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Political Science Masquerading As Climate Science


For an adjunct professor in a Danish business school, Bjorn Lomborg purports to know a lot about the environment: he’s made a career out of denying climate change. That’s why he’s been sponsored by the Fraser Institute, a right-wing business lobby group, on another Canadian speaking tour. His opinion columns are once again popping up in Canadian daily newspapers.

Now Lomborg is arguing that the polar bears are okay, and that "many creatures and plants in the Arctic will actually do better as temperatures rise." While the latter may be true, many experts from relevant disciplines in the natural sciences say the accompanying rise in sea levels will swallow up coastal cities and whole island nations. Lots of people won’t be around to enjoy the flourishing Arctic plants and creatures.

Lomborg relies on cheap semantic tricks to push his ideology. In Ontario’s Windsor Star, he wrote December 7th that while the Kyoto Protocol "will cost [Canada] $180 billion dollars," it will "save just 0.06 polar bears each year." He wrote in the Toronto Globe and Mail that fossil fuels provide low cost travel, which means "We can access fruit and vegetables year-round, reducing cancer by at least 25 per cent." Reasonable-sounding facts such as these disguise his bottom line, which advocates doing little or nothing on climate change: "solutions" endorsed by the oil industry.

The scientific debate over global warming has long been settled. Only a few climate sceptics such as Lomborg remain, bankrolled by the oil industry and promoted by the right wing institutes and conservative news media. Lomborg was touted by the Fraser Institute as an "environmental economist" but his training is in political science, specifically in game theory. According to a biography posted in 2006 on his web site, and since taken down, in addition to writing two popular books denying climate change, he has published just one peer-reviewed journal article, on "the prisoner’s dilemma," in the American Sociological Review, (1996), and an unpublished article on election voting behaviour. He has zero climate science credentials.

In its January 2002 issue, Scientific American gathered reviews from experts in four different fields, who concluded that Lomborg’s work was "a clever polemic," that it was "superficial, muddled, often plain wrong and filled with misreadings and misunderstandings of data," that it was "simply wrong," filled with "factual errors, poor research and poor understanding of basic values."

In December 2001 Grist magazine put out a special issue with a range of experts in various environmental fields publishing their critiques of Lomborg’s theories. Among the experts was biologist Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard professor for four decades who has written 20 books, won two Pulitzer prizes, and discovered hundreds of new species. He is considered by some to be one of the world’s greatest living scientists. He dismissed Lomborg as "a parasite."

"My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists," Wilson wrote.

A British scholar who reviewed Lomborg’s first book in an academic article concluded that: "Lomborg’s analysis suffers from several problems, including selective use of data, over-simplification of issues, posing the wrong questions and lack of objectivity in his quest for optimistic trends."

Scientists made a number of complaints about Lomborg to a standing academic committee under the Danish Ministry for Science called the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty. The committees investigated the complaints and reported in January, 2003 that what Lomborg wrote in his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist was "contrary to the standards of good scientific practice." Although this decision by scientists was later overturned in a blatant act of political interference from the Danish government, it speaks volumes about Lomborg’s work.

Despite Lomborg’s lack of any academic training in relevant disciplines, his outrageous claims and his dismissal by legitimate climate scientists, the news media continue to promote his views. After the release of his first book, which was panned by academics but celebrated in the media, Time Magazine listed him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, in 2004. In December 2007 his name came up 20 times in a 30-day computer search of Canadian daily newspapers.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is an exception. CBC Fifth Estate journalist Bob McKeown recently broadcast a withering critique of climate deniers, including others who are regularly published by CanWest newspapers, such as Tim Ball. McKeown’s documentary, The Denial Machine, may be viewed online at: www.cbc.ca/fifth/denialmachine/video.html

The news media have gone out of their way to promote Lomborg, who has no relevant expertise, whose assertions are contradicted by bona fide experts in the field, and who has come under intense criticism from the scientific community. Why? Could it be because eight of the top ten corporations in the world are in oil and gas or auto manufacturing?

Dr. James Winter is a professor of communication studies at the University of Windsor, Ontario. He has written several books on the media, including Common Cents, Democracy’s Oxygen, and MediaThink. His latest book, Lies The Media Tell Us, includes an analysis of media coverage of Bjorn Lomborg.

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