Saturday, March 24, 2007

Lomborg's testimony deconstructs Gore.

I like Bjorn Lomborg. I agree with a lot of what he has to say, though not all of it, and I happen to think he’s a nice guy. I’m sure he’s more attractive than is good any one person and adding brains to that is just unfair (see I can sound like a socialist). He testified before the a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives and the Democrats have posted his comments on line as a PDF document. (Really, I’m not inventing that.)

Bjorn says there is global warming and it is anthropogenic. I am not convinced it is anthropogenic so on that detail we disagree. But he doesn’t concentrate on the causes of warming. He concentrates on what to do about it. And he says that what is being done is of little value and diverts resources away from areas that would be far more beneficial in regards to the good of humanity. Now you go to the link above for the entire paper but I am reprinting some excerpts below. Really in fairness to Bjorn you should read his entire paper but this will give you an idea of where he stands. I have removed the charts and the footnotes in particular.

Let us be frank. Al Gore and the many people he has inspired have good will and great intentions. However, he has got carried away and come to show only worst-case scenarios. This is unlikely to form the basis for a sound policy judgment. The problem is compounded in that if we follow Al
Gore’s recommendations, we will likely end up choosing very bad policies to solve the many problems, we agree need attention.

In short, following Gore’s logic, with its good will and fine intentions, will actually end up costing millions of lives.

Let me lay out the argument for you.


Global warming is being described in everyday media in ever more dire terms. The IPPR think tank (which is strongly in favor of CO2 cuts) in 2006 produced an analysis of the UK debate. It summarized the flavor thus: ”Climate change is most commonly constructed through the alarmist repertoire – as awesome, terrible, immense and beyond human control. This repertoire is seen everywhere and is used or drawn on from across the ideological spectrum, in broadsheets and tabloids, in popular magazines and in campaign literature from government initiatives and environmental groups. It is typified by an inflated or extreme lexicon, incorporating an urgent tone and cinematic codes. It employs a quasi-religious register of death and doom, and it uses language of acceleration and irreversibility.”

This kind of language makes any sensible policy dialogue about our global choices impossible. In public debates, the argument I hear most often is a variant of “if global warming is going to kill us all and lay waste to the world, this has to be our top priority – everything else you talk about, including HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, free trade, malaria, clean drinking water may be noble but utterly unimportant compared to global warming.” Of course, if the deadly description of global warming were correct, the inference of its primacy would also be correct, but as we will see, global warming is nothing of the sort. It is one – but only one – problem of many, we will have to tackle through the 21st century.

Very clearly this is seen in the Gore’s own description of his movie, An Inconvenient Truth. Here it is said that: “We have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet into a tail-spin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced.”

Yet this is simply incorrect, both as it stands and in its policy conclusions. Let us look at heat deaths, sea level rise, hurricanes and malaria as outstanding examples of Gore’s claim.

Very often, we only hear about the heat deaths but not the cold deaths – and sometimes this is even repeated in the official literature, as in the US 2005 Climate Change and Human Health Impacts report, where heat is mentioned 54 times and cold just once. We need to know just how much more heat deaths we can expect compared to how many fewer cold deaths.

Much has been made of the heat wave in Europe in early August 2003, which killed 35,000 people, with 2,000 deaths in the UK. Yet, each year more than 25,000 people die in the UK from cold. It can be estimated that every year more than 200,000 people die from excess heat in Europe. It is reasonable to estimate that each year about 1.5 million people die from excess cold in Europe. This is more than seven times the total number of heat deaths. Just in this millennium Europe have lost more than 10 million people to the cold, 300 times the iconic 35,000 heat deaths from 2003. That we so easily forget these deaths and so easily embrace the exclusive worry about global warming tells us of a breakdown in our sense of proportion.

The important fact, of course, is what will happen with future temperature increases. Let us for the moment assume – very unrealistically – that we will not adapt to towards the future heat. Still, the largest European study conclude that for at least for 2oC, “Our data suggest that any increases in mortality due to increased temperatures would be outweighed by much larger short term declines in cold related mortalities.” For Britain it is estimated that a 2oC increase will mean 2,000 more heat deaths but 20,000 fewer cold deaths. A paper trying to incorporate all studies on this issue (a so-called meta-study) and apply it to a broad variety of settings both developed and developing around the world found that “global warming may cause a decrease in mortality rates, especially of cardiovascular diseases.” For the US, the net lower death count from global warming in 2050 is estimated at 174,000 per year.

In its 2007 report, the UN estimate that sea levels will rise about 34.5cm over the rest of the century. While this is not a trivial amount, it is also important to realize that it is certainly not outside the historical experience. Since 1850 we have experienced a sea level rise of about 29cm, yet this has clearly not caused major disruptions. Sea level rise is a problem, but not a catastrophe. Ask a very old person about the most important issues that took place in the 20th century. She will likely mention the two world wars, the cold war, the internal combustion engine and perhaps the IT revolution. But it is very unlikely that she will add: ‘oh, and sea levels rose.’

It is also important to realize that new prediction is lower than the previous IPCC estimates. The new span is 18-59cm (midpoint 38.5cm), down from 9-88cm in 2001 (midpoint 48.5cm).19 This continues a declining trend from the nineties (where the first IPCC expected 67 cm), and the 80s, where the US EPA projected several meters.

But this information is much less troublesome than what we often hear from global warming advocates. Al Gore has perhaps made their point most forcefully in his book and film. In a very moving film clip he shows us how large parts of Florida, including all of Miami, will be inundated by 20 feet of water. He goes on to show us equally strong clips of San Francisco Bay being flooded, the Netherlands being wiped off the map, Beijing and then Shanghai being submerged, Bangladesh be made uninhabitable for 60 million people, and even how New York and its World Trade Center Memorial will be deluged.

How is it possible that one of today’s strongest voices on climate change can say something so dramatically different from the best science.... The IPCC estimates a foot, Gore tops them 20 times. Well, technically, Al Gore is not contradicting the UN, because he simply says: “If Greenland melted or broke up and slipped into the sea – or if half of Greenland and half of Antarctica melted or broke up and slipped into the sea, sea levels worldwide would increase by between 18 and 20 feet.” He is simply positing a hypothetical and then in full graphic and gory detail showing us what – hypothetically – would happen to Miami, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Beijing, Shanghai, Dhaka and then New York.

But of course, the impact of the film clearly suggest immediate inundation, reinforced by such comments as rising sea levels around Beijing would mean that “more than 20 million people would have to be evacuated.”

Yet, take an overview of the simulations of Greenland sea level contributions. None are higher than 3mm/year by the end of the century, whereas Gore’s claim – if valid even in a century span – would have to be around 120mm or 40 times higher than the very highest model estimate. The IPCC estimate that Greenland is expected to contribute 3.5 cm over the century by itself, and with models indicating a lower estimate of 1cm and high estimate of 15cm. This means that Gore’s claim is 174 times higher than the IPCC... It is unlikely that such an approach will lead to good policy initiatives.

Stronger and more frequent hurricanes have become one of the standard exhibits of the global warming worries. The solution offered is invariably CO2 cuts and Kyoto.

With the strong 2005 hurricane season and the devastation of New Orleans by Katrina, this message has reverberated even more powerfully. Al Gore spends 26 pages on showing pictures of the suffering from New Orleans and names every single hurricane in 2005.

So has global warming caused stronger and more frequent hurricanes, and what will happen in the future? Let us here use the latest consensus statement from the UN World Meteorological Organization (parent organization for the IPCC), which is more recent and more specific but generally in agreement with the 2007 IPCC report. It makes three strong and specific points. “1. Though there is evidence both for and against the existence of a detectable anthropogenic [human-caused] signal in the tropical cyclone climate record to date, no firm conclusion can be made on this point.”

They basically tell us that the strong statements of humans causing more and stronger hurricanes (or tropical cyclones as researches call them) are simply not well supported. We just don’t know as of yet. When Al Gore tells us that there is a “scientific consensus that global warming is making hurricanes more powerful and more destructive” it is incorrect. “2. No individual tropical cyclone can be directly attributed to climate change.”

The strong statements on hurricane Katrina are simply not supportable.

This brings us to the third and perhaps most important WMO consensus point. In reality, we don’t really care about hurricanes as such – what we care about is their damage. Do they end up killing people and cause widespread disruption? And with global warming, will they kill and disrupt even more? The answer is – perhaps surprisingly – that the whole hurricane debate is somewhat tangential to this important question. “3. The recent increase in societal impact from tropical cyclones has largely been caused by rising concentrations of population and infrastructure in coastal regions.”

...[T]the US cost of hurricane damage has increased relentlessly over the past century, and it seems to provide ample underpinning for Gore’s
“unmistakable economic impact of global warming.” Yet, just comparing costs over long periods of time does not make sense without taking into account the change in population patterns and demography as well as economic prosperity. There are many more people, residing in much more vulnerable areas, with many more assets to lose. In the US today, the two coastal South Florida counties, Dade and Broward, are home to more people than the number of people who lived in 1930 in all 109 coastal counties stretching from Texas through Virginia, along the Gulf and Atlantic


We have to ask what it is we want. Presumably our goal is not to cut CO2 emissions per se, but to do good for humans and the environment. We want to help the people who are potential victims of future Katrinas, Charleys and Andrews. But how can we best do that?

If society stays the same – no more people living close to the coast, no more costly and densely built neighborhoods – and climate warms causing somewhat stronger hurricanes, the total effect will be less than a 10% increase in hurricane damages. To put it differently, if we could stop the
climatic factors right now, we would avoid 10% more damage in 50 years time.

On the other hand, if climate stays the same – no more warming – but more people build more and more expensive buildings closer to the sea, as they have done in the past, we will see an almost 500% increase in hurricane damages. To put it differently, if we could curb societal factors right now, we could prevent 500% more damage in 50 years time.

So if we want to make a difference, which knob should we choose first – the one reducing damage by less than 10% or the one reducing damage by almost 500%? The difference in efficiency between the climate knob and the societal knob is more than 50 times.

This seems to suggest that policies addressing societal factors rather than climate policies will do the much more good first.

Al Gore writes: “Mosquitoes are profoundly affected by global warming. There are cities that were originally located just above the mosquito line, which used to mark the altitude above which mosquitoes would not venture. Nairobi, Kenya, and Harare, Zimbabwe, are two such cities. Now, with global warming, the mosquitoes are climbing to higher altitudes.”

Yet WHO and researches have documented that malaria epidemics happened in Nairobi many times between WWI and the 1950s. The town’s first medical officer, Dr. D.E. Boedeker, wrote that even for the early ivory and slave caravans, Nairobi “had always been regarded as an unhealthy locality swarming with mosquitoes.”

Like most stories there is at core some truth to the claim that malaria will increase with temperature, but it is a small part compared to richness and health infrastructure.


The current raft of policies that are either enacted or suggested are costly but have virtually no effect.

Take the Kyoto Protocol, which even if it had been successfully adopted by all signatories (including the US and Australia) and even if it had been adhered to throughout the century, would have postponed warming by just 5 years in 2100 at a cost of $180 billion annually...

In the first real commitment since Kyoto in 1997, the EU announced in March 2007 that they would unilaterally cut emissions to 20% below 1990-levels by 2020. This would mean a 25% cut of emissions from what they would otherwise have been in 2020. Yet the effect on temperature would be smaller than Kyoto... postponing warming by the end of the century by about two years. The cost would be about $90 billion per year in 2020. Thus, we see the same pattern from both the well-established Kyoto protocol and the new EU minus-20% decision – that they have fairly small impact at fairly high cost.

This is also the case for Al Gore’s public commitment to tackle global warming. In his recent speech to New York University, he explicitly said that he would eliminate payroll taxes and substitute them with pollution taxes, principally a CO2 tax. Yet he never actually say how much this would cost or how much good it would do.

If one calculates the impact of such a promise, it shows that payroll taxes (social security) in the US amounted to $841 billion in 2006. With the US emitting about 6Gt of CO2 this means a tax of $140/tCO2, and a tax on gas at about $1.25 per gallon. In one respected model, the annual economic cost amounts to about $160 billion for the US economy in 2015. This would cut emissions to about half in 2015 and about 25% in 2105. Yet, since the US will make up an ever smaller amount of the total CO2 emitted throughout the century, the total effect in 2100 will be a reduction of global temperature by 0.1oC. Essentially, what Al Gore is suggesting is that the US carries through a Kyoto-type restriction all by itself.


This does not mean we should do nothing at all about climate change. It means we need to be much smarter. We need to abandon expensive and inefficient strategies like Kyoto and search for new opportunities.

Of course, part of us still want to say “let’s do it all”. And I agree. In an ideal world we would deal with all the world’s woes. We should win the war against hunger, end conflicts, stop communicable diseases, provide clean drinking, step up education and halt climate change. But we don’t. And so we have to start face reality.

When we realize that there are many areas in the world – like HIV, malnutrition, free trade, malaria, clean drinking water etc. – where we can do immense amounts of good, it seem obvious to me we must focus our attention and our big expenditure there first.

Note: Unfortunately space does not allow me to include the entire paper. As I said read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions. I think some solutions he proposes can be better handled in different ways but I think he is generally correct about the direction of change. For a decent idea of Lomborg's basic views on such matters watch this video of a presentation he gave. It's about 17 minutes long.

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