Thanksgiving may bring many of us face to face with relatives we see infrequently and agree with even more infrequently. If their summer reading included Bjorn Lomborg’s blustery blockbuster False Alarm, this article is for you! I read the book so you don’t have to.

Before we go further, let’s review a few truths. All of us want the dignity of having our concerns considered. None of us wants the indignity of listening to someone convinced they’re morally or intellectually superior. And some of us might come across that way. Answer with anger when that uncle mentions Lomborg, and we look like the bad guy.

Headlines bad, growth good

Lomborg opens by blaming the media for stoking climate hysteria by publicizing extreme, headline-grabbing studies. This would be credible, truly credible, if it didn’t come from a book with the extreme, headline-grabbing title False Alarm.

Barring an asteroid, humans won’t go extinct any time soon. Among the hopeful notes, we’ve “bent the curve” on coal; we will never burn the amounts envisioned in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's worst-case pathways.

Here’s a recent emissions trajectory from the highly respected consultancy DNV GL, which argues human CO2 emissions peaked in 2019. To borrow a book title, it’s good news for a change. Making that news better, faster, is the calling of our generation.

Lomborg himself peaks when he makes the case for growth on behalf of the developing world. It’s one thing to hector First World one-percenters to make do with less. It’s another to demand the same of our working class or First Nations cousins, let alone our many relatives in the developing world. Everyone deserves the freeing comforts of prosperity. We just need to keep the long view that it isn’t true freedom if we’re still handcuffed to carbon.

It can help to acknowledge that the cheap energy from fossil fuels made our current living standards possible. If not for that cheap energy, most of us would still be farmers labouring in a world of high infant mortality without modern medicine. We simply need to move beyond them as fast as we can; like the line from the old Batman movie, fossil fuels have “lived long enough to see (themselves) become the villain.”

If we can give fossil fuels this much credit — even as we need to obsolete them — we create the space for others to praise climate solutions, even as they voice their own concerns.

In his new book, author Bjorn Lomborg blames the media for stoking climate hysteria. This would be credible, @ElectronComm says, if it didn’t come from a book with the extreme, headline-grabbing title 'False Alarm.'

The playbook

There’s a rhetorical playbook for the contrarian “actually, I know best” genre. It goes along the lines of anecdote, anecdote, unjustified conclusion, refutation of counter-argument, repetition of unjustified conclusion.

Here’s an example: “Cheap solar panels and batteries are the biggest keys to stabilizing the climate. They’re cheap because of Chinese industrial policy. If only more countries were communist we’d have cured carbon pollution years ago. Yeah, the Soviet Union was a disaster, but they weren’t truly communist. At least not communist with Chinese characteristics.”

It’s effective because unless you know where the unjustified conclusion goes wrong, it’s persuasive. And to be fair, I’m using the playbook right now. But I’m writing a 1,000-word book review, not a 100,000-word manifesto that “the solution to pollution is evolution.” I also like to think my conclusions are justified.

Lomborg breezes through explanations that polar bears are doing OK, that cold weather has historically caused more chaos than hot weather and that storms only seem worse today because there are more people (with more property) in harm’s way.

Sadly, polar bears adapting to a 3-4 C temperature increase from mid-century to 1995-2005 doesn’t mean they’ll thrive with more of the same; as they say, “past performance is not indicative of future returns.” And worrying about cold-related crop failure in a warmer world is fighting the last war; that thinking brought us the Maginot Line.

As for Lomborg’s “more people” argument, how do I do this justice? Despots would love to argue that ethnic cleansing only seems worse today because global population growth means there are more people to sweep up than in past pogroms.

Some things are relative. I’m not sure human suffering is one of them.

The equation

Lomborg relies heavily on a calculation by Nobel Prize-winning economist William Nordhaus that temperature rise will have a negligible impact on global GDP, perhaps a four per cent reduction for a 4 C average worldwide temperature increase.

The calculation is really, really important to Lomborg’s argument. So we might expect a discussion of the calculation’s credibility in contemporary climate and economic modelling research, a review of peer-reviewed literature, even a cursory check for consensus or controversy. We would be wrong. Nordhaus’s calculation is presented as established fact, with as much context for its claims as a multi-level marketing brochure. Nordhaus, his many critics and climate science itself deserve better.

You know those investment commercials that explain that if you grow your money for a long time at eight per cent, you’ll get a million dollars — but if you can compound it at 10 per cent, you’ll have five or 10 million? On long timescales, a small difference in the key assumption makes a huge difference. While Nordhaus’s body of work has been greatly praised, his key assumption about the appropriate “social discount rate” has been consistently criticized for greatly underestimating the costs of climate change.

The big ship

The one-sentence summary for Section 3 is that spaceship Earth is a big ship, there’s a lot of inertia and nothing we do will really change things. We’ll assume it was written before Lomborg had heard of Greta Thunberg and Martin Luther King Jr.

The section does give us an amusing inversion. Lomborg spent earlier chapters scolding environmentalists for thinking only of climate change costs and not its benefits; he now expounds on the costs of climate solutions (such as solar and wind power) without consideration of their benefits.

To be even-handed, we should credit Lomborg with the valid criticism that climate policies in the First World can unintentionally harm developing countries. Even as they deploy as much wind and solar as possible, as fast as possible, our cousins will be supplementing renewables with some new fossil power plants (mainly natural gas) for many years to come. Our cousins won’t be choosing renewables or gas, they’ll be choosing renewables and gas.

But if we demand that all banks cut all funding for all fossil fuel-related projects, we would be slowing the arrival of 24-7 grids to developing countries. To insist we know what is best for them is no less than colonialism with climate characteristics. Closer to home, if a First Nations community supports a fossil fuel project, we have no moral grounds to oppose them from our perch of privilege. We can only work harder to reduce our own emissions faster.

A 'circular economy' of logic

In the book's final section, Lomborg advocates for research and development over “deployment-led innovation,” the strategy by which governments help industries scale up to drive cost reductions, thanks to which 600 gigawatts of solar panels are now deployed worldwide (600 gigawatts is the nameplate capacity of about 670 Site C hydroelectric dams).

Cataloguing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, he argues that subsidies for renewables would be better spent on growth. And yet in the United States, subsidies essentially are used for growth.

In America, the subsidies for wind and solar come in the form of tax credits for their owners (or in many cases, their Wall Street investment bank project financiers). That’s partly how Apple, Google, Amazon, JPMorgan Chase and others keep their tax bills so low. What do they do with these savings? Doing God’s work, as one Goldman Sachs CEO put it: pursuing growth.

So Lomborg, who supports growth, comes out against “subsidies” for renewables, which are one of the strongest levers for growth at America’s most profitable companies — the ones that can most powerfully induce growth (if they don’t waste it all on stock buybacks). It’s an ouroboros of an argument: a snake eating its tail, a “circular economy” approach to logic.

Lomborg does offer his preferred solution. After arguing that technology breakthroughs can’t be predicted, he proposes blue ribbon expert panels to predict the most promising breakthroughs and direct policy. It’s not that bad of an idea, really. It’s exactly how we wound up with the aforementioned 600 gigawatts of solar panels, so his opposition to today’s climate solutions in favour of tomorrow’s solutions is peculiar.

The book finishes with some salutary chapters on geoengineering, trade and development, clumsy efforts to compare climate activism with Enron and the military-industrial complex, and an apophasis about a grand conspiracy.

Wish as we might, Lomborg isn’t going away any time soon, so it’s worth scouting his ideas. There isn’t enough time over Thanksgiving to debunk all of Lomborg’s claims. When speaking with our uncle, a better use of time would be to pick at the claim he raises, then pivot to our own narrative, which is better. As wonderful as statistics may be, stories beat statistics every day of the week.

And lastly, offering some credit where it’s due — whether to economic prosperity, cheap energy or even fossil fuels — can thaw our right-wing uncle's feelings about climate solutions and melt the tension between you, too.

Keep reading

Where to start?

Article: "Lomborg opens by blaming the media for stoking climate hysteria by publicizing extreme, headline-grabbing studies."
On key fronts, climate change has advanced faster than scientists and models predicted.
1. The rapid, massive loss of Arctic ice.
2. The loss of half the world's coral reefs in mere decades.
3. Rate of ocean deoxygenation.

Can we blame fossil fuel companies for promoting climate apathy, confusion, and delay by funding a decades-long campaign of denial? For downplaying the perils of global warming? For enlisting scientists-for-hire (several of whom performed the same trick for the tobacco industry) to promote spurious theories that cast doubt on greenhouse warming?
The fossil fuel industry knew about the climate perils of its product at least by the late 1970s (likely even earlier), but deliberately sowed doubt for decades. Industry obstruction continues today. Predatory delay.
Is that evil? Probably.

Nobel-Prize winning economist Paul Krugman:
"Earth, Wind and Liars"
"In the long run, these tactics probably won’t stop the transition to renewable energy, and even the villains of this story probably realize that. Their goal is, instead, to slow things down, so they can extract as much profit as possible from their existing investments.
"… Every year that we delay the clean-energy transition will sicken or kill thousands while increasing the risk of climate catastrophe.
"The point is that Trump and company aren’t just trying to move us backward on social issues; they’re also trying to block technological progress. And the price of their obstructionism will be high."
Lomborg is a leading advocate for inaction. (Where is his Nobel Prize?)

Article: "the cheap energy from fossil fuels made our current living standards possible"
Cheap or vastly underpriced? Cheap only because fossil fuels producers and consumers were allowed to externalize health, environmental, and climate costs. Cheap only because we used the sky as a free dump.
Climate change is the supreme example of market failure. The true costs of fossil fuels have always been prohibitive. The world constructed upon the fossil fuel foundation is hopelessly unsustainable.

Current living standards?
Not everybody is enjoying the fossil-fuel party. We are presiding over the sixth mass extinction.
Communities on the front lines of fossil fuel development pay the price.
The poor in Port Arthur, Texas, bear the brunt home of massive refinery pollution.
"Accidental Pollution Weighs on Texas City"

Ask residents of Cancer Alley, Fort McKay, Sarnia and Aamjiwnaang First Nation about their standard of living — on the frontlines of oil & gas and petrochemical development.
In Canada, it is largely indigenous peoples who suffer.
-"How Alberta kept Fort McKay First Nation in the dark about a toxic cloud from the oilsands" (National Observer)
-"Oilsands development linked to cancer, First Nations say"
-In Canada's Chemical Valley around Sarnia, ON, the boy-girl ratio has changed dramatically.

Fossil fuels are a classic progress trap:
"A progress trap is a new technology that could improve life but that ends up making things worse due to a failure to manage risks."
"A progress trap is the condition human societies experience when, in pursuing progress through human ingenuity, they inadvertently introduce problems they do not have the resources or political will to solve, for fear of short-term losses in status, stability or quality of life."
Article: "Barring an asteroid, humans won’t go extinct any time soon."
"Societies that failed were seduced and undone by what I called a progress trap: a chain of successes which, upon reaching a certain scale, leads to disaster. The dangers are seldom seen before it’s too late. The jaws of a trap open slowly and invitingly, then snap closed fast.
"… of all land mammals and birds alive today, humans and their livestock make up 96% of the biomass; wildlife has dwindled to 4%. This has no precedent. Not so far back in history the proportions were the other way round. As recently as 1970, humans were only half and wildlife more than twice their present numbers. These closely linked figures are milestones along our rush towards a trashed and looted planet, stripped of diversity, wildness, and resilience; strewn with waste. Such is the measure of our success."
"Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?" (The Tyee, 20 Sep 2019)

Progress fuelled by coal, oil, and gas turned out to be wildly unsustainable. Like taking steroids to build muscle mass. DDT got rid of mosquitoes, but also wiped out birds. Thalidomide took care of morning sickness, but also caused birth deformities. Fertilizer boosts crop yields, but also kills lakes and creates marine dead zones. Neonics reduce pests, but also kill off pollinators. Fossil fuels took us down the road, but that road led over a cliff.
Article: "Lomborg argues that subsidies for renewables would be better spent on growth."
Cancer cells flourish — until they kill the host. Growth is dooming us.
All these advances turned out to be unsustainable. The progress achieved was transitory. Costs overtook benefits.

Our whole paradigm is unsustainable:
"Even if fossil energy were replaced at once by clean sources, our other problems — overpopulation, overconsumption, erosion, deforestation, and accumulating waste — would still persist."
"Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?" (The Tyee)

Eating ourselves out of house and home: "Calculations of humanity’s footprint suggest we have been in 'ecological deficit,' taking more than Earth’s biological systems can withstand, for at least 30 years. Topsoil is being lost far faster than nature can replenish it; 30 per cent of arable land has been exhausted since the mid-20th century.
"We have financed this monstrous debt by colonizing both past and future, drawing energy, chemical fertilizer, and pesticides from the planet’s fossil carbon, and throwing the consequences onto coming generations of our species and all others. Some of those species have already been bankrupted: they are extinct."
"Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?" (The Tyee)

Article: "Closer to home, if a First Nations community supports a fossil fuel project, we have no moral grounds to oppose them from our perch of privilege."
How's that working out, by the way?
"First Nations losing oil revenue amid fall in consumption, drilling" (CBC, Jul 06, 2020)
"Revenues for First Nations have fallen by about 80% in the last decade as commodity prices have fallen.
"The declines 'are likely to continue,' said Strater Crowfoot, CEO of Indian Oil & Gas Canada (IOGC)."
-"Oil revenues plunge for many Indigenous communities in Western Canada" (CBC, May 17, 2020)

Lots of jobs for indigenous people in the oilsands sacrifice zone. Also free healthcare. Free funerals courtesy of CNRL. Ask the departed if they are grateful.
The living pay for their own bottled water. Since they can't drink their own.
Rare cancers are a shame too. Well, they'll just have to live with that. Or not.
Trapping and hunting are going or gone. Wildlife contaminated. Fish deformed with lesions and tumours. But, hey, that's progress.
Industry multiplies background contaminant levels, but that's OK. With all the new cash in their pockets, indigenous people can upgrade to oak coffins. Maybe even buy an independent health study.
On the bright side, chemotherapy, funerals, and obituaries all boost GDP.

Were First Nations on the frontlines of oilsands development ever given a real choice? Were they ever allowed to say NO?
What will be left for First Nations — and the rest of us — when the oilsands industry collapses? No jobs, a contaminated landscape bereft of wildlife, and chronic illness.
Ah, but now they can build their own cancer clinics.

Article: "Sadly, polar bears adapting to a 3-4 C temperature increase from mid-century to 1995-2005 doesn’t mean they’ll thrive with more of the same."
Classic misdirection from Lomborg. Polar bear numbers rebounded after decades of overhunting. Doesn't mean that ice-dependent species can thrive a world with less ice and longer ice-free seasons.

There is no scientific evidence that the global polar bear population is growing and there is evidence that several subpopulations are declining. Only 2 of the 19 polar bear subpopulations are likely increasing in size.
Of the 19 subpopulations measured by the IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group, only 2 are likely increasing over the short-term.
Two polar bear subpopulations have already been negatively impacted by sea ice loss.
In 2019, 2 small polar bear subpopulations were estimated to have increased, 4 declined, and 5 were stable. The other subpopulations did not have enough data to demonstrate short or long-term trends. (IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group.)
"The global polar bear population is threatened by loss of sea ice, contrary to PragerU’s video claim" (Climate Feedback, 18 May 2020)

"Lukewarmer" Lomborg keeps repeating his climate myths no matter how many times they are debunked. He is a disinformation merchant.
I suggest we stop listening.

A great service, by reading this stuff for us! Nordhaus has recently been critiqued very heavily by the economist Steve Keen:

It's important that all climate activists absorb Keen's critique, because he destroys Northaus' central climate-dither/delay argument.

For a refutation of Nordhaus' economics of climate change see works by the heterodox economist Steven Keen. Here's one: