Bjorn Yesterday … Bjorn Tomorrow?

A Critical Review of Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It … and of Media ‘Complicity’ in Climate Contrarianism

As an engaging and charismatic communicator, Bjorn Lomborg has few peers addressing climate change. But an analysis of his Cool It documentary, now available on dvd, documents long-standing shortcomings reporters should consider so stories of personal courage and conviction don’t displace sound science journalism.

Those who missed Cool It during its very limited theatrical release last November can now watch it on dvd. And they should. Working from Bjorn Lomborg’s 2007 book of the same title, this 90-minute composite of lecture, home movies, travelogue, interviews, and briefings illustrates Lomborg’s appeal as a strategic communicator and indirectly highlights some of the media proclivities he targets.

Director Ondi Timonor’s Cool It quickly reminds one of Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth (hereafter AIT). This link is reinforced by the repeated references to Al Gore, especially in Lomborg’s lecture (yes, this is another film of a PowerPoint presentation), much of which is devoted to rebutting “alarmist” depictions of climate change in AIT. Cool It showcases Lomborg’s upbeat “smart solutions” for climate change, but these stand out as such only against the background of Gore’s emphasis on mitigation and on the United Nations’ policy process. Lomborg argues that by encouraging innovation and adaptation instead of CO2 reductions, we can also address persistent problems of health and poverty and education. In this telling, while Gore offers a future darkened by the storm clouds of extreme weather, Lomborg’s is brightened by effective and affordable technologies.

Review and Analysis

But Cool It begins with visions of doom. We hear children’s voices describing simple but vivid drawings of global warming — drawings of wildfires, droughts, rising sea levels, mass tree and animal die-offs, and even the possible extinction of our own kind. A montage of photos and videos follows — glimpses of the fiercely divided reactions to Lomborg’s first book, The Skeptical Environmentalist (hereafter TSE). The prologue ends with Lomborg cautioning against fear-mongering: “If we only listen to worst-case scenarios, that’s unlikely to make for good public priorities.”

Having introduced the message, Cool It next introduces the messenger. As Lomborg pedals to work along Copenhagen’s bike-friendly streets, we trace his journey from boyhood vegetarianism to directorship of his economic think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center. A critical turning point, he says in his voice over, came in Berkeley, where he encountered the work of Julian Simon. This planted the seed that grew into TSE.


View larger image

In the sequence that follows, the most personal in the film, viewers learn that Lomborg weathered the fierce storm of criticism over TSE because he was confident of his mother’s support and affection. In Guggenheim’s AIT, Gore learns important lessons from his son’s near-fatal car accident, his sister’s death from lung cancer, and his painful defeat in the 2000 election; in Cool It, Lomborg has his “trial” for academic integrity and a doting mother with Alzheimer’s. With the emotional narratives thus balanced, Cool It turns to the lecture portion of its competition with AIT.

Lomborg delivered his lecture in April 2010 in New Haven, before an audience of Yale students, staff, and faculty. His lecture is intercut not with visits to the Amazon, the Arctic, or Antarctica, but with interviews with the scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs — Daniel Nocera, Nathan Myhrvold, Jonathan Trent, and Stephen Salter — who proposed solutions Lomborg’s economists had evaluated at a September 2009 meeting organized by his Center. (See the second-to-last paragraph of this August 29, 2009 op-ed piece.)

The lecture culminates — more for the viewers of the film than for the live audience in New Haven — in Lomborg’s “about” $250 billion per-year proposal to address problems of sanitation, hunger, health, and education while paving the way for a high-energy but low-carbon future. (See rough breakdown of the proposal here.)

Echoing, from very different perspectives, Lomborg’s optimism — and especially his rejection of cap-and-trade style mitigation — are a chorus of economists, lobbyists, policymakers, and scientists: Jagdish Bhagwati, Freeman Dyson, Myron Ebell, Barry Glassner, James Hansen, Daniel Kammen, Lee Lane, Richard Lindzen, Peter Pagh, Roger Pielke Jr., Gwyn Prins, Paul Reiter, Thomas Schelling, Nancy Stokey, Richard Tol, and David Vaughan. Several of these individuals (not all) are outspoken climate “skeptics,” but the film never identifies them as such. And only the late and clearly unsympathetic Stephen H. Schneider, to whom the film is somewhat awkwardly dedicated, consistently sounds the notes of opposition to Lomborg’s approach.

Lomborg as One of Time‘s ’100 Most Influential’

Although Cool It did not do well at the box office, Lomborg continues to do well with many in the media. To publicize the release of Cool It on dvd, he recently appeared on The David Letterman Show. And every year Lomborg publishes several op-ed pieces in major venues around the world, but especially in the U.S. (See, for example, this recent piece in The Washington Post.) These opportunities stem from the controversy sparked by TSE, which led Time, in April 2004, to name Lomborg one of the 100 most influential people in the world. But is “controversial” the same as “influential”? Time‘s choice may say more about its methods than about Lomborg’s message.

In a 2007 article for Geoforum, researchers Maxwell and Jules Boykoff argued that journalists follow two levels of norms. Journalists pursue stories that allow them to personalize an issue, to narrate dramatic conflicts, and/or to surprise or confound readers’ expectations. And when they write up these stories, journalists try to maintain a sense of order and authority while displaying balance.

Lomborg could not fit these norms more effectively had he tailored his resume for them. He first offers reporters and readers a story of personal transformation — from doom-fearing to skeptical-but-optimistic environmentalist. His is also a dramatic story of institutional and political conflict — over a message that upends conventional wisdom. But Lomborg presents his dissent in terms that affirm the dominant economic order: expert testimony by Nobel prize-winning economists regarding the most cost-effective responses to our environmental problems.

Dressed — even when testifying before Congress — in his trademark jeans, black T (or polo shirt) and running shoes, Lomborg comes across as down-to-earth and engaging. His position on global warming also seems moderate and judicious, equidistant from opposing “extremes”: Anthropogenic global warming is a reality, but it is a reality we can face without fear. Lomborg even frames this dissensus, strategically, as “consensus.”

Lomborg and His Critics

Climate change has figured in Lomborg’s work from the beginning. In a separate subsection, TSE devoted sixty-four pages to “global warming.” These pages provided the jumping off point for Lomborg’s 2007 book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming. And climate change is the focus of his most recent edited volume — Smart Solutions to Climate Change: Comparing Costs and Benefits (2010) — several proposals from which are featured in the film Cool It.

Climate change has also figured prominently in the critical response to Lomborg’s work. Few non-fiction books published between 1999 and 2004 received as many reviews or mentions as TSE. Thus it is understandable that Time‘s attention was drawn to Lomborg. In Timoner’s film, Lomborg characterizes the controversy over his first book as political: “The establishment, they don’t want to hear a new viewpoint. And so they’ll do anything else to discredit you, to keep you out of that conversation. They never ever came up and said, ‘This is where Bjorn did it wrong.’ They just basically came out and said, ‘He’s dishonest.’”

When Lomborg is discussed favorably in the media — as at times he has been in the Post, Time, the WSJ, and in conservative magazines like The American Spectator, National Review and Weekly Standard — the “ideological motives” of his opponents are emphasized. But while sometimes intemperate, the extended critiques of TSE published by the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund (November 2001), Grist (December 2001), The Union of Concerned Scientists (December 2001), and Scientific American (January 2002) did not lack substance or specifics. (Lomborg’s responses to these critiques of TSE, and to a fact-checking critique by Howard Friel of his follow-up book on global warming, are online at Lomborg.com.)

In a more dispassionate review of TSE in the June 2003 issue of The Economic Journal, University of Birmingham economist Matthew Cole concurred with the main finding of these early assessments: “Lomborg’s analysis suffers from several problems, including selective use of data, oversimplification of issues, posing the wrong questions, and lack of objectivity in his quest for optimistic trends.”

In his preface to Friel‘s fact-checking analysis of Lomborg’s Cool It, ecologist Thomas Lovejoy described what he sees as the scientific community’s early and abiding frustration with Lomborg: “[F]ellow conservation biologists attending a Lomborg talk would correct his science, only to find the same assertions made in subsequent talks as if the corrections had never occurred.”

Evidence of these tendencies can be seen in the film itself.

Lomborg and Sea Levels — A Case Study

In the book version of Cool It, after duly noting Gore’s if-then framing of his ominous simulations, Lomborg dismisses warnings about dramatic rises in sea levels: “In its 2007 report, the U.N. estimates that sea levels will rise about a foot over the rest of the century.” In the pages that follow, Lomborg examines and then sets aside some of the conditions noted in the sea level chapter of the Working Group 1 report for IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, indicating he was aware of the caveats. But in several op-ed responses to Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize, all published shortly after Cool It was released, Lomborg nonetheless reverted to the simple summary quoted above, without those caveats.

Lomborg did this again when he penned a pre-emptive strike against the Copenhagen Synthesis, the report of the March 2009 meeting of researchers seeking to update the science before the United Nations conference in Copenhagen in December. This time, however, Stefan Rahmstorf, lead author of the fourth assessment chapter on sea levels, responded. The 12-to-20 inch range cited by Lomborg, Rahmstorf noted, was the base increase predicted by the IPCC. The summaries for policymakers of the WG1 and Synthesis reports make this clear: “The projections do not include uncertainties in climate-carbon cycle feedbacks, nor the full effects of changes in ice sheet flow. Therefore, the upper values of the ranges are not to be considered upper bounds for sea level rise.” The captions for the tables reinforce this message: “Model-Based Range excluding future rapid dynamical changes in ice flow.”

Despite this clear and public correction, Lomborg again reported the 12–to–20 inch estimate as the official IPCC position: first, in a new series of op-ed pieces written for WSJ during the December 2009 meeting in Copenhagen; next, in the April 2010 lecture recorded in New Haven for the film version of Cool It; again in the November 17, 2010 op-ed piece he penned for the Post to publicize the theatrical release of the film; and, most recently, in his April 12, 2011, appearance on The David Letterman Show.

Bjorn Lomborg on David Letterman’s Late Night Show, CBS, April 12, 2011 (Source: Lomborg.com).

For nearly four years, then, by not mentioning the clear and specific exclusions in the fourth assessment reports, Lomborg has misrepresented the IPCC position on sea level rise.

Others have documented more misrepresentations in Lomborg’s work on global warming. To these errors of commission may be added a much more general omission: Neither the book nor the movie version of Cool It mentions ocean acidification. A cost benefit analysis of geo-engineering that omits this critical side-effect of rising carbon dioxide levels clearly is incomplete. But it is on the basis of such incomplete calculations that Lomborg so cheerily offers his $250-billion-per-year-can-solve-everything alternative. Lomborg also omits any discussion of the difficulties that would inevitably be encountered in trying to address the priorities budgeted in his proposal.

Lomborg and the Media — Covering a Strategic Communicator

This record of persistent and consistent misrepresentation points to a challenge the media face in covering a strategic communicator, of reporting on someone who systematically spins a complex topic that is rife with uncertainty — in part by accusing everyone else of “alarmism.” (And not entirely without reason: another recent “documentary,” The Age of Stupid (2009), depicts a climate-caused collapse of civilization — by 2055.)

To recognize and then explain Lomborg’s strategic moves — how he minimizes a problem, maximizes the costs of proposed national and international responses, and then oversells his alternative solution — requires a diverse set of journalistic skills and analytical abilities:

  • Basic Math — In Cool It, Lomborg observes that the IPCC forecast that sea levels will rise 12-to-20 inches by 2100 is roughly equal to the amount sea levels rose between 1860 and 2000. A quick calculation shows that even this misrepresentation of the IPCC’s position reflects a 50 percent increase in the rate of rise. Simple, yes, but as a recent Columbia Journalism Review article showed, wordsmiths sometimes turn off their calculators.
  • The Ability, and Time, to Spot Inconsistencies — Lomborg draws two very different comparisons between 1900 and 2000 in Cool It. Someone who lived through most of the 20th century, he observes, would not likely have noticed the ~12 inch rise in sea levels. But the dramatic increase in damages inflicted by hurricanes, he explains, are the result not of more, or more severe, storms but of more people living, working, and building on vulnerable coastlines. Is it possible that many of the 7-billion people alive today, versus the 1.6-billion alive in 1900, will notice the added storm impacts of more rapidly rising sea levels? In fact, some of the many more now living on bay and ocean shorelines are already feeling such impacts.
  • Background Knowledge — Experienced reporters, those up-to-speed on the basic science, would know the most recent IPCC report, at least the summaries for policymakers, and thus would know that the 12–to-20 inches of sea level rise is the least that is projected.
  • An Attention to Key Terms — Skilled analysts would also note the slippery use of key terms and data points. Where the Simon book highlighted in Cool It refers to The State of Humanity, Lomborg, working from similar sets of data, claims to measure “the real state of the world.” Can we really determine whether the world’s ecosystems are healthy by looking at figures for human health and longevity or at the prices of commodities? Can local improvements be used to back claims about global conditions? Highly doubtful.
  • An Aptitude for Strategic Thinking — In addition to questioning what an advocate says, shrewd reporters would consider when and where the advocate speaks, and how he has the means to do so. Why, they might ask, did the far-right Danish People’s Party lobby its Conservative coalition partners to triple funding for the Copenhagen Consensus Center in 2009? And why did the director of that Center then spend so much time promoting its work in the U.S. — by, for example, publishing op-eds in the Wall Street Journal (at least 11 in 2009 alone)?

To answer these last questions, American reporters must step sufficiently far back to observe what their European counterparts have long recognized: The American political system makes the U.S. a strategic site for obstructing or derailing global negotiations — especially on climate change. Offering American skeptics a “better” way to spend $250 billion hypothetically budgeted for climate change might actually be the best way for the director of a conservative European think tank to stall European action on climate change — by reinforcing American resistance to international action on climate change. And the only funds actually dispersed in the process would be to Lomborg and his Center, for the conference costs for creating a Copenhagen Consensus on the $250 billion figure.

On first hearing, Lomborg’s take-home message seems quite reasonable: “If we only listen to worst-case scenarios, that’s unlikely to make for good public priorities.” But this reasonable message obscures the real problem: the difficulty of determining what the worst-case scenarios may be given the compounding causes and impacts of climate change. To focus on adapting to impacts without also reducing the causes — and this requires more than simply investing in research that might reduce the causes in the future — is to aim at an erratically moving target. A genuine cost-benefit analysis of possible responses to global warming would acknowledge these interplays and uncertainties. Lomborg’s handling of the IPCC’s most recent sea level forecast does the opposite. With unwarranted but appealing confidence, he minimizes the consequences of what little we do know. That approach can make for a dramatic and surprising news story of personal courage and conviction — but not for “good public priorities.” Nor for sound science journalism.

Experienced reporters have grown weary of Lomborg’s relentless optimism. But as posts on The Yale Forum, Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere repeatedly note, experienced science reporters are increasingly rare in today’s newsrooms. Despite the books and websites devoted to enumerating his errors, Lomborg has little to fear from the increasingly inexperienced and harried “general assignment” reporters who staff news organizations and departments — or from news editors or from those who book guests for talk shows. And in their copy, Bjorn yesterday will readily be Bjorn again.


Lomborg’s ‘About’* $250 Billion (Annually) Proposal

$100B — clean energy research
$  1B — research on geoengineering proposals
$ 30B — adapting coastlines for rising sea levels
$  6B — adapting inland waterways for rising sea levels
$ 12B — adapting cities by reducing heat island effects
$ 33B — to promote global health
$ 32B — to reduce hunger
$ 10B — to provide clean water and sanitation
$ 22B — for education

*Note: The total for these figures is $246B, hence the “about.”


Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Critical Review of Bjorn Lomborg’s Cool It … and of Media ‘Complicity’ in Climate Contrarianism

  1. Eli Rabett says:

    Stephen Gardiner, in a A Perfect Moral Storm, confronts the ethical bankruptcy of Lomborg’s argument

    ————————–
    The first is the threat of a false dichotomy. Arguments from opportunity cost crucially rely on the idea that if a given project is chosen, then that choice forecloses some other option. But this is not the case in Lomborg’s version. Helping the poor and mitigating climate change are not obviously mutually exclusive. . .

    Second it is not clear even that the two projects are independent of each other, in the sense that they are fully separable opportunities rather than necessarily linked and perhaps mutually supporting policies. . . .

    Third, it is not clear that the opportunity that Lomborg wants to emphasize is really available.
    ——————————–

    After all, the poor have always been with us, and there is no evidence that rich countries will step in to eliminate poverty (or, as Gardiner points out to mitigate climate change). Fourth to Gardiner, this looks a lot like the first step in a “bait and switch” strategy.

    Do tell.
    ————————–

  2. Kaare Fog says:

    I recommend those who want to see other reviews of the film Cool it, and those who want to read a thorough critical treatment of the film, to go to this page on the Lomborg-errors web site

    http://www.Lomborg-errors.dk/Coolitfilm.htm