Debunking Lomborg

What do you know about Bjorn Lomborg? More than me I’m guessing. I know he wrote a book that is very popular with climate sceptics and is universally derided by those who are not. I know that debunking Lomborg is now big business, with a turnover likely in excess of the GDP of most South American countries. And I know he is famous for pushing the following graph depicting the fall in climate-related deaths since 1920:

The graph has been referenced more than once here on Cliscep, so it should be of considerable interest and concern to learn that there is also a ‘fact-checking’ video doing the rounds that, according to those who have no time for Lomborg, does a pretty good job of debunking him. As I say, I am no student of Lomborg and so I am in no position to offer a sweeping judgment regarding his position within the climate change debate; I’ll leave that sort of grandstanding to the likes of Wikipedia and DeSmog. But, given the importance and notoriety of his analysis on climate-related deaths, I thought I would at least take the time to view the debunking video and report on just how good a job it does in adding to the legend of the debunked ‘denier’. In so doing I think I learned a thing or two about just how easy it seems for self-satisfaction to overcome the average fact-checker and, more to the point, just how breathtakingly hypocritical they can be.

If you take a stand then you have to stick to it

The first theme of the debunking is based upon the old chestnut of cherry-picking. The problem is that Lomborg conveniently chooses to start his graph at 1920, which happens to be the high point of the EM-DAT dataset upon which the graph is based. Had he commenced from the start of that dataset the graph would have shown a lower climate-related death rate leading up to the 1920 maximum. Indeed, the earliest version of the Lomborg graph did just that. Whilst it still conveyed the message of a significant drop in climate-related deaths up to the present day, it also invited people to ask the rather awkward question, ‘but what is that at the start?’ It seems a bit sly of Lomborg to subsequently drop this inconvenient section of the data, but does pointing this out debunk Lomborg? Certainly not in my book. With or without the pre-1920 data, there is nothing in the graph to suggest an increase in climate-related deaths in recent years. The opposite is still clearly the case, and that has to remain the point. At worst this is an awkward detail for Lomborg and at best it is an irrelevance.

But he’s cherry-picking, the video screams, and that’s exactly the sort of dirty trick that deniers are supposed to pull. Besides which, the video continues, had you not noticed that the fall in deaths only shows up when one looks at global data? If one focusses in on the USA the data definitely shows an increase. So take that Lomborg! In fact, all you have to do is ignore the data from China and the Indian subcontinent and you get a completely different graph showing a marked recent increase.

It turns out that the real sleight of hand pulled by Lomborg wasn’t to cherry-pick from post 1920 data but to then fail to cherry-pick his countries. Sneakily, he insisted on using global statistics to analyse a global phenomenon. He somehow felt that including the most populace and traditionally most vulnerable countries of the world was perfectly okay. The swine!

I just wonder whether the maker of this debunking video has the slightest understanding that you can’t accuse someone of cherry-picking only then to make cherry-picking a central pillar of one’s own debunking argument. It just beggars belief. Can the hypocrisy get any worse? Well let’s look at the second theme of the debunking to see if it can.

And if you take another stand then you have to stick to it also

As if using global statistics to analyse a global issue wasn’t bad enough, Lomborg also chose to define deaths caused by floods, droughts, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures as climate-related. But, according to the debunking video, this was highly misleading since the events that were driving the data were not purely climate events. The video goes through them all and, in every case, is able to point to other factors (usually caused by human conflict or failed policy) that contributed to the death toll. Maybe it would have been more appropriate for Lomborg to point out that deaths resulting from conflict had dropped dramatically since 1920.

As with the accusation of cherry-picking, this is actually a valid point, but it is again overplayed and is groaning with hypocrisy. The reality is that very few supposedly natural disasters can be placed purely in such a category since there are nearly always human-related causations that have to be taken into account. Even the non-climate related disasters that Lomborg references will have been affected in that way. For example, just how many deaths have been caused by an earthquake will be a function of both its strength and just how earthquake-resistant the buildings will have been. And yet we still refer to the deaths as earthquake-related rather than construction-related. And we don’t whine when someone does so but fails to point out the human negligence involved. So saying that Lomborg is misleading his audience is a bit rich, particularly when you take into account that no matter how many human-related causations were behind the death tolls of recent climate events, all the deaths were counted as climate-related. The rule seems to be that when the statistics are dropping it is due to trends in the human-related causations, but when they are rising, it is entirely due to the trends in climate.

So it is fine to pick up Lomborg on this point, but if you do so then you are going to have to stop objecting to those who point out the major role of deforestation in Pakistani flooding, or the role that an epidemic of arson has had on Australian wildfires. Either you take a sophisticated view regarding causation or you don’t. You can’t just switch sophistication on and off just to suit your ‘debunking’ arguments.

And try not to get desperate

The only other supposedly debunking argument I can discern in the video is one taking issue with Lomborg’s claim that the drop in climate-related deaths is entirely positive. Yes, asserts the video, but at what cost? All these protections that have come with greater economic wealth have also resulted in greater financial loss when disaster strikes – just ask the insurance companies. And we all know that money is fungible – every pound spent on sea defences or to rebuild houses is a pound less for cancer research.

‘Specious’ is the word that comes to mind here. ‘Naïve’ is another. You just can’t do that. You can’t play the cancer card unless you can directly relate the two revenue streams and provide statistics that unequivocally show that death rates due to cancer are a lot higher because of the redirection of funding. Sure, cancer deaths are on the increase, but this trend is easily explained in terms of a growing and aging population that is not dying as much from other things that would have traditionally got you before cancer had the chance. The attempt to allude in this way to a hidden climate-related death toll is just downright desperate. The less said about this one, the better.

A call to arms

The only reason I have brought up this debunking video now is because it indirectly relates to the recent evaluation of IPCC’s AR6 published by the Clintel group. In fact, I had not even heard of this video until Dr Ken Rice referenced it in the latest post on his ATTP blog. The article dismisses the Clintel report as a litany of the same old heavily debunked arguments offered by climate ‘deniers’ and, in passing, Dr Rice adds a comment citing the Lomborg graph as another example of the sort of stuff that has already been thoroughly debunked (he actually says of the debunking video, ‘I thought this was a pretty good debunking of Lomborg’s graph’). I know that there are differences of opinion here on Cliscep regarding whether there is still much to be gained by arguing against the science used to justify Net Zero. I say that there is, and I will continue to say this whilst there are still people such as Dr Ken Rice who feel that the video I have just reviewed does a pretty good job of anything.

via Climate Scepticism

May 15, 2023 at 10:38AM

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