Too much skepticism of the skeptic

Note: Blog posts are the opinions of the individual blogger, and not necessarily of the Appropedia Foundation or the Appropedia community. (We may decide to put a note like this on all blog posts, but it seemed particularly important for a topic like Bjørn Lomborg.)

Reading Bjørn Lomborg’s ideas, I’m learning* that he’s not a climate skeptic, and many of his ideas are sound. Things are getting better for most people in the world (even if it still sucks for many), water wars aren’t as likely as some make out (it’s usually cheaper to build desalination plants – not great, but better than war), most pollutants decrease as societies become prosperous, pesticides in our diet are not a major cause of cancer (compared to coffee and alcohol), and of course, that we should do cost-benefit analyses for solutions to our problems. And as for his image as a climate skeptic, even in The Skeptical Environmentalist he acknowledged the reality of climate change – though he questions the best response.

In this light it looks like an important contribution to the debate – if only the debate hadn’t been conducted at an emotive rather than factual level.

That said, I still have major problems with some of his arguments, and a central plank of his arguments, prioritization, is summed up in these quotes by his critics (from the Wikipedia article):

Lomborg specialises in presenting the reader with false choices – such as the assertion that money not spent on preventing climate change could be spent on bringing clean water to the developing world, thereby saving more lives per dollar of expenditure. Of course, in the real world, these are not the kind of choices we are faced with. Why not take the $60 billion from George Bush’s stupid Son of Star Wars program and use that cash to save lives in Ethiopia? — from a pie thrower.

and:

As Lomborg notes, “We will never have enough money,” and therefore, “Prioritization is absolutely essential.” Why, then, does he weigh the environment only against hospitals and childcare, rather than against, say, industry subsidies and defense spending? — Grist Magazine

I also have never seen much attention to the technological impact of carbon pricing, and it seems like Lomborg is no different. By sending a price signal now, we encourage money and effort to be spent on solutions that could turn the climate change challenge around. E.g. What happens when solar becomes cheaper than coal, and energy storage becomes affordable? A massive transition to a post-carbon economy will begin, that will make most of the models irrelevant. (To be fair he does conclude that there should be investment in renewable energy technologies, but I don’t think he discusses the market-based approach.)

There’s also the fact that many measures to stop global warming, especially efficiency measures, are an economic benefit, not a cost at all.

Of course, I’ve been wrong on Lomborg before, and I may still be.

But how do we reach a more intelligent level of debate? We can’t wait for the mass media – that’s not their field. I’d like to see Lomborg release his work under a free license, so we could remix it, expand and assess arguments, and plug holes, making the comparisons that he himself missed.

*Okay, a friend has been defending Lomorg to me for ages, but I never quite believed him.

Originally posted, by the same author, at Pablo Garuda.