What Is Bjørn Lomborg Trying to Achieve?

By Keith Kloor | October 27, 2013 11:17 pm

In the latest issue of Cosmos magazine, I have a piece on Bjørn Lomborg, who, as I write,

shot to fame in 2001 with his first book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, a broad critique of the environmental movement that infuriated many ecologists and greens. The notoriety transformed the little-known Danish statistician into a globe-trotting public intellectual.

Since then, he has courted controversy in the climate debate and embraced his role as a provocateur. In my piece, I write:

it’s worth asking at this stage in his career if  Lomborg is a voice of reason, a professional pot stirrer, or a trollish ankle-biter. The answer probably depends on where you sit in these debates.

What do you think? If you read the profile, tell me what you believe my answer would be.

  • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

    I dunno. I’ve read a number of his essays and tried to get through “Cool It,” and I just don’t see it. I’ll grant you that he says some things that make sense about being efficient with resources, but the attitude is very hard to get past. He tends to come at things from an economic perspective, favoring near-term priorities. My fear is that this could set the stage for solutions which save the day for some, while ruining the future for all.

    • Steve Crook

      There is only maths, then economics. We have some grasp of the former, much less so of the latter, but to deny the reality of markets and money is probably the biggest denial of all.

      Take a look at what people in the 50-60s thought our present would be like. We can look back and cherry pick predictions that proved to be accurate, but could we have spotted them at the time.

      Most long term predictions turn out to be rubbish. Not only that, but we don’t have enough continuity of government or economic stability to carry through multi decadal plans.

      • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

        The economy is an abstraction which provides value in some cases and destroys it in others. It’s continuation is dependent on our willingness and nature’s ability to support it. It has not always been, nor is it guaranteed to continue.

        • jh

          ” It has not always been, nor is it guaranteed to continue.”

          Huh?

          The “economy” is just the competition for resources among humans. It’s exactly analogous to the competition for resources among members of any other species. Like humans, most species utilize a variety of resources and, like humans, most species compete more intensively for resources that are perceived as more valuable.

          The only difference between humans and other species is that, unlike other species (as far as we know) humans frequently create technologies that increase the utility of resources. On occasion, technology turns a once useless resource into a valuable resource (for example, silicon). Those technologies are so beneficial that they’ve come to be valued more than the resources themselves.

          “The” economy will not and cannot disappear. It is guaranteed to continue, at least as long as humans exist.

          • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

            That’s a very roundabout way of agreeing with me, but I’m okay with that.

          • jh

            Well, no, not really. The economy doesn’t destroy value. It destroys the lack of it.

            I read a while back in some sailing book about how the Pacific Islanders, back in the day, understood innumerable subtleties about currents that allowed them to navigate the seas around the Pacific Islands, but all this was “destroyed” by the emergence of the compass.

            Yes, it was destroyed by the emergence of the compass, because the time it took to develop those skills was no longer necessary. Yes, some useful navigational abilities were lost, but the savings of time invested to learn how to navigate was so great that these lost arts were no longer worth while for the modest benefit they provided.

            And I have no doubt that humans will dominate this planet, and probably others, far into the future. But, judging by the current state of affairs, they may not be Americans or Westerners.

          • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

            The economy can create or destroy value. If you don’t believe the latter, try asking the mothers of Minimata or the fishermen of the Aral Sea. We may continue to dominate this planet and eventually others, but I think this is predicated on acquiring a holistic view of the economy’s impacts. Failing that, I think we’ll remain a singular pot of boiling frogs.

          • jh

            An economist might posit that the economic activity that lead to the destruction of the Aral Sea fishery was more valuable than the fishery itself.

            I’ve heard several times from my senators how they’re putting environmental regulations in place to save the $X00m/yr salmon fishery in our state. But if the regs cost more than $X00m, then it’s “saving” the salmon that is destroying value – presuming the regulations are actually achieving anything in the first place.

            We already have a holistic view of the economy’s impacts. Modern Externality Fever will eventually ebb, as less agenda-driven economists start to recognize that the cost of so-called externalities is already implicit in the economic equation.

          • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

            “An economist might posit that the economic activity that lead to the destruction of the Aral Sea fishery was more valuable than the fishery itself.”
            Indeed.

    • TenneyNaumer

      There is a reason that “Cool It” is unintelligible – total misrepresentation of the facts: http://getenergysmartnow.com/2010/04/21/energy-bookshelf-the-lomborg-deception-leads-to-a-question-does-the-washington-post-have-any-honor-left/

  • Steve Crook

    It’s a bit like people who are mediums, or consult them. When things don’t work out, they always blame someone who isn’t fully committed to the cause. A bit like a consensus reality. So Lomborg is not only disrupting their view on how reality should be, he’s preventing others from believing what they believe and thus preventing their reality from becoming urrm real…

    In the past it was “Heretic! Burn Him!”, now we just get a twitter storm, but essentially, it’s the same thing.

  • DrDenim

    Really? You abused the phrase “begging the question”? I thought you were a learned man..

    http://begthequestion.info/

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      I beg your pardon.

  • Buddy199

    He seems very down the middle reasonable, which would make him appear to eco-extremists to be extreme.

  • bobito

    I’ll go with Voice of Reason. But curious, Keith, would your answer have been the same in 2001?

  • carolannie

    Well, we need people like Lomborg to anchor discussion, but he isn’t the be all and end all of rationalism. Just because you can do a BOP analysis of something doesn’t make it “rational”, it just makes it fit our current paradigm, which he does admirably. The fact that there are purists helps us keep the future in sight, Lomborg is like businesspeople, fixated on the easy short term.

  • lngtrm1

    If my choices are Al Gore/James Hanson vs James Inhofe/Lord Monckton vs Bjorn Lomborg? I’ll take the Dane.

    We are letting our politics get in the way of progress. Politics today is about polarization to motivate and assimilate the people into a team. Once there, you are further indoctrinated into the “us or them” strategy on all issues.

    Lomborg to me just keeps saying the same thing…decisions based on the polarized team view aren’t a good idea. Duh!

  • Graham Strouts

    Voice of Reason, no question! I only came to read Lomborg a few years ago. All through my Dark Green years The Skeptical Environmentalist was perceived as literally too evil to even touch. When I started reading it and realised how measured and sensible it was- with data I could readily check myself- my whole worldview started to change. It is just extraordinary the degree to which he was vilified- a real witch-hunt. And it worked. For many greens his name is still mud even though he is obviously right about pretty much everything, and in fact pretty reasonable imo. Good piece Keith, maybe Lomborg’s time really will come – the sooner the better.

  • alqpr

    Is that one question or two?
    If you’re just asking what we think you think, then from the tone of your article I’d say that you see him as a mix of 60,40,0.
    But If you care what I think I’d put it more as 30,50,20

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Interesting. Well, I definitely think he’s all of the above and if I had to break it down, I’d probably say 40, 40, 20.

      I think he could largely be a voice of reason if he changed his approach, but then he probably figured out that he wouldn’t get his voice heard above the din, so he stayed with what brought him to the dance.

      Unfortunately for Lomborg, as I point out in my piece, impressions of him were formed with Skeptical Environmentalist and it’s been hard to overcome that. That is as much his doing and as that of his critics.

      • David Skurnick

        You say Lomborg must share the blame for the impression caused by the Skeptical Environmentalist. Were there significant errors in that book? If not, then it would appear that Lomborg’s only “crime” was to accurately point out flaws in the usual environmentalist conventional wisdom.

      • jh

        I haven’t read Skeptical Environmentalist or any of Lomborg’s other work, and I don’t view him as any kind of hero. (Although I confess I’m impressed by anyone who’s arguments are so irritatingly rational that Al Gore refuses to debate him.)

        But I will say this:

        A rational argument isn’t “pot stirring” or “ankle biting”. If a rational argument upsets and/or infuriates the status quo, then the blame for that lies with the status quo, not the person who advanced the rational argument. To hold the arguer responsible for the emotional state of the people listening is a bit of a reach.

        I liked your piece in Cosmo, but what I didn’t get from it is exactly why Skeptical Environmentalist was so upsetting to the Green Machine – was it the ideas alone, or did Lomborg take the trouble to attack/offend people personally? If it’s the latter, then yeah, he’s responsible for a negative perception and your 40/40/20 assessment could be fair. If it’s the former, then the “responsibility” for the negativity lies with the people that can’t handle a rational refutation of their deeply held beliefs.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

          “what I didn’t get from it is exactly why Skeptical Environmentalist was so upsetting to the Green Machine – was it the ideas alone, or did Lomborg take the trouble to attack/offend people personally?”

          It was surely both, but he also stacked the deck in his book. The reaction to this may well have been hysterical at the time, but the beefs of critics were not without merit.

          • jh

            mmm…yeah, I had a vague impression from some stuff in the media that he had step back a bit from some of the stuff he said in the book.

            thanks.

  • jh

    Voice of reason.

    Lomborg has stirred the pot, but it was a pot that badly needed stirring. Sometimes its offensive to people when you present evidence that shows they’re mistaken. So be it.

  • Eva Dickman

    We have invested in fossil fuels for over one hundred years. Green energy is new, expensive and needs investments to make it more cost effective. We need multiple approaches and some new ones like biofuels that use the existing carbon in the atmosphere. Eventually, energy prices will come down. Cost cannot be the only consideration. Lowering the carbon footprint also is a goal. Conservation can play a big part as well. Pretty much everything that uses fuel, from cars, appliances, electronics and buildings all need to be redesigned to be more efficient. If we do these things, then employment should pick up as a result. Improving infrastructure such as providing public transportation everywhere will result in energy savings and also provide employment. Perhaps Denmark has already made some of these investments and there is not much more to be gained. Here in the USA, however, we are just beginning and there is a lot of energy to be saved and green energy to be installed.

    • jh

      “Green energy is new, expensive and needs investments to make it more cost effective.”

      Investment alone doesn’t determine whether or not a product is cost effective. Without the necessary technology, a product may never become cost effective, regardless of the amount of investment.

      That’s exactly Lomborg’s point. We don’t have the technology to eliminate, or even substantially reduce, fossil fuel consumption. We don’t have the technology to predict future climate, much less it’s impact on our economy and lives. We could invest an infinite amount of money and never change these realities.

      But we can use the technology we already have to improve the world we live in, using what we know with certainty about the world we live in. His point is that it’s better to invest in what we have now and achieve certain results than to keep throwing good money after bad on products or seeking knowledge that we may never be able to obtain, or at least almost certainly won’t obtain in time to make it useful.

  • Helga Vierich

    Wow. I don’t think he is the voice of reason at all. He is the voice of economic consensus – which is a very different thing. The present economic system is supported by a rather questionable belief in something called “progress”. Yet the majority of scientists working the petroleum industry, in soil science, in climate, in oceanography, as well as in genetically modified organisms have raised serious issues, issues that call into question the very concept of progress. There is NO CONSENSUS regarding the safety of GMOs, (meaning not all of them are safe and not all of them are even tested yet, see Genetically Engineered Plants and Foods: A Scientist’s Analysis of the Issues (Part I) – Annual Review of Plant Biology, 59(1):771; on other issues, see IEA acknowledges: Two-Thirds of Oil Must Stay in the Ground by 2050 to Avoid Climate Catastrophe; Groundwater depletion rate accelerating worldwide, Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron? | Energy Bulletin; World’s rivers in ‘crisis state’, report finds; Population growth set to significantly affect ecosystem services…

  • mem_somerville

    I am really not familiar with Lomborg’s writing. I would have to say I only know of the caricature that the US left provided to me in the days when I used to hang out with them.

    But I will say that I think in general there are multiple strategies that are needed in any of these contentious debates.

    You need the mild mannered professor type, sure. That reaches some people. But I think you also need street-fighters. Some people need to be shaken up a lot more than a mild-mannered ivory tower type can do.

    And it would probably not surprise anyone to know that I like the street fighters.

  • David Skurnick

    Voice of reason. Those who believe in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming and who advocate CO2 reduction policies seldom look at the impact their favored policies. These policies include carbon credits, Kyoto, carbon tax, encouraging the use of wind and solar power, etc. According to the CAGW models, these policies will have negligible effect, if the CAGW is real. They won’t prevent atmospheric CO2 from continuing to rise. They won’t save us. In order to stop earth’s atmospheric CO2 from rising, much more radical steps would be needed.
    OTOH, if the CAGW models are wrong, then those policies are entirely useless.
    Lomborg stands with the warmists. He says man’s activity is causing the planet to warm. However, he stands with the realists in evaluating the expensive carbon schemes as a poor use of man’s limited resources.

  • Thomas Fuller

    Nice piece, Keith. I’ve defended Lomborg enough here that I think I can venture the only real criticism of him. He’s right about all the big stuff and he used every trick he could to get on the public stage. More power to him.

    But nobody’s ever busted him for stealing Julian Simon’s arguments wholesale.

    I guess if BBD ever comes by here anymore he can seize on that.

  • julio nieves

    if he is a statistician , that makes the picture for me. His views seem to be of a man that has part of the truth. He knows his tools, but that is not enough. You need physics and engineering. I suppose he knows mathematics and programing. But he is missing tools to fully understand the issue. Like he makes his analysis based that the current status is right and it needs be partially fix. NO!. The current status is wrong, and that is why we are where we are, and we are going wrong-er everyday.

  • TenneyNaumer
  • Duelles

    Very reasonable. Calling to question radical solutions that may not work and for a thoughtful way to include the economy, environmentalists, and not so well informed into rational compromise solutions. We don’t know the future. Proceed accordingly.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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