Debunking Lomborg, the Climate-Change Skeptic

In naming roustabout, lumberjack, ironworker, and dairy farmer America's “worst jobs,” omitted one whose awfulness is counterbalanced only by its public-spiritedness: fact-checking Bjørn Lomborg.

The Danish political scientist won fame and fans by arguing that many of the alarms sounded by environmental activists and scientists—that species are going extinct at a dangerous rate, that forests are disappearing, that climate change could be catastrophic—are bogus. A big reason Lomborg was taken seriously is that both of his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist (in 2001) and Cool It(in 2007), have extensive references, giving a seemingly authoritative source for every one of his controversial assertions. So in a display of altruistic masochism that we should all be grateful for (just as we're grateful that some people are willing to be dairy farmers), author Howard Friel has checked every single citation in Cool It. The result is The Lomborg Deception, which is being published by Yale University Press next month. It reveals that Lomborg's work is "a mirage," writes biologist Thomas Lovejoy in the foreword. "[I]t is a house of cardsFriel has used real scholarship to reveal the flimsy nature" of Lomborg's work.

Friel's previous books (The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports U.S. Foreign Policy and Israel-Palestine on Record) were works of media criticism, and that's what he thought this one would be. He had planned to examine coverage of global warming in the Times and The Wall Street Journal, he told me, when he came upon Cool It. In this and his other writing, Lomborg accepts that greenhouse gases from the burning of coal, oil, or natural gas trap heat in the atmosphere and thus alter climate. But he doesn't think it will be a disaster, which means we shouldn't do anything too difficult or expensive to avert it. That has made him hugely influential in providing cover to politicians, climate-change deniers, and corporations that don't want any part of controls on greenhouse emissions. Lomborg made that stance intellectually respectable in many circles, in no small part because his books seem so well sourced, something a number of glowing reviews noted. The Guardian named him "one of the 50 people who could save the planet" and Foreign Policy listed him as 14th on its list of "the top 100 public intellectuals."

But when Friel began checking Lomborg's sources, "I found problems," he says. "As an experiment, I looked up one of his footnotes, found that it didn't support what he said, and then did another, and kept going, finding the same pattern." He therefore took on the Augean stables undertaking of checking every one of the hundreds of citations in Cool It. Friel's conclusion, as per his book's title, is that Lomborg is "a performance artist disguised as an academic."

I don't want to be as trusting as the reviewers who praised Lomborg's scholarship without (it seems) bothering to check his references, so rather than taking Friel at his word just as they took Lomborg at his, I've done my best to do that checking. Although Friel engages in some bothersome overkill, overall his analysis is compelling. Let me pick three of Lomborg's contentions that Friel pretty much blows out of the water.

Lomborg opens Cool It with a long discussion on polar bears, arguing that no more than two (of 20) groups are declining in population, that their numbers are not falling overall, and, in places where they are, that it is not a result of global (or Arctic) warming. In fact, polar-bear populations in warming regions are rising, he argues, suggesting that a warmer world will be beneficial to the bears. As Friel shows, Lomborg sourced that to a blog post and to a study that never mentioned polar bears. But he ignored the clear message of the most authoritative assessment of the bears' population trends, namely, research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It found that bear populations are indeed declining where the Arctic is warming. In fact, concluded the IUCN, polar-bear populations "have declined significantly" where spring temperatures have risen dramatically. It also offered an explanation for Lomborg's claim that numbers are falling most where temps are getting colder: that area happens to be where there is unregulated hunting.

For his claim that the polar-bear population "has soared," Lomborg cited a 1999 study (scroll down to the paper by Ian Stirling). But that study described declining birthrates and other threats to the bears, blaming warmer spring temperatures that cause the sea ice to break up. Overall, since the mid-1980s polar-bear numbers have fallen, which experts attribute to global warming. The source is thus not exactly the solid endorsement of Lomborg's claim about thriving polar bears that one might assume.

One of Lomborg's most interesting claims is that global warming will avert more deaths (as fewer people die of cold) than it will cause. But three of the five sources he cites (including this and this) reached the opposite conclusion, Friel shows. (Lomborg told me he included the three to criticize them, but a reader flipping to the endnotes might get the impression that they supported his claim.)

Of the other two studies Lomborg cites for the claim that averted cold deaths will outnumber heat deaths, he told me by e-mail, "there is no question that they support my point. Indeed their support is so explicit that I am at a loss to see how Friel could have construed it otherwise." One study, he said, is "the only peer-reviewed study to calculate all extra heat deaths and avoided cold deaths globally." The two studies are here, from 2006, and here, from 2000. But the 2006 study concludes that 850,000 deaths from cold will be averted in a warmer world, not the 1.4 million Lomborg says, and it estimated deaths from only six causes (cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, diarrhea, and three tropical diseases), not from everything. The 2000 study offered death-rate estimates only for people 65 to 74, so it is hardly a full population-wide analysis. Finally, Lomborg cites a report by the World Health Organization to support his claim that cold claims millions of lives—1.5 million in Europe every year, he writes. But the WHO report says nothing about that. (Lomborg told me he cited WHO "solely to provide an estimate of Europe's population" but, as with other source notes, it appears to support his controversial claim, not something as unobjectionable as Europe's population.)

"This pattern of nonexistent footnoted support for assertions in the text was quite common," Friel told me. Lomborg makes "a highly substantive claim that, when you go to the footnotes, is not supported. When you ask me, 'How would you characterize Lomborg's methodology?' it is not such an easy question to answer. I mean, what do you call this?"

Lomborg also went to town on the 2002 breakup of Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf, which environmentalists blamed on global warming. "The Larsen area" has been breaking up for centuries, he argued, so the huge breakup cannot be blamed on man-made global warming. But the study he cited for that statement, writes Friel, "was not a study of the Larsen B ice shelfThus, while supposedly demonstrating that the 2002 [breakup] had a precedent during the Holocene, Lomborg dropped the specific reference to Larsen B, inserted the broader 'Larsen area' reference, and cited a study about the Larsen A area as if it supported his claims about the Larsen B area."

I've quoted the above at some length because it is indicative of two things: Friel's fine-grained sleuthing and the unfortunate lack of reader-friendliness that has resulted. Friel also undercuts his thesis by significant overkill, chastising Lomborg for describing a source as "Figure 10.6.1" rather than "Section 10.6.1." That is sloppiness on Lomborg's part, not duplicity, and including it—and many, many like it—makes Friel seem like Inspector Javert in obsessive pursuit of Jean Valjean. Mixing the trivial with the significant doesn't help his argument. Friel also gets tripped up by the recent revelation that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change relied for its assertion about Himalayan glaciers disappearing by 2035 on an off-the-cuff (since retracted) comment, not a rigorous study. Friel criticizes Lomborg for saying they would disappear by the end of this century, arguing that he should have accepted the IPCC's date of 2035. Oops.

Lomborg responded to several specific charges of Friel's that I sent him. On polar bears, he doesn't dispute using the sources Friel finds dodgy. He acknowledges that the IUCN report "says that the reduction in ice affects polar-bear reproduction," but says "it does not specify how." That seems a bit disingenuous, however, since it is clear that loss of sea ice hurts bear reproduction. Lomborg also told me that he "did not ignore the drowning of polar bears," but says the drownings were the result of a storm. Bears, however, have a better chance of surviving storms if they can take refuge on a large expanse of sea ice rather than face open water. As the final arbiter, let's go to Ian Stirling, one of the world's foremost experts on polar bears. Lomborg, Stirling says, used "inaccurate and utterly inadequate arguments" to "erroneously suggest climate warming will have little negative effect on" the bears.

On the Larsen B ice shelf, Lomborg told me that "Friel is correct that the study I cited was not a study of the Larsen B ice shelf. But nowhere did I say that it was. I cited this study to make the general point about the importance of maintaining historical perspective when we consider collapsing ice shelves."

Lomborg has written a 25-page response to Friel's accusations, which his publicist shared with me and which he plans to post on his Web site. Lomborg casts aspersions on Friel's motives and accuses him of "selective or incomplete quotation, misrepresentation of source material, and even outright fabrication." "I am proud of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It," Lomborg concludes. "Friel fails to make his case because, simply, I did not 'cheat' my readers."

I can't recommend reading The Lomborg Deception straight through. But anyone who picks up Cool It (particularly any students) should have Lomborg Deception within reach to decide for themselves whether Lomborg's main claim to authority—that environmentalists make it up while he provides accurate facts—is so much hot air.

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