Realists need not apply…

Continuing from previous two posts on the “interview” of Nic Balthazar, something that was clear from the beginning was that Balthazar was not very keen on “realism”. I certainly can understand why and will explain it later in this post. One of those realists that Balhazar looked down on is a certain “climate critic” (whatever that may be) (translated from Dutch):

A climate critic was in De Morgen (Belgian newspaper) this weekend and he said two things a) that two percent [sic], that is not enough anyway, also we should not cheer about it. Even if we get there, it would be far too little and 2) [sic] there are many other important things for many people on this planet, namely, do I survive today? Do I survive this week?

My first thought was that it must be Bjørn Lomborg. He got, to my surprise (and that of many others), interviewed in that (left-wing) newspaper only about two weeks ago. I knew that Lomborg indeed claims that there are more important things than climate, but then, as far as I knew, he didn’t claim that “two degrees is not enough/far too little”.

Later in the interview that critic was mentioned again, this time by name. It is Lomborg indeed. But he was mentioned after yet another analogy (translated from Dutch):

That is why I make that comparison again. It is as if all firefighters say, now we have a fire, we lost the attic anyway. If we look at what disasters have happened on this planet this year. That is already the new normal and we will get at least double that. That is something we all will experience. We are going to a 1.5 degree of warming. But, saying at that moment to that firefighter, look, pfff, then we’ll just leave the rest. Yes, but no, there may still be children sleeping on the second floor! Yes, but they just went to sleep … Who does something like that? And yes, I do not understand the Bjørn Lomborgs of this world. To say that there are other things that people are worried about, I can understand that, but that is because they are not … [interrupted by the interviewer]

This analogy is as fallacious as the previous one. The house on fire with the attic already lost, suggests that climate change is wreaking havoc right now. But that was not in the AR5 report and, on first sight, seems not to be in SR1.5 report either. Besides, 1 year is weather, not climate.

It also suggests that someone (the owner or the firefighter, it is not really clear from the analogy) knows what is happening and decides, in full awareness, that he will do nothing to put out the fire (therefor the outcry “who does something like that”). This is not a realistic analogy because nobody will decide not to put out a fire in a house when he has the ability to do so. I think it is again a false comparison, based on the overstatement of the certainty we have about the problem as well as the solution.

More importantly, mentioning Lomborg in the same breath therefor seems to suggest that Balthazar assumes Lomborg is doing this very thing: realizing that disaster will happen yet deciding to do nothing because “it is too expensive” (as was clear from a previous part in the interview). That doesn’t seem to be the Lomborg that I read before. It looks more like the interviewer and interviewee crafted a strawman that could easily slashed down.

But then, what did Lomborg say exactly about this issue?

I first went to the De Morgen article that had the Lomborg interview, but it was a members-only article, so I could only view the first two paragraphs. The second paragraph states that the proposed measures will cost us a lot of money and will only have a tiny impact. Is this what the interviewer meant with “it would be not enough/far too little”?

I then went to Lomborg’s website and found the post titled Focus on climate change draws resources best used elsewhere about this very issue.

Screenshot Bjørn Lomborg article: Focus on climate change draws resources best used elsewhere

It was published in the Australian a few week before the Lomborg interview in the Belgian newspaper. A pity that it is again a members-only page… Luckily, it is also available here.

This story is much more nuanced. Lomborg believes that climate change is real (that is probably where the interviewer and Balthazar went with the wrong conclusion), but not our only problem:

It is given so much attention that it is sacrilegious to even point out that we face other vast, complex, expensive challenges including war and domestic violence, super-killers such as tuberculosis and HIV, hunger and a lack of clean drinking water, gender inequality – and the list goes on. Many of these global challenges have a greater cost and have policy responses that are better understood, more easily implemented and will help humanity much more than our current response to climate change.

Climate change is real but it’s not our only problem – and it’s not the apocalypse painted in the media. The IPCC’s last major planetary survey calculated the global effects of unstopped climate change. The scientists established that globally the effect of climate change will be similar to a single recession. It will mean the average person forgoes benefits equivalent to between 0.2 per cent and 2 per cent of income in the 2070s. Bear in mind that by then incomes will have increased by at least 300 per cent to 400 per cent.

Lomborg also covers some exaggerations, a string of failed doom stories and a short reality check on the state of alternative energy.

That is something completely different than how he is described in the interview. Someone who doesn’t know who Lomborg is or the ideas he has, will surely be misguided by the description given in the interview. As he is presented there, it will be understood as “he doesn’t want to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement because it is too expensive, although he thinks it is necessary”, while in reality it is more nuanced. Something like “it is not smart to invest large sums of money on a solution that will only have a tiny impact, but comes with a huge cost, money that could better be spend to meet actual urgent needs today.

Then why is Balthazar fulminating against realists like Lomborg? I think it is rather simple: he is absolutely cocksure that there WILL BE a tipping point at 1.5 °C warming and that we will end up with disasters we can’t recover from anymore. Since we are heading for a projected 3+ °C warming and with such a certainty about the problem (and the solution) in mind, climate change becomes the number one priority and all other things (poverty, migration,…) will be solved when climate change is solved. It then becomes difficult to understand someone who claims that there currently are more pressing problems than climate change.

The irony is that they rely on the same source for their arguments (the IPCC)…

5 thoughts on “Realists need not apply…

  1. manicbeancounter

    If Balthazar is so sure of a tipping point at 1.5 °C (about 0.6 °C above current average temperatures) then he ought also to realize the implication of the supposed cause. The is global warming is caused by global emissions. What a single country – or even the EU does will not make much difference. If they believe that the only policy is to reduce emissions, then they need to persuade ALL countries to reduce emissions, not just a few. Somehow, after 24 annual COP meetings this basic truth seems not to have caught on.
    The other alternative is to use Lomborg’s approach of identifying the areas with the greatest impact. For expert scientists it is a case of identifying accurately the impacts. That is the where, when, type and magnitude, with the relative risk levels. The most important is not to give false alarmism. If sea levels are going to rise, for instance by up to a meter this century, predicting 20 feet (6 meters) rise will cause vast unnecessary costs. Similarly, in South Australia false predictions of near permanent drought caused the wasting of billions of dollars on a desalination plant.

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      1. manicbeancounter

        If Balthazar does emphasize the responsibility of other countries to decide their policies and is not active in persuading those other countries to take the policy decisions he believes are necessary to “save the planet”, then one should be asking what his real motives are. The same goes for activists in many other countries.
        Lomborg’s motives are to make the greatest possible impact given the resources available. If the principle is something that Balthazar is against, then he should explain why instead of misrepresenting Lomborg.

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        1. trustyetverify Post author

          As I already said, I can not speak for him. But I can agree with you that, if he wants to save the world, he better would have sued the developing countries like China and India, rather than Belgium.

          I also like the Lomborg approach of doing the most impact with the resources available. It is more pragmatic and focuses on current needs rather than on risks in the future.

          His misrepresentation of Lomborg is based on his incredible certainty that disaster WILL happen at 1.5 °C. Therefor he wants to do whatever it takes to prevent that happening.

          On the other hand, the Lomborg approach diverts resources away from that. From his standpoint that means less resources to prevent disaster, which in turn is bad news in the future for the poor that Lomborg wants to help now.
          His approach is different: lowering emissions, therefor stabilizing temperatures resulting in a smaller impact on the poor.

          It is this incredible certainty that is standing between him and Lomborg and it prevents him to understand what Lomborg is saying.
          Plus, there is also the statement of Lomborg that climate change is not our priority which conflicts with his apocalyptic world view of a indisputable tipping point at 1.5 °C.

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  2. Steve Borodin

    Sorry, I came into this thread a bit late but I would like to make two points:

    Re: “The IPCC’s last major planetary survey calculated the global effects of unstopped climate change.”

    The IPCC is a political organisation. They are pursuing a political goal. They rely on models that repeatedly demonstrate their inability to make correct predictions. This is because they are trying to model the behavior of a turbulent fluid with multiple inputs, all of which we understand incompletely. They lack theory, they lack data and they probably lack the computing power. The IPCC CANNOT calculate the global effects of climate change.

    Re Lomborg:

    As I read it Lomborg’s position is that The Paris agreement (which we know won’t be met if only because China’s 1500 new coal-fired power stations will swamp the efforts of the rest of the world, even if they were to succeed) would cost something of the order of $80 Trillion and achieve at best 0.15 degrees C reduction in warming by 2100 AD. (there are lower estimates but none higher) O.15 degrees is well below natural variability so we would not even be able to identify whether it had been achieved. To divert $80T on achieving something that will make no difference and we cannot measure, rather than, say, medical research, medical interventions and/or relief of poverty would be stupid.

    I would say criminally negligent rather than stupid.

    By the way, a whole host of peer-reviewed papers published in 2018 concluded that Antarctica, Greenland, Siberia and Northern Canada are all cooling and have been for at least a decade. This has some very interesting implications, not least that it matches the predictions of solar scientist who have long been predicting a cold period in the first half of the 21Century. If true we might be glad of a little more heat!

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