A Controversial Author that Deserves Some Attention - Part II (Does He?)


[Image credit: itMoves]

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about Bjørn Lomborg, an interesting author who gained notoriety back in 2007 by writing the book Cool it!, and who had impressed me with a few articles (like this one) where he called for a different, more rational approach to global warming. His two main arguments were, succinctly, that hysteria will only produce a backlash, and that every dollar spent in R&D and basic science will go many times further than most of the expensive and inefficient solutions we are using today. So far, so good.

Feeling guilty for not having read the book, I finally purchased it a week ago; what a disappointment...

First of all, for someone who claims to agree with the importance of global warming, I found his tone weirdly confrontational. No wonder many scientist were mad at Mr Lomborg when the book came out. From page one, he seems intent on minimizing (almost ridicule) the seriousness of the issue. Here and there, there is a Global warming is real, sure, and it is serious, but..., as if to reassure the reader that he is not a member of the Flat Earth Society, only to go back to his central It's not such a big deal argument. Mr Lomborg promises a cold look at the facts, but he seems as one sided as the people he is criticizing.

Second, he constantly uses the argument that other important global issues should take priority, and that they will cost a fraction of what most global warming solutions are going to cost us. I am not sure about you, but when it comes to my two year old son, I want him both well fed and well educated; it is not an either/or argument. For the same reason, avoiding unnecessary deaths in Africa for lack of mosquito nets, providing access to clean water, or improving AIDS prevention, should NOT be competing issue with global warming. If, as Mr Lomborg claims, we can avoid millions of deaths a year by spending just $3 billion in malaria and $7 bilion in HIV/AIDS, then we should just do it; my reaction is not screw global warming, let's fight malaria but rather why the hell aren't we doing it NOW?. I can totally understand the argument (even if I don't agree with it) that second world countries deserve to grow, taking hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, before they take care of problems like global warming. But pitching starving African kids versus CO₂ emissions smells like cheap manipulation. Furthermore, in the era of the trillion dollar financial bailout, when $10 billion feels like a rounding error, we can and should be doing both.

The third disappointment relates to the weird, almost silly way in which the solution is proposed. I was expecting that after spending three quarters of the book dismantling common misconceptions about global warming, the last chapters would be dedicated to explain the solutions. Instead, Mr Lomborg dispatches with The Solution in, literally, a couple of pages by basically saying let's spend $25 billion a year in better R&D and call it a day. That's it. There is no talk about where, what kind or how. Is it better to push for solar research, or is it going to take nuclear power after all? No explanations whatsoever are given about these miraculous R&D projects. It almost feels as if the pages were ripped off the book (or the .mobi file got corrupted in this case).

Lastly, we have the astonishing revelation that melting glaciers will not increase sea level. If I was good at something in high school (other than drawing cars while in class) was Physics, so Mr Lomborg's explanation about how floating ice doesn't increase water volume when it melts, being so basic, made me feel like an idiot. How could have missed that one? I immediately set up the experiment you see in the introductory image; indeed, the water level doesn't rise when the ice melts. Shit. How could I have missed it? More importantly, how could Al Gore and every climate scientist been wrong about oceans rising? Well, it just takes two minutes at Wikipedia, plus another five at Google double checking, to find out the problem with Mr Lomborg's argument: ice already in the oceans won't raise sea levels, and most of the North Pole is indeed floating, but 98% of Antarctica is on land, and therefore above water. We can argue wether is plausible for the whole Antarctica to melt, and about wether we would have time to adapt since it will happen so slowly, but the numbers don't lie: if it were to melt, oceans would rise by around 70 meters (230 feet), a dramatic increase. This is not an opinion, this is simple math*, so it is outrageous that page after page Mr Lomborg continues to use the same argument (ice caps are floating therefore sea levels won't rise) when all we need is some high school Physics (and some Elementary school math) to prove otherwise.

Quite frankly, this is not the book I was looking for. I was expecting a somewhat centrist point of view, about how to avoid catastrophism, and how to use reason to move forward in the climate debate, mixing realism (which involves economic growth) with a sincere concern for where we are heading (a world jumping from three to eight or nine Americums by 2030). What I found instead was a text full of criticism (some of it bogus, like the ice melting is not an issue) and sadly, nothing in terms of solutions.

Having read the book, I think I'll save the $9 and pass on watching the Cool it! documentary. His interesting columns (which you can find here, and which I will keep reading) promised much more.



* The simple math goes like this (rounded numbers):

  • Area of Artartica: 13,800,000 km²
  • Mean thickness of ice: 1.8 km
  • therefore Volume = 13,800,000 x 1.8 = 24,840,000 km³
  • of which 98% is land based >> 24,840,000 x 0.98 = 24,343,000 km³ (volume of ice that will increase ocean level if melted).
  • World oceans total surface = 361,800,000 km² (about 70,8% of the surface of the Earth).
  • ...now we only need to divide volume of ice by ocean surface...
  • 24,343,000 km³ / 361,800,000 km²= 0.067 km = 67 meters (or 220 feet)

Of course, this calculation assumes that ALL the ice would melt, something not expected even in the worst case scenario. It also assumes we believe the earth is not flat ;-)