Reynolds, Tol, Lomborg: The Case for Ignoring Climate Change

Reynolds, Tol, Lomborg: The Case for Ignoring Climate Change
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The most successful Libertarian politician in Canadian history, Globe and Mail columnist Neil Reynolds, has joined the campaign to do nothing about climate change, basing his argument (A Net-Benefit Greenhouse Gas Plan – Less is Really More) not on the work of anyone who actually studies climate science, but rather on two economists with a track record of trying to discourage action.

Most famous of these is Bjorn Lomborg, the Disingenuous Environmentalist and director of a Danish think tank that specialilzes in understating the costs of climate change and overestimating the costs of taking preventative action.

In the run-up to the United Nations meeting scheduled for his hometown in December, Lomborg’s Copenhagen Concensus Center has commissioned 21 reports “to examine the costs and
benefits of different solutions to global warming.” The most recent result, a paper by the economist Richard Tol (inset), gives a good indication of how agenda-driven and, in some regards, surprisingly unprofessional, those papers might be.

Tol’s contribution, entitled “An Analysis of Mitigation as a Response to Climate Change,”  purports to consider the costs or benefits (!) of climate change, balanced by the costs and benefits of particular actions. Tol builds a narrow case, on an extremely limited number of assumptions, and then cobbles together a financial model to assess five potential policy approaches. Then he lets the model churn through the numbers, delivering a result that he presents as somehow relevant – even as scientific.

The economists of the world might be emarrassed by his machinations, given his obvious effort to set up assumptions that will deliver the result most likely to please his Copenhagen Concensus Center funders. For example, when Tol tackles “Estimates of the welfare loss due to climate change,” he pulls together a series of studies (including one of his own), that arer anything but random. Rather, he appears to have gathered up all the lowest estimates, including five from the respected but famously conservative Yale economist William Nordhaus. Missing from the list, however, is the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, the best-known and probably most ambitious analysis, conducted by the former chief economist of the World Bank, Nicholas Stern. (Although, if you read Tol’s footnotes, you will find that Stern’s work was diluted into one of the other reviews – thereby acknowledged as legitimate but strategically averaged down before being fed into Tol’s calculations).

Tol is sometimes forthright about the fallibility of his work. He says, “The effects of climate change that have been quantified and monetized include the impacts on agriculture and forestry, water resources, coastal zones, energy consumption, air quality, and human health. Obviously, this list is incomplete.”

“Obviously.” How, for instance, can we summarily dismiss the risk that ocean acidification caused by too much CO2 in the atmosphere might trigger a global collapse in both coral and in all ocean creatures that rely on creating their own shells for survival?

But Tol goes on to sniff at his own shortcomings: “Many of the omissions seem likely to be relatively small in the context of those items that have been quantified.”

“Relatively small?” Who is Tol to pass off this comment as if it is reliable and based on a serious reading of the science. The people who have actual expertise in this field are telling us that humans, having pushed the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere over 300 parts per million for the first time in more than 650,000 years, have endangered the steady state that has allowed human life to thrive. The best of those scientists say we should be wrestling CO2 back from its current level of more than 380 ppm to a safer 350. European leaders are aiming to contain the increase below 450 ppm – and Tol is recommending  that we do as little as possible as a way of saving money on the journey to a level of between 550 and 650 ppm – a point at which real climate scientists say the world would be subject to catastrophic consequences.

In his Globe and Mail column touting Tol, Reynolds also clings to this unsubstatiated tendency to minimize, saying this: “Noting that one-half of all probable environmental damage has already occurred (and won’t be reversed), Prof. Tol estimates that a further doubling of greenhouse gases would inflict ‘relatively small’ further damage.”

This is a fine, first-year-economist-style bit of logic. An alert firefighter might similarly judge that a house, already 50-per-cent destroyed, is not worth the risk or effort of saving. But said firefighter would have housing options. The human race is less fortunate in this instance.

Bjorn Lomborg keeps trying to present himself as someone with a legitimate concern for the environment. And yet all his arguments – and all those he subsidizes and promotes – seem similarly contrived to say that we should ignore our responsibility to act in the environment’s favor. At some point – and preferably before the Copenhagen negotiators make the mistake of taking him seriously – we must hope that he and his acolytes will be dismissed as climate science frauds.

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