(I am being quite honest that I’m not sure which way to go on it, and promise not to chicken out with a shared award) let’s have a closer look. I will argue that not only that it is a close call as to which of these gentlemen does more harm to the world, but that they are more similar than one might at first suspect.
AN EMBLEMATIC LOMBORG ARTICLE
Lomborg argues (much as Curry has) that AR5 has suggested that climate change will be modest and that humans are not entirely at fault. He adopts a friendly and reassuring tone (except when fiercely critquing Joe Romm) and a position not far from Amory Lovins’:
When solar and other green technologies can take over cheaply, we will have addressed global warming – without the angst.
AN EMBLEMATIC MCPHERSON POSTING
Here, McPherson strikes some of his habitual doomster poses, expressing contempt for anyone and anything offering the slightest glimmer of hope. I don’t know about you, but I find reading this far more difficult than reading Lomborg. I find myself utterly pissed off.
In short, while I’m undecided as to who gets the award, I sure WANT to give it to McPherson.
CONTRASTING MCPHERSON AND LOMBORG
Some differences spring readily to mind:
- McPherson is willfully disagreeable. Lomborg is exactly opposite: if anything he could be criticized for being ingratiating.
- This figures because McPherson wants you to feel miserable, so you can go through his mystical transformation of acceptance of doom. Lomborg wants you to be happy. This makes Lomborg more likeable, but it does not make him less toxic to human progress. But McPherson meanwhile makes people deeply unhappy, so (presuming he is negligent in his thinking,as I will show) he is something of a malicious bastard.
- McPherson believes civilization is an unalloyed evil. Lomborg seems to never have seen a cloud on the horizon of unfettered capitalism. This is almost perfectly symmetrical as I discuss below.
- McPherson understands that economic growth without limit is nonsense. Lomborg does not address the issue and seems to believe it’s not relevant. This argues for Lomborg getting the award.
- McPherson’s audience is, for the most part, uninfluential and disgruntled. Lomborg plays to the powerful. This argues for Lomborg getting the award. But McPherson’s audience is engaged in environmental issues, and McPherson’s call to surrender and withdrawal removes some potentially energetic and brave participants from the climate sanity movements.
- Lomborg’s thoughts are based in the intellectual traditions of economics and seem well thought out and coherent. McPherson is well outside any intellectual tradition other than that the apocalyptic. So McPherson loses a point here for being anti-academic, subversive of the academy and quick to throw babies out with (what he sees as) bathwater.
THE FIRST SIMILARITY – CHERRY PICKING AND SPINNING
Both Lomborg and McPherson do not look for theories that fit the facts. They look for facts that support their theories. This is very common nowadays, but it is not something that should be emulated. It’s a huge part of our difficulty in moving forward.
Here’s an example from the cited McPherson piece:
As a carrier of energy — but definitely not a source — hydrogen is neither stable nor reliable. The notion of stability is dismissed with a single word: Hindenburg. The hype about hydrogen is extreme and extremely ridiculous.
It’s certainly true that hydrogen is not a supplier of energy. It could, however, be the efficient storage mechanism we need to scale up 100% renewables to provide baseload power. We could “Make H while the sun shines” and combust it (producing only water) at our leisure. To refute this, McPherson resorts to dirigibles. Is it possible that land-based technology in the twentyfirst century might be safer than a 1930s era floating balloon?
McPherson need not consider that. He has made his point. Arguments that support him are good enough, arguments that don’t are contemptible.
And here is Lomborg:
For sea-level rise, the IPCC now includes modeling of glacier responses of 3-20 centimeters (1-8 inches), leading to a higher total estimate of 40-63 cm (1.5 feet to 2 feet) by century’s end.
The IPCC’s moderate projections clearly contradict alarmist rhetoric,” such as the recurring claims from activists of temperature rise of more than 5°C (9°F), and sea level rise of 1-2m (3-6ft), not to mention Al Gore’s 6m (20 feet).
The odd thing about this is that it would not have been much less convincing had he not been completely wrong about IPCC; in the business-as-usual scenario IPCC’s “likely” best estimate
is in the range 52 cm – 98 cm.
As Stefan Rahmstorf points out on RealClimate:
of course there are folks like the professional climate change down-player Björn Lomborg, who in an international newspaper commentary wrote that IPCC gives “a total estimate of 40-62 cm by century’s end” – and also fails to mention that the lower part of this range requires the kind of strong emissions reductions that Lomborg is so viciously fighting
But it’s worse than it appears at first. This is the “likely” estimate. There is a significant chance that the outcome will be worse than that, by definition. In terms of betting, the range is good, but in terms of risk management, more attention has to be paid to the high end of that range and beyond. So contrary to Lomborg, 1 meter rises by 2100 are not really beyond policy consideration.
The offhand attack on Gore is merely contemptible. Gore said nothing about 2100. And one of the things people talking about sea level rise seem to ignore is that in business-as-usual scenarios, there isn’t just a big rise by 2100, but the rise will be accelerating at that time.
I will go into more detail on the two writers’ respective positions in upcoming articles. But notice the common thread. Look for something that sounds convincing and say it, whether there is a counterargument or not. These are the sorts of opinions that society should be discounting.
A SECOND SIMILARITY – PRETENSIONS OF PRECOGNITION
People are forever asking me, when I put on airs that I am a scientist who knows something about these things, what the future holds. Science, they have been told, makes “predictions”. So if I know so much (I’m not Dr Bloody Bronowski, though) why don’t I tell them what will happen.
Many people are confused when we talk about the “predictions” of science. They expect some sort of precognition! When a projection is imperfect they think science is “refuted”. But a projection is not a scientific prediction in this sense. A scientific prediction is more like “nothing that will happen will violate mass conservation”; science “predicts” that observations will fit in with certain patterns. The carbon will not disappear; the energy will balance.
Science cannot predict the future of the world, because the future of the world depends on what we humans decide to do.
This belief in precognition is debilitating. It basically concedes that we are not the masters of our destiny, that the future is written, that what is going to happen has already as good as happened. But we do not predict whether we will go to the ballpark. We decide whether we will go. The future we face is the result of our collective decision-making, not of some insurmountable or predictable process.
Philosophically, neither McPherson nor Lomborg lies strictly in delusional territory, in that a world in which we are doomed willy-nilly is conceivable, just as a world in which climate will do us no serious damage is conceivable. But, as I will show, they are both wrong, and negligently so.
Neither gentleman, in his cogitations, countenances any sort of risk management, any sort of possibility that they might be wrong. They believe themselves possessed of precognitive powers.
What’s more, these precognitive powers essentially are disempowering – they predict that the future is not ours to influence, that our behaviors are irrelevant to the outcome.
In the end, perfect optimism and perfect pessimism are equally debilitating. They deny the possibility of human agency in our future. They not only both do damage, there are ways in which the damage they do is very similar. Each provides a convenient set of excuses for inaction, with an extra added bonus of self-righteousness thrown in.
This, as Shrek said to the donkey, is the opposite of helping.
I am writing this series of articles because I see despair and overconfidence as alike, equally pernicious and equally lazy.
The world is ours to shape. It’s our opportunity and our responsibility. Let’s do what needs to be done to make the future a good one.