Bjørn Lomborg. A Critique

Zielona Grzybnia’s readers may have noticed that my opinion about Bjørn Lomborg, the famous Danish “skeptical environmentalist” (as he calls himself), is rather low. He is one of the most prominent voices in the public discussion on climate change. And, although he sometimes makes important points, in general his work in the field of economic and political analysis of climate change must be viewed with skepticism and criticism.

Bjørn Lomborg is a Danish political scientist. Nonetheless, he is mainly known for his work on climate change and his being the initiator of the so-called Copenhagen Consensus Center – a panel of social and political scientists who regularly have tried to show that there are more important challenges humanity is facing than climate change, and that reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are a highly inefficient way of dealing with the world’s problems.

Lomborg calls himself a “skeptical environmentalist”, thus highlighting exactly the virtue he himself often lacks – skepticism. Skepticism presupposes a thorough analysis of facts and opinions – meanwhile, our self-proclaimed “skeptical environmentalist” has a tendency to unclear, ambiguous and one-sided argumentation.

Opinions of other scientists about Lomborg’s work and activism strongly vary – as they always do. My personal favourite is a rather critical one:

The general message of DICE [William Nordhaus’s economic model of climate change – ZG] will be familiar to you. It has influenced Mr Bjorn Lomborg, which, although it is understandably tempting to think otherwise, is not by itself a reason for not taking DICE seriously. (Partha Dasgupta, “The Stern Review’s Economics of Climate Change”)

Although Lomborg’s contributions to the public debate of climate change issues are sometimes of some value – especially when he points out to the environmentalists’ frequent unscientific exaggerations (as he did in his book “Cool It”, or in this recent Project Syndicate article) -, but his argumentation too often suffers from oversimplifications, misrepresentations of scientific research, over-reliance of particular scientists’ work and somewhat “populist” formulations. To put it with one commentator’s words:

This is a shame, because Lomborg’s […] main arguments deserve a fuller hearing, and the sleight of hand he employs, while undercutting his case, is simply unnecessary. (Brian O’Neill’s review of “Cool It”, accessible here)

This same commentator, himself a climate scientist, pointed out to the main deficiencies in Lomborg’s treatment of climate science – sadly, they are deficiencies Lomborg has been sticking to since, although the criticism was widespread and well-grounded. Among others, the main problem with his approach is that it is deterministic. Lomborg has picked out a single estimate of climate sensitivity from the IPCC’s assessment reports, and has conducted his work on its basis – therefore ignoring the uncertainty that is one of the main features of climate change (and a very important one, as shown in the pioneering work by Martin Weitzman).

Furthermore, it has often been criticised that Lomborg’s treatment of scientific details is a strong version of “cherry-picking” – something he himself accuses environmentalists (e.g., Greenpeace) of. While his own criticism is often quite justified, it is strange that he seems not to be able to apply it to his own work.

However, the most interesting side of Bjørn Lomborg’s analyses is the economic one. Although a political scientist, he extensively writes on economic aspects of climate change. And this, in my opinion, in a very narrow, parochial and discriminating way.

A sweeping critique of Lomborg’s economic argumentation can be found in Frank Ackerman’s book “Can We Afford the Future?”, where the author devoted a whole chapter to the discussion of “Cool It”.

The first problem (and, indeed, the most important one) is Lomborg’s use of literature. He tends to rely on the work of a few distinguished, but in no way uncontroversial economists – mainly William Nordhaus (whose work I criticised here and here) and Richard Tol. The only author representing another point of view mentioned in “Cool It” is Nicholas Stern – whose report is severely criticised by Lomborg, in a rather unobjective way. He suggests that what Stern did have nothing to do with actual economic practice, reducing the latter to the work of Nordhaus and Tol. This is a severe misrepresentation of the economics of climate change.

A further strange characteristic of Lomborg’s analysis is that he seems unwilling to extend its time horizon beyond 2100 – as if positive effects of today’s action occurring after this year had no meaning at all. This is a very strange attitude toward such a long-term challenge as climate change is.

With respect to the “social cost of carbon”, Lomborg relies on an ad hoc estimate made by Richard Tol (who seems to be his “guru”), being equal to 2$/tC – one more time presenting a result as the one and only “right” or economically correct. Again, this is a severe oversimplification and misrepresentation of the diverse results that can be found in the vast economic literature on climate change (for an alternative view, see e.g. here).

These were a few examples of the partly huge deficiencies that can be found in Bjørn Lomborg’s work on climate change – especially its economic analysis. We may conclude with another bluntly put quotation:

Bjørn Lomborg was a political scientist with limited research experience, none of it in economics, before he turned to a career in environmental skepticism. He misrepresents many thoughtful, hard-working economists by his claim that the entire profession supports his opposition to active, large scale climate policies. His lopsided choice of sources and misleading collection of quotes and assertions provide a caricature of economics at its worst, wielding a narrow cost-benefit analysis as a weapon against common sense and scientific evidence. (Frank Ackerman, “Can We Afford a Future?”)

Is Lomborg worth reading, though? I read his texts. And,

if you are going to read only one book on climate, don’t read this one. But if you are going to read ten, reading Lomborg may be worthwhile. (O’Neill; for source, see above)

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