Looking to a statistician or economist for expert guidance on complex scientific matters makes about as much sense as consulting a neurosurgeon or a hairdresser for advice on investing in some arcane corner of the derivatives market.
However, when it comes to climate science, this is exactly what has been happening. A small band of people operating in fields entirely beyond their training or competence have, largely thanks to their skill in gaming the media, emerged as de facto international experts, advising politicians and shaping policy, with a patina of science jargon glossing over a hard core of ideology.
The best known of these is Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic who has cleverly pitched himself as the hip “alternative voice” to the stuffy scientists and environmental doomsayers. Since the publication in 2001 of his superbly disingenuous book, ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’, Lomborg is widely perceived as the most plausible, articulate voice telling us to ignore the ever more urgent warnings from the scientific community on the need to stabilise our climate system.
Lomborg reportedly spent 18 months producing a book, which, taken at face value, overturns almost everything we know about earth sciences, from biodiversity to soil erosion, atmospheric physics, hydrology, ice dynamics, ocean circulation and dozens of other scientific fields besides.
Quite an achievement for someone without even an undergraduate degree in a physical science and not a single published paper in any of the fields he purports to debunk. That Lomborg has developed such a comically inflated view of his own expertise would, in normal circumstances, make him a harmless figure of fun.
Lomborg’s actual genius lies not in science, but in theatre. He realised that if he could look and sound science-y, almost no one would know the difference, since few people in the media or politics have any idea how science actually works in the first place. It was a bold, brilliant ploy, and it worked. ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist’ was denounced as shoddy by professional scientists and academies, but his inclusion of hundreds of references and 3,000 endnotes made it look, to the untrained eye, like a tremendous work of scholarship.
Like its author, the book was an unqualified success. This, according to Dr Peter Raven, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “demonstrates the vulnerability of the scientific process, which is deliberative and hypothesis-driven, to outright misrepresentation and distortion”.
But who cares? The media had their new star, a breezy antidote to the increasingly gloomy ecological “consensus”. The telegenic bike-riding vegetarian with the salesman’s smile masquerading as an environmentalist fitted the Levitra bill as the “rational voice” speaking out against alarmism.
This extraordinary re-framing of the entire climate change debate pushed actual climate science to the fringes and allowed Lomborg and fellow denialists to successfully pass themselves off as representing a mirage called the “middle ground”. It was an audacious coup d’état, in which spin trumped science.
The now widespread fallacy that global warming has been hyped up by scientists owes much to the skill and persistence of Bjorn Lomborg and the credulity of our media in uncritically repeating and amplifying his assertions. Without Lomborg’s meticulous preparatory work, the ‘Climategate’ red herring – since debunked – might have not been so eagerly swallowed by the media, including here in Ireland.
Lomborg’s lucrative nine-year free ride may however be finally at an end. Investigative author Howard Friel recently published ‘The Lomborg Deception’ (Yale University Press), a volume that forensically peels away the dense carapace of pseudo-scholarship that has for years shielded Lomborg from proper scrutiny. This book reveals the Dane as “a performance artist disguised as an academic”, says Friel.
The scale of the deception is breathtaking. Distortion of references to back up bogus assertions is routine. For instance, he opens ‘Cool It’ (2007) with an attack on the “vastly exaggerated and emotional claims” he says are being made about polar bears and global warming. His argument is itself constructed on the thinnest of ice, since Lomborg systematically engages in the very practices of deception and concealment he ascribes to actual scientists.
His standard modus operandi involves ruthlessly excluding all evidence that doesn’t match his sweeping assertions while smearing the personal integrity of scientists. A critical reason why Lomborg has escaped more intensive media scrutiny is that he gives the impression of accepting that global warming is occurring.
However, his “smart solutions” (arrived at using classic voodoo economics models) involve continuing to burn fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow, while instead throwing a token few dollars at facile exercises like buying mosquito nets. Ironically, Lomborg actually claims to accept the scientific bona fides of the IPCC, yet his business-as-usual injunction would lock us into calamitous global average temperature increases in the range of 2.4–6.4 C this century. Chill out, says the smiling saboteur, this is “no catastrophe”.
In the real world, the climatic chaos triggered by such severe heating would most likely sweep away much of human civilisation, render the oceans lifeless and leave vast tracts of the planet uninhabitable for millennia. Alarming? Yes. Alarmist? No.
(A shorter version of this article, edited for reasons of space, appears in today’s Irish Times.)