More misinformation and nonsense on climate from Lomborg and Tol

Bob Ward Policy and Communications Director

Bob Ward scrutinises the latest misleading article from Bjorn Lomborg, which as well as misrepresenting scientific data, draws on error-strewn work by Richard Tol.

Bjorn Lomborg has demonstrated once again why he is the darling of right-wing newspapers around the world that are still desperate to promote climate change denial.

Dr Lomborg, whose PhD thesis was on ‘Simulating Social Science’, has established himself as the world’s leading ‘lukewarmer’. He does not reject the basic physics of the greenhouse effect, but he denies that climate change poses a significant threat.

In his latest article for the Wall Street Journal, under the title ‘“Follow the Science” Leads to Ruin’, Dr Lomborg provides a masterclass in the use of inaccurate and misleading sources to construct a bogus narrative.

The article is characteristically filled with rhetoric, but is also littered with supposed truths that turn out to be false when scrutinised. It is framed as an attack, in particular, on climate policies in the United States, but it should be immediately apparent to the informed reader that the article is propaganda rather than analysis.

Dr Lomborg writes: “President Biden has pushed costly yet ineffective programs such as the Inflation Reduction Act to reduce U.S. emissions.” The phrase “costly but ineffective” is highlighted in the online version and provides a link to another article by Dr Lomborg that was published by the Wall Street Journal on 23 August 2022 under the title ‘The Inflation Reduction Act Does Little to Reduce Climate Change’. This article claims: “If you plug the predicted emissions decline into the climate model used for all major United Nations climate reports, it turns out the global temperature will be cut by only 0.0009 degree Fahrenheit by the end of the century.” However, this is based on a ridiculous assumption by Dr Lomborg that in 2030 any renewables, electric vehicles and other infrastructure created by the Inflation Reduction Act suddenly disappear and are replaced by fossil fuel alternatives. He then compares the estimated short-term emissions reduction in the United States between 2022 and 2030 against global emissions up to 2100. Dr Lomborg knows this method is not credible because it has been pointed out to him many times. And he even admits in the article: “This is assuming the law’s emission reductions end when its funding does after 2030.”

Further on in the new article, Dr Lomborg writes: “Climate change is a real problem but isn’t the imminent existential crisis of which the media and activist politicians breathlessly warn. They run headlines and give speeches about extreme weather events, though the United Nations’ panel of climate scientists hasn’t been able to document evidence of most of them worsening.”

This is a straightforward misrepresentation of the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The Summary for Policymakers of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment report, its most recent report on the scientific evidence, published in 2021 and the first major update since its Fifth Assessment, or AR5, in 2013, concluded: “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened since AR5.”

Dr Lomborg next makes the following claim: “The data show that climate-related deaths from droughts, storms, floods and fires have declined by more than 97% over the last century, from nearly 500,000 annually to fewer than 15,000 in the 2020s. That’s a real human cost but far from cataclysmic.”

This claim links through on the online version to a graph titled ‘Climate-related Deaths: 1920-2023’, which Dr Lomborg circulated on X on 1 January 2024, purportedly showing data from the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED). However, he ignores the publication by CRED on 20 March 2023 of its 2022 Disasters in numbers, which explicitly warned against misleading representations of its data. There, CRED presented a graph of the disaster death toll per decade for more than 12,000 weather-related disasters for the period 1900 to 2020. The accompanying text states that the graph “indicates a 96% decrease in mortality between the 1920s, with 4.84 million deaths, and the decade 2010-2020 when mortality was limited to 0.17 million deaths”.

But it adds: “However, this trend does not extend back before the 1920s and, if one were to take the 1910s as the comparison baseline (0.25 M deaths), the decrease would only be 30%. Such variability is explained by the occurrence or non-occurrence of mega-disasters, in which the death toll can rise from tens of thousands to several million per event. In particular, in the period from the 1920s through the 1960s, there were five drought-induced famines, killing more than one million each.” CRED concluded that these five famines alone were responsible for the main trend in death toll per decade observed over the course of the last century.

So it is clear that Dr Lomborg ignored the experts and cherrypicked the data to convey a misleading impression of the magnitude of the reduction in weather-related deaths over the past century. While there has been a significant drop, thanks to better disaster response, new early warning systems, stronger building codes and other measures, there is no certainty that this trend will be maintained as the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events increase in many parts of the world.

Next, Dr Lomborg attacks climate campaigners, writing that “pervasive environmental fear-mongering has encouraged anxious protesters across the world’s wealthiest nations to proclaim that we ‘just stop oil,’ along with coal and gas”, which he describes as a “ludicrous” demand that “would prevent some deaths but also destroy life as we know it”. In trying to justify this extraordinary assertion, Dr Lomborg states that “it is no wonder that one recent estimate by economist Neil Record showed an abrupt end to fossil fuel use would cause six billion deaths in less than a year”.

This supposed “estimate” by an economist is actually a daft opinion article in The Daily Telegraph newspaper, written by the Chair of Net Zero Watch, a UK-based political campaign group that lobbies against policies to cut fossil fuel use and denies the risks of climate change.

The polemic by Neil Record states: “But what would happen if we literally just stopped oil tomorrow and did without the natural resources on which the world, its economies and populations depend? The answer: most likely six billion people would die within a year.”

This is, of course, a strawman argument as Just Stop Oil does not demand an immediate cessation to the consumption of all fossil fuels. If Mr Record and Dr Lomborg had bothered to read the campaigners’ website, they would have discovered that Just Stop Oil wants an end new development of oil and gas in the North Sea, in line with the conclusions of scientific analysis of the action required to limit global warming to 1.5°C.

Dr Lomborg’ article includes further false claims. He writes: “The world still gets four-fifths of its energy from fossil fuels, because renewable sources rarely provide good alternatives.” While it is true that most of the world’s energy still comes from oil, coal and gas, renewables provided 30 per cent of global electricity in 2022 and are expected to overtake fossil fuels as a power source by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency.

However, perhaps the most pernicious part of Dr Lomborg’s article is his reference to notoriously flawed academic studies to support his extreme narrative. He writes: “A new peer-reviewed study of all the scientific estimates of climate-change effects shows the most likely cost of global warming averaged across the century will be about 1% of global gross domestic product, reaching 2% by the end of the century.”

Citing the flawed work of Richard Tol

Dr Lomborg’s article links to a new journal paper by Professor Richard Tol titled ‘A meta-analysis of the total economic impact of climate change’, which was published in the February 2024 issue of the journal Energy Policy. This paper is an update of previous studies which have been beset with errors and problems that the author has blamed on “gremlins”. In one humiliating episode, the editors of the Journal of Economic Perspectives had to publish their own correction to one of Professor Tol’s papers, following two unsuccessful attempts by the author himself to amend the work.

Professor Tol is a controversial figure. He has been an advisor to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which promotes misinformation about climate change and set up Net Zero Watch. He is also extremely sensitive to criticism of the errors in his work.

Unfortunately, his new paper is again severely flawed due to poor methods and sloppy mistakes. Professor Tol searches the academic literature for estimates of the economic impacts of climate change and then plots them all on one graph before drawing supposed best fit trend lines through them. All sorts of different methods are included and no weighting is applied – every data point from the past 45 years is treated equally, regardless of whether the estimates are partial or out of date. In some cases, Professor Tol makes his own estimates based on other authors’ studies, but without providing details of his calculations so that readers can check their accuracy. In others, he misrepresents other authors’ findings, probably through pure sloppiness.

In his new paper Professor Tol lists 69 estimates from 39 published studies, which are listed in his Table 1. It includes many errors and is inconsistent with the accompanying plot of the data in his Figure 1. For instance, Table 1 indicates that a paper by John Horowitz, published in the journal Environmental and Resource Economics in 2009, found that  warming of 1°C would result in an increase in global gross domestic product (GDP) of 3.8 per cent. But Figure 1 indicates that Horowitz (2009) found that 1°C of warming would cause a reduction in global GDP of 3.8 per cent. And the actual paper confirms that it is Professor Tol’s estimate in Figure 1, not in Table 1, that is correct.

Table 1 also includes four estimates that are attributed to a paper titled ‘On the spatial economic impact of global warming’, by Klaus Desmet and Esteban Rossi-Hansberg, which was published in the Journal of Urban Economics in 2015. These estimates, according to Professor Tol, range from a rise in global GDP of 5.1 per cent for a warming of 4.6°C to a decrease in GDP of 78.9 per cent for a warming of 16.7°C. These numbers do not appear anywhere in the paper by Desmet and Rossi-Hansberg. They have been apparently plucked by Professor Tol from two graphs, one of which shows change in total factor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing against time. And although Professor Tol lists four values in his Table 1, he only plots one value, showing a rise in GDP for 4.6°C of warming, in his Figure 1, and excludes the three other values showing significant drops in GDP.

But there are even more serious errors in Professor Tol’s paper. He includes in Table 1 and in Figure 1 six estimates that he attributes to a paper by Robert Mendelsohn, Michael Schlesinger and Larry Williams in the journal Integrated Assessment in 2000. Professor Tol’s paper suggests that the study produced two estimates of economic impact, each at temperature rises of 2.5°C, 4.0°C and 5.2°C. In fact, the paper by Mendelsohn et al. includes just two estimates, for temperature rises of 2.21°C and 2.49°C. The other estimates are phantoms and render Professor Tol’s analysis and conclusions invalid.

I have written to the Energy Policy journal to point out these serious errors in the paper by Professor Tol. Given that the reviewers and editors of the journal did not spot them, it is perhaps not surprising that Dr Lomborg was unaware of its flaws. However, Dr Lomborg compounds the mistake by referring to another paper by Professor Tol containing the same mistakes.

Returning to Dr Lomborg’s Wall Street Journal article, he states: “The latest peer-reviewed climate-economic research shows the total cost will average $27 trillion each year across the century, reaching $60 trillion a year in 2100.” He links to two journal papers, neither of which contains these figures: he appears to have just made them up.

One of the papers is by Professor Tol – ‘Costs and benefits of the Paris climate targets’ – which appeared in the journal Climate Change Economics in June 2023. This paper states: “The central estimate of the benefits of climate policy, unrealistically assuming high no-policy emissions and constant vulnerability, is 2.8–3.2% of GDP.” These figures are taken from another paper by Professor Tol, posted online in 2022, which is an earlier version of his 2024 paper in Energy Policy. Even though it only contains 61 estimates from 33 papers, it contains the same mistakes, and so the analysis is similarly invalid.

All in all, the article by Dr Lomborg is riddled with misrepresentations, strawman arguments, cherrypicked data, fantasy figures, and false assertions based on flawed academic studies. It demonstrates not only that he cannot be trusted to tell the truth about climate change, but also that the Wall Street Journal does not bother to factcheck its comment articles, which are apparently selected purely on ideological grounds.

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Categories: Climate Change
Anton Nieuwenhuizen

Written by:Anton Nieuwenhuizen All posts by the author

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