It’s the Season for Science Denial Books

July 17, 2020

Following on the heels of Michael Moore’s disastrous film attack on science and renewable energy, we have 2 new books banging more or less the same drum.

First, Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz has weighed in on Bjorn Lomborg’s new entry. Below, Peter Gleick looks at Michael Shellenberger’s tome.

Joseph Stiglitz in the New York Times:

The thesis of Bjorn Lomborg’s “False Alarm” is simple and simplistic: Activists have been sounding a false alarm about the dangers of climate change. If we listen to them, Lomborg says, we will waste trillions of dollars, achieve little and the poor will suffer the most. Science has provided a way to carefully balance costs and benefits, if we would only listen to its clarion call. And, of course, the villain in this “false alarm,” the boogeyman for all of society’s ills, is the hyperventilating media. Lomborg doesn’t use the term “fake news,” but it’s there if you read between the lines.

As with others in Lomborg’s camp, there’s the pretense in this book of balance and reference to careful studies. Yes, climate change is real. Yes, we should do something about it. But, goes his message, let’s be real, there are other problems, too. Resources are scarce. The more money we spend on climate change, the less we have to grow the economy; and as we all know (or do we?) everybody benefits from growth, especially the poor. And besides, there’s not much we can do about climate change.

He’s not completely fatalistic. He urges imposing a carbon tax and investing much more on innovation, both good ideas, although neither is a panacea, especially since the carbon price he suggests is far too low. Among the many contradictions within the book is that while he seems to say that innovation may be our savior, he also suggests that the model he relies on shows that we’ve invested all we wisely can in innovation. We’ve done all we should. Evidently, we’re supposed to pray that nature be more forgiving as it bestows good fortune on our research efforts.

Assessing how best to address climate change requires integrating analyses of the economy and the environment. Lomborg draws heavily on the work of William Nordhaus of Yale University, who came up with an estimate of the economic cost to limiting climate change to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. While Nordhaus seems to think it’s enormous, an international panel chaired by Lord Nicholas Stern and me (called the High-Level Commission on Carbon Prices), supported by the World Bank, concluded that those goals could be achieved at a moderate price, well within the range of what the global economic system absorbs with the variability of energy prices.

A second mistake — which biases the results in the same way — is Nordhaus’s and Lomborg’s underestimation of the damage associated with climate change. In early discussions of climate change the focus was often on global warming. It was natural for people to ask: “Surely a few degrees of temperature change couldn’t make that much difference? And besides, wouldn’t it be nice if we could swim in the ocean off Nova Scotia?” But climate change is much more than that. It includes increasing acidification and rising sea levels (another aspect of climate change that Lomborg doesn’t mention is that Wall Street could be underwater by 2100 — a seeming benefit until one realizes that almost surely the bankers would find a way to force all of us to pay for their move to higher ground).

Climate change also includes more extreme weather events — more intense hurricanes, more droughts, more floods, with all the devastation to life, livelihood and property that accompanies them. In 2017 alone, the United States lost some 1.5 percent of G.D.P. to such weather-related events.

A third critical mistake, compounding the second, is not taking due account of risk. As the atmospheric concentration of carbon increases, we are entering uncharted territory. Not since the dawn of humanity has there been anything like this. The models use the “best estimate” of impacts, but as we learn more about climate change these best estimates keep getting revised, and, typically, in only one direction — more damage and sooner than had been expected.

Anyone not familiar with the literature might think from his frequent quoting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the panel, representing the scientific consensus, is on board with his ideas. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 2019 the I.P.C.C. put out a report explaining how much worse a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature would be than a 1.5 degree Celsius rise. It takes only a little care in reading beneath the surface of the plodding scientific prose to realize how worried these scientists are. Understandably so: We have not seen these levels of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere since the Pliocene Epoch about three million years ago, when the polar ice caps were much smaller and global sea levels were 10 to 20 meters higher than today. (Full disclosure: I was a lead author of the I.P.C.C.’s Second Assessment.)

Lomborg is correct that climate change is not the only problem the world faces. But he poses a false choice, because it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. As the advocates of the Green New Deal point out, investments that reduce climate change can usher in a new era of prosperity; as our commission emphasized, the green transition can promote economic growth — correctly measured.

As a matter of policy, I typically decline to review books that deserve to be panned. You only make enemies. Even a slight barb opens a wound the writer will seldom forget. In the case of this book, though, I felt compelled to forgo this policy. Written with an aim to convert anyone worried about the dangers of climate change, Lomborg’s work would be downright dangerous were it to succeed in persuading anyone that there was merit in its arguments.

This book proves the aphorism that a little knowledge is dangerous. It’s nominally about air pollution. It’s really about mind pollution.

Joseph E. Stiglitz was chief economist of the World Bank from 1992 to 2000 and was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2001.

Meanwhile, Peter Gleick has a response to Michael Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never” at Yale Climate Connections:

A recent entry in this debate is Michael Shellenberger’s “Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All” (HarperCollins Publishers, 2020). Shellenberger explains in his introduction that he seeks to counter and dismiss what he considers irrational, overwrought arguments of pending Malthusian catastrophes; instead, he seeks to promote the Cornucopian view that environmental problems can be eliminated if we’d just pursue aggressive economic growth, simple technological advances, and increased tapping of abundant natural resources. In doing so, he echoes previous efforts of authors like Herman Kahn, Julian Simon, and Bjørn Lomborg.

Climate dialogue seen as ‘out of control’

Shellenberger self-describes as an environmentalist activist and a bringer of facts and science to counter “exaggeration, alarmism, and extremism that are the enemy of a positive, humanistic, and rational environmentalism.” He decided to write this book because he believes “the conversation about climate change and the environment has, in the last few years, spiraled out of control.”

Voices of reason and clear analyses in the contentious debates about how to tackle our global problems are welcome. Unfortunately, the book is deeply and fatally flawed. At the simplest level, it is a polemic based on a strawman argument: To Shellenberger, scientists, “educated elite,” “activist journalists,” and high-profile environmental activists believe incorrectly that the end of the world is coming and yet refuse to support the only solutions that he thinks will work – nuclear energy and uninhibited economic growth.

But even if the author properly understood the complexity and nature of global challenges, which he does not, and got the science right, which he did not, a fatal flaw in his argument is the traditional Cornucopian oversimplification of his solutions – reliance on economic growth and silver-bullet technology. As the great American journalist and humorist H. L. Mencken said, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.” Mencken also warned against those who know precisely what is right and what is wrong, a warning especially worth hearing in the highly complex and uncertain worlds of global climate, pandemics, and environmental change.

But the problems in the book go much deeper. The author wanders from topic to topic, jumping from personal anecdote to polemical arguments to data and numbers carefully chosen to support his views, making it difficult for the reader to follow his threads. The most serious flaw, however, is that he assumes a position and seeks data and facts to fit that position rather than, as science demands, using data and facts to develop, test, and refine a theory. As a result, the book suffers from logical fallacies, arguments based on emotion and ideology, the setting up and knocking down of strawman arguments, and the selective cherry-picking and misuse of facts, all interspersed with simple mistakes and misrepresentations of science. Distressingly, this is also an angry book, riddled with ugly ad hominem attacks on scientists, environmental advocates, and the media.

I provide just a few examples of these flaws here – a comprehensive catalog would require its own book. In short, what is new in here isn’t right, and what is right isn’t new.

The second idea – and the focus of much of Shellenberger’s past writings – is that climate and energy problems can and should be solved solely by nuclear power. He writes, “Only nuclear, not solar and wind, can provide abundant, reliable, and inexpensive heat,” and, “Only nuclear energy can power our high-energy human civilization while reducing humankind’s environmental footprint.” (“Apocalypse Never” – hereafter “AN” – pp. 153 and 278) The many economic, environmental, political, and social arguments levied against nuclear are simply dismissed as having no merit, for example: “As for nuclear waste, it is the best and safest kind of waste produced from electricity production. It has never hurt anyone and there is no reason to think it ever will.” (AN, p. 152) His passionate belief that nuclear is the only answer to our energy and climate problems (maybe along with a mega-dam on the Congo River in Africa) is matched by the corollary that renewable energy alternatives – he calls them “unreliables” (AN, p. 176) – are bad because he asserts they are small scale, intermittent, and their economic, environmental, political, and social problems disqualifying.

The argument that poverty and environmental threats are intertwined is both correct and not new. It lies at the heart of international development efforts, including the early United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the current Sustainable Development Goals, which state:

The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace and justice. The 17 Goals are all interconnected. (emphasis added)

Similarly, mainstream experts in environmental science and environmental economics have long acknowledged that all energy options have complex sets of environmental advantages and disadvantages. The fields of energy risk assessment, integrated environmental systems analysis, and ecological economics have addressed them for decades.

Shellenberger regularly sets up other strawman arguments and then knocks them down. [A strawman argument is an effort to refute an argument that hasn’t been made by replacing your opponent’s actual argument with a different one.] One of the most prevalent strawman arguments in the climate debate is that scientists claim climate change “causes” extreme events, when in fact, climate scientists make careful distinctions between “causality” and “influence” – two very different things. This area, called “attribution science,” is one of the most exciting aspects of climate research today.

Shellenberger sets up the strawman argument that people are incorrectly claiming recent extreme events (like forest fires, floods, heat waves, and droughts) were caused by climate change, and then he debunks this strawman. “Many blamed climate change for wildfires that ravaged California” (AN, p.2) and “the fires would have occurred even had Australia’s climate not warmed.” (AN p. 21) He misrepresents how the media reported on the fires, describing a New York Times story on the 2019 Amazon fires: “As for the Amazon, The New York Times reported, correctly, that the ‘fires were not caused by climate change.’” But here Shellenberger is cherry-picking a quote: If you look at the actual article he cites, the journalist makes clear the “influence” of climate change just two sentences later:

These fires were not caused by climate change. They were, by and large, set by humans. However, climate change can make fires worse. Fires can burn hotter and spread more quickly under warmer and drier conditions. (emphasis added)

He also misunderstands or misrepresents the extensive and growing literature on the links between climate change and extreme events, saying “But climate change so far has not resulted in increases in the frequency or intensity of many types of extreme weather” (AN, p. 15) citing out-of-date research, including a workshop from 15 years ago. In fact, a large and growing body of literature already shows strong links between climate change and extreme events, including hurricanes, heat deaths, flooding, decreasing ice, and more (see, for a few examples, herehere, and here), and this literature has been expanding rapidly. For instance, in 2019, the American Meteorological Society, or AMS, published a summary – produced annually – with 21 peer-reviewed analyses of extreme weather in 2018 including the research of 121 scientists from 13 countries. The severe Four Corners drought in the U.S., intense heat waves on the Iberian peninsula and in northeast Asia, exceptional precipitation in the mid-Atlantic states, and record-low sea ice in the Bering Sea were all examples of extreme weather events “made more likely by human-caused climate change.” As Jeff Rosenfeld, the editor-in-chief of the AMS series, noted, “We’ve now published more than 100 of these attribution studies in this AMS series and can see how powerful this science is getting. Attribution studies increasingly yield useful, nuanced conclusions that embrace real-world complexity,” Rosenfeld wrote. “They collectively make an ever starker statement about the human influence on extreme weather.”

Much more at the link.

13 Responses to “It’s the Season for Science Denial Books”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Lomborg does not have a background in climate science and has published no peer-reviewed articles on climate change.

  2. indy222 Says:

    The real short term risk of AGW is war. Famine and dry hole wells or salt-water’d wells doesn’t cause some tears at a few $$ loss, it causes desperation. That’s what seems sidelined in the apocalyptic future, in favor of SciFi visions of massive sea level rise (slow, plenty of time to $$$move) or the ocassional bad hurricane. I worry about the breakdown in the fragile networks we’ve erected at high energy cost to save another penny or two in the supply chain. People think their food comes from the supermarket. Not the ground. What if that chain breaks down because people are too busy defending their family against the growing homeless and starving and furious gangs roving the streets?

  3. redskylite Says:

    State of The Planet (JULY 15, 2020), illustrates The callous exploitation of resources for financial gain, with total indifference to human health, that Lomborg is justifying, encouraging (if not championing).

    In this stage of our evolution, we should be aiming for a better life for all, using all the marvellous tools we have developed in our recent history – yet we don’t! and never have. When will we ever learn ?


    “Children Exposed to Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Suffered Physical and Mental Health Effects”

    Although natural disasters don’t discriminate, they do disproportionately harm vulnerable populations, such as people of color and people with lower incomes. Children are another vulnerable group, because their coping and cognitive capacities are still developing, and because they depend on caregivers for their medical, social, and educational needs. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that disasters are associated with severe and long-lasting health impacts for children. However, very few studies have evaluated the impacts of oil spills on children.

    • redskylite Says:

      Total indifference to human dignity also sadly spreading in Europe.

      “An unidentified body drifting in international waters within the Libyan search and rescue (SAR) zone for almost three weeks is yet to be retrieved despite repeated requests by a rescue group operating in the Mediterranean.

      A photo taken on June 29 by Seabird, a monitoring aircraft operated by the search-and-rescue group Sea-Watch, shows the body facing down in the Mediterranean’s rough waters, entangled in a half-sunk grey dinghy.

      Sea-Watch told Al Jazeera on Friday the body was still floating even though the group immediately alerted authorities in Libya, Italy and Malta and sent three more requests since.”

    • redskylite Says:

      And good money being frittered away (down under) on dubious, desperate band aid trials – instead of stopping coal mining and fossil burning.

      “Coalition backs ‘cloud-brightening’ trial on Great Barrier Reef to tackle global heating”.

      “A government-backed research program to make the Great Barrier Reef more resilient to global heating will spend $4.7m this financial year developing technologies that could shade corals and make clouds more reflective during marine heatwaves.”

      • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

        Gods help us!`

      • John Oneill Says:

        Nothing wrong with using a band-aid if you’ve got a hole in your hide. Even if all emissions stop today, the climate will keep warming – this is a very big vessel to get moving the other way. In the meantime, mitigation that can help protect habitats should be part of the response. So should emission control, of course.

        • Brent Jensen-Schmidt Says:

          Agree absolutely with your premise, but those PR stunts above are Trumpian in their stupidity.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Have to take this opportunity to re-post the analysis of the DH explosions, including some jaw-dropping multi-point system failures:

  4. Anthony William O'brien Says:

    How much economy in a collapsed civilisation?

  5. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    What I remember from one of Lomborg’s earlier books is that he focused on the most extreme naive environmentalists rather than the more consensus view.

    Based on Stiglitz’ review it looks like Lomborg’s entire economic premise (on what hurts the poor) is bogus from the get-go.

  6. J4Zonian Says:

    “Lomborg draws heavily on the work of…Nordhaus…estimate of the economic cost to limiting climate change to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.”

    Why talk about this any more? We are not staying under 2°C over preindustrial temperature. We better do everything we can to get the US government to act, and get ready for effects even worse than anyone has yet imagined will happen at 2 or 3° over, because that’s what’s been going on for decades–ever more certain projections of ever more serious effects at ever lower temperatures, sooner. Because we are not staying under 2°C over preindustrial temperature.

    Lomborg, Nordhaus, Shellenberg and the rest of the breakthrough boys all used the same formula to get rich and famous: right wing lying anti-environmentalist book, lots of pushing to get quotes in corporate and especially right wing media pretending to be an environmentalist, no doubt helped by right wing political organizations, the fossil and fissile fuel industries, etc. Then get funding for a PR firm you can pretend is a think tank and pull in more money, put out some more books filled with lies to keep making the right wing happy…

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