Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Tony Abbott and his attempts to degrade scientific research in Australia

It is well known that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott believes that climate change science is absolute crap, but even he has exceeded expectations of what his passive-aggressive brand of climate change denialism will bring forth when he appointed self-described climate policy sceptic, Bjørn Lomborg*, as an adviser to federal government on foreign aid delivery and arranged for the Australian taxpayer to fund Lomborg to the tune of $4 million now that the Danish Government has defunded his pseudo-scientific approach to research and American donors are not enthusiastically supporting this 'homeless' think tank the Copenhagen Consensus Center Inc.


Excerpt from one of the Lomborg Errors documents:

"The Skeptical Environmentalist" has given rise to extensive public discussion and debate, both in Denmark and internationally. There have been enthusiastic reviews in some of the world's top newspapers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, and in The Economist.

The magazine Scientific American asked four leading experts to assess Bjørn Lomborg's treatment of their own fields: global warming, energy, population and biodiversity, devoting 11 pages to this in January 2002.

Stephen Schneider: "Global Warming, Neglecting the Complexities"

Schneider is a particularly respected researcher who has been discussing these problems for 30 years with thousands of fellow scientists and policy analysts in myriad articles and formal meetings.

Most of Bjørn Lomborg's quotes allude to secondary literature and media articles. Bjørn Lomborg uses peer-reviewed articles only when they support his rose-coloured point of view. By contrast, the authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were subjected to three rounds of audits by hundreds of external experts.

Bjørn Lomborg employs no clear and discrete distinction between various forms of probabilities. He makes frequent use of the word "plausible" but, strangely for a statistician, he never attaches any probability to what is "plausible". IPCC gives a large "range" for the majority of projections, but Bjørn Lomborg selects the least serious outcomes.

Stephen Schneider then provides a specific criticism of Bjørn Lomborg's four main arguments:

1. Climate Science: Bjørn Lomborg quotes an article in Nature (from the Hadley Center, 1989), uncritically and without the authors' caveats. BL quotes Lindzen's controversial "iris effect" as evidence that IPCC's climate range needs to be reduced by a factor of almost three. BL either fails to understand this mechanism or else omits to state that the data stem from only a few years' data in a small part of a single ocean. Extrapolating this sample to the entire globe is wrong. Similarly, he quotes a controversial Danish paper claiming that solar magnetic events can modulate cosmic radiation and produce a clear connection between global low-level cloud cover and incoming cosmic rays as an alternative to CO2 in order to explain climate change. The reason IPCC discounts this theory is "that its advocates have not demonstrated any radiative forcing sufficient to match that of much more parsimonious theories, such as anthropogenic forcing."

2. Emissions scenarios: Bjørn Lomborg assumes that over the next several decades, improved solar machines and other new technologies will crowd fossil fuels off the market, which will be done so efficiently that the IPCC scenarios vastly overestimate the chance of major increases in CO2. This is not so much analysis as wishful thinking contingent on policies capable of reinforcing the incentives for such development, and BL is opposed to such policies. No credible analyst can just assert that a fossil-fuel-intensive scenario is not "plausible" and, typically, BL gives no probability that this might occur.

3. Cost-benefit calculations: Bjørn Lomborg's most egregious distortions and feeblest analyses are his citations of cost-benefit calculations. First, he chides the governments that modified the penultimate draft of the IPCC report. But there was a reason for that modification, which downgraded aggregate cost-benefit studies: these studies fail to consider so many categories of damage held to be important by political leaders, and it is therefore not the "total cost-benefit" analysis that Bjørn Lomborg wants. Again, BL cites only a single value for climate damage - 5 trillion dollars - although the same articles indicate that climate change can vary from benefits to catastrophic losses. It is precisely because the responsible scientific community cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes at a high level of confidence that climate mitigation policies are seriously proposed. For some inexplicable reasons, BL fails to provide a range of climate damage avoided, only a range for climate policy costs. This estimate is based solely on the economics literature but ignores the findings of engineers and does not take into account pre-existing market imperfections such as energy-inefficient machinery, houses and processes. Thus, five US Dept. of Energy laboratories have suggested that such a substitution can actually reduce some emissions at below-zero costs.

4. The Kyoto Protocol: Bjørn Lomborg's invention of a 100-year regime for the Kyoto Protocol is a distortion of the climate policy process. Most analysts know that "an extended" Kyoto Protocol cannot deliver the 50% reduction in CO2 emissions needed to prevent large increases at the end of the 21st century and during the 22nd century, and that developed and developing countries alike will have to cooperate to fashion cost-effective solutions over time. Kyoto is a starting point, and yet with his 100-year projection BL would squash even this first stage.

Bjørn Lomborg's book is published by the social sciences side of Cambridge University Press. It is no wonder, then, that the reviewers failed to spot BL's unbalanced presentation of the natural science. It is a serious omission on the part of an otherwise respected publishing house that natural-science researchers were not taken on board. "Lomborg admits, 'I am not myself an expert as regards ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS' - truer words are not found in the rest of the book".

John P. Holdren: "Energy: Asking the Wrong Questions"

Bjørn Lomborg's chapter on energy covers a scant 19 pages and is devoted almost entirely to attacking the belief that the world is running out of energy, a belief that BL appears to regard as part of the "environmental litany". But only a handful of environmental researchers, if any at all, believe this today. Conversely, what they do say about this topic is that we are not running out of energy, but out of environment, i.e. the capacity of air, water, soil and biota to absorb, without intolerable consequences for human well-being, the effects of energy extraction, transport, energy transformation and energy use. They also say that we are running out of the ability to manage other risks of the energy supply, such as overdependence on Middle East oil and the risk of nuclear energy systems leaking weapons materials and expertise into the hands of proliferation-prone nations or terrorists. This has been the position of the environmental researchers for decades (e.g. from 1971, 74, 76 and 77).

So whom is BL so resoundingly refuting with his treatise on the abundance of world energy resources? The professional analysts have not been arguing that the world is running out of energy, only that the world could run out of cheap oil. BL's dismissive rhetoric notwithstanding, this is not a silly question, nor one with an easy answer.

Oil is currently the most valuable of the conventional fossil fuels that have long provided the bulk of the world's energy, including almost all energy for transport. The quantity of recoverable oil resources is thought to be far less than coal and natural gas, and those reserves are located in the politically volatile Middle East. Much of the rest is located offshore and in other difficult and environmentally fragile areas. There is, accordingly, a serious technical literature, produced mainly by geologists and economists, exploring the questions of when world oil production will peak and begin to decline, and what the price might be in 2010, 2030 or 2050 - with considerable disagreement among informed professionals.

BL seems not to recognize that the transition from oil to other sources will not necessarily be a smooth one or occur at prices as low as the price of oil today. BL shows no sign of understanding why there is real debate about this among serious-minded people.

BL offers no explanation of the distinction between "proved reserves" and "remaining ultimately recoverable resources", nor of the fact that the majority of the latter category is located in the Middle East, but placidly informs us that it is "imperative for our future energy supply that this region remains reasonably peaceful" - as if that observation does not undermine any basis for complacency.

BL is right in his basic proposition that the resources of oil, oil shale, nuclear fuels and renewable energy are immense. But that is disputed by only few environmental researchers-and no well-informed ones. But his handling of the technical, economic and environmental factors that will govern the circumstances and quantities in which these resources might actually be used is superficial, muddled and often plain wrong. His mistakes include apparent misreadings and misunderstandings of statistical data, the very kinds of errors he claims are pervasive in the writings of environmentalists. By the same token, there are other elementary blunders of a type that should not be committed by any self-respecting statistician. Thus, it is wrong that measures in the developed countries have eliminated the vast majority of SO2 and NO2 from smoke from coal-burning facilities: it is only a minor proportion. Other examples are given, and when it comes to nuclear energy, plutonium is such a great security problem as regards the potential production of nuclear weapons that it may preclude use of the "breeding" approach unless a new technology is invented that is just as cheap.

BL uses precise figures, where there is no basis for such, and he produces assertions based on single citations and without detailed elaborations, which is far from representative of the literature.

Most of what is problematic about the global energy picture is not covered by BL in the chapter on energy but in the chapters dealing with air pollution, acid rain, water pollution and global warming. The latter has been devastatingly critiqued by Schneider.

There is no space to deal with the other energy-related chapters, but their level of superficiality, selectivity and misunderstandings is roughly consistent with what has been reviewed here.

"Lomborg is giving skepticism - and statisticians - a bad name."

John Bongaarts: "Population: Ignoring Its Impact"

Bjørn Lomborg's view that the number of people is not the problem is simply wrong. The global population growth rate has declined slowly, but absolute growth remains close to the very high levels observed in past decades. Any discussion of global trends is misleading without taking account of the enormous contrasts between world regions, where the poorest nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America have rapidly growing and young populations, whereas Europe, North America and Japan have virtually zero, and in some cases even negative, growth. As a consequence, all future growth will be concentrated in the developing countries, where four-fifths of the world's population lives: from 4.87 to 6.72 billion between 2000 and 2025, or just as large as the record-breaking increase in the past quarter of the (21st) century. This growth in the poorest parts of the world continues virtually unabated. The growth has led to high population density in many countries, but BL dismisses concerns about this issue, based on a simplistic and misleading calculation of density as the ratio of people to land. In Egypt this would make 88/km2, but deducting the uncultivated and unirrigated part of Egypt, it makes 2,000/km2 - no wonder Egypt has to import foodstuffs! Measured correctly, population densities have reached extremely high levels, particularly in large countries in Asia and the Middle East. This makes demands in terms of agricultural expansion on more difficult, hitherto untilled terrain, increased water consumption and a struggle for the scarce water resources between households, industry and farming. The upshot will be to make growth in food production more expensive to achieve. BL's view that increased food production is a non-issue rests heavily on the fact that foodstuffs are cheap; but BL overlooks the fact that it is large-scale subsidies to farmers, particularly in the developed countries, that keep prices artificially low.

Appreciably expanding farming will result in a reduction of woodland areas, loss of species, soil erosion, and pesticide and fertilizer run-offs. Reducing this impact is possible but costly, and would be easier if the growth in population were slower.

BL overlooks the fact that population growth contributes to poverty. First, children have to be fed, housed, clothed and educated - while economically non-productive - then jobs have to be created once they reach adulthood. Unemployment lowers wages to subsistence level. Counteracting population growth has fuelled "economic miracles" in a number of East Asian countries.

BL overlooks the fact that the favourable trend in life expectancy is due to intensive efforts on the part of governments and the international community, but despite this, 800 million are still malnourished and 1.2 billion are living in abject poverty. Population is not the main cause of the world's social, economic and environmental problems, but it is a substantial contributory factor. If future growth can be slowed down, future generations would be better off.

Thomas Lovejoy: "Biodiversity: Dismissing Scientific Progress"

In less than a page, Bjørn Lomborg discounts the value of biodiversity both as a library for the life sciences and as a provider of ecosystem services (partly due to the general absence of markets for these services). When he does get round to extinction, he confounds the process by which a species is judged to have been made extinct with estimates and projections of extinction rates. In contrast to BL's claim, the loss of species from habitat remnants is a widely documented phenomenon. A number of factual errors are highlighted. BL takes particular exception to Norman Myer's 1979 estimate that 40,000 species are being lost every year, failing to acknowledge that Myer deserves credit for being the first to point out that the number was large and at a time when it was difficult to do so accurately. Current estimates are given in terms of the increases over normal extinction rates. BL cynically spurns this method, because such estimates sound more ominous. Instead, he ought to acknowledge that this method is an improvement in the science. These rates are currently 100 to 1,000 times' the normal, and are certain to rise as natural habitats continue to dwindle.

The chapter on acid rain is equally poorly researched and presented. BL establishes that acid rain has nothing to do with urban pollution, though it is a fact that nitrogen compounds (NOx) from traffic are a major source. Errors are pointed out in BL's view of acid rain on forests.

The chapter on forests suffers from BL not knowing that FAO's data are marred by the weight of so many different definitions and methods that any statistician should know they are not valid in terms of a time series. There are errors in the figures from Indonesia in 1997. BL confuses forests with tree plantations, and asserts that the only value of forests is harvestable trees. That is analogous to valuing computer chips for their silicon content only.

It is important to know that while deforestation and acid rain are reversible, extinction of species is not.

BL entirely overlooks the fact that environmental scientists identify a problem, posit hypotheses, test them and, having reached their conclusions, suggest remedial policies. By focusing on the first and last stages in this process, BL implies incorrectly that all environmentalists do is exaggerate.

Dr Peter Raven, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002 said of Lomborg: "...he's not an environmental scientist and he doesn't understand the fields that he's talking about so in that case, if you have a point to make and you want to get to that point, which is: everything's fine, everybody's wrong, there is no environmental problem, you just keep making that point. It's like a school exercise or a debating society, which really doesn't take into account the facts". 
"Raven said that the success of Lomborg's book 'demonstrates the vulnerability of the scientific process -- which is deliberative and hypothesis driven -- to outright misrepresentation and distortion.'"

Newsweek 21 February 2010:

Lomborg opens Cool It with a long discussion on polar bears, arguing that no more than two (of 20) groups are declining in population, that their numbers are not falling overall, and, in places where they are, that it is not a result of global (or Arctic) warming. In fact, polar-bear populations in warming regions are rising, he argues, suggesting that a warmer world will be beneficial to the bears. As Friel shows, Lomborg sourced that to a blog post and to a study that never mentioned polar bears. But he ignored the clear message of the most authoritative assessment of the bears' population trends, namely, research by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It found that bear populations are indeed declining where the Arctic is warming. In fact, concluded the IUCN, polar-bear populations "have declined significantly" where spring temperatures have risen dramatically. It also offered an explanation for Lomborg's claim that numbers are falling most where temps are getting colder: that area happens to be where there is unregulated hunting.
For his claim that the polar-bear population "has soared," Lomborg cited a 1999 study (scroll down to the paper by Ian Stirling). But that study described declining birthrates and other threats to the bears, blaming warmer spring temperatures that cause the sea ice to break up. Overall, since the mid-1980s polar-bear numbers have fallen, which experts attribute to global warming. The source is thus not exactly the solid endorsement of Lomborg's claim about thriving polar bears that one might assume.

Climate Council 14 April 2015:

The Australian Government today announced they would contribute $4m for Danish climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg to establish a new “consensus centre” at the University of Western Australia.

In the face of deep cuts to the CSIRO and other scientific research organisations, it's an insult to Australia’s scientific community.

As the Climate Commission, we were abolished by the Abbott Government in 2013 on the basis that our $1.5 million annual operating costs were too expensive. We relaunched as the Climate Council after thousands of Australians chipped in to the nation’s biggest crowd-funding campaign…

It seems extraordinary that the Climate Commission, which was composed of Australia’s best climate scientists, economists and energy experts, was abolished on the basis of a lack of funding and yet here we are three years later and the money has become available to import a politically-motivated think tank to work in the same space.

This is why the work of the Climate Council is so important - to counter this continuing ideological attempt at deceiving the Australian public.

Mr Lomborg’s views have no credibility in the scientific community. His message hasn’t varied at all in the last decade and he still believes we shouldn't take any steps to mitigate climate change. When someone is unwilling to adapt their view on the basis of new science or information, it's usually a sign those views are politically motivated. 

 Bjørn Lomborg states he is a director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, adjunct professor at University of Western Australia, and visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School.
He further states that he has an M.A. in political science (University of Aarhus) and a Ph.D. in political science (University of Copenhagen).
His degrees are in social science and not in any of the scientific disciplines which inform credible climate research.

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