Serial Mistake-Makers on Climate Change (Part I): On Matt Ridley and Bjorn Lomborg


 Howard Friel is the author most recently of The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight about Global Warming (Yale University Press, 2010), and with Richard Falk of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004) and Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007).

 
What shall we call them—those “skeptical environmentalists” and “rational optimists” about global warming—superheroes of best-selling books who write and speak in open opposition to facts and science as easily as Superman and Spiderman defy gravity and other laws of the physical world. These authors give themselves affable alter-egos, used in the titles of their books, to disguise their real literary identities as misanthropes peddling hallucinatory optimism.       
 
Bjorn Lomborg, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” was an environmentalist who became skeptical about environmentalism while shopping at a bookstore, and so he just had to change his identity to save the world—from the environmentalists. The Skeptical Environmentalist reminds me of another recent class of cloaked superheroes—the Liberal Hawks—who also changed their identities to support the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The apparent cultural appeal is the internal tensions that these superhero names signify—a dramatic personal story leading to intellectual and political transfigurations. We now have one such hawk, “Hitch,” making the rounds relating his personal epiphanies.
 
This augurs well for Lomborg’s future. Once the world finally figures out that most of what he has written as The Skeptical Environmentalist is, say, “mistaken,” he can complete the circle and return to his alleged roots. Thus, perhaps, “The Environmentalist Formerly Known as Skeptical.” Lomborg is so “wrong” (to be polite) about nearly everything environmental and otherwise that a colleague recently remarked: “Pretty soon we’ll learn that he’s not even Danish.”
 
The discrete red flashing of the Google Alert on my phone a few days ago introduced me to The Rational Optimist, a new book by Matt Ridley, yet another literary evangelical who preaches the limitless capacity of humans to do good things for themselves and the Earth, including its climate. The official U.S. publication date of this Happy Face was May 18, a good month after the BP oil calamity began in the Gulf of Mexico. Ridley, like Lomborg, writes within a delusional genre identified by Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book, Bright Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Thus, whereas Lomborg argues in Cool It that global warming is “no catastrophe,” Ridley, author of the best-seller Genome and chairman of the bailed-out British bank Northern Rock, writes: 
 
I am testing my optimism against the facts, and what I find is that the probability of rapid and severe climate change is small; the probability of net harm from the most likely climate change is small; the probability that no adaptation will occur is small; and the probability of no low-carbon energy technologies in the long run is small. Multiply those small probabilities together and the probability of a prosperous twenty-first century is therefore by definition large.[1]
 
Ridley is thus claiming on the last page of his section on climate and climate-related issues (pp. 328-47) that he put his optimistic predilections to the test in a trial by facts, and prevailed against the pessimists. However, in his 53 endnotes for this section (some with several references cited), Ridley relied disproportionately on an iteration of “facts” issued by right-wing authors, bloggers, and climate deniers.
 
He thus referenced Indur Golkany and his 2007 book, The Improving State of the World (published by the Cato Institute) seven times; the journal Energy and Environment (which includes Bjorn Lomborg on its editorial advisory board) six times; Bjorn Lomborg (himself) two times; Roger Pielke, Jr. (a climate-science critic) or his Web site three times; climateaudit. org (hosted by climate skeptic Steve McIntyre) three times; and each of the following sources at least once: a report by House Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee; the Web site wattsupwiththat.com (hosted by climate skeptic Anthony Watts); climatesanity.wordpress.com (hosted by a climate skeptic); climate-resistance.org (hosted by climate skeptics); a Wall Street Journal editorial; Richard Lindzen; Mitchell Taylor (a Canadian scientist and climate denier), and an article by John Tierney in the New York Times titled, “Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet”. Also by way of perspective, while Ridley favorably cited such sources while claiming to report “facts” about climate change, in his endnotes he is sharply critical of George Monbiot, James Hansen, and Kofi Annan on climate change grounds.
 
In The Rational Optimist, Ridley writes that “the polar bears [are] still thriving today” and “eleven of thirteen populations are growing or steady.”[2] In his endnotes Ridley references three sources to support this claim. The first reference that Ridley lists is an article from ScienceDaily that isn’t about and never mentions polar bears.[3] The second reference is to a “Viewpoint” paper in a relatively obscure journal (Ecological Complexity) that, as the authors of the paper reported, was “partially supported by grants” from the American Petroleum Institute and Exxon-Mobil Corporation,[4] a detail that Ridley neglected to report. The authors, writing largely in opposition to the consensus view of the major scientific authorities on the Arctic and polar bears, including the IUCN’s Polar Bear Specialist Group[5] and the 2004 Arctic Climate Impact Assessment,[6] reported that they found “no significant warming trend” around the Hudson Bay basin, that “any role of external forcing by anthropogenic greenhouse gases remain difficult to identify,” that “climate models are simply not skillful for the projection of regional sea-ice changes in Hudson Bay or the whole Arctic,” and that “the extrapolation of polar bear disappearance is highly premature.”[7] Ridley’s third and final source for his claim that the polar bears are thriving today is a ten-minute YouTube talk by a Canadian scientist, Mitchell Taylor, a contrarian polar bear scientist.[8]
 
Thus, while claiming that the polar bears are “thriving today” by citing (a) a source that doesn’t mention polar bears, (b) an oil–industry funded source, and (c) a non–peer reviewed lecture at an undisclosed location in an undisclosed month and year, Ridley ignored the following statements by the most reputable scientific sources on polar bears: “Over the past two decades, the condition of adult male and female [polar] bears and the proportion of independent yearling bears caught during the open water season have declined significantly” and “the timing of [sea-ice] break-up was positively correlated with the condition of adult females (i.e., the earlier the break-up the poorer condition of the bears) and suggested that the declines in the various parameters measured in the polar bears have resulted from the trend toward earlier break-up, which in turn appears to be due to the long-term warming in spring temperatures” (IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group);[9] and “it is difficult to envisage the survival of polar bears as a species given a zero summer ice-free scenario” due to global warming (Arctic Climate Impact Assessment).[10] Also, in May 2008, the Bush administration’s Department of the Interior announced that it was listing polar bears as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act “based on the best available science, which shows that loss of [Arctic] sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat.”[11] In short, Ridley simply ignored the major scientific sources on polar bears and global warming while claiming in his book that the bears are “thriving.” Or, he didn’t do the research and didn’t know any better.
 
Ridley also argued that “powering the world with such renewables now [nuclear, wind, solar, bio-fuels, and hydro dams as he listed them] is the surest way to spoil the environment” and “coal mining and oil drilling can and do spoil the environment, too, but compared with most renewable their footprints are surprisingly small for the energy yield.”[12] Given his free-market fundamentalism, Ridley argues against government subsidies for alternative power sources and fuels, and favorably quotes Jesse Ausubel from the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, who asserted, according to Ridley, that “if the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.”[13]
 
Ridley footnoted Ausubel’s words from a paper that he coauthored (with Paul E. Waggoner) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published in 2008.[14] I don’t pretend to have any quarrel with Ausubel and Waggoner one way or the other, given the high degree of specialization in which their paper is written. However, in his endnote, Ridley attributed Ausubel’s words to the published PNAS paper, although Ausubel’s words (as quoted by Ridley) make no appearance in the PNAS paper, but rather appear in a New York Times article by John Tierney from what appeared to be an interview with Ausubel..[15] In his endnote, Ridley clearly attributed Ausubel’s words to the PNAS paper, then wrote:
 
 
without identifying the controversial Tierney as the author or the obnoxious title of Tierney’s piece: “Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet.”    
 
In the Times, Tierney wrote (the italicized portion being the words that Ridley quoted and attributed to the PNAS paper):      
 
As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources—from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.
 
“Once you have lots of high-rises filled with computers operating all the time, the energy delivered has to be very clean and compact,” said Mr. Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller. “The long-term trend is toward natural gas and nuclear power, or conceivably solar power. If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.”[16]
 
Ridley should have attributed these words to John Tierney’s piece in the New York Times, since that is where they came from, and then he could have added the reference to the PNAS paper to show the technical background in which these words are grounded. Instead, Ridley referenced these two sources (the Times and PNAS) in the reverse order, thereby indicating that he had garnered these words himself from the PNAS paper, thereby giving himself the technical authority to drive home his point that the government should not subsidize renewable power sources and fuels.  
 
Nor does Ridley address the issue of rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations if in fact we leave the energy system to itself. Currently, the CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere is about 390 parts-per-million (ppm), and it’s rising by about 2 ppm per year. What if, with little to no governmental intervention at the national and global levels to reduce CO2 emissions, the current CO2 concentration rises to 490 ppm by 2060 or 510 ppm by 2070? What is Ridley’s response? Not only does he have no such response, he ignores the problem, which was described in detail when a group of nine scientists, led by James Hansen, issued an important paper in 2008. The scientists wrote:
 
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 [of 350 ppm] is not brief, there is a possibility of seeding irreversible catastrophic effects.”[17]
 
Similarly, although Ridley lauded the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference in December 2009,[18] he ignored the important November 2009 document, “The Copenhagen Diagnosis: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science,” authored by more than two dozen climate scientists comprised primarily of lead IPCC authors. Here, the authors call for a ceiling of average global warming of 2°C from year 1750 to year 2100. Like the Hansen group of scientists, who warned against a prolonged overshoot of CO2 concentrations greater than 350 ppm, the scientists working for the Copenhagen Diagnosis wrote: “The turning point must come soon: If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2°C above pre-industrial values [marked by year 1750], global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly.”[19] While Ridley downplays the risks of global warming, he ignores this warning in “The Copenhagen Diagnosis,” and the document itself.
 
On May 31, the Guardian environmental journalist George Monbiot gave Ridley and his book, The Rational Optimist, a justifiable thrashing while referencing a broader range of issues than I have addressed here.[20] In doing so, Monbiot mentioned my 2010 book, The Lomborg Deception, as a source that had brought Lomborg’s endemic misrepresentations about climate change to light. On his Web site, and while responding to Monbiot’s criticisms, Ridley at one point wrote: “Next Monbiot claims that Howard Friel’s book attacking Bjorn Lomborg proves that there are significant errors in Lomborg’s work. Friel’s book is itself packed with errors and is easily answered in Lomborg’s rebuttal,” to which Ridley then provided a link to Lomborg’s response to my book.[21] I will soon address both Ridley’s use of Lomborg’s rebuttal as well as the content of Lomborg’s comments as excerpted by Ridley.



[1] Matt Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: Harper, 2010), p. 347.
[2] Ibid., pp. 338-39.
[3] “Less Ice in Arctic Ocean 6000–7000Years Ago,” ScienceDaily, October 20, 2008.
[4] M.G. Dyck, W. Soon, R.K. Baydack, et al., “Polar Bears of Western Hudson Bay and Climate Change: Are Warming Spring Air Temperatures the ‘Ultimate’ Survival Factor,” Ecological Complexity, vol. 4, 2007, Acknowledgements, 81.
[5] See, for example: The IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, “Res#1–2009: Effects of Global Warming on Polar Bears,” 2009, at http://pbsg.npolar.no/en/meetings/resolutions/15.html; “Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 14th Working Meeting of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, 20–24 June 2005, Seattle, Washington, USA,” 2005, at http://pbsg.npolar.no/export/sites/pbsg/en/docs/PBSG14proc.pdf; “Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 13th Working Group, 22–28 June 2001, Nuuk, Greenland,” International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 2001, at http://www.carnivoreconservation.org/files/actionplans/pbsg13proc.pdf; Steven C. Amstrup, Hal Caswell, Eric DeWeaver, et al., “Rebuttal of ‘Polar Bear Population Forecasts: A Public-Policy Forecasting Audit,’” Interfaces, April 22, 2009, at http://pbsg.npolar.no/export/sites/pbsg/en/docs/Amstrup2009Int.pdf.
[6] “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Scientific Report,” 2004, at http://www.acia.uaf.edu/pages/scientific.html.
[7] Ibid., 73.
[8] Mitchell Taylor presentation on YouTube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=163Dl14Pemc.
[9] “Polar Bears: Proceedings of the 13th Working Group, 22–28 June 2001, Nuuk, Greenland,” 27.
[10] “Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Scientific Report,” 509.
[11] “Secretary Kempthorne Announces Decision to protect Polar Bears Under Endangered Species Act,” U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of the Secretary, News Release, May 12, 2008.
[12] Ridley, The Rational Optimist, 343.
[13] Ibid., 346.
[14] Jesse H. Ausubel and Paul E. Waggoner, “Dematerialization: Variety, Caution, and Persistence,” PNAS, vol. 105, no. 35, September 2, 2008, 12774–12779.
[15] John Tierney, “Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet,” New York Times, April 20, 2009.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Hansen, Sato, Kharecha, et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?,” Open Atmosphere Science Jornal, 2008, abstract at http://pubs.giss.nasa.gov/abstracts/2008/Hansen_etal.html. The full text can be found at http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/2008/TargetCO2_20080407.pdf.
[18] Ridley, The Rational Optimist, 347.
[19] “The Copenhagen Diagnosis, 2009: Updating the World on the Latest Climate Science.” I. Allison, N.L. Bindoff, R.A. Bindschadler, P.M. Cox, N. de Noblet, M.H. England, J.E. Francis, N. Gruber, A.M. Haywood, D.J. Karoly, G. Kaser, C. Le Quéré, T.M. Lenton, M.E. Mann, B.I. McNeil, A.J. Pitman, S. Rahmstorf, E. Rignot, H.J. Schellnhuber, S.H. Schneider, S.C. Sherwood, R.C.J. Somerville, K. Steffen, E.J. Steig, M. Visbeck, A.J. Weaver. The University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC), Sydney, Australia, p. 7.
[20] “This State-Hating Free Marketeer Ignores His Own Failed Experiment,” Guardian, May 31, 2010.
[21] “Monbiot’s Errors” at http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/monbiots-errors.

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