Thursday, July 5, 2012

Lomborg's lies, part one


, author(1), starts his latest screed by pitching his typical name-brand nonsense:
So, for each person who might die from global warming, about 210 people die from health problems that result from a lack of clean water and sanitation, from breathing smoke generated by burning dirty fuels (such as dried animal dung) indoors, and from breathing polluted air outdoors.
By focusing on measures to prevent global warming, the advanced countries might help to prevent many people from dying. That sounds good until you realize that it means that 210 times as many people in poorer countries might die needlessly as a result—because the resources that could have saved them were spent on windmills, solar panels, biofuels, and other rich-world fixations.
Before we proceed to the problems with this argument, let's have a moment of silence for all the brains cells that have died confronting the superlative illogic of Lomborgianism.

Can I briefly take note of the top five ways that argument self-destructs? To wit:

1. The concept that we should ignore a deadly, destructive, expensive threat because there is some greater threat to human welfare somewhere in the world is a particularly rank fallacy of smug commentary. Presumably it would implied ignoring highway safety as long as more people are dying of cancer, and ignoring the 9/11 attacks as long as people are dying of highway accidents.

Taken to its logical extreme, the ignore-this-problem-there-are-bigger-ones fallacy leads to a world where we are all working with all our strength on one and only one issue -- presumably something to do with Africa -- whilst drunken unseatbelted teenagers smash into guardrails, Colorado burns unchecked, and AIDS sweeps through our cities without an antiretroviral medication in sight.

2. Anybody notice that while comparing the size of problems, Lomborg is comparing global warming to three other major environmental issues combined?

"So, for each person who might die from global warming, about 210 people die from health problems that result from a lack of clean water and sanitation, from breathing smoke generated by burning dirty fuels (such as dried animal dung) indoors, and from breathing polluted air outdoors."

This a stupid game, this which-issue-is-bigger crap, but if you are going to compare the relative size and importance of issues, don't you need to compare one issue to one other issue? The approach Lomborg takes here is like asking yourself: Am I obese? And answering: "Certainly not; I weigh significantly less than my three closest friends combined!"

3. Not content with this wildly inappropriate assertion, Lomborg doubles down on crazy by asserting that not only is indoor air pollution (plus water pollution plus outdoor air pollution) a bigger deal than global warming, if we stopped wasting time on global warming, no one would die of indoor air pollution (plus water pollution plus outdoor air pollution) ever again. Everyone who suffers from these ills "die[s] needlessly" because of "rich-world fixations."

Wrap your mind around that one: we are supposed to believe that the tentative and uncoordinated efforts to address climate change -- on which the world spends far less than a penny of every dollar it makes -- are depleting the world of all the resources it would need to insure no one dies of air or water pollution every again. Pristine sewers will serve a billion new toilets. Cooking fires will vanish from the world. Every industry in every country around the world will completely end the production of toxic wastes that inevitably end up in our water and our air. We won't burn coal any longer -- wait, what? Leading me to . . .

4. Reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are not competing objections. The most direct and effective solution to both is to burn less fossil fuels (2), which are the primary source of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

To present these issues as competing with one another is nonsense. That's like saying the rich world's fixation with preventing lung cancer is distracting us from the important work of preventing emphysema.

Burning fossil fuels, especially coal and gasoline, is also an important source of water pollution. Just like quitting smoking cuts your risk both of getting lung cancer and developing emphysema, low-carbon energy sources and greater efficiency also reduce air and water pollution.

5. Even if these were two (OK, four) separate problems, which they are not, the way Lomborg has carried out his calculation of 210:1 doesn't stand up to the most causal scrutiny. 
Global warming is by no means our main environmental threat. Even if we assumed—unreasonably—that it caused all deaths from floods, droughts, heat waves, and storms, this total would amount to just 0.06 percent of all deaths in developing countries. In comparison, 13 percent of all Third World deaths result from water and air pollution.
Does Lomborg really think we are dumb enough to buy the idea that the only way global warming can kill you is if you are struck by a giant tidal wave or struck by lighting? What about something simpler like falling agricultural yields:
John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said those in the southernmost sections of his state “are close to or past that point of no return,” while elsewhere, “there’s a lot of praying; it’s hanging on by a thread.”
“These 100-degree temperatures are just sucking the life out of everything,” he said.
But that's not even the worst of this bogus comparison; stay tuned for part two.

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1. For those who don't know Dr. Lomborg, he is the author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," by which he refers to himself, although he is neither an environmentalist nor a skeptic. This book was cited by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (I want one of those for our American "skeptics") for:
  1. Fabrication of data;
  2. Selective discarding of unwanted results (selective citation);
  3. Deliberately misleading use of statistical methods;
  4. Distorted interpretation of conclusions;
  5. Plagiarism;
  6. Deliberate misinterpretation of others' results.
2. Including wood, commonly burned in inefficient, smoky, dangerous indoor cooking fires.

6 comments:

  1. Great article, thanks for the tip!

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  2. My pleasure. Seems like a nice way to counter/deflect Mr. Lomborg.

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  3. Cool blog, too. I will be having that for the blogroll, if you please.

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  4. Well, you're aptly named, at least.

    Everybody else seems to understand Lomborg's central thesis--that if we decide to spend trillions each and every year between now and 2100, it is not unreasonable to assume that other worthy uses of that money will not receive funding.

    I assume you will report the outcome of the Danish pastry attacks and their subsequent withdrawal of their conjured up attacks on Lomborg. Evidently the pie in the face Lomborg received was enough calorific feedback.

    And please quit calling me Steve. It just reinforces the validity of your eponymous blog.

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  5. There'a an even simpler and more obvious problem with Lomborg's thesis.

    Overhauling our energy systems simply has nothing to do with poverty, no more than do our purchases of deodorant, music, luxury yachts and the latest hemline. The money we waste on nonessential things makes the funding for climate mitigation pale in comparison. We won't stop our feckless spending simply because some faceless person somewhere is huddling in a stinky twilight provided by a kerosene lantern and trying to cope with dysentery. This is true today and it will continue to be true.

    We could have fixed all the problems Lomborg cites a long time ago but we did not. The amount of money necessary to mend the ills he speaks of is not so much but we have always chosen not to spend it. We know our choices and we make them; our actions have very little to do with helping disadvantaged people.

    We could boost the income of the poorest third of the world's population by an order of magnitude through contributions from the incomes of the top fifth earners and the effect on those contributors wouldn't even be noticeable except through careful accounting; no sacrifices need be made to make a stunning difference in the lives of the world's poor. But we don't do that. We don't do it now and we won't do it tomorrow, regardless of what we choose to do about our energy future.

    We simply don't behave in the manner Lomborg suggests; this isn't a matter of us carefully assessing whether to do Good Work A or Good Work B. Our amply demonstrated natural inclination and typical mode of behavior is indifference when it comes to helping the poor and there's not a shred of evidence that we're going to change.

    What possible evidence can Lomborg cite to claim that human nature has changed, that we'll now do what we've always refused to do previously?

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