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Lomborg, yet again

September 18th, 2003

As I won’t be able to make Lomborg’s IPA address, I’ll repost, with marginal changes, an earlier piece setting out my views on him.The only thing that’s changed in the interim is that Lomborg has dropped his earlier pretence of being a leftwinger and repentant greenie, which was, as it were, his unique selling point (thanks to Dave Ricardo for this neat way of putting it). Anyway, here’s my piece.

This will, I promise, be the last thing I post in relation to Lomborg and Kyoto for some time. I want to explain a bit about the development of my ideas and why I’m so strongly pro-Kyoto and anti-Lomborg. I didn’t as ‘Robert Musil’ suggests, reach this position in some kind of green-liberal cocoon. Anyone who knows the ANU economics department, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) or Townsville, to name a few of my influences, will find this idea laughable.

Rather, I am an environmentalist for the boringly straightforward reason that I love natural environments and want to see them preserved. My favorite environments, reflecting the places I’ve lived most, are the Australian Alps and the Great Barrier Reef. If we get the kind of global warming that seems likely under ‘business as usual’, both will be destroyed or at least radically transformed.

In this context, I think it’s important to take some modest actions now so as to prepare for the need for more substantial reductions in CO2 emissions once the scientific doubts are resolved. If, as is possible but in my view unlikely, it turns out that the problem has been greatly over-estimated, and we have incurred some small economic losses (less than 3 months economic growth) needlessly, it will in my view have been a worthwhile insurance premium. In this context, Kyoto is far from ideal, but it’s the only game in town. The US Administration has given up pretending it has an alternative – it’s talking about adapting to climate change. This is fine for agriculture in the developed world and maybe even in the developing world, but it’s not an option for the Alps or the Reef. So, I’m 100 per cent for Kyoto.

On most other issues, I am, to coin a phrase, a ‘sceptical environmentalist’. That is, I accept the need to take substantial action to control pollution, make agriculture sustainable and so on. But I’ve never believed in the kind of doomsday scenarios postulated in the 1970s by the Club of Rome.

I’m also sceptical in the sense that I try to evaluate each issue on its merits, and to reach my own conclusions, rather than accepting or rejecting environmentalist claims holus-bolus. For example, I’m happy to eat GM food, provided it is properly labelled so I can make my own choices. Similarly, while I doubt that nuclear power is ever going to prove an economically viable energy source, even in the presence of high carbon taxes, I have no problem with mining and exporting uranium, subject to the usual environmental safeguards needed for mining operations in general.

With this background, I began with a very positive attitude towards Lomborg. He seemed to be taking a sensibly optimistic attitude towards environmental problems, pointing to our successes in fixing up pollution problems, the ozone layer and so on, rather than focusing on doomsday scenarios. Then I gradually realised that Lomborg only endorsed past actions to address environmental problems – whenever any issue came up that might involve doing something now, Lomborg always had a reason why we should do nothing. In particular,he came up with an obviously self-contradictory case for doing nothing about global warming, and gave a clearly biased summary of the economic literature on this topic, which I know very well.

After that, I looked at his story about being an environmentalist reluctantly convinced of the truth according to Julian Simon. As I observed a while ago, I first heard this kind of story in Sunday School, and I’ve heard it many times since. It’s almost invariably bogus, and Lomborg is no exception. You don’t need to look far to find errors in Simon’s work as bad as any of those of the Club of Rome, but Lomborg apparently missed them. Going on, I realised that Lomborg’s professed concern for the third world was nothing more than a debating trick – otherwise he wouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss emissions trading with poor countries as politically infeasible.

There’s nothing I hate more than being conned. Lomborg tried to con me, and, for a while, he succeeded. That’s why I’m far more hostile to him than to a forthright opponent of environmentalism like Simon.

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  1. James Farrell
    September 19th, 2003 at 11:17 | #1

    ‘I used to think that’ is a surpringly effective put-down in any intellectual dispute. What it implies is: ‘I disagree with you, but this cannot possibly be due to my being less well-informed than you, because I once subscribed to the same opinion. Indeed, the fact that, having once believed what you believe, I have now changed my opinion, indicates that I must know even more about it than you. Furthermore, the fact that I once argued as you do is proof that I am open-minded and able to judge an issue on its merits, whereas your own refusal to reconsider your position suggests you may be a captive of your intellectual prejudices’.

    It is as I said surprising, when one notices the patent invalidity of this logic, that ‘I used to think that’ has so much sting as a rhetorical device. But it seems to work well for Lomborg, McGuinness, Windschuttle, Bettina Arndt etc. I guess the best weapon against it is imitation. John has set a good example with ‘I used to take Lomborg seriously…’

  2. William
    September 19th, 2003 at 18:04 | #2

    Prof Q,
    Thanks for your explanation as to why you dislike Lomborg.

    I understand some of why those bashing Lomborg for intellectual dishonesty do so, but why wasn’t Paul Ehrlich or Stephen Schneider given the same treatment? Schneider even said ‘each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest’. If intellectual honesty is apparently so important, why didn’t they the same people make a fuss then? Because Ehrlich and Schneider were on their (political) side?

    Lomborg’s a statistician, and he pointed out a series of dodgy figures used repeated by environmentalists. Even if you think his story of how he came to think what he wrote in the book is bullshit, shouldn’t he be given credit for pointing out dodgy figures and exposing liars?

  3. John
    September 19th, 2003 at 19:20 | #3

    As I point out here, the Schneider quote is dodgy since the immediately following sentence “I hope that means being both” is routinely omitted. That said, I criticise Schneider in the same post for being unduly alarmist.

    As regards Ehrlich, my post mentions the Club of Rome who took more or less the identical line, and were, IMHO, more influential.

  4. dsquared
    September 19th, 2003 at 19:36 | #4

    >>Lomborg’s a statistician

    Not really. He’s a mathematician attached to a statistics department, but his published work was all on really rather oddball computational stuff.

  5. September 19th, 2003 at 23:46 | #5

    Actually, he is a political scientist. He did his Ph.D: in “Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma”. He has been teaching at the Institute for Political Science as an associate professor (until, of course, he got a better gig.)

  6. Ron
    September 21st, 2003 at 00:10 | #6

    Williams post strikes me as another way of refusing to deal with certain points made in any argument: “Well admittedly you are right to critize X, but B, who is on your side, is just as wrong the other way and you really don’t critize him enough. Therefore, ………”

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