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No consensus in Copenhagen (updated)

March 18th, 2004

Via reader Gangle, I came across this Disinfopedia entry, which indicates that three of seven board members of Lomborg’s Environmental Insitute Assessment have resigned in protest at the Copenhagen Consensus conference he is organising. Two others resigned at the same time “to take up other assignments”. The original story is from the Copenhagen Post

Lomborg’s renewed expression of concern with development issues, and belief that they should take priority over responses to global warming, is of interest in view of the fact that the Danish government that set up the Institute, and installed Lomborg as its head (despite his lack of any relevant qualification) has repeatedly cut foreign aid. As a political appointee of the government, Lomborg can be presumed to endorse its policies unless he dissents from them publicly.

Last time I pointed this out, a number of commenters argued that Lomborg could not fairly be accused of hypocrisy, since the Institute was concerned only with environmental issues, and Lomborg could not be expected to agree with the government on issues outside his area of responsibility. I felt that, at the very least, I had failed to make my case convincing, and decided instead to take Lomborg at face value (start here and work back).

It now appears, however, that development and aid issues are within the Institute’s remit, though the departing board members apparently disagreed that they should be. The Copenhagen Post story cites Environmental Minister Hans Christian Schmidt saying “It is regrettable that the board members cannot stay at their posts and work on with the project,” said. “I am surprised as the conference seems to fit in perfectly with the institute’s aims.”

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  1. March 17th, 2004 at 11:19 | #1

    Just a clarification: the entry you have found is on the Disinfopedia. Although it is an open-content encyclopedia, and uses the same software, it is unaffiliated with the Wikipedia, but has a quite different goal – Wikipedia is about building a general-purpose encyclopedia, while Disinfopedia is a project to build a “directory of propagandists”, as they put it. A few people (notably Sheldon Rampton) contribute to both projects, and content can be legally copied from one to the other due to the copyright arrangements both use.

    I bring this up, as a regular Wikipedia contributor, because I believe (hope?) Wikipedia is starting to develop a reputation as an impartial source of information, and confusing it with advocacy sites might damage that.

  2. John Quiggin
    March 17th, 2004 at 11:24 | #2

    Thanks for this clarification. The post has been corrected.

  3. Louis Hissink
    March 17th, 2004 at 14:59 | #3

    John,

    As Disinfopedia is described by Robert Merkel as “..a project to build a “directory of propagandists”, as they put it”, then it is unsurprising that the litanists resigned.

    Good on them for not being hypocrits.

  4. Jeff Harvey
    March 18th, 2004 at 00:43 | #4

    This conference is farcical in the extreme – Lomborg’s snide attempt to repudiate the rank-and-file of the scientific community (like me) who condemned the egregious errors and simplistic analysis that plague his polemic. The conference would be more aptly entitled, “The symptoms consensus”, since it aims only at examining the symptoms of the human dilemma rather than the disease: the very scale of the human enterprise and its effects on the natural environment. Nowhere in this conference are the real anthropogenic concerns addressed: declining water tables, the exhaustion of deep, rich agricultural soils and the destruction of biodiversity, in terms of species and populations lost. Because human welfare is inextricably connected to the health and condition of the biosphere, and the vitality of ecosystem services that emerge over variable spatial and temporal scales, any discussion ignoring the natural economy which underpins the material economy cannot and will not emerge with anything other than rhetoric. Lomborg’s conference, like his book, dismisses the former and focuses on the latter; thus, there is nothing on wetland loss and eutrophication, the unraveling of food webs, the relationship between biodiversity loss and ecosystem functioning, the transformation of marine ecosystems, and other relevant areas that must be addressed if we are the meaningfully evaluate our impact on the biosphere and its implications for the future of society. With no disrespect to the Nobel Prize winners assembled by Lomborg and The Economist, those invited have little or no background on the scientific consequences of global change, and without addressing the areas stipulated above the meeting will emerge with nothing.

  5. Homer Paxton
    March 18th, 2004 at 09:14 | #5

    Lomborg published a book full of foootnotes to back up his argument.
    Either the footnote are right or wrong.

    This continual spray at Lomborg is making me green with boredom!

  6. John Quiggin
    March 18th, 2004 at 09:26 | #6

    Non-academics (I assume from long blog acquaintance that you’re in this category, Homer) tend to be overly impressed by footnotes (see also the discussion of Windschuttle and David Irving). Large numbers of footnotes are no protection against selectivity and distortion, especially in the hands of a skilled con artist (I’m referring specifically to Irving here – you can make your own judgement on the other two).

    If you’re really bored with the topic, ignore it, and comment on something different.

  7. March 18th, 2004 at 12:21 | #7

    Always interesting stuff here, but I think it’s a fair bet that the list of issues considered by Lomborg’s panel is worth the consideration they will give it.

    Second, I have no problem with there being one environmental ministry in the western world that is independent of the “green” zeitgeist. Not to make light of environmental issues – many serious problems exist. But I don’t see the harm in diversity of intellectual inquiry. Skepticism has its place in science.

  8. Homer Paxton
    March 18th, 2004 at 12:30 | #8

    JQ,
    I said they were either right or they were wrong, I never said I was impressed by the lengthy footnotes.

  9. John Quiggin
    March 18th, 2004 at 12:47 | #9

    Homer, suppose, as a fairly accurate illustration, that there are 100 relevant publications on some topic, 20 of which are favorable to Lomborg’s case and 80 of which are unfavorable. He footnotes the 20 favorable publications*.

    In such a case, are the footnotes “right” or “wrong” in your view?

    * A more accurate description of his approach would be that he cites the 20 favourable sources and picks two or three unfavorable ones in which he can find weak points to pick on, but we’ll leave that for later.

  10. Jeff Harvey
    March 18th, 2004 at 19:24 | #10

    John, you have hit the nail on the head. Lomborg is super-selective in citing ‘appropriate’ references, and this is just one of many reasons scientists have severely criticized his book. Many of the citations in his book are not even peer-reviewed studies but web downloads or magazine articles. Examples: on estimating extinction rates, Lomborg attempts to downplay area-extinction models by citing chapters from an out-of-date book (Whitmore/Sayer) while explicitly ignoring corrective papers in such places as Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Late last year I made a cursory overview of literature on area-extinction rates in just a few journals and I found more than 20 papers which provide empirical support for the models Lomborg disparages. Most importantly, two of Lomborg’s flawed examples (extinctions in coastal Brazil and avian extinctions in the eastern USA) were corrected in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1995) and Nature (1997), yet both of these studies are not cited by Lomborg; they are hardly in obscure journals. The pattern is repeated in chapters on acid rain, climate change and forest loss; on the latter, Stuart Pimm and I found 15 papers in Nature and Science alone published since 1998 that provide conclusions differing from Lomborg’s, but which are not cited in TSE. In science, such deliberate bias is unacceptable.

    Jeff

  11. observa
    March 19th, 2004 at 00:21 | #11

    Whether Greenhouse climate change is factual or not, does not change reasonable concern for a shrinking natural environment. If we suddenly unlocked some hitherto, unfathomable capacity to overcome gravity in a way which had no negative pollutants, we would still face the problem of covering our globe with glass, steel, concrete and bitumen(perhaps more quickly). We can all imagine the end game. It defies any sense of naturalism, which is important to us all.

    Peculiarly enough, the left also have a tendency to abandon naturalism when it comes to human behaviour. All relationships are equivalent/natural?? Curious dichotomy for the sociologists and shrinks there somewhere. Actually, when you think about it, does a Lomborg’s stance stick in a JQ’s craw in much the same way as homosexual marriage for the white picket fencer? Although they can’t absolutely prove it, both naturalists reckon they’re reading all the signs right, but it might take a few generations to sort out. In the meantime the frogs in the frypan????

  12. March 19th, 2004 at 00:55 | #12

    My environmentalism has nothing to do with “naturalism”. I am concerned about the processes under way, still hopefully stoppable, which are doing or going to do grievous harm to the biosphere. On which we, as a species, depend. It is, insofar as I can get my meatware working in that way, strictly rational. As is my support for gay marriage.

    I think that is a fair description of the environmentalism of the broad left.

  13. Observa
    March 19th, 2004 at 10:49 | #13

    David,
    If you don’t have some sense of what is natural or good, how can you be concerned about processes that are underway to do grievous harm to what? After all, she’ll be right and anything goes and in any case there’s a technical fix to everything isn’t there? We can air-condition the world and set up glass dome environments, can’t we? I’m not suggesting life in the natural jungle is idyllic, but concrete jungles do have their trade-offs too. When you want to organise and cooperate, to ameliorate the shortcomings of the jungle, you immediately need a value set for that. Sooner or later, ya gotta believe in sumpin! Reason will only get you so far, although science, statistical means and averages, can help reinforce those beliefs.

    I’ll give you a couple of examples David. Why do you think I rejected the idea of vitamin K injections for new-borns, or hormone replacement therapy for menopause, before the scientific evidence proved the trade-offs involved?

  14. March 19th, 2004 at 12:27 | #14

    Ah, fascinating.. is another go at almost the largest discusssion we have. To me, the sense of “what is natural or good” needs to be reduced in our debates to as close to zero as possible. So I like to assume that the continuation of the species in a viable biosphere is the only good we probably all hold in common.

    As a piece of moral philosophy that only works because we now intersect with the planet so powerfully we can wreck the lot. That is so simplifying it makes the argument as an argument trivial, but provides a plank to go forwards in our political debates.

    The complexity, in this arena, comes – as I think you are hinting – from the obvious fact that the decisions and scenarios are probabalistic. Then we simplify the argument by adopting an intuitionist approach, or drop in a priori values which of course don’t solve the problem unless they are shared.

    Basically I think that if we don’t grant the rest of the biosphere certain inherent rights to exist, we are all gonna die.

  15. Brian Bahnisch
    March 21st, 2004 at 16:46 | #15

    The Czech writer Ivan Klima (“Between Security and Insecurity”) reckons that we need to find a way to limit human greed. If we do we’ll be OK.

    If we don’t we’re finished.

  16. tipper
    March 22nd, 2004 at 00:46 | #16

    I started reading this link, hoping it would be a discussion on the futility of foreign aid.
    As Lord Bauer said, foreign aid is the ” transfer of the wealth of poor people in rich countries to the rich people in poor countries”
    All I can see in this discussion, is self-serving “scientism” type people trying to push their own barrows.

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