I showed Lomborg’s film Cool It! to my students last week and was gratified that it received a small ripple of applause.
Directed by Ondi Timoner, the film is very much a response to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and like that film also shows Lomborg giving a powerpoint presentation, which includes a slide of Gore shaking Lomborg’s hand, which he quips “must have been taken seconds before he realised who I was- as he is still smiling.”
No-one has any reason to be a fan of Al Gore and some of the mistakes and misrepresentations in An Inconvenient Truth are clearly exposed in Lomborg’s film:
-sea level rise is expected to be a couple of foot by the end of the century, not the 20mfeet that Gore suggests we should worry about if Greenland melts- an event not feasible for a millenium at least;
-Nairobi, which Gore claims was previously at too high an altitude to suffer malaria, has in fact had the disease since its foundation in 1899; malaria was also prevalent in much of Europe and North America, and is much more a function of poverty and resources than climate;
-Polar bears populations have been increasing in recent decades, and suffer much more from hunting than climate change; (see Ben Pile’s discussion of Polar bear population dynamics here.)
-Hurricane frequency- Gore uses Katrina as an example of why we should be scared of increased strength and damage caused by hurricanes- but Lomborg again shows that the tragedy of New Orleans was more political failures and our resilience to hurricane damage more a function of wealth, which both results in higher insurance pay-outs, and greater ability to prepare and withstand extreme weather events.
Hurricanes maybe be expected to increase in severity in a warmer world, but there seems little confidence that we can directly attribute increased hurrican activity to human-caused CO2 emissions- see discussion by Judith Curry here.
More than focussing on these factual errors, Lomborg shows how Gore has used the fear factor to get his message across- and the effect it has had on schoolchildren. The opening scenes of the film show schoolchildren and their apocalyptic drawings of a warming world- “everything is just going to die… you never know if could even happen today.”
I was first alerted to the alarmist and exaggerated tone of Gore’s film when I learned that a concerned parent had taken the British government to court for spreading propaganda- copies of AIT were sent to every school in the country and shown as part of the curriculum.
It certainly is pretty concerning that Gore’s film has put fear of eco-catastrophe into the minds of children, giving them sleepless nights and hopeless feelings for the future- but this is explicitly the intent of the film “Please Help the World” played as the opening sequence at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference:
Lomborg goes on to look at technological solutions- low-carbon sources of energy that could, in the future, deliver affordable energy to most of the world’s population. He interviews Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder of `Intellectual Ventures´, who have founded created the firm TerraPower which is developing a nuclear reactor that uses depleted uranium, ie. nuclear waste;
Jonathan Trent, of the NASA Ames Research Center who is studying how to best make oil from algae;
and Stephen Salter, professor emeritus at Edinburgh, who developed the “Salter’s duck” wave-power technology- the film covers the story of how it was assessed by the Atomic Energy Commission who apparently turned it down as not viable, presumably because they saw it as competition.
The film follows the story of Lomborg’s vilification by the media and climate activists after the publication of The Skeptical Environmentlist in 2001, and the complaint of scientific dishonesty made about him to the Danish Committees for Scientific Dishonesty, from which he was later vindicated by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation.
There follows a section showing Lomborg visiting his mother in the nursing home where she lives- he describes how difficult the accusations of fraud were for him and how he relied on the love of his mother to see him through these hard times. Lomborg remains for many environmentalists a persona non gratis, and I got a small taste of this treatment by association when I was labelled a “crypto-denialist” just by arguing that some of what he says makes sense.
Lomborg still has his critics of course. Kåre Fog, who made the original complaint against Lomborg described above, has a whole book out on him, The Lomborg Deception, and gives a detailed critique of the film which at times borders on the paranoid:
The postulate is that `alarmists´ scare the wit out of defenseless children. This is hardly an accurate characterization of the public debate on global warming. One may wonder how the scene with the school children was arranged. The children must have got a recent input about global warming from their teacher. Was this arranged in order to make the children sufficiently upset and scared?
Is he seriously suggesting that Lomborg arranged himself to have the children scared witless by alarmist predictions just for the film? Wow- that sounds like desperation Mr. Fog.
Michael Svoboda makes much of the fact that Lomborg repeats only the low-end prediction of sea-level rise made by the IPCC, of 12-20inches by the end of the century, which he says is equivalent to that which we experienced- and adapted to- in the previous century.
But Lomborg’s main point is that we need a detailed cost-benefit analysis before rushing into hugely expensive policies that may not in the end achieve very much- especially if these policies are based on political ideologies that rely on scare-mongering to whip the public into supporting them. Worse-case scenarios are no more likely to be come true than lower-range scenarios. Humans can and will develop new technologies- including perhaps geo-engineering technologies, as also discussed in the film- to adapt to and mitigate the worst effects of climate change and other environmental problems.
I think the film is refreshingly up-beat but still realistic, and does a good job of explaining the major policy alternative to the clearly failed and unworkable proposals of Kyoto-style emissions-reduction treaties: rather than spending vast sums on easily corruptible carbon-trading schemes and taxing fossil fuels, far more good can be done by directly addressing the needs of the poor- education, clean drinking water, disease prevention- and instead by massively increase funding for clean energy technologies that are currently too immature and ineffective to replace fossil fuels- we will only reduce fossil fuel use when clean energy becomes cheaper.
So- drop the doom-mongering and anti-modernist “we must dismantle industrial society” rhetoric- and, in a word, get rational, and Cool It!