Bjorn Lomborg's Work On Climate Change - Just Nonsense
By Tom Burke
23 October, 2004
self-proclaimed sceptical environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has been visible
on London's seminar circuit this week promoting his argument that spending
money on climate change is wasteful and that the world would be much
better off spending it on halting Aids and providing water and sanitation
Despite his consistent
attacks on enviromentalists for exaggerating the planet's problems,
Lomborg is actually no more a sceptic than he is an environmentalist.
The latter claim rests solely on his having contributed to Greenpeace
in his youth. The former claim is belied by his deep faith in a wholly
benign future for the planet. This gives him the same kind of sunny
and often appealing optimism that we see in President Bush.
By one of those
amazing coincidences that can suddenly snap things into focus, Lomborg
was putting his case this week in the building next door to the one
in which an unprecedented coalition of environment and development bodies
was spelling out, in some detail, exactly how climate change is already
He is in London
in advance of the publication of a new book on the conclusions of the
Copenhagen Consensus. Sponsored by the Economist, Lomborg invited eight
Nobel prize winning economists to meet in Copenhagen. Their task was
to decide how best to spend a (notional) additional $50bn dollars in
order to advance global welfare, particularly in developing countries.
No one can fault
Lomborg's ambition. Getting two economists to agree about something
is difficult enough. Getting eight to agree about everything must have
To help them on
their way the laureates were offered a top 10 list of global challenges,
such as disease, hunger, water, migration and climate change, and invited
to use cost-benefit analysis to rank them in terms of value for money.
To no one's surprise, they came to the same conclusion as Lomborg on
the value of climate change.
The reality is that
applying cost-benefit analysis to questions such as these is junk economics.
Junk economics done by Nobel laureates is simply distinguished junk
economics. Applying the logic of the Copenhagen Consensus to the Iraq
war illustrates this nicely.
We, the world that
is, have spent at least $200bn in the past year on this war, four times
the amount the laureates were asked to allocate. It is not easy to imagine
Bush and Blair asking for a cost-benefit analysis on the removal of
Saddam to ensure this really was the best way to advance global welfare,
but just suppose they had done so.
A legion of economists
would have devilled away at a vast array of fascinating questions. What
was the cost of the life of one American soldier? How did that compare
to the cost of an Iraqi soldier? Were Iraqi civilian casualties to be
counted as a cost or a benefit? What is the avoided cost, therefore
a benefit, of preventing the launch of one nuclear weapon by Saddam?
Should you discount the benefit of preventing subsequent launches to
allow for the diminished value of whatever target had first been attacked?
If this sounds like
the 21st century equivalent of counting angels on the heads of pins,
that is because it is. There is no useful information to be discovered
in such an exercise. Whatever else Bush and Blair were wrong about,
they were right not to ask for a cost-benefit analysis before going
is a perfectly sensible tool for helping us make narrow choices - between
two different routes for a railway line, for example. Even then, it
is fraught with practical difficulties in quantifying all the variables
that must be considered. It is no use at all in helping us make wide
choices, between going to war and, say, having a healthier population.
can help you choose different routes to a goal you have agreed, but
it cannot help you choose goals. For that we have politics. People disagree
about priorities and they do so on a huge variety of legitimate grounds.
When they do so, they are not arguing about value for money, but about
the kind of world they want to live in.
It is a vanity of
economists to believe that all choices can be boiled down to calculations
of monetary value. In the real world, outcomes are not so easily managed.
A stable climate is something we might now call a system condition for
civilisation. That is, it is something without which civilisation is
impossible - though it is not, of course, itself a guarantee that there
will be civilisation.
The messy world
we live in is one in which an unstable climate will guarantee poverty
for untold millions. But it is equally one in which, if we fail to solve
the problem of poverty much more quickly and cleverly than we are doing
at present, we will continue to destabilise the climate. The Lomborg
argument that we can delay one until we have solved the other is a cruelly
The truth is that
the Copenhagen Consensus is not economics at all. It is politics masquerading
as economics. The sources for much of Lomborg's anti-environmentalism
can be found on rightwing websites, predominantly American.
politics of the new right consistently claims the authority of science
or economics whilst ignoring any evidence that does not conform to its
pre-judgments. Hence the determined corruption of science by the Bush
administration. This has led to a call from over 5,000 scientists, including
62 Nobel laureates, to restore scientific integrity to public policy.
What we are seeing
here is the emergence of a new axis of politics. As the 21st century
progresses we will increasingly find ourselves debating whether authority
or evidence should be the basis for political choice. For the new right
the authority of faith is much to be preferred.
Lomborg is entitled
to his political opinions, and he is entitled to promote them as vigorously
and imaginatively as he can. I disagree with his analysis but I do not
doubt his sincerity. The dishonour belongs to those for whom he is a
We would not be
debating his views at all were it not for the Economist magazine. Until
it chose to give a Danish lecturer in politics of no academic distinction
whatsoever the rare accolade of a named essay, the world had remained
in peaceful ignorance of Lomborg's opinions. Without the Economist,
there is little likelihood that eight Nobel laureates would have participated
in as intellectually corrupt a process as the Copenhagen Consensus.
masthead carries a proud promise by its founder to promote "a severe
contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy
and timid ignorance obstructing our progress". For much of its
life it has lived up to that promise. But its heavy promotion of Lomborg's
faith-based approach to the future suggests that its current editors
have changed sides. They should be ashamed.
· Tom Burke
is a former director of Friends of the Earth and special adviser to
Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard and John Gummer when they were environment
secretaries; he is co-founder of Third Generation Environmentalism and
advises the extractive industries