Climate catastrophe? Cool it!

In his new book, Bjørn Lomborg shows how the ‘climate science’ on everything from polar bears to pollution has been politicised.

Tony Gilland

Topics Science & Tech

This review is republished from the December 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Climate change has dominated the political agenda throughout 2007, making previous debates about global warming look like mere water-cooler gossip.

The well-orchestrated launch in February of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report led the sober UK broadsheet the Financial Times to conclude that ‘the world’s leading climate scientists [have] swept away the last doubts surrounding global warming’ (1), and David Miliband, then UK environment secretary, to state: ‘The debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over. The window of opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change is closing more quickly than previously thought.’ (2)

Further IPCC reports appeared throughout the year, generating more doom-laden warnings. The reports were similarly promoted around the message of scientific consensus, relying on the assumption that they had the full backing of 2,500 scientific experts – despite the fact that, as I have noted before on spiked, most of the scientists involved will have read only a minimal proportion of any report (3).

By November, when the IPCC delivered the synthesis version of all the year’s reports, this intergovernmental body – along with US politician-turned-green-crusader Al Gore – had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Addressing the IPCC upon the release of its synthesis report, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, fresh from a trip to the Antarctic, warned the world that ‘the message was chillingly simple: the continent’s glaciers are melting. I saw the heart-bursting beauty of ice shelves that have already started to break up… These scenes are as frightening as a science fiction movie. But they are even more terrifying, because they are real.’ (4)

For many, the objective of climate change policy, debate and news reporting in 2007 seems to have been to ‘shame’ politicians and everybody else to take action on the threat of global warming, and account for human society’s role in this apparent apocalypse. Public enemy number one has been the USA, represented by the Bush administration. The final push for 2007 came during two weeks in December, at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties in Bali. American negotiators were booed towards the end of the conference for their refusal to sign up to specific carbon emissions cuts. But the most striking thing about the Bali conference was its assumption that, but for American ‘intransigence’, the outcome should have been a done deal based on ‘the science’. So Ban Ki-moon told participants that the grim projections made by the IPCC this year, including rising sea levels, more frequent and less predictable floods and severe droughts, meant the ‘the time to act is now’. He called climate change ‘the moral challenge of our generation’, and warned: ‘We cannot rob our children of their future.’ (5)

In the midst of all this hyped-up consensus and overheated alarmism, the return of the ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Bjørn Lomborg, with his new book Cool It, provides some very welcome perspective. Lomborg has little doubt that global warming is occurring, that human activities are a factor, and that all of this presents us with problems and challenges. However, he is adamant that there is no need to panic, that attempts to cut greenhouse emissions now are a costly waste of time, and that adaptation for the medium-term future, coupled with investment in research and development (R&D) for the longer term, would make for a more sensible way forward.

Beginning with the much-proclaimed demise of the polar bear and working his way through other hot topics such as heat-related deaths, sea-level rise, hurricanes and disease, Lomborg examines the specialist literature to show that many of the stories that arise in the media or that are promoted by campaigners and politicians are simply not supported by the facts.

He starts by examining the plight of the polar bear because it ‘encapsulates the problems with many of the other scares – once you take a look at the supporting data the narrative falls apart’. In contrast to the argument put forward by Al Gore, the World Wildlife Fund, and others – that polar bears may well become extinct due to a loss of habitat – Lomborg examines the key research that such stories rest on, conducted by the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union in 2001, to uncover a very different story. According to Lomborg, what this group actually found was that of 20 distinct populations of polar bears, ‘one or possibly two were declining’, while ‘more than half were known to be stable, and two subpopulations were actually increasing’. Apparently, the report also found that, thanks to the regulation of hunting, the global polar bear population has increased from about 5,000 in the 1960s to 25,000 nowadays.

Since Lomborg made this point, he has been criticised for failing to refer to a more recent 2006 report by the same group, ‘which showed that of 19 populations five were declining, five were stable and two were increasing; and for the remaining six there was not enough data to judge’. Lomborg apparently retorted that the latest research did not detract from his key argument that the ‘best way to protect polar bears was not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but to reduce hunting’ (6).

Lomborg’s second case study in climate change alarmism is our understanding of the 35,000 human lives lost during the European heatwave of 2003, a story that has featured prominently in the arguments of those advocating the need to curb carbon emissions right now. Lomborg agrees that a warmer world will result in an increased frequency of exceptional heat events such as the 2003 heatwave, and that therefore we are likely to see an increase in the number of ‘heat deaths’. But again his concern is to put this issue into perspective. As he points out, ‘cold spells will decrease just as much as heatwaves increase’, and this is important because ‘cold deaths’ are a bigger killer than ‘heat deaths’. According to Lomborg, ‘every year more than 200,000 people die from excess heat in Europe’ compared to about 1.5million people who die from excess cold. The data suggests that any increased mortality due to increased temperatures would be outweighed by much larger declines in cold-related mortalities.

Lomborg moves on to rising sea levels: a prediction which he describes as ‘one of the most doom-laden impacts from global warming’. Yet, as he points out, the 2007 report of the IPCC estimates that sea levels will rise about 29cm over the remainder of this century. Lomborg’s argues: ‘While this is not a trivial amount, it is also important to realise that it is certainly not outside the historical experience. Since 1860 we have experienced a sea level rise of about 29cm, yet this has clearly not caused major disruptions. It is also important to realise that the new prediction is lower than previous IPCC estimates.’

The acclaimed Australian scientist and conservationist Tim Flannery has called Lomborg’s critique of the rising sea levels panic an illustration of his ‘flawed grasp of climate science’. Flannery says: ‘He makes much of the 2007 IPCC projection that sea level will rise by “about a foot”, misleadingly noting that this is lower than previous projections. He does not tell us that the IPCC figures do not account for collapsing ice sheets, which may result in far larger rises, due to the difficulty of predicting how glacial ice will react to warming.’ In fact, the debate about sea level rise and collapsing ice sheets is worth examining in further detail, as it can tell us a lot about the general debate about climate change – and why Lomborg’s particular grasp of the science is rather less one-sided than that of his many critics.

At one level, Flannery is correct to pull Lomborg up for highlighting the reduced IPCC estimates for sea level rise as something significant. While the range estimated for sea level rise over the next 100 years given by the latest IPCC report is 18 to 59cm, which has a lower maximum value than the 9 to 88cm range estimated in its previous report of 2001, the two figures are not directly comparable. As Stefan Rahmstorf argues on the weblog, ‘It is apples and oranges to say that IPCC reduced the upper sea level limit from 88cm to 59cm, as the former included “ice dynamic uncertainty” while the latter discusses this ice flow uncertainty separately in the text, stating it could add 10cm, 20cm or even more to the 59cm in the table.’ (7)

‘Ice dynamic uncertainty’ refers to processes that are currently too poorly understood to be modeled properly. These processes include the removal of buttressing ice shelves or the lubrication of the ice sheet base by meltwater trickling down from the surface through cracks, which some fear might lead to much larger sea-level increases in the future. However, despite an estimate having been included in its previous report, the IPCC decided to exclude an estimate of the possible implications of these effects from its latest report because of their poorly understood nature. The IPCC’s latest report states that while recent observations could suggest increasing future sea level rise, ‘understanding of these processes is limited and there is no consensus on their magnitude’ (8).

Cool It was undoubtedly going to attract immense critical attention – as well as undiluted acrimony. When Lomborg launched his previous book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in 2001, a vicious critique appeared in the January 2002 edition of Scientific American. This prompted the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) to investigate the publication and rule that it was objectively scientifically dishonest – a ruling latterly completely rescinded by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation which in turn led to the case being dropped by the DCSD itself. Given this, Lomborg may have done well to have drawn attention to the different basis for the IPCC’s differing figures. However, the way in which Flannery summarises Lomborg’s approach to this issue as waving ‘vaguely in the direction of ice melt and collapse’ while assuring us ‘it’s not a problem’, indicates that Flannery’s own attention to detail is lacking when it comes to reading what Lomborg actually says.

Lomborg devotes several pages to a discussion of the role played by potential ice sheet collapse in order to demonstrate why the 20 feet of sea level rise posited by Al Gore in his influential film/book/roadshow combo An Inconvenient Truth is so out of kilter with most other people’s thinking. Lomborg points out that ‘IPCC estimates that the very worst additional increase to be expected from Greenland could be 20cm over the century’, and that to achieve the scale or sea level rise discussed by Gore would require figures ‘40 times higher than the absolutely highest model estimate and an astounding 174 times higher that [sic] the average’.

Lomborg also notes that the IPCC expects that with sufficient warming, ‘a rather, but not unrealistically, high temperature increase globally of 3.1 degrees Celsius’, Greenland’s ice will disappear. However, given that this temperature increase would not be reached until around 2100, and that it would need to be sustained for ‘many, many centuries’ for Greenland’s ice to start disappearing, Lomborg argues that this seems unrealistic because we will by then already be in the twenty-second century and will therefore have developed CO2 alternatives.

Given the heaps of headlines that we have been treated to about major cities being submerged in floods of biblical proportions, with scant if any mention of the huge timescales in question even for this theoretical possibility to occur, I know who I think provides a fairer overview of ‘the science’.

Essentially, Lomborg’s argument is that, on the basis of our current understanding of climate systems and the role played by CO2, we will eventually have to cut CO2 emissions significantly. Right now, however, is a bad time to be worrying about it because the harmful effects of climate change in the medium-term future are manageable, and can be managed far more cheaply than can the massive cuts in CO2 that would be required to avoid those effects.

So according to Lomborg, we could get all the world’s current energy from solar cells taking up space equivalent to 2.6 per cent of the area of the Sahara – the reason we don’t is because ‘it would be horrendously costly’. Based on the fact that solar energy has come down in price by about 50 per cent per decade over the past 30 years, Lomborg estimates: ‘Even at a much slower pace, it will probably become competitive before mid-century for many uses, and before the end of the century for most uses.’ He points out that this is only one such opportunity, and proposes that all nations should commit themselves to spending 0.05 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in R&D on non-carbon emitting energy technologies as a long-term approach to tackling global warming.

In Cool It’s penultimate chapter, ‘The Politics of Global Warming’, Lomborg discusses how the science of climate change is becoming politicised. He argues that when the chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, argues for dramatic CO2 cuts, the IPCC scientists ‘effectively become agenda-driven advocates’, who misuse ‘their standing as scientists to pursue a political agenda’ which will eventually undermine the credibility of the scientific discipline.

To back up this point, he cites the influential statement from the IPCC’s 2001 report that most warming in the past 50 years is due to humans. The wording of the text changed from ‘there has been a discernible human influence on global climate’ to this line finally included in the official summary: ‘Most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.’ Yet when asked by New Scientist about the scientific background for this change, Tim Higham, spokesman for the UN Environment Program, responded: ‘There was no new science, but the scientists wanted to present a clear and strong message to policymakers.’

Lomborg also quotes a section of the IPCC 2001 report, Working Group III: Mitigation, that ‘read more like an ecological vision statement’. Referring to the IPCC’s suggestions that cars and trains should be built with lower top speeds, and that wellbeing should be de-coupled from production, Lomborg argues persuasively that ‘climate policy is here used as a tool and justification for charting an alternative course of development that is seen as preferable’.

Lomborg notes that some climate scientists have become concerned about this process. Most notably he cites Mike Hulme, the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, who spoke out against the use of the language of catastrophe, tipping points and points of no return. Writing for the BBC in November 2006, Hulme asked: ‘Why is it not just campaigners, but politicians and scientists too, who are openly confusing the language of fear, terror and disaster with the observable physical reality of climate change, actively ignoring the careful hedging which surrounds science’s predictions?’

Hulme also argued that ‘the discourse of catastrophe is a political and rhetorical device to change the frame of reference for the emerging negotiations around what happens when the Kyoto Protocol runs out after 2012’. He remarked that the UK government-sponsored conference of February 2005, titled ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’, ‘served the government’s purposes of softening-up the G8 Gleneagles summit through a frenzied week of “climate change is worse than we thought” news reporting and group-think.’ (9)

In 2007 alone, we have witnessed a concerted effort to employ a mix of one-sided presentations of the science of global warming, combined with heavy rhetoric and emotionalism, designed to force a consensus view on climate policy on to the world’s nations. This has had a chilling effect not only on the debate about global warming in the policy and media world, but also on scientists themselves, working to discover the true facts about what is going on.

As Chris Rapley, the former director of the British Antarctic Survey, commented at the Battle of Ideas conference in London in October 2007: ‘There are an awful lot of scientists who feel extremely uncomfortable in this debate… the heat and light that are in the subject now I believe is causing many scientists, many working scientists, to say I don’t want to be part of this, it is all too dangerous, all too difficult; I am going to retreat into my shell. And so areas of science which are as yet unresolved are not being debated in public in the way that I believe they should be.’ (10)

It is fortunate that critics such as Bjørn Lomborg and Mike Hulme are brave enough to venture into this terrain, attempting to transform the ‘heat and light’ of climate change politics into a more cool-headed debate about what the science actually is, and how we can best use its findings now and in the future. Whether or not one agrees with Lomborg’s cost-benefit approach to managing global warming, one thing is certain: the price of crushing skeptical voices about Al Gore’s ‘inconvenient truths’ is far too high for any civilised society to consider paying.

Tony Gilland is science and society director of the Institute of Ideas.

This review is republished from the December 2007 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming by Bjorn Lomborg is published by Knopf. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Scientists dispel global warming doubts, Fiona Harvey, Financial Times, 1 February 2007

(2) Debate on climate change science is over – international political agreement now urgently needed, DEFRA Press Release, 2 February 2007

(3) See, IPCC: the dangers of enforcing ‘consensus’, by Tony Gilland

(4) Secretary-General’s address to the IPCC upon the release of the Fourth Assessment Synthesis Report, 17 November 2007, Valencia, Spain, UN Environment Program

(5) UN Secretary-General: “Eyes of the world” on Ministers and Heads of State meeting at United Nations climate change conference in Bali, UNFCCC Press Release, 12 December 2007

(6) Reported in the UK’s Observer, Row erupts over risk to polar bears, 14 October 2007

(7) The IPCC sea level numbers, RealClimate, 27 March 2007

(8) IPCC, 2007: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

(9) Chaotic world of climate truth, Mike Hulme, BBC News, 4 November 2006

(10) The science and politics of climate change, Battle of Ideas, Sunday 28 October 2007 – video from

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Topics Science & Tech


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