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Correcting the Wall Street Journal on Climate (Again)

02/02/2015 08:32 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

Bjorn Lomborg's latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal resurrects repeatedly demolished distortions of fact to downplay the real and increasingly documented threats of climate change. His trademark tactic is to acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, only to then dismiss the solutions -- reducing emissions and promoting clean energy now -- as unnecessary or infeasible.

Fortunately, his longstanding fight against climate action is failing to persuade the public, as an overwhelming majority of Americans understand that climate change is a serious threat and that we're already feeling the impacts. More to the point, they support action to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, especially through continued expansion of clean energy and new rules for coal-fired power plants.

Mr. Lomborg has relied on similar distortions for his arguments many times before, even drawing censure from the Danish government for his "perversion of the scientific method."

After the release of Lomborg's "deeply flawed" book The Skeptical Environmentalist, the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science remarked that Lomborg's work was a testament to the "vulnerability of the scientific process ... to outright misrepresentation and distortion." One researcher decided to fact-check Lomborg's claims and had so much material that Yale published it as a book: The Lomborg Deception. In the book, Lomborg's many sloppy citations and misleading myths are thoroughly debunked, but that hasn't stopped him from repeating the same general arguments in years since. When it comes to climate, he insists over and over: Don't worry; be deceived.

The Facts:

  • Climate change is happening now, and current temperature trends are in line with projections -- with 2014 the latest year to break a record for average global temperature.
  • Poor communities and developing countries are at higher risk from the impacts of climate change than are developed countries.
  • Climate change has exacerbated extreme-weather events; adaptation is expensive. The influence of climate change on extreme weather is not measured by extrapolating from costs but by changes in the weather itself.
  • Clean energy is the fastest-growing energy sector; the IEA predicts clean energy will receive nearly 60 percent of the $5 trillion to be invested in new power plants over the next decade.

Models accurately projected current rising temperatures. Lomborg cites the long-debunked notion that scientists and models have overestimated the rate of warming since the especially hot El Niño year of 1998. While Lomborg says the period from 1998 to 2012 saw "90% less temperature rise than expected," this is simply false. From 1998 to 2012 temperatures continued to rise within the range of expected increase, by 0.05°C (0.09°F).

The difference between model estimates and observations is completely accounted for by natural variability and fits within the range of modeled uncertainty. The reality is that there is no inherent bias in climate models that make them overestimate the effects of human activity. A recent study that combined 114 possible 15-year trends since 1900 found there was nothing statistically biased in the way that model data differed from observed measurements of global mean surface temperatures. According to the study's co-author, Piers Forster, "cherry picking" the most recent 15-year interval to refute climate-change modeling is misleading and obscures the long-term agreement between the models and measurements.

What's more, short-term variation does nothing to change the fact that we are experiencing a dangerous rate of global warming, with nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurring since 2002 and NOAA and NASA officially declaring 2014 the warmest on record. So Lomborg's insistence that we not worry about climate flies in the face of the record temperatures we're experiencing.

Poor people and developing countries are at greater risk and will benefit from mitigation. While Lomborg attempts to sound well-meaning and concerned about poverty, it is difficult to find any evidence that his work does anything to alleviate poverty aside from critiquing climate-change policy. There is no contradiction between lifting poor people out of poverty and cutting carbon emissions. In fact, many developing countries have created their own mitigation plans in response to a growing understanding of the acute threats they face.

Developing countries are also at greater risk because weather can gravely affect their economic activities such as farming and tourism. So any effort to help reduce the negative impacts of extreme weather on these basic economic functions of developing countries would help their economic development.

Recent research has shown that extreme weather hampers economic growth in developing countries to a much greater degree than in developed countries. While Lomborg suggests that we should focus on relieving poverty, that's the opposite conclusion of actual researchers, who say their study is evidence that we should limit warming to less than 2 degress C to protect developing economies. Specifically, the study author said that on a business-as-usual path (like that for which Lomborg advocates), "The average annual growth rate in poor regions is cut from 3.2% to 2.6%, which means that by 2100 per-capita GDP is 40% below reference." Contrary to Lomborg's claims, fighting climate change will in fact ensure that developing countries are able to grow their economy and prosper.

Extreme-weather events are worsening, and the cost of adaptation is high. Lomborg picks up a thoroughly debunked line of attack from Roger Pielke Jr. regarding hurricanes and the impacts of extreme weather. Pielke's ploy is to first cherry-pick data, then "normalize" it for development, basically blaming the increase in losses from weather on increased wealth. That sort of analysis is so flawed that it caused FiveThirtyEight to apologize for publishing Pielke and recruit a more qualified scientist to rebut Pielke (who hasn't written any other climate pieces for the site since his response to the controversial post).

For more details, see our previous rebuttal of Pielke on his claims regarding extreme-weather damage and costs. Why Lomborg would choose this particularly well-debunked myth to propagate is a testament to his willingness to deceive his audience in service of the "Don't worry" mantra.

Renewable energy is cheap and growing much more quickly than fossil fuels. It is odd that Lomborg would criticize solar and wind power as being too expensive yet, in the next sentence, advocate for new battery technology to facilitate their development. In reality, clean energy is cheap and getting cheaper, and in many areas renewables have reached grid parity with fossil fuels, meaning they are no more expensive than the dirty fuels Lomborg would have us continue to rely on. Developing nations are adopting clean energy quickly -- at twice the pace as rich nations. So clearly they are more than "expensive, feel-good measures," as Lomborg claims, if they are quite literally bringing light to the most impoverished areas of the planet. It turns out that renewables are so promising that they seem to be leapfrogging fossil fuels, which is why Bangladesh leads the world in small solar-power home installations. The success story of renewables is, contrary to Lomborg's opinion, something to be happy about.

Clean-energy growth has been booming, with strong future growth predictions. Wind, solar, and geothermal have all been expanding rapidly, with at least 17,000 megawatts of these three energy sources -- equivalent to about 17 new nuclear reactors, enough to power around 13 million homes -- under construction in the United States in 2013. China installed 36,000 megawatts of hydro, solar, wind and nuclear in 2013 and is on course to add more generating capacity from renewables by 2035 than the U.S., Europe and Japan combined. In 2013 more than a fifth of the world's electricity came from renewables, and clean energy accounted for over half of all net additions to global power capacity. Twenty percent of the world's electricity is hardly "imperceptible" in terms of climate impact, as Lomborg claims renewables will remain for decades.

Far from alarmist, the growing attention to climate change simply recognizes the facts. Yet the Wall Street Journal prefers to give its readers the same old song and dance: Don't worry; be happy. Unfortunately, the evidence simply does not fit -- unless you're Lomborg, whose work shows a consistent "perversion of the scientific method," and who is backed by the fossil-fuel industry.