Copenhagen collapse

The wheels are coming off Bjorn Lomborg’s attempt to undermine the Kyoto Protocol. The Economist, which backed Lomborg’s exercise, published an interesting piece on climate change recently, noting that some members are dissenting, and ending with the observation, from Robert Mendelsohn, a critic of ambitious proposals for climate change mitigation, who worries that “climate change was set up to fail.â€?. This was my conclusion when I reviewed the book arising from the project.

It’s a pity, because, done well, the Copenhagen project could have been a really good idea, and even as it is, a lot of valuable work was done.

Here’s the full passage

A panel of eminent economists, among them three Nobel prize-winners, placed initiatives to tackle HIV/AIDS, malaria, sanitation and other problems confronting the world’s poor ahead of proposals to tackle global warming, which were described as “bad� investments compared with those aimed at tackling these other problems. But several participants now say that there was confusion about how they were ranking ways to spend development aid, or ranking which general global problems should be tackled.

Of course, greens howled in protest at the dismissal of climate change, and pointed to some sort of stitch-up: after all, some argued, Dr Lomborg is well known for his opposition to the Kyoto treaty. He rejects such claims, insisting that the effort was in good faith. He points out that the man selected to write the “expert paper� on climate, William Cline of the Centre for Global Development, a think-tank based in Washington, DC, has impeccable credentials; indeed, he is known as an advocate of forceful, early action to slow global warming. Dr Lomborg explains that the proposals on climate change fared poorly because they offered the lowest benefits for the costs incurred.

Now, some members of the Consensus are dissenting. Thomas Schelling of the University of Maryland, who voted on the final choices, thinks that presenting climate change at the bottom of the list as “bad� is misleading. He says he and the other gurus did not like Kyoto or the aggressive proposals made by Dr Cline, whom he sees as the “most alarmist of the serious climate policy experts�, but Dr Schelling says he would have ranked modest climate proposals higher on the list, because he sees climate as a real problem. Robert Mendelsohn, a conservative Yale economist who was an official “critic� of the climate paper in this process, goes further: because Dr Cline’s positions are “well out of the mainstream�, he had no choice but to reject them. He worries that “climate change was set up to fail.�

Dr Lomborg insists that that was not at all the case. Picking an enthusiast like Dr Cline also could suggest that climate was being taken seriously by the Copenhagen process. However, he accepts that more modest proposals (such as a small carbon tax or investments in research) would have ranked higher on the list. Dr Cline, for his part, acknowledges that his views (for example, on the right discount rates to use when pondering long-term policies) “have not yet been accepted by the mainstream�. He is unhappy with how climate has been portrayed by the Copenhagen process, but he still feels that the attempt to assess global problems was well intentioned and worthwhile.

14 thoughts on “Copenhagen collapse

  1. JQ,

    More telling I thought was your decision not to highlight the recent criticism of the global warming hypothesis at the start of the article, e.g. Landsea’s resignation from the IPCC, the critique of Michael Mann’s work on anthropogenic warming and economists’ critique of IPCC modelling.

    My impression of the article was a review of the ongoing debate – and lack of consensus – on global warming and Kyoto, not a focus on the failings of Copenhagen. As Dr. Schelling noted, although he thought climate change was a real problem, there definitely was consensus on Kyoto: “he and the other gurus did not like Kyoto or the aggressive proposals made by Dr Cline”.

    Taking this into account, the problem was not that the Kyoto protocol was a good idea set up to fail by Lomborg, but that the CC didn’t consider alternative means to tackle climate change. While you might argue this was a deliberate decision on Lomborg’s part, you can hardly fault him for testing the economics of Kyoto given the political prominence it has attracted.

  2. It’s not news that there is disagreement about these issues (though the extent of that disagreement is often exaggerated).

    It is news that Lomborg’s strongest supporters are giving credence to the claim that the Copenhagen exercise was a stitch-up.

  3. Mendelsohn’s point is that Cline’s position was too extreme to be acceptable – to him, we must assume. However, Lomborg’s defence that he chose Cline because he wanted an enthusiast to argue hard on the pro case seems reasonable.

    I suggest you’re clutching at straws on this one.

  4. Just to clarify, Fyodor, are you asserting that the CC analysis of climate change was a legitimate assessment, set up without any attempt to rig the results in advance?

  5. Why do I feel like I’m walking into a trap?

    “…without any attempt to rig the results in advance?”

    I have no idea, but the pre-existing bias of Lomborg and his construction of the project suggests it could not have been entirely objective. Does that make its results invalid or useless? I don’t think so. In the end, it comes down to the arguments pro and contra each finding, just like any research.

    Did your awareness of Lomborg’s involvement predispose you to have a negative view of the process, before you knew the details? I dare say it did. Does that make you an impartial observer of the outcome? Hardly.

  6. JQ, you are again making a big thing of a small part of an article. Your quote also says that:

    [Dr Cline] is unhappy with how climate has been portrayed by the Copenhagen process, but he still feels that the attempt to assess global problems was well intentioned and worthwhile.

    You keep pushing the idea that Lomborg’s process was a setup, but every time you come up with very weak ‘evidence’. Your insistence appears to be unreasonable and misplaced.

  7. Yeah, John, I don’t think this is any evidence of bad faith on Lomborg’s part. Presumably if he’d chosen a moderate sceptic who broadly agreed with his own views on Kyoto you’d have caned him for that, too.

    Y’know, there are enough uncertainties here to disagree with those who think ‘do nothing’ is the best option at this stage, without assuming they’re liars or fools (I think, though, that those who believe anthrogenic global warming isn’t happening at all have to fall into one of these two categories – the evidence on that has gradually become very strong).

  8. The main thing to be said about the piece from The Economist is that it’s a shoddy and badly written beat up. It starts with a provocative proposition from a junk novel, which the rest of the piece fails to bear out. Read paragraphs 2 and 3 and you see that in each case the opening sentence has no connection with the rest. The next section, if skimmed by an uninitiated reader, might convey the impression that credible opinion is evenly divided, but again, the detail doesn’t bear this out. The bare facts about Lomborg’s stunt make it quite clear that whole exercise was misconceived and everyone was confused as to the purpose of the ranking. But the author, having painted himself into a rhetorical corner at the outset, is or pretends to be oblivious to this. The last paragraph is headed ‘The death of environmentalism?’ in a feeble attempt to provide a matching bookend for the sensationalist opening paragraph; but sceptically disposed readers would be disappointed to discover that it’s about only about failures of publicity, not failures of science.

  9. One problem with all the work thus far on climate change modeling is that we lack a good theory of simulation. Both proponents and opponents of action to thwart global warming justify their claims with the results of computer simulations. But we do not know how many simulations should be done, over what input parameter range, or through what models of physical and socio-economic processes. How do we know when to stop? Perhaps we could never know these things, even in principle. A theory of simulation should at least tell us whether it was possible to know these things in principle.

    Moreover, even if we knew all this, we would still not know how likely the different simulation outcomes are. We could only assess likelihood if could map the simulation activity (inputs, processes, outputs) to the real world, for example, assigning probabilities (or preferably, better measures of uncertainty) to the input parameters. But we only have one real world to map our simulation processes to, which makes determination of any measures of uncertainty of inputs impossible — in theory, not just in practice.

    I happen to think the climate doomsayers are most likely correct. But you would not be convinced of this from reading the publications of the IPCC, whose poor modeling of uncertainty would shame a beginning graduate student in AI.

  10. I had assumed the ranking was the result of Bruno Frey’s influence – due to spillover effects, there was only so much goodwill to go around, and a choice needed to be made as which problems should be tackled.

  11. “Presumably if he’d chosen a moderate sceptic who broadly agreed with his own views on Kyoto you’d have caned him for that, too.”

    I didn’t cane him for this, Mendelsohn and Schelling did. As I showed in my review, there are many stronger reasons for believing that CC was a setup. The point of the post is that participants in the process now say it was a setup, or at least organised in a way that produced an outcome that didn’t represent their real views.

    Fyodor, the question of whether I’m impartial would matter if I was asking you to rely on my judgement. I’m not. By contrast, the question of whether Lomborg is impartial matters a lot, since, as organiser and reporter of the results, he has control over lots of things we can’t easily observe.

  12. Does anyone know if Schelling dislikes Kyoto because he thinks it is too aggressive (the reason he gives for disliking Cline’s proposals) or for some other reason?

  13. Despite how he is portrayed, Lomborg is a believer in gloal warming. His objection to Kyoto is that it is not cost effective. I would go further and argue it cannot be effective irrespective of the cost. If you look at the CO2 and global temperature graphs its clear that whatever relationship there is between the two it doesn’t operate over even a medium timescale (decades). If there is any strong relationship (and I am sceptical there is) it operates over at least a century. Therefore even a far more radical regime than Kyoto is not going to make enough of a difference in the next century. Regardless of the size of the problem, reducing CO2 emissions is not the solution.

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