. Understanding any one of these systems is itself complicated, but trying to understand the ongoing and dynamic relationship among the three is incredibly difficult -- and not something that yields to superficial analyses, such as those by Lomborg. Like his faculty colleagues who know him well, the rest of us would be wise to disassociate ourselves from his work.

- - - - - - - - -

Lester R. Brown is founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, and founder and chair of the board of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C.

Posted by: Bjorn Again on August 28, 2002 12:30 AM

Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

by Emily Matthews

12 Dec 2001
In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg writes that "basically, the world's forests are not under threat." A charitable reader could attribute this flawed conclusion to errors of omission and ignorance; perhaps the author simply doesn't know the sources well enough to interpret them properly. Less charitably, one might reasonably conclude that Lomborg intentionally selects his data and citations to distort or even reverse the truth. His interpretations of data on global forest cover and Indonesian forest fires aptly illustrate both failings.

Lomborg scorns an analysis by the World Wildlife Fund that found that nearly two-thirds of the world's original forests, dating to the pre-agricultural period (defined as 6000 BC), have at one time been cut. He challenges it by stating that, "Most sources estimate about 20 percent." Whatever the merits of WWF's claim, Lomborg confusingly contrasts net loss of forest cover (that is, his figure of loss of natural forest offset by regrowth and new plantations) with loss of original forest (WWF's figure).

Moreover, the sources Lomborg cites in the relevant footnote do not support his claim. The first, a 1993 college textbook by Andrew Goudie, indeed gives a figure of 20 percent net loss in forest cover since pre-agricultural times. However, its author provides no reference or authority for this number. The second source, by Michael Williams, is stated in the footnote as giving the (amazingly) low figure of 7.5 percent loss, but a review of the source itself reveals that Lomborg has misread 7.5 million square kilometers as though it were a percentage.

The last two sources mentioned in the footnote, which give figures of 19 and 20 percent, do not purport to measure forest loss during the entire 8,000-year period for which Lomborg cites them. On the contrary, these two sources cover only tiny fractions of the relevant time period -- less than 4 percent (300 years) and 2 percent (140 years), respectively -- and even so, each registers roughly a 20 percent loss of forest.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

Another claim by Lomborg -- that global forest cover has remained remarkably stable over the past 50 years -- is based on two acts of statistical conjuring. First, he expresses changes in forest cover as a percentage of the total land area of the world, a technique that reduces changes of millions of hectares to fractions of 1 percent. Second, he cobbles together a variety of different data sources compiled using different definitions of forest and different methodologies. These different data sets cannot be strung together to form a consistent time series. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, the "official source" on which Lomborg proudly claims to rely, does not attempt to construct such a time series. Yet the first graph in Lomborg's chapter on forests prominently features an FAO data series of forest cover that was generated for agricultural purposes and discontinued by FAO precisely because it considered the data unreliable for assessing forests.

FAO forestry data can be difficult to understand, as Lomborg's notes make amusingly clear. In Note 767, he defines closed forest as 20 percent of forest cover rather than forest where the tree canopy covers 20 percent or more of the ground. More seriously, he appears to believe that the U.N. carried out two global forest surveys in 1995 and 1997. In fact, the U.N. surveys forests only once per decade. The 1990 survey was updated with a mathematical model to the year 1995 and these results were published in the 1997 State of the Forest report.

Are the world's forest "basically not under threat" as Lomborg claims? Lomborg quotes the FAO's most recent survey, the Forest Resources Assessment 2000 (FRA 2000), which states that tropical forests are being deforested at an annual rate of 0.46 percent. Lomborg claims this figure is "much below the feared 1.5-4.6 percent" rate, although he provides no clue as to who feared such extraordinary rates. But there is a serious error here: Lomborg is quoting the FAO's figure for tropical deforestation as a percentage of global forest cover, not as a percentage of tropical forest cover. The vast majority of forest clearance is occurring in the tropics -- forest area is actually expanding in most of the temperate zone -- so this error grossly distorts the rate of tropical deforestation.

According to the 2000 report, about 161 million hectares of natural forest were lost during the 1990s, of which 152 million hectares (about 94 percent) were in the tropical world. The 2000 report puts total global forest cover at about 3.9 billion hectares, 95 percent of which is "natural forest," meaning that there are about 3.7 billion hectares of natural forest. Of this, 47 percent, or 1.74 billion hectares, is in the tropics. Thus if 152 million hectares of natural tropical forests were lost during the 1990s, from a total natural tropical forest area of 1.74 billion hectares, then tropical forests shrank by 8.7 percent over the decade -- an annual average rate of 0.87 percent.

In the Line of Fire

Lomborg devotes an entire page to Indonesia's fires of 1997-1998, acknowledging that they were serious but also claiming that they were not out of the ordinary. He criticizes WWF for estimating that 2 million hectares burned and contrasts this claim with the "official Indonesian estimate" of 165,000-219,000 hectares. He notes that the WWF estimate included both forest and non-forestland, but does not point out that the official Indonesian estimate he quotes was for forestland only. He then claims, citing a 1999 United Nations Environment Programme report, that subsequent "satellite-aided counting" indicated that upwards of 1.3 million hectares of forest and timberlands may have burned.

The official Indonesian estimate of 520,000 burned hectares of forest and non-forest land was based on reports by plantation owners -- who were responsible for much of the deliberate fire-setting and had no incentive to report accurately. This estimate was quickly challenged by the German-supported Integrated Forest Fires Management Project, which, using satellite data and ground checks, produced convincing evidence that fires had actually burned some 5.2 million hectares in 1998 alone -- 10 times the Indonesian government's estimate. Informed of this data gap, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry and Estate Crops effectively instructed the governor of East Kalimantan (the province that suffered the worst fires) not to allow the new data to be made public, citing the need "to protect national stability." Despite strong official protests from the German government, the Indonesians never retracted their original estimate or made the new data public.

Regarding estimates of how much forest actually burned, Lomborg cites a UNEP report, which in turn refers to an analysis, "A Study of the 1997 Fires in Southeast Asia Using SPOT Quicklook Mosaics," that was based on 766 satellite images. These images covered the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra only, for just August to December 1997. The study did not examine burn areas for 1998, nor did it take into account fires on other islands. The UNEP report states that this estimate represents "only a lower limit estimate of the area burned," although Lomborg's readers are not so informed.

An analysis by the Singapore Centre of Remote Imaging, Sensing, and Processing using the same satellite images yielded a total burn area estimate for 1997 and 1998 of nearly 8 million hectares. In 1999, a technical team funded by the Asian Development Bank and working through the Indonesian National Development Planning Agency aggregated and analyzed all available data sources and estimated that the area burned during 1997-1998 totaled more than 9.7 million hectares, of which some 4.6 million hectares were forest.

Thus, the most authoritative consensus estimate of the extent of forests burned during the Indonesian fires of 1997-1998 is more than twice the WWF estimate that is derided by Lomborg.

Lomborg's interpretation of global forest cover and Indonesian forest fires are just two examples of the incomplete and superficial analyses that underpin too much of this book. In his introduction, the statistician tells us that his skills lie in "knowing how to handle international statistics." A few paragraphs later, he confesses that, "I am not myself an expert as regards environmental problems." Unfortunately, statistical prowess by itself does not guarantee accuracy, insight, or understanding. A little more expert knowledge would have significantly diluted this book's glib optimism. Indeed, the book would probably never have been written.

- - - - - - - - -

Emily Matthews is a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. She is the lead author of the Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Forest Ecosystems (WRI, 2000) and Understanding the Forest Resources Assessment 2000 (WRI, 2001). Her latest report, The State of the Forest: Indonesia, will be released in January 2002 by WRI's Global Forest Watch.

Posted by: Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees on August 28, 2002 12:32 AM

Looks like the Prof needs to institute an anti-spamming policy to go along with his anti-flaming policy.

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on August 28, 2002 04:42 AM

My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media.

Yes. Marshalling facts and debating is such a waste of time.

Far better to simply accept the wisdom du jour, and follow its policy prescriptions without fact-checking too closely.

What could the downside possibly be?

Posted by: George Zachar on August 28, 2002 05:03 AM

>>Marshalling facts and debating is such a waste of time. <<

"The problem wasn't so much the things he didn't know; it was the things he knew, that weren't so".

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 28, 2002 05:43 AM

Wow, comments on this item, in their number, length and content, show that environmental issues touch a nerve - as well they should. Thanks to DeLong for providing the forum. Sad that this debate is (pardon me, blog fans) taking place here rather than someplace higher profile.

The Stephen Schneider piece touches on an important point. Through much of the debate about environmental outcomes, point forecasts stand as a proxy for a vast set of tenuous assumptions and uncertain models. The assumptions and models aren't the problem - melting them down to point forecasts is. Much of the debate takes place in Lomborg's terms - cost vs benefit - which buys into point forecasts. This approach assumes we know what the costs and benefits are. Rather, we should be working with risks and rewards. Given the catastrophic escalation in cost as we move away from the median forecast of costs from global warming toward the high end of the range, we cannot afford to rely on the median point estimate. This is essential also in questions of nuclear waste storage. The cost of being wrong about containing nuclear waste is so high that glib reliance on the "best science" median estimate is stupid - but it is often what ends up in the debate because of the economic interests at work. Nuclear energy isn't a bad idea. Fossil fuel burning isn't a bad idea. But both need to be priced to include a high variability in final outcome - a big risk premium needs to be attached to being wrong. Lomborg obviously isn't doing that. Neither is DeLong in his critique. Schnieder points in that direction, and should be followed.

Emily Matthews also makes a very important point. Deforestation is linked to historic climate change in a fairly strong way (check out the weather in the Gobi and Sahel). Being wrong about the trend in deforestation carries a very high cost. In addition, making an assertion about the short term misses the point. Deforestation is prone to acceleration if populations in tropical forest areas rise at a pace that cannot be accomodated by non-forest resources. Even if Lomborg were right about the pace of recent deforestation (apparently, he isn't), there is a strong argument for policies that prevent deforestation to avoid an acceleration.

Still, even accepting every argument against Lomborg in this list of comments doesn't make Kyoto right. Is it the lowest cost approach to reducing the risk of human-induced environmental change to acceptable levels? More importantly, does it actually have a non-negligible effect on the risk of human-induced environmental change? These ain't rhetorical questions. I don't know, but these questions have been raised by Kyoto critics. Any good answers?

Posted by: K Harris on August 28, 2002 07:50 AM

>>Marshalling facts and debating is such a waste of time. <<

Bad Point. Think of all the time wasted in disproving Cold Fusion?

Debates about books that are badly researched and poorly constructed take away from erudite debate about real issues. In the political field, the parallel to Lomborg is Ann Coulter.

The energy spent in documenting the poor research of Ann Coulter might well have been spent on more productive encounters.

Posted by: on August 28, 2002 07:51 AM

In response to K. Harris, yes, the environment does raise hackles. Occasionally, it does so because people have placed a lot of ideological stress on it. There are a few - surprisingly few - people out there who build whole cases for anti-capitalism on environmental issues, and the issue really won't support the conclusions.

The point, however, is not whether Kyoto is the "lowest cost approach to reducing the risk of human-induced environmental change to acceptable levels." No one knows what acceptable levels are, nor are they likely to be the same from person to person. When you live on an atoll in the Pacific whose highest point is 50cm above sea level, a rise in ocean temperatures of three degrees is likely to be enough to leave you homeless. If you live in west Texas, there's not enough difference between 100 degrees and 103 to be worth worrying about. Waiting for a consensus about what is an acceptable level of climate change will take forever because there will never be a consensus. Waiting to find out how much CO2 it takes to reach that level will not take quite as long, since global warming is likely to produce excellent, highly accurate models of the effects of CO2 on climate, not too long after the damage has been done.

Nor is the point whether or not Kyoto has any measureable effect on warming. It probably doesn't in the short or middle term, and as Keynes pointed out, in the long term we're dead. The best case for Kyoto is that unless there is broad consent to what amounts to quite limited, fairly long term controls on burning, there is no chance at all that nations will agree on far costlier measures later.

For example, a three meter rise in sea levels only requires (if memory serves) about ten degrees of ocean warming. A billion people live below the five meter mark, and twice that many depend on food raised at low altitudes. If the US can't even agree to try to reduce burning now, how likely is it to take 50 million Bangladeshis when the time comes?

If we can't commit to reducing CO2 now, on a relatively small scale, when the causal relationship between CO2 and climate change is pretty plain, how are we going to commit to displaced billions? Even if the only real consequence of Kyoto is symbolic, that rich nations demonstrate a genuine and expensive commitment to climate and environemntal issues, it will in all likelihood still be worth it.

The costs of global warming are impossible to measure in advance, and cost/benefit comparisons fail when the people involved have such different access to money. It is impossible to predict in advance the costs and benefits of new technology designed to reduce fuel use, nor is it easy to evaluate the costs of new diseases or personal displacement brought on by global warming. Some things have costs that can't readily be measured in money and the Kyoto treaty is one of those things. However, it's symbolic value can be estimated, and it is worth a lot.

Posted by: Scott Martens on August 28, 2002 09:10 AM

>>If you live in west Texas, there's not enough difference between 100 degrees and 103 to be worth worrying about<<

Of course, since a three degree shift would quite likely alter the course of the Gulf Stream, it actually probably would be worth worrying about ...

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 28, 2002 09:29 AM

Though there may not be immediate danger to human well being from global environment change, the danger to other animals and plants may be both immediate and dire. Possibly the loss of a song bird may be aesthetic, possibly the loss of fruit bats might threaten crop pollination profoundly. I would dear miss any song bird. I can not imagine how fruit bats could be replaced.

Posted by: on August 28, 2002 11:49 AM

Debates about books that are badly researched and poorly constructed take away from erudite debate about real issues.

Folks are free to ignore skanky scholarship. We all know that hyperventilating disagreement merely serves to promote the opposition.

One could interpret the overwhelming outpouring of invective against TSE as a symptom of something amiss on the Green side of the slate.

And, of course, anonymous posters have credibility issues of their own.

Posted by: George Zachar on August 28, 2002 01:32 PM

Daniel -

Yes, the same three degree difference could shift precipitation further north and eliminate what little water Texas gets now, in which case Texans ought to be worried. Alternatively, it could raise precipitation in the southwest, just like El Nino does now, in which case there'd be a lot of flooding, because Texas dirt is loose and completely useless at absorbing water. So they'd still have to worry but at least the reservoirs would be full. Or it could have no sigificant effect at all on Texas. Or, Texans could start getting some mutant tropical yellow fever and die in horribly painful ways, in which case I guess at least the Bushes would probably move out.

Frankly, no one would much care anyway. If it wasn't for the oil and natural gas, they could give the whole place back to Mexico for all the natural value of the land. Without plenty of water, nothing edible would grow there except cows, and they grow cheaper in Argentina anyway. And have you ever tried Texan water? There's a reason Evian comes from France. At this point, even agricultural water costs too much in Texas to farm without state subsidies.

No one can predict the winners and losers from global warming in advance. One can predict that there will be some losers. One can also predict that rich people and rich countries are not going to let themselves be ruined because beachfront property is being lost or because they have to use the air conditioner an extra month every year. It's a lot easier for a Dane like Lomborg to claim that it's cheaper to do nothing than for a Bangladeshi or a Polynesian.

I've always thought that the first thing to do when you discover you're in a hole is to stop digging. That won't get you out of the hole, but neither will more digging. The Kyoto treaty at least represents a significant decease in the rate of growth of CO2 emissions. Is that so unreasonable?

Posted by: Scott Martens on August 28, 2002 01:39 PM

The web site for the International Panel on Climate Change has a lot of documents, so you can examine their assumptions, how their projections depend on the assumptions, what they think the uncertainties on the projections are, projections for 100 years, 300 years, etc. etc. etc. For example, look at the following document, p. 65, Fig. 6-1:

http://www.ipcc.ch/pub/SYRtechsum.pdf

Note, this figure is in degrees C, and I'll convert to degrees F for the following comments. Scenarios that lead to a projected global temperature rise of 4 to 5 degrees in 2100 ASSUME that CO2 emmissions already start declining in the early part of this century. There are then only small increases after that. "Business as usual" models in which emissions continue to increase lead to temperature rises of up to 7 degrees by 2100, and 13 degrees by 2300.

I don't think it is well known how conservative the IPCC is being in their public statements. It's fine if people want to question the science, but this is our best scientific understanding, and it shows that to hold to the 4 to 5 degree level, we have to start curbing CO2 emissions soon, well before the major consequences of those emissions hit us.

Posted by: Fritz DeJongh on August 28, 2002 03:43 PM

Lomberg is a statistician investingating the claims of an economist. Simon won his bet
that the price of "strategic metals" would
go down. Does that prove anything?

Lomberg suggests that it does -- and tries to
find out why. The dispute by biologists about
the current and probable future environment
is missing the point.

If you predicted in 1960 that the business
order-and-delivery cycle would accelerate
from quarterly to weekly; any rational
person would have estimated the sheer tonnage
of paper (tenders, purchase orders, invoices,
bills of lading, discrepancy reports) and
concluded you were mad.

If you predicted that nearly every household
in America would have MORE than one tele-comm
link, and that many such links would be
video-capable; the rational person would
estimate the tonnage of copper needed to
carry such a load (at, maybe, the absolute ideal
speeds of 1200 baud, just to be conservative)
and determine so much of the element did not
even exist on Earth, so again conclude you were mad.

If you predicted both AND that the reserves of
paper-pulp timber cultivated would increase
while the tons of copper mined would decrease,
the rational observer would begin calculating,
upon the now crowded back of his envelope,
the likelihood that you might turn violent...

The rational person ignored the markets -- the
efficiencies of EDI replacing paper and the
(tiny) profits in paper recycling; the fiberoptic and wireless revolution as well as the fancy mathematical information theory that allows plain
old copper wire to carry information in bulk and
at speeds considered as physically impossible, 4 decades ago.

It is not the business of environmentalists
nor economists to predict, in detail, how
such changes occur. But some assume that valued
assets such as clean air, open parkland,
potable/navigable rivers, etc -- will be
used up (a la the Lorax's trees) at an
ever-increasing rate until the very last
one is harvested. I am not an economist but
even _I_ understand that is bogus. As any
asset begins becomes scarce it is more valued
and alternatives are sought and exploited.

Regarding extinctions, I offer the (mad! I tell you, MAD!) prediction that in two decades there will be more new species introduced per year via genetic engineering than old species become extinct.

Regarding global climate, I suspect that alterting it by accident (CO2 and other greenhouse gas "imbalances) will merely establish that anthropogenic changes are possible, and localities will begin to attempt to alter climate,
favorably, on purpose. Raising temperatures in Iceland, lowering them in Texas, etc -- maybe by
changing the albedo as well as by altering composition of the atmosphere overhead. (Which is rather easily controlled by introducing controlled amounts of vaporous DiHydrogen Monoxide...)

Posted by: Melcher on August 29, 2002 03:57 AM

Two points, Melcher:

1.

>>Raising temperatures in Iceland, lowering them in Texas, etc<<

Give over. As I note above, if you were to do this, it would have rather unpredictable effects on the Gulf Stream, among other things. There is no likelihood of our having a model that would predict these effects any time soon.

2.

Given this paean to the possibilities of the marketplace, why don't you criticise Lomborg's suspiciously precise estimates of the cost of climate change regulation? This is the reason why I ended up concluding that the guy was not on the level; nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine pages of caviling about the huge uncertainty in the environmentalists' cost-benefit projections, followed by one page outlining his own.

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 29, 2002 07:14 AM

There is no likelihood of our having a model that would predict these effects any time soon.

Here's a question I've never gotten a satisfactory answer to: Why panic over "global warming", when 1000 years ago - a nanosecond in geologic time - the Vikings farmed and ranched on the SW coast of Greenland, an area now under meters of sheet ice?

Global climates are well within known and documented historic ranges of both temperature level and temperature rate-of-change.

Research, analysis and discussion of human/climate interaction is obviously very worthwhile. But we are far away from having the ability to guage such interaction in sufficient detail to draw conclusions. And further away from needing to panic.

I've yet to see Greenland farm sites for sale.

Posted by: George Zachar on August 29, 2002 07:38 AM

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/20/science/earth/20PRES.html

Funny how easy it is for some to dismiss the concerns of an E. O. Wilson. The NYTimes offers a nice follow to such conerns.

Posted by: on August 29, 2002 11:01 AM

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/20/science/earth/20PRES.html

Funny how easy it is for some to dismiss the concerns of an E. O. Wilson. The NYTimes offers a nice follow to such concerns.

Posted by: on August 29, 2002 11:01 AM

As reported in the Aug. 28 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, scientists have found that temperatures during mid-winter in the stratopause and mesopause regions at the South Pole are about 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit colder than model predictions.

"Current global circulation models apparently overpredict the amount of down-welling, because they show warmer temperatures than we observed," Gardner said.

The recent measurements establish a baseline for polar temperatures, which can then be compared against future changes as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate, Gardner said. "The measurements also show that we have a flaw in some of our global atmospheric circulation models. Now we can go back and improve those models to better predict the temperatures in the middle and upper atmospheres throughout both hemispheres."

From:http://www.news.uiuc.edu/scitips/02/0828southpole.html

As my dad the garment worker used to say, "Measure twice, cut once."

Posted by: George Zachar on August 29, 2002 01:46 PM

All this hoo-hah about the accuracy of models confuses me. I mean, the case for doing something about global warming is simple:

Dumping lots of substances proven to capture heat (carbon dioxide, soot, methane) in the atmosphere will undoubtedly increase temperatures.

Therefore, the problem needs to be solved in the most cost-effective manner. Sure, the models aren't perfectly accurate, but do you think an accurate one will end up saying "hey, never mind, tripling the carbon content of the atmosphere will have no effect?"

Also, I haven't seen much mention of going after way-easy soot and methane first, which Easterbrook describes here.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 30, 2002 01:05 AM

do you think an accurate one [model] will end up saying "hey, never mind, tripling the carbon content of the atmosphere will have no effect?"

Do you think injecting people with scraps of dead bacteria will prevent folks from getting diseases borne by the germs' live brethren? Seems counter-intuitive. Let's look into it before jumping to the easy and "obvious" conclusion.

We can't yet measure what is the *current status* of the atmosphere. We can't yet measure with any reasonable precision how much atmospheric change, if any, is a result of specific types of human activity, as opposed to say volcanic emission or just-discovered oceanic evaporation processes. And of course, all the relevant rigorous data sets cover an eyeblink of geologic time. Again, we DO know that all current atmospheric levels and changes are well within historic norms.

Making easy assumptions about complex interactions decades/centuries into the future, and then throwing a web of rules and regs over global economic activity doesn't make sense from a scientific perspective.

It is VERY logical from a political perspective.

Posted by: George Zachar on August 30, 2002 04:14 AM

The amount of CO2 that is pumped into the atmosphere every year by burning fossil fuels is about 1/10th of the amount of CO2 that is naturally exchanged between the oceans and the atmosphere. Making statements such as "Dumping lots of substances proven to capture heat (carbon dioxide, soot, methane) in the atmosphere will undoubtedly increase temperatures." is juvenile fantasy. The earth's climate is much more complex than the simple addition of ingredients. The reality is that we have no idea what the effect of burning fossil fuels is on the global climate since our models do not include such factors as cloud cover and changes in solar radiation.


Posted by: Al Robinson on August 30, 2002 06:05 AM

George, you said:

>>throwing a web of rules and regs over global economic activity doesn't make sense from a scientific perspective.<<

Where's your complicated predictive model of the global economy that supports this assertion, and what modelling technique did you use which makes it immune from your criticisms of climatological models?

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 30, 2002 06:25 AM

Daniel Davies: Where is any global warming model that has been conclusively confirmed based on reliable measurements on a worldwide basis? You are asking for something that doesn't exist in any form today, and yet the presumption of the IPCC is that if one input is altered a very nonlinear set of outputs will be altered in the way desired. But even the background literature to the IPCC report itself notes that the largest greenhouse gas is water vapor and any correlation of subsidiary contributors such as CO2 and CH4 is nearly impossible without simultaneously correlating overall water "flows", a.k.a. predicting the normal weather. And it is this mundane metrological modeling that is still not very satisfactory even on a generalized basis. But we are supposed to credit even less validated models of 2nd order contributors to weather patterns?

Posted by: Tom Roberts on August 30, 2002 06:56 AM

Good point.

We DON'T KNOW what the imact of global economic planning would be, so we should try it and see if it works!

There's plenty of under-employed central planning expertise in the old Soviet bloc... ;)

Posted by: George Zachar on August 30, 2002 07:11 AM

As amusing as the dead bacteria analogy was, the basics here are well understood. The only thing in question is the magnitude of the temperature increase.

'The amount of CO2 that is pumped into the atmosphere every year by burning fossil fuels is about 1/10th of the amount of CO2 that is naturally exchanged between the oceans and the atmosphere.'

Correct, but after 30 (or 300) years of this it should start to add up, right? Unless the ocean has some heretofore undiscovered ability to handle a lot more carbon, but I've seen no evidence of that.

'The reality is that we have no idea what the effect of burning fossil fuels is on the global climate since our models do not include such factors as cloud cover and changes in solar radiation.'

I see an awful lot of matches when I search google for influences of the sun and clouds, but it's a side issue. There's cheap and easy methods we can do for preventive purposes (not that boondoggle Kyoto), right now, and we aren't doing them.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 30, 2002 10:26 AM

Jason McCullough: "...the basics here are well understood. The only thing in question is the magnitude of the temperature increase.

vs.

As reported in the Aug. 28 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, scientists have found that temperatures during mid- winter in the stratopause and mesopause regions at the South Pole are about 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit colder than model predictions.

One of the interesting phenomena surrounding the "global warming" campaign is the constant and persistent assertion of things that _just_ain't_so_.

Posted by: George Zachar on August 30, 2002 10:43 AM

Two points, Melcher:

1.

ME >>Raising temperatures in Iceland, lowering them in Texas, etc<<

Response: > As I note above, if you were to do this, it would have rather unpredictable effects on the Gulf Stream, among other things. There is no likelihood of our having a model that would predict these effects any time soon.<

We're basing Kyoto on just such models, aren't we?

And we're competing hard to compare and improve
those models -- in particular (so to speak)
to pin down the impact of sooty particulates and
water vapor. Doubting that the models will improve seems to me consistant with doubt of the whole anthropogenic warming hypothesis. Belief in the warming implies confidence in the models.
Confidence in TODAY'S model combined with skepticism that the models will improve to exploitable levels suggests either confusion or a willful segmentation of faith.

I merely make the simple suggestion that humankind will attempt to exploit any new technology to alter nature to their preceived (and short term) profit. If it can be established
that cloud cover /albedo affects warming, then we'll buy ourselves more clouds in the hot zones
and pay to disperse them elsewhere. Silver iodide rain-making, writ VERY large. The work is already being done, as atmospheric researchers took the opportunity following 9-11 to study the
absence of jet-liner contrails (artificial clouds)
in the skies over a temporarily "grounded" continent. Watch for publication of hypotheses based upon the new data any minute...

It's not a question of whether we will alter the climate, it's 3 questions:

How much?

How much will it cost us?

Do we incur those costs by accident or on purpose?

If we can warm the whole globe for free as a byproduct of our industries, surely we can spend the sums to learn how and jigger local thermostats to our liking.

Posted by: Melcher on August 30, 2002 10:58 AM

Attn Melcher: Fallen Angels [Niven, Pournelle, Flynn] ISBN: 067172052X is a sci-fi book premised on the idea that mankind is *deliberately* warming the atmosphere to ward off the next ice age.

Posted by: George Zachar on August 30, 2002 12:29 PM

Tom, you wrote:

>>Where is any global warming model that has been conclusively confirmed based on reliable measurements on a worldwide basis? You are asking for something that doesn't exist in any form today, and yet the presumption of the IPCC is that if one input is altered a very nonlinear set of outputs will be altered in the way desired. <<

I don't think I'm asking for anything of the sort. What I'm currently defending right now, is the proposition that estimates of the costs of Kyoto be held to the same standards as estimates of the benefits. It's just ... unseemly ... the way that people blether on for mile after mile about how intrinsically unpredictable nonlinear systems are, then just blindly assert that "the economic costs will be huge" as if this was a totally unproblematic thing to measure.

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 30, 2002 12:56 PM

What do upper atmosphere temperatures have to do with anything? Sure, they throw off the accuracy of the model, but they're an intermediate result.

An attempt to make my point more coherently:

The earth as a system managed to muddle along with more or less the same climate for a long, long time before we started changing the inputs to the system. It's awfully likely when the inputs change that the outputs of the system will change, too.

Sure, there's been "changes in inputs" before in the way of exploding volcanoes and meteor impacts where the planet managed to muddle along. It took a damn long time to adjust to each though, and resulted in large changes in climate.

Think of it as insurance. Money spent today to ward off a, say, 1% probability of nightmarishly large changes is a good investment.

Read that Easterbrook article:

Overall, Hansen's calculations show that if methane emissions across the globe were cut by a very realistic one-third, while the devices that stop industrial soot in the West were installed throughout the developing world, greenhouse buildup from carbon dioxide would be offset until about the year 2050. Global public health would improve, while dangerous warming would be postponed. The world would buy itself several decades in which to work on the post-fossil-fuel economy that will be needed regardless of whether the climate warms or cools. Environmental militants despise Hansen's ideas because they think a methane-first course gives politicians an excuse to avoid the rationing of fossil fuels. But the truth is exactly the reverse: Hansen is proposing things we can actually do now.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on August 30, 2002 01:23 PM

What do upper atmosphere temperatures have to do with anything?

If you have to ask....

Posted by: George Zachar on August 30, 2002 07:25 PM

Melcher,

No you are not mad! It seems quite likely that by the year 2100 one will walk up to a kiosk, enter in the desired attributes for a housepet and receive an egg which hatches into a custom designed species. It makes no sense to me that most everything written on this page imagines a world in 50 or 100 years which is just like the current one except there is more of everything.

While I disagree with your claim that technologies will appear magically due to market forces (what we may discover really depends on how the universe is designed, no?), I agree that the best evidence is that they will appear and that it is quite possible to make some predictions on the impact of global warming by technology.

All I will do is simply extrapolate the current trend in the cost of solar energy. Of course it is a guess that any such trend will continue more than a few years, but as with Moore's law, I believe it is more reasonable to assume the design of the universe will allow it to continue than won't.

If the current trend lasts for 10 years (current trend is about 10-15% cost reduction per year from about 20 cents/kwh now), then we will have by then already seen utility scale solar generation, at least in places like Arizona for peak generation.

If the current trend lasts for 20 years then solar energy will be for most areas cheaper than the cost of fossil fuel itself (that is, without the generation costs), so in most areas of the world fossil fuel will be quickly dropped for daytime electicity production. If energy storage technology can be improved sufficiently then it will likely become our sole electric source.

If the current trend lasts for 30 years then electrical energy would be nearly free compared to all other sources. If we like, we could use this energy to manufacure fuel by removing carbon from the atmosphere, or we might choose other methods to transfer the energy to autos. Energy (and clean water) will cease to be an issue.

I'm sure there are much better things to worry about than global warming. Instead, maybe we should worry about how civilization will adapt to the abundance of wealth and health which will be created for us by intelligent (human or better intelligence, that is) robots and virtual intelligent agents. Will we choose to live like kings? Or will there be a race by various religions to dominate the planet? (hmm. don't forget the intelligent agents might try to dominate too). I think most everyone's time would be better off worrying about something that has a much larger chance of going wrong.


Posted by: snsterling on August 30, 2002 09:53 PM

Please see "Senarios for a Clean Energy Future" published in November 2000 by the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy for a road map to producing technologies that can deal with climate change and a number of other environmental issues.

We will not need climate models to predict the effects if we keep dumping unlimited green house gases into the atmosphere for 100 more years. These effects will move beyond subtle.

Posted by: Tom on August 31, 2002 11:14 AM

Okay, perhaps this is a naive question, but given the uncertainties involved in global warming, whether they be more or less severe than the best models we have predict, what alternative do we have except using the costs that are comparable to the plausible models, assigning them a weight based on the probability at which they are likely to happen, figure out some kind of probability-weighted cost, and use that as a figure for taxing the externalities of CO2 emission? It seems silly to me to say "Well, there are a vareity of possibilities of the effects of CO2 emissions, so let's assume that the effects will be as small as possible, and claim that those effects will be the only 'true' possibilities and reduce our accounting of the external costs of CO2 emissions in accordance with our assumptions." Am I missing something that everyone else is getting?

Julian Elson

Posted by: Julian Elson on August 31, 2002 12:23 PM

Brad --

As you probably know, the first of your missing points has been addressed in a combined economic-metheorologic model by Yale's William Nordhaus. It considers all scenarios weighted by their likelyhood, and can be used to minimize the cost/benefit ratio of environmental policy. Being a biophysicist myself, economics aren't my specialty, but my understanding is that if you plug real-world data into Nordhaus' model, the picture doesn't change too much compared to Lomborg's analysis.

Your other two points aren't addressed in Lomborg's New York Times article, but he addresses both of them in his book. So I would blame their missing in the article on a lack of space, and suggest that you read "The skeptical Environmentalist" in the original.

You'll like it!

Posted by: Thomas Blankenhorn on September 2, 2002 06:51 AM

I've scanned through these posts, and find many of them very puzzling. Why do people claim we have no information and understanding of our atmosphere? Sure, there's much not yet understood, but you can look at the IPCC web site and find data on basic quantities such as global temparature and CO2 levels. When you don't understand something basic, why do you just assume the IPCC scientists are idiots? The questions raised herein are all valid, but you should be open to the possibility that there are answers. The IPCC has been very conservative. Unfortunately, I feel that the attempts to summarily dismiss the conclusions are politically based. How we respond to the conclusions should be a political issue, I just wish the science side could be relatively free from political demagogery. (Just to be clear: The science should be open to criticism. But, there should be a way to get a response. It shouldn't just be summarily dismissed).

In the US, we couldn't even agree that tobacco causes cancer until just a few years ago. I don't have much optimism that it's politically feasible to take serious action to avoid a future climate disaster. Nonetheless, here's my naive question about the economics of how we might go about it:

Could we phase in a requirement that fossil fuel providers sequester, or pay someone else to sequester, an amount of CO2 equal to the amount generated by the consumption of the fuel they sell? It seems to me this would use the free market in some useful ways:
1) As the requirement phased in, alternative fuels would become relatively more competitive, providing an incentive to develop these technologies.
2) There would also be an incentive to develop the most efficient possible sequestration technologies.

If, for example, we phased in the requirement over 20 years, maybe we could minimize the economic impact while avoiding the worst global warming scenarios.

Posted by: Fritz DeJongh on September 2, 2002 03:25 PM


A comment on the ethics of climate change. Take a simple two-country model, with the USA (GDP per head $30 000) and Bangladesh ($1000), and equal populations. Assume further that all global warming is due to the USA, and that it will reduce Bangladesh GDP per head by $250 through large-scale flooding, and lower quality-adjusted life expectancy by 10 years. US GDP per capita will be reduced by $1000, with no change in health. Prevention will lower US GDP per capita by $2000.

Propositions:
1. The USA is violating the rights of Bangladeshis. The famous Coase argument about the irrelevance of the distribution of property rights to the Pareto optimum is based on the real case of Mid-Western farmers and railroads where there was no clear ethical priority. Historically, the US government acquired the land by conquest, and distributed some of it to homesteaders and some to railroads as gifts; neither party would have had any right to complain if the pollution rights had been allocated to the other. The Bangladeshis have a clear–cut right to peaceful enjoyment of their limited possessions, and the Americans no right to violate it.
2. Ergo, the USA should desist from causing global warming or compensate the Bangladeshis. Maximising world income, regardless of distribution, is an immoral stance.
3. Compensation appears a cheaper strategy for the USA.
4. Assume there exists an effective mechanism for assessing the damage and transferring funds.
5. Then:
a. A large-scale transfer of funds to governments would be subject to an enormous skim factor (cf. Brunei) – say 50% - so to reach the peasants the total would have to be increased, from $250 to $500 per capita in the model. In the worst case scenario (Angola, Liberia) the skim reaches unity and lowers welfare dramatically through resource-driven civil war.
b. The US would have to raise taxes to meet the compensation. By targeting the tax on carbon, it could reduce the amount of warming and the sum to be raised.
6. The choice for the USA then narrows to :
a. Medium climate change + medium carbon tax + transfer of receipts to Bangladesh;
b. Zero climate change + higher carbon tax + internal budget reallocation. If the budget were optimal to begin with (some hope) then there is a net welfare cost from the tax shift; but this is not likely to be large.
7. Factors 5a and 5b together may invalidate proposition 3. The answer is sensitive to the real numbers and elasticities.
8. There are two additional factors that don’t lend themselves to modelling:
a. In the real world, assumption 4 is false. The only feasible strategy for the USA is desistment.
b. The impact on health cannot morally be compensated. Putting the lives of large numbers of other people at risk can only be done for vital reasons, and the gain in welfare to the USA of a selfish policy is trivial, because of the diminishing marginal utility of money to the rich.


Footnotes:
Lomborg’s book has been attacked by many environmental scientists, see
http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000F3D47-C6D2-1CEB-93F6809EC5880000&pageNumber=1&catID=2 and an ongoing debate on the Scientific American website. For non-specialists, it makes sense to assume that the consensus numbers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based on a meta-analysis including the high and low estimates of many studies, are better than any one of the latter. Lomborg is not a researcher with primary data and so far as I can see has just picked the estimates that suit his case.

It would be worth looking at the quality of the cost estimates for reduction in the light of experience with pollution controls. Businesses have always exaggerated the costs of any reform that inconveniences them, from the abolition of the employment of children in mines onwards. Once they really have to do it, they find much better ways.

Posted by: James Wimberley on September 3, 2002 05:20 AM

The US may benefit from a free rider effect if other industrialized (and developing) countries implement Kyoto, and the US does not.

Lower oil prices resulting from EU, Japanese and other efforts may seem to verify the economic assumptions behind US policy, but these prices would be significanty (?)higher without Kyoto.

What about the ethics of that situation?

Posted by: Tom on September 7, 2002 01:10 PM

this is a good book

Posted by: power overwhelming on October 9, 2002 04:20 PM

"Assume further that all global warming is due to the USA,..."

Why not instead assume the earth is flat, and work out what we can learn, based on that assumption? ;-)

The idea that "all global warming is due to the U.S." is patent nonsense. First of all, the U.S. emits approximately 1/4 of worldwide human carbon dioxide emissions.

HOWEVER, U.S. land use is such that virtually the entire East Coast is returning to the forested condition that it was in, prior to settlers cutting down the forest for farms. This additional "sink," created by U.S. farming technology, should be subtracted from U.S. emissions. (If U.S. emissions are counted against the U.S., it hardly makes sense for U.S. sinks not to be subtracted from those emissions.)

ALSO, the U.S. is a world leader (note: that's *a* world leader, not *the* world leader) in nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, photovoltaics, wind power, and computers (that allow teleconferencing and telecommuting).

If the U.S. is "responsible" for the "problem" of global warming, the U.S. should also get credit when the U.S. is responsible for helping to solve that problem.

Perhaps most important, there is a serious question about just how much of the observed surface temperature increases of the 20th century were due to human emission of greenhouse gases, and how much was due to completely separate factors (e.g., an increase in the sun's strength, and local effects such as urban "heat islands").

See http://pages.prodigy.net/mark.bahner for details.

"...and that it will reduce Bangladesh GDP per head by $250 through large-scale flooding, and lower quality-adjusted life expectancy by 10 years."

Again, why assume something that clearly isn't true?

The preponderance of evidence so far hasn't shown any increase in the intensity or frequency of storms from global warming.

And the increase in sea level caused by the portion of global warming that's caused by man is on the order of less than half a foot during the next century.

Therefore, the idea that flooding caused by global warming will lower the GDP of Bangladesh by one quarter (i.e., $250, out of $1000), or decrease life expectancy by 10 years, is nonsense.

Bjorn Lomborg is right; if we really cared about the health of the people of Bangladesh, we'd help them with their problem of (naturally occurring) arsenic in their wells, and forget about any problems they might have from global warming:

http://bicn.com/acic/

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 4, 2003 02:16 PM

Brad DeLong writes, "I cannot be the only economist who was disappointed by Bjorn Lomborg's column in the New York Times on Monday, August 26."

Yes, but I'll bet you're in a very small (percentagewise) minority.

"And because he did not it seemed to me that the net effect of his piece was not to reveal wisdom, but to darkeneth counsel."

Dr. Lomborg gave counsel showing a great deal of wisdom...you just missed it.

"First, climatologists' model-based central projections of the effects of global warming over the next century are just that: model-based central projections."

No, they're not (central projections). Robert Watson, former chair of the IPCC, snuck in completely bogus projections, with the deliberate intent of pulling the average of all the projections higher.

The IPCC's projections for global warming in the 21st century are completely indefensibly high. They "cooked the books" to produce projections that would alarm the lay populace.

See my website, http://pages.prodigy.net/mark.bahner for details. (Note: I haven't finished my temperature projections...but it's pretty clear that the "50% probability" warming of the 21st century is LESS than 1 degree Celsius.

"Second, those who will suffer from global warming are largely in the global south. If global warming does (say) increase the magnitude of major typhoons and does raise the sea level a bit, by the latter part of this century more than 100 million people in the Ganges delta will be at risk of drowning if a high tide accompanies the storm surge of a major typhoon in the Bay of Bengal."

The people of the Ganges delta will be at risk of drowning if a high tide accompanies a major typhoon in the Bay of Bengal, REGARDLESS of whether the world is a few degrees Celsius warmer OR cooler. And the preponderance of empirical evidence hasn't shown any increase in storm intensity or frequency from global warming.

"Any claim that "instead of Kyoto we should be doing X" has to be accompanied by a plan to actually do X."

Bjorn Lomborg provided such a plan. He said we should concentrate on getting them safer water...not worrying about reducing emissions according to the Kyoto protocol schedule.

The problem of the CURRENT people of Bangladesh (it's foolish to worry about the problems of the people of Bangladesh 1 century from now, while ignoring their current problems) is with naturally occurring arsenic in their water supplies.

http://bicn.com/acic/

As any good economist knows, spending money on some unimportant matter (e.g., reducing CO2 emissions in accordance with goals in the Kyoto Protocol) means that there is less money to spend on more important things (i.e., lowering the arsenic levels in drinking water in Bangladesh...or lowering bacteria levels in drinking water in other areas).

"Third, global warming produced by a fossil fuel-burning civilization may be bearable and managable up to the end of the twenty-first century, but the warming trend is unlikely to stop there."

If current trends continue, the world will be essentially a completely hydrogen economy by 2070 (see work of Jesse Ausubel).

Further, if current trends continue, human beings, as presently constituted, won't even be the dominant intelligent species in 2100. Machines, or even formless entities, will be (see work of Ray Kurzweil).

Further, the people of 2100 will be so filthy stinking rich, it's ridiculous for us to worry about them (see your own work). ;-)

"He may well be right that the resources that Kyoto would suck up would do more for human welfare if spent creating a more human world by boosting public health and economic infrastructure--..."

I think he is.

"...but that claim needs to be accompanied by a plan to make sure that these resources are devoted to their best alternative use in the global south."

He gave you the plan. You simply missed it. His plan is to spend money on making sure water is cleaner in developing countries (e.g. getting the arsenic out of the drinking water in Bangladesh).

"'Would' cuts no ice here. 'Will' does."

Spending the money saved by ignoring Kyoto on assuring clean water in developing countries WILL make those countries better off. That's Dr. Lomborg's advice.

"It's not my field of expertise, but as a card-carrying economist I can't help but think that Lomborg is probably right when he condemns Kyoto as a worthless waste of the world's wealth--as something that will be ineffective at fighting global warming and so expensive as to foreclose options to do other things that would be more useful."

The economics aren't my field of expertise...but I *do* know that only reducing emissions by the amount called for in the Kyoto protocol will have essentially zero effect on global temperatures. Therefore, it also must have virtually zero (percentagewise) economic benefits.

"Lomborg's flaw, however, is that he doesn't spell out what the "other things" we should be doing are."

Well, he wrote it out, but I guess he didn't spell it out. So here's his advice:

"H-E-L-P T-H-E-M G-E-T C-L-E-A-N D-R-I-N-K-I-N-G W-A-T-E-R."

Mark Bahner (environmental engineer)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 4, 2003 02:57 PM

"Lomborg has no credentials to back up his arguments."

You know, I read about this patent clerk--a #@$% patent clerk!--who wrote a bunch of nonsense about how people traveling on a spaceship at near the speed of light would actually age more slowly than someone here on earth.

Friggin' patent clerks! There ought to be a law against them writing about science issues.

P.S. The moral of this anecdote is NOT that Bjorn Lomborg is anything like that Swiss patent clerk (who was later awarded a Nobel prize in physics, for some OTHER work he did while a patent clerk). The moral of this anecdote is that credentials don't mean squat in science. In science, all that matters is who is right.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 4, 2003 03:15 PM

"For non-specialists, it makes sense to assume that the consensus numbers of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), based on a meta-analysis including the high and low estimates of many studies, are better than any one of the latter."

It makes more sense to go to a website that analyzes the IPCC projections, and shows them to be biased ridiculously high (i.e., in complete contradiction of current trends).

See http://pages.prodigy.net/mark.bahner

Posted by: Mark Bahner on February 4, 2003 03:30 PM
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