Something Rotten in the State of Denmark

Meet Bjorn Lomborg, the always-sunny political scientist that climate deniers love.

Photo: TED ConferenceBjorn Lomborg on stage at TED2014 in Vancouver

This story, part of a series, has been revised throughout for additional clarity and sourcing.

It’s hard to dislike Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish political pundit who has made a lucrative side business of denying climate science—not denying that climate change is happening, mind you, but downplaying and obfuscating the science showing that its impacts will be devastating around the world, which is every bit as bad in my book. 

The stereotypical climate denier is scowling, cranky, and obnoxious. Lomborg has a perma-smile. He’s filled with the spirit of rejecting consensus and spreading the good word. He’s the Joel Osteen of burning fossil fuels.

Who's smilier? Credit: Bjorn Lomborg and Nick Lee/Flickr

That happy smile, however, shouldn’t distract from Lomborg’s public statements on climate science, which are a tangle of half-truths and about-faces. Lomborg, who heads the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a think tank, gained fame with his controversial 2001 book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, in which he maintained that the planet is actually getting healthier.

He acknowledges that human-induced climate change is real, which is nice, but as documented by the Guardian, DeSmogBlog, and Real Climate, he makes questionable scientific claims and advocates inaction on government policies that would reduce carbon pollution. (See, for instance, his 2014 testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, in which he counsels a dramatic increase in R&D for green technologies instead of direct climate policy action.) Other days he argues for futuristic geoengineering techniques—the more extreme and impractical, like spraying sun-blocking sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, the better.

His reassurances that calamity is not in store, mixed with his love of speculative technology, have endeared Lomborg to several governments. His home nation has offered on-and-off support for his advocacy, while former Australian prime minister (and climate change denier) Tony Abbott tried desperately to bring Lomborg Down Under.

Here’s but one example of just how out of touch Lomborg can be. There has been a long-running controversy over the amount of global warming the international community should be willing to tolerate. For years, the mainstream goal among political leaders was to limit global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. The more ambitious advocates and climate scientists pushed for a maximum of 1.5 degrees. Two degrees, they argued, would lead to intolerable effects such as the inundation of many inhabited islands and the loss of coral reefs.

At the Paris climate conference in December, these arguments captured global attention, and the signatories raised their ambitions. Two degrees is now considered a backstop position, rather than the goal.

While all this was happening, Lomborg was arguing in the media that 2 degrees was too ambitious and costly, and that we should instead shoot for 3 degrees.

Economists have developed a rich literature on the price of climate change mitigation, and the consensus—ooh, there’s a word that irks climate change deniers—is that mitigation would cost far less than fixing the damage after the fact. It’s also worth noting that Lomborg is neither an economist nor a climatologist, but rather a political scientist.

Also, for just a moment, let’s set aside all of the economic and climate models, the complex calculations and huge dollar figures. Imagine a world where the average temperature has increased by 3 degrees Celsius. Some regions will be affected more than others, so a global increase of 3 degrees could mean an increase of more than 4 or 5 degrees in some places. For those of us who think in Fahrenheit, that means an average day in Khartoum, Sudan, which is already around 105 degrees in the summer, could be between 7 and 9 degrees hotter. Even a political scientist should recognize that large swaths of the African continent would become uninhabitable under those conditions.

According to a DeSmogBlog investigation, Lomborg’s organization—from which he draws a massive salary—has received more than $100,000 from a network of conservative funders that includes at least one philanthropy with ties to the Koch brothers*, who have a record not only of investing in climate change denial here in the United States, but of helping to spread lies about climate change all over the world.

Maybe Lomborg’s toothy grin is a tell, and this whole thing is an elaborate parody about the absurdity of climate denial that he’s struggling to conceal. Come on, Dr. Lomborg, give us a little wink with that smile.

*Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated that the Copenhagen Consensus Center was "not just investing in climate change denial here in the United States but [was] helping to spread lies about climate change all over the world." In fact, it is the Koch brothers who have been investing in climate change denial and untruths. The wording has been changed to reflect this.

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