One-a-Day: Bjorn Lomborg, Cool It

I really want to like Lomborg’s work more than I do. I’m completely open to and interested in an argument that a smart cost-benefit analysis of conventional environmentalist policy recommendations suggests that money is best spent on completely different kinds of public and private projects than mainstream opinion would suggest. I’m completely prepared to agree that global warming, while caused by human inputs, may be the kind of problem which cannot be well addressed by human action, that we’re past that point. (Gloomy, I know, but it’s at least a possibility.) I’m bothered by the view that alarmist rhetoric and extreme projections are needed to galvanize a lethargic global public into action. I worry about how to use the precautionary principle sensibly. And so on.

Cool It is intended to be a simpler, stripped-down version of some of the kind of argument that Lomborg offered in The Skeptical Environmentalist. Even when I have a notional openness to what he’s trying to say, the guy comes off like a used-car salesman. This is a book that spends a lot of its energies denouncing the misuse of statistical information and other evidence by scientists and policymakers, but Lomborg throws out his own howlers with great frequency.

Just to take a simple example, on p. 101, he writes that when countries achieve a per capital income of $3,100, they then “can eradicate malaria, because their personal wealth will allow them to buy more protection and treatment, while their societies will be sufficiently able to provide general health care and environmental management such as house spraying and mosquito eradication”. From this, he argues that since African countries will cross the $3,100 barrier in 2080 even by pessimistic estimates, the problem of malaria will be eradicated at that point. There’s so much wrong with this that I barely know where to begin. First, because it sees malaria eradication in parts of the developed world as something that just happened magically when people hit a certain per capita income, no planning or effort or will needed. Add $3,100 and plasmodium go bye-bye! But secondly, he assumes that African countries will on average cross that per capita level in 2080 while all other costs remain fixed, and while the basic elements of malaria eradication remain static. Even a bednet isn’t going to cost in 2080 what it costs today. Whether there will be any effective antimalarials left to buy is an open question, let alone what they’ll cost. Moreover, the cost of eradication in temperate climates is one thing. In tropical climates, it’s another. Nor is it a one-time cost, as parts of Italy have been discovering lately with other mosquito-borne illnesses.

I’ll take another example. Lomborg talks about the costs of rising sea levels, and argues that in a world with strong environmental policies, everyone will have 20% less personal income to deal with the personal consequences of rising sea levels. He makes this argument sweepingly and globally, as if it is meaningful for everyone in the same way. Look, a peasant in Bangladesh is not affected by this problem in the same way as a millionaire retiree living in a coastal home in North Carolina. Not just because of different risk exposures, but because of what a 20% differential in income means. If you’re making subsistence-level wages, 20% less income has no implications at all for how you deal with rising sea levels. You don’t have any spare income to deal with that issue in the first place. For the retiree, 20% might also make little difference, because of a whole host of affordable safety nets. So the question is really, “Who is going to feel that 20% tithe to an ‘environmental world’ in such a way that it actually makes a measurable difference in their personal ability to strategically cope with rising sea levels?” I think there may well be people who fall into that category, but it’s a very particular and small subset of the global population.

Throughout the book, Lomborg conflates personal income with national income. He implies that turning “the societal knob” and “the climate knob” in policy choices are basically interchangeable and mutually exclusive kinds of choices. He talks the language of trade-offs and cost-benefit in a stunted and impoverished way. He makes linear projections on a whole range of trends that are just as dubious and odd as the worst of his opponents: the guy basically doesn’t seem to have heard of complex systems, emergence, unexpected results. For him, knowing what’s going to happen in 2080 is just a matter of adding +1 for each year between now and then.

It’s a really basic thing with me. If you serve up a big helping of methodological whup-ass on your opponents, it obligates you to do things differently, to work to another standard. Even when I don’t know the science myself, when I read Lomborg, the strident weirdness of the way he talks about projections, choices, and the like makes me disinclined to trust him for even a moment, even when I’m notionally open to the basic thrust of his argument.

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2 Responses to One-a-Day: Bjorn Lomborg, Cool It

  1. Sisyphus says:

    Good stuff — and this critique of the book could be made in even more detail.

    I like how the last few posts — this and the “cultural competency” one — are implicitly building an argument for the importance of a liberal arts education (well, maybe a sociology major, more specifically); the last one on the importance of being able to grasp and analyze complex structures and systems; this one on the importance of knowing how to understand statistics as well as their limitations.

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