Bjorn Lomborg on CO2


Politically and scientifically speaking, the most important fact to know about global warming is that the world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions very steeply and very quickly, despite the fact that this is probably the most complicated and complex technical and economic challenge ever to confront humans on a global scale. To contribute its share, the news media must report the discernible facts, a mission that is undermined by their generous and persistent sponsorship of Bjorn Lomborg’s phony claims across the board about climate change.

For example, Lomborg enjoys seemingly open access to news outlets in the U.S. and U.K. to assert that CO2 emissions should not be reduced in response to global warming.  For some reason, the British newspaper, the Guardian, has permitted Lomborg over the past few years to write monthly op-ed commentaries for its Internet edition, where he has repeatedly advised against cutting CO2 emissions. In October 2007, Lomborg wrote in the Guardian: “[Al] Gore concentrates above all else on his call for world leaders to cut CO2 emissions, yet other policies would do much better for the planet.”[1] In January 2008, Lomborg wrote: “Our one-sided focus on rapid reductions in CO2 emissions is both unnecessarily expensive and unlikely to succeed.”[2] In September 2008, Lomborg wrote: “It is negligent to focus on inefficiently cutting CO2 now because of costs in the distant future that in reality will not be avoided.”[3]
 
In the run-up to the December 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, Lomborg argued against CO2 reductions as part of an international agreement in Newsweek (“Carbon Cuts Won’t Work”)[4] and the Washington Post (“Costly Carbon Cuts”).[5] In recent days, on April 29, the PEN American Center and the New York Review of Books cosponsored a forum of climate commentators, including Lomborg, who argued against cutting CO2 emissions.[6] And on May 5, the BBC and the Royal Society of the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce of England co-sponsored a climate forum featuring Lomborg, where he once again argued against cutting CO2 emissions.[7]
 
His newly discovered expertise in geo-engineering notwithstanding, Lomborg has repeatedly argued that rather than cut CO2 emissions now and throughout the twenty-first century, the world should increase investments in the research and development (R&D) of non-carbon alternative energy technologies. Lomborg supports a small tax on carbon to fund these increases. While more such investments are needed, Lomborg argues that, even with additional investments, non-carbon fuel and energy alternatives will have little impact on CO2 emissions now and in the near term.   
 
For example, in February 2009 in the Guardian, while opposing CO2 reductions, Lomborg estimated that it would take “20 to 40 years” for non-carbon energy technologies to become widely available at low cost. After reiterating his opposition to CO2 reductions, Lomborg wrote:        
 
There is a smarter policy [than reducing CO2 emissions] that would actually do more to fight off global warming: ensuring that reasonably priced alternative energy technologies will be available within the next 20 to 40 years. We can achieve this if all countries committed themselves to spending 0.05% of GDP on research and development of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies. The cost—a relatively minor $25bn a year—would be much lower than the massive carbon emissions reductions proposed by Copenhagen summit participants, yet it would do more to fight global warming.[8]
 
And in August 2009 in the Wall Street Journal, while re-stating his opposition to CO2 cuts and his support for an increase in investments in non-carbon sources of energy, Lomborg argued that this approach would be capable of “stopping global warming in a century or so”:
 
A high carbon tax will simply hurt growth if alternative technology is not ready, making us all worse off. Mr. [Chris] Green [McGill University] proposes that policy makers abandon carbon-reduction negotiations and make agreements to seriously invest in research and development. Mr. Green’s research suggests that investing about $100 billion annually in non-carbon based energy research could result in essentially stopping global warming within a century or so.[9]
 
The main problem with Lomborg’s opposition to cuts in CO2 emissions, and his plan to focus primarily on long-term development of non-carbon technologies, is that he systematically ignores the problem of the steady increase of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere over the course of this century. For example, in his 2007 book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, wherein Lomborg repeatedly argues against cutting CO2 emissions, Lomborg simply doesn’t address the problem of CO2 concentrations this century in the absence of an effective global policy to reduce CO2 emissions. Nor does Lomborg mention the issue of CO2 concentrations in any of the news articles cited above (or anyone else that I have seen).
 
In the context of his advice to forego CO2 cuts, Lomborg also fails to address the irreversibility of atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the locked in global warming that will accompany those CO2 concentrations for centuries, and the set momentum toward environmental tipping points once climate thresholds are crossed. Thus, when Lomborg blithely writes about waiting 20 to 40 years to act on CO2 emissions and thereafter “stopping global warming within a century or so,” he declines to address the ineluctable rise of atmospheric CO2 in the meantime, and the inability to “stop global warming” in any meaningful sense once certain levels of CO2 concentrations have been reached.    
 
While neglecting to address CO2 concentrations, Lomborg ignores or downplays key facts and complications. In an updated assessment of the published peer-reviewed science, more than two dozen IPCC-affiliated scientists issued “The Copenhagen Diagnosis” in November 2009, which reported:
 
·         The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 385 parts per million (ppm) in 2008.
·         This CO2 concentration is more than 105 ppm above its preindustrial level, and is higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years, and potentially the last 3 to 20 million years.
·         CO2 levels increased at a rate of 1.9 ppm/year between 2000 and 2008, compared to 1.5 ppm/year in the 1990s.
·         The observed acceleration in fossil fuel CO2 emissions is tracking high-end emissions scenarios used by the 2007 IPCC assessment report.[10] 
 
To put the current CO2 concentration of 385–390 ppm into perspective, in April 2008 a group of nine scientists led by James Hansen advised: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm…. If the present overshoot of this target CO2 is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”[11] Thus, despite the fact that Hansen and colleagues have reported that the Earth “is already in the dangerous zone” with a CO2 concentration of 385 ppm, and that we need to immediately and steeply reduce CO2 emissions, Lomborg, who has no scientific credentials whatsoever to say otherwise, advises in seemingly endless news media venues that we should forego any efforts to reduce CO2 emissions for at least the next 20 to 40 years, when, according to his claims, non-carbon technologies will have matured and will then be affordable for worldwide deployment, including in China and India.   
 
Meanwhile, reports from well established scientific sources continue to issue ominous projections of CO2 concentrations over the next several decades in the absence of immediate or near-term policies to cut CO2 emissions. In January 2009, the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change reported that CO2 emissions without restrictions—which is Lomborg’s policy prescription—would lead to a median CO2 concentration of 860 ppm, with 1,000 ppm a possibility, by the end of this century.[12]
 
In February 2009, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which reported that rising CO2 concentrations are “locking in” global warming for a thousand years to come. The NOAA paper reported:
 
·         CO2 concentrations of 450–600 ppm this century would lead to “irreversible” “dust bowl” droughts in southern Europe, northern Africa, southwestern United States, and western Australia.
·         CO2 increases this century will “lock in” sea level rise in the next one thousand years.
·         Warming this century due to CO2 concentrations is irreversible for a thousand years, even after CO2 emissions completely stop.[13]
 
In their own words, the authors of the NOAA study, led by Susan Solomon, reported:
 
The severity of damaging human-induced climate change depends not only on the magnitude of the change but also on the potential for irreversibility. This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop…. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 ppm to a peak of 450–600 ppm over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise.[14]
 
With respect to tipping points, the authors of “The Copenhagen Consensus” reported: “A tipping element (a part of the Earth’s environment that has a tipping point) may lag anthropogenic forcing such that once a transition begins to be observed, a much larger change in state is already inevitable.” And: “There are several elements in the climate system that could pass a tipping point this century due to human activities, leading to abrupt and/or irreversible change.” Since, according to The Copenhagen Consensus, a 1°–3°C warming (above 1990 temperatures) carries “moderately significant risks” to “substantial or severe risks” of passing large-scale tipping points, Lomborg’s policy advice to forget about CO2 cuts increases the risks this century of passing such tipping points, including with respect to the Greenland ice sheet, the West Antarctic ice sheet, and the Amazon rainforest.[15]   
 
Given this context, why do news organizations continue to feature Bjorn Lomborg and his advice to the world to give up its efforts to cut CO2 emissions?
 



[1] “An Inconvenient Peace Prize,” Guardian, October 12, 2007.
[2] “Two Degrees of Misrepresentation,” Guardian, January 16, 2008.
[3] “The Trillion Dollar Band-Aid,” Guardian, September 15, 2008.
[4] “Carbon Cuts Won’t Work,” Newsweek, August 29, 2009.
[5] “Costly Carbon Cuts,” Washington Post, September 2009.
[6] “Weather Report: What Can We Do,” PEN American Center, April 29, 2010, video at http://www.pen.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/4708/prmID/1984.
[7] “RSA President’s Lecture 2010: Tackling Global Warming and Doing Good: Today’s Ailed Solutions and Smarter Ways Forward,” May 5, 2010, audio at http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2010/rsa-presidents-lecture-2010.
[8] “How To Save the World in Copenhagen,” Guardian, February 18, 2009.
[9] “Technology Can Fight Global Warming,” Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2009.
[10] “The Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science,” Climate Change Research Center, The University of New South Wales, p. 11.
[11] Hansen, Sato, Kharecha, et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim,” Open Atmospheric Science Journal, April 7, 2008.
[12] “M.I.T. Doubles Its 2095 Warming Projection to 10°F?with 866 ppm and Arctic Warming of 20°F,” Climate Progress, May 20, 2009, at http://climateprogress.org/2009/05/20/mit-doubles-global-warming-projections-2/.
[13] Solomon, Plattner, Knutti, and Friendlingstein, “Irreversible Climate change Due to Carbon Dioxide Emissions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, no. 6, February 10, 2009, p. 1704.
[14] Ibid.
[15] “The Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science,” Climate Change Research Center, The University of New South Wales, pp. 42-43.

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