Bjorn Lomborg’s lukewarmer misinformation about climate change and poverty
On 27 August, the ‘New York Post’ published an article by Dr Bjorn Lomborg that was filled with misrepresentations and false claims, under the headline ‘How the war on climate change slams the world’s poor’.
Dr Lomborg is the world’s most active ‘lukewarmer’. He does not deny the physics of the greenhouse effect, but instead cherry-picks information to deny that the risks of climate change are large enough to justify strong and urgent action.
He has been promoting the article heavily on social media, including Facebook, Linked In and Twitter. In particular, Dr Lomborg highlighted his article with a tweet that states: “A new study has found that strong global climate action would cause far more hunger and food insecurity than climate change itself”.
However, the paper to which Dr Lomborg referred, on ‘Risk of increased food insecurity under stringent global climate change mitigation policy’ by Dr Tomoko Hasegawa and co-authors, did not reach the conclusion that he suggested.
The study investigated using integrated assessment models how the global population at risk of hunger might change under different scenarios, one in which there are no efforts to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and one in which emissions are cut in line with a pathway that would offer at least a 66 per cent probability of not exceeding global warming of 2 Celsius degrees.
It found that in all scenarios the number at risk of hunger would drop dramatically by 2050. However the largest reductions by 2050 were observed in model runs in which there were no efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The model runs for unmitigated climate change resulted in between 0 and 170 million fewer people worldwide, or 78 million on average, at risk of hunger in 2050 compared with the mitigation scenario model runs. These results assumed a ‘middle-of-the-road shared socio-economic pathway’ in which social, economic and technological trends do not shift markedly from historical patterns.
The authors attributed this difference to the impact of the mitigation method, namely a global carbon price ranging between $60 and $180 per tonne of carbon-dioxide-equivalent and applied uniformly across all sectors, which had indirect impacts on prices and supplies of key agricultural commodities. The model runs included no other climate change mitigation measures (eg subsidies for low-carbon energy, etc).
The authors warn: “A robust finding is that by 2050, stringent climate mitigation policy, if implemented evenly across all sectors and regions, would have a greater negative impact on global hunger and food consumption than the direct impacts of climate change”.
However, the authors were also explicit about the significance of their results: “Our findings should not be interpreted to downplay the importance of future GHG emissions mitigation efforts, or to suggest that climate policy will cause more harm than good in general. Instead, this study highlights the need for careful design of emissions mitigation policies in upcoming decades—for example, targeted schemes encouraging more productive and resilient agricultural production systems and the importance of incorporating complementary policies (such as safety-net programmes) that compensate or counteract the impacts of the climate change mitigation policies on vulnerable regions.”
Hence it is clear that Dr Lomborg’s article is a gross misinterpretation of the paper’s conclusions. This was emphasized to me in an email I have received from one of the paper’s authors, Dr Peter Havlik of the International institute for Applied System Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria. Dr Havlik wrote: “Our paper does not argue against strong climate policy. It is clear that unmanaged climate change poses very serious risks for poor people around the world. We concluded that climate change mitigation policies and development policies should be integrated, and take account of the features of different sectors in different countries, so that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions do not have unintended adverse consequences for poor people. In particular, we show that relying solely only on a strong global carbon tax could have serious impacts on the agricultural sector in poor countries and result in far more widespread hunger and food insecurity.”
There were several other misrepresentations in Dr Lomborg’s article. He stated that “climate policy has often created more damage than the benefits it attempts to deliver”, and highlighted the impact of biofuels, writing: “Food crops were replaced to produce ethanol, and the resulting spike in food prices forced at least 30 million people into poverty and 30 million more into hunger, according to UK charity ActionAid”.
Again, this is not an accurate account and the figures cited by Dr Lomborg are incorrect. The report by ActionAid actually stated: “The UN Special Envoy for the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, called the 2008 global food crisis a “massive violation” of human rights and a “silent tsunami” that pushed 100 million people into poverty and 30 million into hunger”. The ActionAid report also drew on a major study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on the global food crisis that occurred in 2007-08. It cited a provisional estimate by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations that the number of chronically hungry people increased by 75 million to 923 million between 2003-05 and 2007.
The IFPRI report concluded that the crisis had been caused by a number of interconnected factors “includes rising energy prices, the depreciation of the U.S. dollar, low interest rates, and investment portfolio adjustments in favor of commodities”. It also acknowledged that “a major effect of rising energy prices was the consequent surge in demand for biofuels” and noted: “Demand for biofuels had a stronger effect on maize than on other biofuel crops (such as oilseeds), although knock-on effects for other food items may have been substantial (especially for soybeans)”.
Hence Dr Lomborg’s attempt to blame biofuels for the 2007-08 global food crisis is not supported by the reports that he cites.
Elsewhere in the article, Dr Lomborg focuses specifically on climate policy, stating: “The EU’s climate policy under the Paris Agreement, meanwhile, will realistically cost the bloc about $600 billion each year for the rest of the century, yet at best it delivers a trifling temperature reduction of just 0.09°F by the end of the century”.
Neither of the figures cited is credible. His estimate of the supposed cost of the European Union implementing its nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement was taken from the written testimony solicited from Dr Lomborg in December 2015 by Republican climate change deniers on the United States House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. However, he has never explained how the figure was calculated, but claimed that it was based on a study for the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum, which produced results differing markedly from Dr Lomborg’s number.
Dr Lomborg’s suggestion that the European Union’s contribution would only reduce global warming by 0.09 Fahrenheit degrees by the end of the century is based on a fundamentally flawed paper in which he assumed that all efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are abandoned after 2030. His paper has been debunked many times, but he continues to cite it.
Dr Lomborg’s article also misleads the newspaper’s readers about the recent findings of the International Energy Agency. It states: “Even after decades of heavy investment in subsidies to support green-energy production — costing more than $150 billion just this year — the International Energy Agency finds that wind provides just 0.6 percent of energy needs, and solar 0.2 percent”.
In fact, the Agency recognises that fossil fuels still receive far more financial support than renewables. It notes on its website that “global fossil-fuel consumption subsidies decreased by 15% to $260 billion in 2016”, but adding that “while the figure for fossil-fuel consumption subsidies may be coming down, it remains much higher than estimated government support to renewable energy: subsidies for renewables in power generation amounted to $140 billion in 2016”.
Dr Lomborg’s article continues: “By 2040, even if all of the grand promises in the Paris agreement on climate change were to be fulfilled (which seems unlikely), the IEA finds these figures will inch up to just 2.1 percent and 1.5 percent”.
In fact, the Agency’s website indicates that, in its scenario that is consistent with the Paris Agreement, “low-carbon sources double their share in the energy mix to 40% in 2040”. It adds: “Power generation is all but decarbonised, relying by 2040 on generation from renewables (over 60%), nuclear power (15%) as well as a contribution from carbon capture and storage (6%)”.
Dr Lomborg now has a long track record of being an unreliable and inaccurate source of information about climate change. He devotes most of his writing efforts to churning out polemics for the opinion columns of newspapers which fail to fact-check his false claims. It is no surprise that his latest article appears in the ‘New York Post’. It is owned by News Corporation, whose stable of newspapers, including ‘The Australian’, ‘The Times’ and the ‘Wall Street Journal’, promote climate change denial while the parent company boasts of its efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.