The Climate Denial Machine’s Fake Statistics Just Keep On Coming

In a previous column, I examined the way Reason’s Ron Bailey (and the hack climate “scientists” he showcases) have toyed with GDP statistics in an attempt to downplay the harm from climate change. It looks like Ron and his buddies have some competition in the “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” category — it’s coming from Bjorn Lomborg (also a favorite at Reason).

Lomborg (whom Reason bills as a statistician), like Bailey, is one of those “skeptical environmentalists” whose whole shtick is admitting that anthropogenic global warming is real, but not big enough of a deal to actually do anything about. Lomborg’s approach is to put reducing greenhouse gas emissions on the back burner (pun intended), and focusing instead on increasing “climate resilience” — which, you probably won’t be surprised to learn, involves lots and lots of economic growth and profit for big business.

That’s Lomborg’s consistent framing in both the Copenhagen Consensus Conference and in the research output of his think tank, the Copenhagen Consensus Center. As he stated in an interview with his hagiographer Ron Bailey:

I think the main point of [my book The Skeptical Environmentalist] was to challenge our notion that everything is going down the drain, and I don’t see any reason to revise that. We are in general moving in the right direction, and it’s important to say mankind solves a lot of problems. We also create new problems in the process of solving old problems, but typically they’re smaller than the old ones we fix, which is why we move ahead on virtually all material indicators. 

He also told Reason in 2008:

At the end of the day, this is about saying, Yes, global warming is real. It’s often massively exaggerated, which is why we need smarter solutions…. Let’s pick them smart, rather than stupidly. And also, let’s remember that they are many other problems in the world that we can fix so much cheaper and do so much more good….If this is really a question about doing good in the world, then let’s do real good-and not just make ourselves feel good about what we do. 

So if you’re fond of Steven Pinker’s panglossianism, the gonzo techno-optimism of Herman Kahn, and so-called “effective altruism,” you’ll probably love the Copenhagen Consensus.

When it comes to reducing global warming itself, and not just the severity of its symptoms, geoengineering is the “most cost-effective” approach. Now, unlike a lot of environmentalists, I don’t reject geoengineering — particularly things like orbital sunshades that don’t involve large-scale chemical pollution of the biosphere — on principle or out of hand, particularly as last-ditch options to prevent an existential catastrophe. (Although Lomborg mentions “marine cloud whitening — spewing clouds of aerosolized seawater into the atmosphere — as the primary alternative in the video linked above, he speaks favorably elsewhere of blocking sunlight with sulfur dioxide as another possibility.)

But there’s a big difference between being open to something as a last resort, and confidently promoting it as the “most cost-effective” solution, when there are so many unknowns on the cost side of the ledger. It strikes me as pretty hubristic — to say the least — from someone whose biggest fans are the sort of libertarians who usually go on about “unintended consequences.” As the Rational Wiki article on Lomborg points out: 

Geo-engineering is largely seen as a last-ditch solution because pumping the atmosphere full of massive amounts of sulfur as Lomborg favors may have loads of unintended consequences and doesn’t deal with several problems created by increased carbon dioxide levels such as ocean acidification (the project tends to omit these considerations in its reports).

In fairness to Lomborg, he does advocate large-scale investment in low-carbon energy technologies. But he contrasts this approach to what Ron Bailey, speaking from the amen corner, calls “draconian and poverty-inducing cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.” 

Now, I have to say this is perplexing, coming from an avowed free market libertarian like Bailey. What we have right now is a system in which greenhouse gas emissions are, in effect, massively subsidized. On federal land — either stolen from Indigenous peoples or preempted successively by the Spanish, French and/or Mexican, and finally by the U.S. government — extractive industries are given privileged access. Land is condemned for fossil fuel pipelines via eminent domain. Pipelines and extraction sites are indemnified against liability for spills and other pollution, earthquakes, etc., beyond a very low level. The United States fights foreign wars to guarantee access to foreign fossil fuel reserves for American industry, and the Navy — by far the largest capital expense in the so-called “defense” budget — has the primary peacetime mission of keeping the sea lanes safe for oil tankers and other shipping at taxpayer expense.

Even Nick Gillespie, not everyone’s beau ideal of a critical thinker, acknowledged the issue as problematic when he admitted the dependence of fossil fuel pipelines on eminent domain. But Bailey’s commentary on pipelines is, without exception, breathlessly enthusiastic.

The standard libertarian position is that subsidies are actually “poverty-inducing,” because they distort price signals and shift the investment of resources into less productive uses. Lomborg himself noted that (as of 2017) wind and solar were still being only slowly adopted because they still weren’t cheap enough relative to fossil fuels. But that’s a two-sided comparison. If sustainable energy technology isn’t yet cheap enough relative to fossil fuels, that’s not only because the new technology hasn’t yet sufficiently lowered its costs; it’s also because fossil fuels, on the other side of the equation, are artificially cheap. By free market libertarian logic, the most efficient — and least poverty-inducing — approach would be for fossil fuels to fully internalize all the positive externalities created by the state subsidies enumerated above. Then there would be less need to subsidize alternative energy R&D. Bailey’s characterization of reduced greenhouse emissions as “poverty-inducing” sounds a lot like Bastiat’s candle makers demanding the sun be put out.

But all of this is just by way of background. The thing that prompted this column was a misleading infographic Lomborg posted on Facebook, summarizing data from his article “Welfare in the 21st century: Increasing development, reducing inequality, the impact of climate change, and the cost of climate policies” (Technological Forecasting and Social Change, July 2020). The gist of it, as he summarizes in his Facebook post, is that “about 98% fewer people died in 2022 than a hundred years ago from climate-related natural disasters like floods, droughts, storms, and wildfires…. Over the past hundred years, annual climate-related deaths have declined by more than 98%.”

Lomborg’s graph probably appears more frequently in online right-libertarian polemics than anything since the equally stupid “World Population Living in Extreme Poverty, 1820-2015 graphic that’s been circulating for years. The leading places it shows up are “Human Progress” (a Cato subsidiary), the Wall Street Journal, and the Foundation for Economic Education. Vivek Ramaswamy, the living personification of obnoxious techbrohood, quoted it in a recent 2024 GOP presidential candidates’ debate — the gold standard for Stoopid.

Let’s start with the data itself. What does Lomborg even count as “climate-related” deaths? Apparently not people who die in actual heat waves. There were 60,000 heat-related deaths in Europe alone during Summer 2022 — the highest death toll since the 70,000 in Summer 2023 — and Lomborg’s total for all climate-related deaths, for the whole world, doesn’t even appear to hit the 10,000 mark on his graph. In South Asia, low heat-related death counts under far more extreme conditions raised suspicion of undercounting; an estimate based on excess mortality, which requires months of data analysis to produce, would likely have resulted in a figure of many thousands. This reasoning is borne out by the fact that the 2015 heat wave resulted in 2000 deaths in Pakistan’s Sindh province alone.  In the United States, in Maricopa County Arizona alone, reported heat-related deaths this year had reached 180 as of September 6. This was likely an undercount, considering last year’s total was revised upward to 450 at the end of the summer. Heat-related deaths, again, are prone to undercount. “If there are comorbidities — heart disease, obesity, mental illness — heat might not make it on the list.” 

And in poorer areas — the very places likely to have higher death rates because of vulnerable populations without air conditioning and other means of dealing with extreme heat — the undercount is likely to be exacerbated because of inadequate government resources. As Zoya Tierstein notes

properly diagnosing a death as climate-related requires time, training, and resources that many of the nation’s roughly 3,500 health departments don’t have. While Maricopa County carefully combs through every suspected heat-related death that occurs in the county during Arizona’s long summer, it’s an outlier in that respect.

This is equally true of deaths from heat-related disasters like hurricanes.

It’s hard to get a full picture of the true number of mortalities connected to a given disaster in real-time. The full death toll often isn’t revealed until weeks, months, even years after the event occurs. And an unknown fraction of deaths often slide by undetected, never making it onto local and federal mortality spreadsheets at all. For example, a recent retrospective study found the number of people who died from exposure to hurricanes and tropical cyclones in the U.S. in the years between 1988 to 2019 was 13 times higher than the federal government’s official estimates. 

But even stipulating to the validity of Lomborg’s statistical claims, the inferences he draws from them don’t — to put it mildly — display a whole lot of intellectual rigor. His argument basically boils down to this: “Despite one degree Celsius increase in temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, climate-related deaths have fallen by 98% over the past century. So there is no basis for predicting a billion excess deaths from another degree or more increase over the coming century.” 

In other words, he’s extrapolating a past century’s trends another century into the future, on the tacit assumption that nonlinear phenomena, tipping points, and positive feedback loops don’t exist. Given the nature of the phenomena in question, and actual climate news over the past decade or so, that’s an extremely unjustifiable assumption to make. 

Consider: The New York Times reported in January that the previous eight years were the eight hottest on record. Since then, 2023 has broken the record for hottest ever. At 1.5 Celsius degrees cumulative temperature increase, five different climate tipping points become likely; two of them in particular — the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and alteration of the Gulf Stream ocean current — will have absolutely catastrophic non-linear effects in a very short time period. Hundreds of millions or billions of people live in areas that will be flooded by ice sheet collapse. Other tipping points, like methane emissions from thawing permafrost, involve positive feedback cycles that by definition are non-linear. What’s more, there are more recent findings that “tipping points and cascades are already occurring, not at 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming, but right now” — suggesting that “many positive feedbacks are not fully accounted for in climate models.”

Meanwhile, the maximum theoretical limit of human heat tolerance is a wet bulb temperature of 95 Fahrenheit — that is, at 100% humidity — for six hours. As these conditions prevail in more and more areas of the world for extended periods, and local temperatures exceed the limits of human survival, we can expect a dramatic difference between death rates before and after.

This kind of sophistry isn’t limited to Lomborg’s treatment of climate-related deaths; he’s used the same argument regarding sea level rise: “Lomborg compares the observed past rise with average projections for the future.”

So even if the data is valid — which it is not — without the critical capability to interpret it, it’s worthless. 

But shoddy data and incoherent logic or not, you can expect to continue seeing this mindless graph over and over from the Usual Suspects. Jason Hickel has repeatedly debunked the Extreme Poverty infographic, but that doesn’t stop it being endlessly circulated as indisputable fact by people with a cargo cult understanding of “science.” Lomborg’s graphic is equally worthless, but in the end that doesn’t matter. There’s a reason Lomborg is popular with the Foundation for Economic Education, Ramaswamy, and Ron Bailey and the Reason gang — and truth has nothing to do with it.

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