Bjørn Lomborg: 'Five inches...? I can't even remember that figure'

Bjorn Lomborg
Bjorn Lomborg is a political scientist and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School
Despite no scientific training Bjørn Lomborg has had a strong influence on the climate change debate, positioning himself against climate deniers and campaigners who say that climate change is a global emergency

'Let’s do it in my office, the saddest room in the world,' jokes Bjørn Lomborg, the man who has ranked as the chief bogeyman for climate campaigners ever since his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, hit the bookstands ten years ago.

The room, in a dark corridor on an upper floor of the Copenhagen Business School, is piled with boxes, its shelves empty, making it difficult to find a place to sit.

In November, Denmark’s new centre-left government withdrew funding from the Copenhagen Consensus Center, the Lomborg-run think tank which argues that setting caps on carbon emissions should not rank even in the top 30 of global priorities. 'This is pay-back time,' Lomborg says.
'I met with the woman who's now Prime Minister (Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the daughter-in-law of former labour leader Neil Kinnock). I said. "I’d love to show you how the Copenhagen Consensus is a good idea,’ and she looked at me and she said: "I think that probably might be right, Bjørn, but I will just get so much more mileage out of criticising you."' 

Whatever the truth of that story, the fact is that on January 1, 90 per cent of Lomborg’s funding, about £1.5m annually, disappeared.

The blow comes at a time when Lomborg’s longstanding campaign against the Kyoto process is in trouble, with November’s Durban meeting finally drawing the world’s big polluters and developing economies into a deal.

And it comes a year after Howard Friel, an American author, released The Lomborg Deception, in which he picked his way though citation after citation in both the Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It! Lomborg’s 2008 book, showing that many of the documents referenced simply didn’t back up Lomborg’s claims.

For a man with no scientific training (he has a PHD in politics and few peer-reviewed papers to his name),  Lomborg has had an extraordinary influence on the climate change debate, positioning himself against both the deniers (he admits climate change is real), and against campaigners who argue that climate change is a global emergency that demands rapid, large scale action (he believes it doesn't).

In 2008, the Guardian named him one of its ‘50 people who could save the planet’. The same year, Prospect Magazine ranked him the world’s 41st most influential public intellectuals.

With his engaging charm, it’s easy to see why he was popular as a young lecturer at Aarhus University back in the late 1990s. But it’s also apparent that the laid-back attire of t-shirt, jeans and shiny trainers conceals raging ambition. 'I met with Barker (Greg Barker, UK Climate Change minister) for a short while, and I’ve been giving advice to the White House,' he says, explaining his recent impact on policy. 

There are no books visible on the shelves at the Copenhagen Consensus Center by anyone apart from Lomborg, and when he flips open his Macbook Air, I see he’s set a portrait of himself as his desktop wallpaper.

'I experienced him as a man who pushes very hard to get what he wants and has rather sharp elbows, with circular saws attached for good measure,' remembers Hugh Matthews, who worked with Lomborg to translate the Skeptical Environmentalist.

When I visit him, Lomborg is keen to dismiss the Durban result. 'I’d very much hoped that the Copenhagen breakdown would somehow lead to saying "let's try something new"', he says. 'But unfortunately, it didn't lead to anything but saying, "well, let's try again in Cancun", which of course failed, or saying, "let’s try again in Durban", which I think by any reasonable standards failed.'

He wants governments to instead agree to invest 0.2 per cent of their national income, a total $100bn a year, in green research and development, and look at geo-engineering technologies, such as pushing sulphur into the air, as a backstop.

The announcement of this plan in 2010 was interpreted as a sign that Lomborg now viewed climate change as a priority. But he maintains his stance is the same as in 2001.

'It has not changed appreciably, no,' he says. 'It’s a problem, it's not the end of the world. Looked at in the large scale of things, where we have a 13-fold increase in GDP over the century for the developing countries, it's important to recognise that the thing we're going to be talking about in the 21st century isn't the 5 per cent decrease in GDP due to global warming.'

In 2008, the Copenhagen Consensus didn’t rank an international agreement to curb carbon emissions among the top 30 of global priorities. Investing in green technology research ranked 14th.

From the day Lomborg gained notoriety, there have been questions from scientists, not simply about his view that climate change will not be a catastrophe, but about his methods.

Hugh Matthews, who translated the Skeptical Environmentalist into English, says problems with the 3,000 citations were apparent in the editing stage.

'I checked a good number of his footnotes, as a good translator should, and I remember wondering why so many of the URLs had done a bunk,' he remembers.

In 2003, an expert panel from the Danish Ministry of Science concluded that the Skeptical Environmentalist was guilty of "scientific dishonesty".

This was later annulled after Lomborg complained to the Ministry of Science, something his Danish opponents put down to the intervention of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark’s Prime Minister at the time, and Lomborg’s sponsor. Last year, Friel, reprised the attack.

To give an example of the kind of thing Friel documents again and again, in one of the passages in Cool It!, describing the impact of global warming on the Miami sea front, Lomborg writes: 'Yet sea-level increase by 2050 will be about five inches - no more than the change we have experienced since 1940 and less than the change those Art Deco hotels have already stood through.'

Under the book’s citation system, the words in bold — sea level increase — are then, on page 179, cited to "Matthews, 2000".

You then have to turn to page 226, to see that ‘Matthews, 2000’ refers not to  a scientific paper, but to an article, The Attack of the Killer Architects, from Travel Holiday, a now defunct travel magazine, that makes no reference to global warming at all.

Lomborg throws up his hands in exasperation when I mention this.
'Five inches? I can't even remember that figure.' he says. When pressed, he adds: 'I say that it will rise five inches, that's sourced to the IPCC (the international body that reviews climate science).'

In his office, without books to back me up, it’s hard to counter this. But when I get home, Friel looks correct. 

If the ‘about five inches’ has any basis, it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation derived from the lower end of the IPCC’s 2007 range of six projections for sea level increase up until 2100. 

Other citations backing up other key claims in Cool it!, that the polar-bear population 'has soared,' and that global warming could save more lives from reduced deaths due to cold than those lost due to additional heat, seem equally questionable when placed under Friel’s microscope. Lomborg says the book was a ‘set up’.

'I think the reason why you haven't seen this kind of book before is that you needed a combination of someone who really, strongly wanted to debunk me, and also someone wasn't too interested in actually getting it right.'

Friel claims he had no act to grind, and only stumbled upon Lomborg’s work while trying to write a book about the coverage of climate change in the New York Times.  Lomborg complains that Friel never contacted him when writing the book. If he had, there’s every chance he would have won him over.

Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC Chairman, in 2004 compared Lomborg to Hitler for arguing it might be cheaper to evacuate the Maldives than prevent sea level rise. But in 2010, he provided the blurb to Lomborg’s latest book.

Mark Lynas, the green campaigner who threw a custard pie at Lomborg back in 2001, is now on good terms, and talking to him about making a joint appearance at next year’s Hay book festival. 'I don’t think that he’s an evil two-horned devil incarnate who’s not part of civilised discourse, as I probably did then,' Lynas says.

He thinks it’s shame that he has lost funding. 'It’s sad in some ways, but he does struggle to stay relevant, because the debate in all these areas has moved on.'

The Copenhagen Business School is set to announce the closure of Lomborg’s research center.  And Lomborg fears he is constrained in the kinds of donor he can tap.  

'There would be a lot of people who'd be waiting to pounce, saying, "of course he's saying that because he's just funded by Exxon". Well no, I'm not, and obviously that's a big problem going forward, because we have to make sure that the funding, if it's going to go forward, is unassailable.'

Meanwhile, Lomborg has himself moved on, focusing on development as much as climate change.  He’s just back from an Aids conference in Ethiopia, before which he spent a while in the US and Australia.  He’s barely been home in three months.

'It’s hard,' he concedes. 'Still, better than "nobody wants to hear what you say"'.


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