Almost 30 years after reading The Descent of Woman, getting ready to move from London back to San Francisco, I was faced with a decision. As a market researcher I needed to broaden my field of focus. I had done really well for 15 years as an analyst on technology issues, but I sensed that tech was no longer enough. Some of the companies I knew well had succeeded to the point that they were almost utilities, especially in the networking arena. Pure internet plays had either died an early death or had gained a commanding market position—people had stopped asking interesting questions about them. And there was frankly too much competition from hotshot analysts, many younger and brighter than myself, in the telecommunications space.
The two sexy fields I was evaluating for a career refresh were renewable energy and medical devices. Medical devices would have been more lucrative, but renewable energy was much more accessible. It wouldn’t take me nearly as long to get up to speed on wind, solar and biofuels as it would have on the myriad categories of instrumentation used in medicine these days. So I immersed myself in green energy and within months I was busy writing reports on trends in renewables, especially solar power.
But studying renewable energy brought me into the politics of climate change, the reason renewables were being so energetically pushed.
At first contact, the climate change issue seemed almost the obverse of the situations I had read about involving Thor Heyerdahl and Elaine Morgan. Climate change caused by human emissions of CO2 was the ‘new’ theory (it was actually a century old) and seemingly attractive because it had ‘explanatory power’, but instead of receiving a baptism by fire from the scientific community it seemed to have been adopted by voice vote and become the law of the land. Academia was kind to climate change.
I found this surprising and started to look into it. So I adopted a skeptical posture at first, but the physics is actually sound—a doubling of concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will in fact slow down the cooling of the Earth, leading to temperature warming of about 1.1 degrees Celsius if nothing else is working to counteract (or amplify) the effects of those emissions.
The scientific debate of interest was what other forces were either working with CO2 to elevate temperatures or acting as a counterbalance to the warming effect and how strong they were. That debate continues today. Those most committed to the ‘cause’ of cataclysmic climate change are convinced that the atmosphere is very sensitive to a doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, saying that CO2 is a force for change in atmospheric conditions that causes ‘feedback’ from other phenomena. According to the theory of high sensitivity, more CO2 leads inexorably to more water vapor, also a greenhouse gas. And a little heating melts ice, which has a high albedo and reflects the sunlight back into space, exposing the darker surface underneath it which absorbs the heat from the sun, not letting it go back from whence it came. But this turns out to be a new theory, as dramatic and unexpected as Thor Heyerdahl’s theory about human travel between continents or Elaine Morgan’s ideas about early humans being the original beachcombers. And it is this specific subsection of the global warming hypothesis—the atmospheric sensitivity to greenhouse gases—that was not being examined as closely as a new theory should. Not only is the given range of sensitivity a very large range (between 1.5C and 4.5C for a doubling of CO2 concentrations), but despite decades of work that range has not narrowed at all. However, an alarming high value for atmospheric sensitivity was blithely accepted almost the minute it was posited. I cannot stress enough how unusual that is.
Early on in my background reading I found Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring The Real State of the World, published in 2001, although I didn’t get around to it until about 6 years after its publication. I found it by following the debate about it in The Economist, which chronicled what really looked like a coordinated hatchet job on Lomborg by the scientific community.
The Skeptical Environmentalist was partially a revival of ideas advanced by Julian Simon with a focus on environmental subjects. Simon had argued that the ultimate resource was the human brain and that resource constraints that worried so many (oil, precious metals, mundane raw materials) were not a problem at all—human ingenuity found workarounds when faced with shortages and contrary to the doctrines of Thomas Malthus, life had been getting better for the vast majority since Malthus’ time and was quite likely to continue to do so. Simon got more mainstream attention for a bet he had with Paul Ehrlich about the prices of 5 commodities over a decade—Simon won, predicting they would fall in price.
Lomborg’s book took Simon’s ideas and applied it to natural resources of concern to environmentalists—forest cover, water, pollution, food availability, energy, etc. And climate change. On all of the subjects, Lomborg used governmental data from publicly available sources to make the case that in almost all areas things were not as bad as people thought and getting better quite quickly. As for climate change, Lomborg wrote that he “accepts the reality of man-made global warming but questions the way in which future scenarios have been arrived at and finds that forecasts of climate change of 6 degrees by the end of the century are not plausible.” Lomborg concluded that focusing on poverty and research and development on alternative energy were a better use of the world’s limited resources.
Lomborg wrote one chapter of his book on global warming, amounting to 66 pages out of the 352 pages in my dog-eared copy. Those 66 pages caused a firestorm. In fact, the publisher was pressured severely not to bring the book out at all. The criticism was dominated by those who had become policy advocates of quick and dramatic action to forestall climate change. This shouldn’t be incredibly surprising. Lomborg repeatedly named names of scientists and journalists he felt had misled the public with exaggerated tales of coming disaster. Scientific American published in one issue a set of essays from some of the scientists Lomborg had criticized and they more than returned the favor. But Scientific American didn’t allow Lomborg to even respond at first. And whereas The Skeptical Environmentalist was in fact peer-reviewed (although critics blatantly lied, saying it was not), these attacks definitely were not—and they contained some real whoppers. Nature joined in, as did the Union for Concerned Scientists. But their criticisms, which I read at the time and reviewed before sitting down to write this preface, are mostly vague (accusing Lomborg of setting up straw men), wrong when they are specific and are in retrospect a frightening microcosm of the way the climate debate has played out ever since.
The Economist was scathing in its criticism of the scientists who attacked Lomborg and it certainly reminded me of some of the attacks I had read of on Heyerdahl and Morgan. It made me proud to be a reader of The Economist. But thinking about it, what struck me was that these attacks were in defense of the new kid on the block—the dramatic theory that attacked the null hypothesis (that being the climate change was natural and what we were busy measuring was just natural variability). That really seemed strange. With Heyerdahl and Morgan it had been the other way around. I looked for dedicated criticism of the climate change theory itself—the kind of criticism that really tested every element of the proposition in the way that Heyerdahl and Morgan—and now Lomborg—had been subject to, but I couldn’t find it. At least not in the published literature.
Then I found the climate blogs.