The Dangerous Dane: Bjorn Lomborg’s Many Mistakes

By Chris Barton, Staff Writer

Lets talk about Bjorn Lomborg.

Over the past 2 weeks, Bjorn has shown up twice in my readings for class. Twice is two times too many for this guy to be taken seriously in an academic setting.
That hair.

In case you don’t know of him, Bjorn Lomborg is the infamous Dane behind the contentious classic “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” the head of the controversial Copenhagen Consensus, and another great reason why no one should ever go for the ‘frosted tips’ hairstyle.

Lomborg is a political scientist by training, but his biggest ‘contribution’ to public discourse has been in the field of environmental economics. Bjorn blasted onto the scene in 2001 by pissing off just about everyone (except the Heartland Institute) with the ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist,” in which he claims that the biggest environmental problems of our time, from overpopulation to global warming, are just actually not worth worrying about. Turns out (surprise!) the world is actually getting better, and so we don’t have to worry about all those costly fixes to things like climate change.

To be fair, Lomborg’s monolithic monograph is not obviously incoherent. Whatever his purpose in writing such a book, Bjorn did his research. And the message, when stated in his terms, is noble: “Let’s put our money where it will have the greatest impact,” he pleads, “and let’s not get caught up in the alarmist rhetoric and short-term thinking of advocacy groups.”
He got an A+ on that spelling test.

But put another way, the book’s message is: “You know what all those scientists have been saying? Yeah, it’s crap, definitely not what we should be worrying about.” To less skeptical environmentalists and to the scientists whom Lomborg attempts to snub, this was a personal attack. To climate change deniers, this was vindication. To policy makers, this reignited climate as a minefield of public opinion. And to those affected by the global problems that Bjorn so casually dismissed, the book was an attack on all the progress that they had made and a dismissal of their right to a better life.

And so the skeptical environmentalist’s sunny statistics were quickly clouded over by a global warming-induced superstorm of reproach and condemnation. Many decried his weak scientific credentials and his selective use of data, one guy wrote an entire book dedicated to exposing his fishy use of footnotes, the Danes disowned him, concluding that “by customary scientific standards, the defendant [Lomborg] had acted at odds with good scientific practice in his systematically one-sided choice of data and in his arguments,” and recently Australian universities have refused to touch Bjorn’s Think Tank with an 18-foot pole, despite the fact that their government is offering $4 million and practically begging universities to adopt him. His work has lent legitimacy and ‘scientific’ backing to climate change deniers, it has undermined policies designed to relieve people’s suffering, and has pitched natural scientists against economists in a disciplinary feud that has undermined faith in both disciplines.

Though what seems most damning to me is the simple fact that Bjorn is arguing against action. Lomborg’s argument is not for any particular fix (though he does offer suggestions), but rather against continuing our battle with climate change.

In times of crisis, inaction means suffering. As the ice melts, the seas rise, the crops die, biodiversity drops, freshwater becomes scarce, storms ravage the coastlines, and conflict increases, people are affected. Although Lomborg argues for opening new fronts on the battle against human suffering, he mostly argues for ending the battle on climate change – an area of undeniable importance in which we have already made huge progress. In doing so, he implies that the cost of not combating climate change – a collapsing ecosystem, resource scarcity, greater inequality, the loss of people’s homes and their lives – is an acceptable cost.
Low-lying Bangladesh will suffer from both erosion due to sea-level rise and from more frequent and severe storms, as well as a loss in agricultural capacity. These people are not Bjorn’s ‘priority.’

Bjorn’s arguments make a false comparison: do this instead of that; improve indoor cooking instead of taxing carbon; invest in reducing poverty instead of renewable energy. But all of these things are necessary to improve humanity’s lot on this planet, and failure to invest in them comes with the moral weight of knowing that we could have helped, but decided not to. One day Bjorn will meet a climate refugee, and he will have to contend with the fact that he argued against saving her home.

So Bjorn Lomborg is questionable economist who published a sketchy book advocating for a morally dubious position. But, I must admit, my heart does go out to Bjorn. He’s a vegetarian, a Greenpeace supporter, and a bit of a gay rights advocate; if I met him I bet we’d get along great. And, I mean, he looks so freaking friendly. I do believe that his ideas are dangerous, but I don’t assume that he ever had any insidious intentions. His mistake, it seems to me, was doubling down and staking his career on a flawed idea, rather than taking heed of the rest of the scientific community. To me, Bjorn Lomborg is much more of a tragic figure with an unfortunate legacy than a nefarious evil-doer out to destroy the world.

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