The Answer is Blowing in the Wind: Lomborg on Renewable Energy Subsidies

Context

This post was written, along with a previous post, in the context of the University of Western Australia’s decision to accept $4 million of federal funding for an Australian Consensus Centre built around the work of the controversial public intellectual Bjorn Lomborg. Since I completed the initial draft, UWA has decided to rescind the centre and return the funds, citing the widespread opposition to the centre among staff at the University.

Given this decision, I had initially thought not to publish this post. I have decided, however, to do so after all. My main reason for this is that in certain sections of the Australian media and the wider public debate, opposition to the Centre has been portrayed as the ideological hysteria of a closed club of humanities academics who ostracise and demonise anyone who fails to follows their left-wing orthodoxy. I hope that these posts go some way towards demonstrating that concern over Lomborg’s credentials is not mere ideology but the outcome of serious engagement with his output, on his own terms.

That being said, is it reasonable take such a fine-toothed comb to Lomborg’s opinion pieces like this, given they are primarily for public rather than academic consumption and (it could be argued) necessarily simplify issues in order to communicate them in an effective way?

I would argue that not only is it reasonable, it is necessary. Much of the disquiet over the Australian Consensus Centre at UWA has been over Lomborg’s paltry track record in the metrics that are often used to judge academic output, notably attempts to calculate his h-index score. The Australian has come to Lomborg’s defence on this, suggesting that Lomborg does not score well on the h-index because the peer review process for academic journals, from which the h-index is derived, ‘is a process regulated by humanities academics whose careers are built on toeing the leftist party line’. Whether or not the humanities in general are a hotbed of ‘hysterical’ leftists, the same could certainly not be said of economics journals – where Lomborg would presumably be seeking publication, given the defence of his approach is based on economics-inspired methodology.

But I nonetheless agree that Lomborg’s h-index is not the issue. This is because he is not himself an active academic researcher, and no-one is really claiming that he is. He is, in essence, a public intellectual; indeed, this is exactly how Project Syndicate – which distributed the article I discuss in this post – describes him.

I would also defend, however, the principle of appointing such figures to positions in publically-funded Universities. Universities and their academics are, generally speaking, bad at communicating often highly technical and specialist research to both policy and public audiences.  Public intellectuals, who refine and communicate academic research to wider audiences, play a vital role in this respect and should be a welcome addition to a university’s profile.

But that does not mean that such public intellectuals should not be held to account. Rather, they should be held to account precisely on the basis of their public engagement, whether in newspapers, blogs, or on the Letterman Show. Indeed, in some senses, their role as mediators between research and public debate places an even greater burden of accountability on them. Hence, carefully reading and critically engaging with their public arguments is an important part of the research-public nexus.

Put simply, the kind of role that Lomborg sought to fill at the Australian Consensus Centre is one that is, in my view, both justifiable and desirable. Indeed, although I do not deal with it in this post, I would go further and state that the questions under consideration in the putative ACC were likewise legitimate (although the ‘consensus centre’ approach is one I have methodological concerns about).

But people who fill this kind of role need to be accountable for the claims they make in the public domain, all the more so because of the vital role they play. This is the approach I have taken in these postings. And, in each case, it seems to me that Lomborg presents arguments and reads evidence in a way that is highly skewed and misrepresentative of the sources he cites, sometimes in ways that stretch even sympathetic credulity. This, it seems to me, was at the heart of the opposition to the ACC at UWA.

Bjorn Again

In my previous post I looked at the way in which Bjorn Lomborg constructed an argument against electric cars in an op-ed in USA Today, and found that the data he used was highly selective, the construction of the cost-benefit calculation was highly skewed, and that his arguments were based on fanciful counterfactuals.

In this post, I am looking at another opinion piece by Lomborg on the ‘poverty of renewables’, in which Lomborg attacks subsidies for wind and solar electricity generation. In this case, the piece has been published through Project Syndicate, a content distribution website for opinion pieces that include a number of high-profile names including the economist Jeffrey Sachs and the ethicist Peter Singer.

As with his attack on electric cars, Lomborg’s main point is that subsidising renewables costs more than it benefits; it is not an effective use of public money. The headline figures he claims in this contribution are a global subsidy cost of $60 billion for solar and wind against a benefit of $1.4 billion.

How are these figures derived? Lomborg’s source for the $60 billion subsidy claim is the World Energy Outlook 2013, produced by the International Energy Agency. This is, indeed, their estimate; specifically $35 billion for solar, $26 billion for wind. This is certainly a sizeable sum on its own, but needs to be put in perspective. As the WEO itself notes, ‘the level of renewables subsidies is less than one-fifth of the fossil-fuel consumption subsidies in the same year’. In fairness to Lomborg, he has also advocated eliminating these subsidies and, indeed, has in his own words ‘done my best to call out subsidy silliness whatever fuel it supports’.

But, following Lomborg’s own preferred methodology, we are not so much concerned with the absolute cost of subsidies as their cost relative to benefit. It is here that his claim that the benefit from these subsidies is a ‘paltry’ $1.4 billion becomes vital.

So what is the source for this claim? Remarkably, in an otherwise very well-linked piece, Lomborg provides no source whatsoever for this figure, whether in the form of an explicit statement of the source or a hyperlink to a putative source. I have searched in vain for possible sources, including a carefully reading of the World Energy Outlook document that Lomborg uses for his subsidy estimate and the various working papers and publication of Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre, as well as generic searches of official and academic publication for possible sources. I cannot find any figures or estimates that would correspond to such a claim.[1]

A Tale of Three Countries

Lomborg goes on to discuss three country examples where, in his analysis, subsidies for renewables have driven huge increases in household energy expenditure, specifically: the UK, Germany, and Greece. Clearly, these are only particular examples, selected to make a point, but let’s look at them anyway.

Firstly, in the UK, Lomborg has the following to say: “environmentalists boast that households in the United Kingdom have reduced their electricity consumption by almost 10% since 2005. But they neglect to mention that this reflects a 50% increase in electricity prices, mostly to pay for an increase in the share of renewables from 1.8% to 4.6%”.

The critical questions are:

  • How far are price increases the sole driver of reduced consumption; and,
  • How far are price increases driven by renewable subsidies?

The answer to (A) is clearly difficult to estimate. We can note that the UK Government Annual Report on Fuel Poverty for 2012, which Lomborg sources, attributes the decline in consumption primarily to environmental regulation, including new efficiency measures (e.g. on fridges) and improved (and sometimes subsidized) household insulation. Even the market-oriented Policy Exchange think tank postulated that price was only one of a range of factors leading to declining consumption, with insulation and regulation again being significant factors. The UK Government Energy Efficiency Strategy Statistical Summary for 2012 also places a heavy emphasis on energy efficiency measures in accounting for declining domestic energy usage, including cavity wall insulation, appliance regulation, and behaviour change. Indeed, they estimate a ‘theoretical’ energy saving of 20% from domestic energy efficiency measures.

Now, what about (B)? Ofgem, the UK energy regulator, provides a breakdown of the average ‘dual fuel’ (electricity and gas) bill. The Environmental and Social Obligation costs to the average bill in 2013 was £111 out of £1,316, or 8.4% of the bill. Separately, the equivalent percentage was 12.7% for electricity and 5.2% for gas.

Lomborg is concerned with the increase in bills these costs purportedly drive. Lomborg states that electricity bill had increased by 50%, citing the UK Quarterly Energy Prices publication from June 2013. He does not cite which specific indicator he uses; I am presuming he is using Table 2.1.2 which gives a GDP deflated index of fuel costs. With a 2005=100 base (roughly ten years), the electricity index was 156.2; gas was higher at 199.6. Let us assume that there were no environmental and social obligation costs at all in 2005. Hence, the £74 environmental cost on 2013 electricity bills accounts 37% of the increase in electricity prices. For gas, the equivalent figure is 10%. For the two combined – electricity and gas – environmental and social obligation costs account for at most 19.5% of the increase in bills since 2005.

Where are we? We started with Lomborg’s claim that the 10% fall in electricity consumption is (without qualifier) because of the 50% increase in prices and that this was ‘mostly’ to pay for renewables subsidies. We have seen that the causes of declining consumption are complex but, certainly in the government statistical analysis, largely related to energy efficiency measures rather than price.  Moreover, we have been able, with relative ease, to put a absolute upper bound estimate on Lomborg’s claim that increased electricity prices are mostly driven by renewable subsidies. 20% of the increase, or 10% of bills.

Lomborg goes on to supplement his account of UK fuel bills with a range of anecdotal references to the drastic extents British pensioners have gone to so that they can keep warm during winter. These are indeed tragic stories, which speak to the harsh impact of high fuel prices. As we have seen, however, the extent to which renewables subsidies drive these costs is rather less than Lomborg would have us believe. Moreover, there is some irony in the fact that most of the stories Lomborg sources here are from December 2010, one of the coldest months on record in the UK. The human impact of individual extreme weather events disappears in Lomborg’s typical cost-benefit approach, but he seems happy here to draw selectively on one such event to provide emotional support for his statistically tenuous claims about renewable subsidies in the UK.

Lomborg deals with Germany and Greece much more briefly, as can we. In the case of Germany, he notes that green subsidies cost €23.6 billion, while household electricity prices have increased 80%. The implication, clearly, is that these subsidies are the main cause of increasing prices. But the figures are rather different: the renewables surcharge through which the green subsidy is levied accounted in 2014 for 18% of household electric bills. Certainly, this is a sizeable surcharge and, indeed, Germany has since moved to revise the subsidy system in order to limit its further expansion. There are two issues in Lomborg’s presentation of this situation, however. Firstly, despite his faith in a cost-benefit approach, he has made no attempt in either the UK or German case (or, for that matter, Greece) to quantify the extent to which renewable subsidies account for increasing fuel costs. As we have seen, quantification presents a much more nuanced picture that his account implies. Secondly, while it does appear that the German subsidies were, at least from a political perspective, unsustainably high, this is clearly not an argument against all subsidies.

Lomborg’s final, brief, case is Greece. In this case, Lomborg simply asserts that ‘tax hikes on oil have driven up heating costs by 48%, more and more Athenians are cutting down park trees, causing air pollution from wood burning to triple’. This is indeed a case where it seems clear that a massive tax hike led to increased fuel poverty, as well as reportedly being fiscally counterproductive as the total revenue from the tax has fallen as people stopped buying heating oil. But, in the context of Lomborg’s article, it is not clear what relevance this case has: this appears to be a poorly thought out and implemented tax on oil, which has nothing directly to do with renewable subsidies. There is no mention of renewables – solar, wind, or otherwise – in Lomborg’s account.

Fuel Poverty and Renewables

Of course, where the Greek case is of relevance is to broader debates about rising fuel costs and their distributional impact. One of the main thrusts of Lomborg’s piece that we haven’t yet discussed is that increasing fuel costs hit the poor harder than the rich. This is undoubtedly true – energy consumption for the poor is much more inelastic than for the rich.

But the important question this raises, from the perspectives of renewables, is how far renewables account for increasing energy prices. There is clearly a huge range of factors accounting for energy prices. Market prices for crude oil and natural gas are one important driver. When Lomborg wrote his article, the crude oil price was over $100 per barrel, having broken the $50 mark for the first time since 1985 in July 2004 (excluding a brief spike during the First Gulf War).

Lack of effective competition in the energy supply market can also contribute to high prices. Indeed, the source that Lomborg uses for his account of Greece cites an explanation for the country’s high prices in a monopolistic law that protect the country’s two refining companies from competition. A recent study from Cambridge University’s Energy Policy Research Group found that an Ofgem initiative to reduce regional price discrimination had the counterproductive effect of reducing competition at a cost of £1 billion to consumers. These are both cases of apparently poor policies that are negatively affecting fuel prices. But they have nothing to do with renewables.

None of these issues get mentioned in Lomborg’s account.  The clear implication instead is that fuel prices are driven primarily by renewables subsidies.

To conclude, energy prices have been rising in the developed world, and this has had a severe deleterious effect, particularly on the poor. This is indisputable. But to lay the blame at the feet of subsidies for renewables, as Lomborg does, is unjustifiable. In order to even begin to justify such a claim, one would at least need to quantify the contribution of renewable subsidies to increasing prices. This is something Lomborg consistently refuses to do in this piece. My own attempts have suggested a relatively small proportion of increasing costs can be blamed on renewable subsidies.

Critics of Lomborg stand accused of ‘ideological hysteria’. It seems to me on the basis of this analysis that this accusation, if anything, should be pointed in the other direction.

[1] If any readers can provide a source for this claim, I will happily update this post.

16 thoughts on “The Answer is Blowing in the Wind: Lomborg on Renewable Energy Subsidies

  1. Thanks for all the trouble you have gone to. I read (and critiqued) parts of his book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in great detail during my PhD, soon after its publication in English, in about 2001. At that time, I also read numerous other criticisms of his work. Consistent in both my own analysis and that of the other critics I read was the conclusion that Lomborg tended to cherrypick and to draw false conclusions. His book, if submitted as a PhD in science, would have been failed. Since then I have never taken his science seriously (though his political influence is high), but nor have I had the time or motivation to again examine his work carefully. I am glad that you did, and especially congratulate your university for deciding to not host his centre. It seems that his essential nature – to fit and gloss over data in ways that support his preconceptions – has changed little.

  2. I work in sustainability for a large organisation in a developing country, and am involved in carbon reduction projects; which have included CDM projects in the past.

    Scrutiny of Bjorn’s work is welcome, but is the same level of scrutiny imposed on papers and research that show almost conclusive claims of the costs of climate change? What Bjorn Lomborg is doing is not denying or miscalculating the costs of climate change; but rather prioritising current resources to issues with most bang for the buck.

    In my work, I have found it difficult to reconcile the expenditure on CDM against rural development needs and poverty alleviation. We have a Scandinavian partner that has invested around EUR 100mil in the region on CDM projects but has now stopped; one, due to the collapse of CDM and two, due to the inevitable questioning of how foreign aid is spent.

    How much more could have been done with EUR 100 mil? Bjorn’s calculations are based on a myriad of assumptions; and its the same as in any scientific study, on climate change or otherwise.

    Bjorn is simply trying to direct attention towards critical needs. We can question his methods and calculations, but it is not sensible to silence him and the Copenhagen Consensus.

    Does the elimination of malaria, increased vaccination in developing countries, gender equality, and other critical goals mentioned by the Copenhagen Consensus really deserve less resources than those devoted to alleviating climate change?

    Try asking that to the billion people in LDCs and developing countries.

  3. Hello Graham

    I appreciate the time and care you’ve put into this piece. I also appreciate the way you’ve been more reasonable than many about issues like H-indexes and the role of public intellectuals. But I’d like to put some alternative perspectives on the issues you raise. In my view, the article falls short of achieving your objective of providing a convincing case that Lomborg violates normal academic standards to such a degree that it justifies the widespread opposition to the establishment of the Australian Consensus Centre at UWA.

    Firstly, there is the issue of consistency of standards. If you or I were to examine other public media articles written by our university colleagues with the same degree of rigorous scrutiny as you have applied here, I am very confident that we would find any number of examples of the types of issues you raise. Failure to cite sources, selection of sources or examples to suit an argument, adopting a position that is consistent with one political ideology but not another – these are all standard practices in the print and online media, including in media articles written by academics. An hour or two spent reading The Conversation would furnish many such examples. But there is no campaign within universities against these authors receiving funding or establishing projects.

    Even peer-reviewed journal articles are not exempt. I could send you a peer-reviewed article in an ISI journal by one of our professorial colleagues at UWA which, in my judgement, is irredeemable garbage. He continues to research, publish and draw a salary. I’m not saying that’s OK, just that it happens. In my judgement, if we plot Lomborg within the distribution of academic media behaviour, he is not in the tail.

    Secondly, the basic message of the article you’ve criticised is supported by the great majority of environmental economists. We would not even blink at the proposition that providing subsidies for renewable energy is a terribly inefficient approach to reducing CO2 emissions, and often has undesirable side effects. The design of biofuel policies in Europe and the US, in particular, is absolutely appalling. It is very expensive, achieves almost no CO2 abatement, and has had dreadful spin-off effects, including for poor people in the developing world, who face higher food prices as a consequence of it. There are various ifs and buts that could be raised here, but the basic point is that there is a well-reasoned and well-evidenced body of research and analysis that backs up Lomborg’s position.

    Thirdly, you criticise his use of examples. The first example is the UK. Lomborg makes three points. (a) He says that electricity consumption has fallen by 10% since 2005, but that some environmentalists fail to acknowledge that this reflects the large increase in prices. You seem to argue that he overstates the influence of price on the consumption fall, citing several reports that emphasise insulation, energy efficiency and regulation. However, some of those things are likely to be a consequence of high prices, not an alternative explanation. Also, there is a wealth of published research on the relationship between energy prices and energy demand, and it indicates that a price increase of 50% would be expected to reduce demand by quite a lot more than 10%. Suggesting that the price increase reduced demand by only 10% is actually very conservative. It was probably more than that in reality (i.e. consumption would have increased but for the price increase).

    (b) He says that the increase in electricity cost was “mostly” due to the higher cost of renewables. You show some numbers that indicate that about 37% of the increase was due to “environmental obligation” costs. I wonder whether this “obligation” charge fully reflects the extra cost of renewables, but accepting for now that it does, I’d agree that “mostly” is an overstatement, and should be replaced with “partly”.

    (c) He says that the impact of higher electricity prices falls disproportionately on the poor. This is unarguable. He presents some illustrative examples, which you criticise for being cherry picked, but media articles often use the colour of particular stories to highlight a point, and you could not dispute the truth of his basic point.

    I’ll skip the German example in the interests of space, as it adds nothing to the UK example. For the Greek example, you criticise him because the energy tax hike mentioned was not related to renewables. His brief comment about Greece does seem of marginal relevance. I would only observe that he doesn’t misrepresent it as being an example of high costs due to renewables, and that it does illustrate the adverse social consequences of high energy prices.

    Overall, then, I don’t think you’ve provided any evidence in this piece that “Lomborg presents arguments and reads evidence in a way that is highly skewed and misrepresentative of the sources he cites”. At one point he arguably should have said “partly” instead of “mostly”, but otherwise his position is very defensible. From this example, and others, it seems to me that it is easy it is to write a critique of Lomborg that appears to be telling (particularly to those who want it to be) but actually is not. In my experience, critiques of Lomborg are very often like that.

    Opposition to Lomborg’s centre at UWA was complex and multifaceted. It certainly wasn’t limited to the humanities, and it wasn’t only about his supposed weaknesses or biases. It also included concerns about the political “vibe” of the arrangement, and the effect of the deal on UWA’s reputation (which could be a concern irrespective of the merits of the criticisms made). But to the extent that it was about his weaknesses and biases, I think a lot of the arguments that people put were weak and biased.

    1. David
      Thanks again for your considered response to my postings on Lomborg. You raise a number of important issues and challenges for me, and I’m not sure I can do them all justice, but I will give it a go.
      I should start by reiterating why I wrote these posts. They were certainly not intended as a contribution to an anti-Lomborg campaign. While I had come across Lomborg’s work in passing in the past (not least of which when I was deciding whether to buy an electric car myself), I had not engaged in any depth with it, or with the controversy surrounding him. When the controversy broke here, I decided to try to form my own judgment, rather than be swayed by the undoubtedly somewhat polemical and conspiratorial accusations on both sides. I hence looked at some of his popular output – both this article and the more recent one on electric cars. I also read through his Senate testimony when he was called as an expert witness, which I have not written up. And I read through the latest round of Copenhagen Consensus process itself, including the working papers and the popular précis. I have written up some reflections on the Consensus process itself, in which I sought not to attack the process per se but to point out what seems to me a weakness in it – its lack of consideration of distributional consequences – and to point to ways in which inequality-aversion might be included in the process.
      The point of this is that while there are, I am sure, weaknesses in my critique, it was not in any way deliberately biased. Certainly, I was aware of the accusations against Lomborg in writing these, but my motivation for doing so was precisely to avoid assuming that these accusations were accurate. Indeed, if anything, I have tried to give him the benefit of the doubt on a number of occasions, for instance in his implicit claim that the electric car study that he cites was based on a US fuel mix, when it was actually based on the EU fuel mix.
      Having said this, I would like to start by responding to your general critique of my critique of Lomborg, and then open up a broader area of discussion which, I think, is worth pursuing irrespective of Lomborg himself.
      Firstly, in terms of this piece itself, my reading of your response is that you have two main objections. Firstly, you think I have been overly harsh on Lomborg and that what he is doing here in terms of marshalling data and cases in a slightly extravagant way is, in fact, par for the course for much of academia. Secondly, you state that the position he articulates here is one that would be defended, in general, by mainstream environmental economics.
      On the latter point, I defer entirely to your expertise; this is not my area of research. But a badly constructed argument in defence of the right conclusion is still not helpful, particularly in an area so fraught with polemic, hyperbole and misdirection in the public debate on all sides.
      Which brings me to the former point: was I overly harsh on Lomborg? I would certainly accept that, in my judgment, this piece falls less far down the tail of academic misdemeanour than the other piece I reviewed, which struck me as so distorted of the main source it cites that I found it hard to imagine how this could have been accidental or just careless. My main concern with this piece was, rather, the marked difference between his main methodological defence of the CCC project overall – that all they do is simply quantify the costs and benefits of different policies and interventions – and the failure to even attempt quantification of the costs and benefits of wind subsidies beyond his ‘headline’ figures of $60 billion costs against $1.4 billion benefits (and if you know where he got the latter figure from, I would be interested to read it). Argument by exaggeration, it seems to me, is the problem that the CCC methodology is designed to address, yet Lomborg himself indulges in it here.
      Moreover, I would certainly want this piece to be read alongside the other piece I reviewed. Together, they drove me to the conclusion that at least in his public engagement, Lomborg does not treat sources, evidence and data with the integrity that, in my view, would warrant $4 million of funding. This was the conclusion I came to; I shared these piece partly so that they might help inform other people’s deliberations, and partly because I put a lot of work into them and thought I might as well post them up.
      You suggest that Lomborg does not fall that far down the tail in the distribution of academic misdemeanour. I am certainly not, I think, naïve about the extent of the problem in academia; as an avid follower of Retraction Watch, I find myself regularly depressed by the amount of mendacity that appears to go on even at the highest levels of academic; just yesterday, Stanford’s Donald Green – an academic hero of mine – retracted one of his own co-authored papers from Science because of concerns over the integrity of the data provided by his co-author.
      Clearly, we have come to different conclusions about how far down this tail of misdemeanour Lomborg lies. This is a matter of individual judgment, I think. The corollary question that your comments raise, however, is whether Lomborg is being subject to an unreasonably high level of scrutiny, both in terms of extent and depth. Again, I would certainly accept that the level of scrutiny in academia is somewhat inconsistent: I have had to make major revisions to a paper for a relatively minor journal because a reviewer critiqued the econometric technique I used, although it is the standard within the discipline, while my own review of a different submission to a much higher-ranked journal which noted the same failing was over-ruled by the editors, who accepted the authors’ response that this was the industry-standard technique.
      But my response to the specific issue of scrutiny of Lomborg is both specific and general. On the specifics of Lomborg, I would note firstly, again, that my own contribution to this scrutiny was motivated by a refusal to be judgmentally swayed by previous scrutinization of his output and to more my own judgment. The intellectual controversy that he provokes is bound to attract critical (in the positive sense) attention. To some extent there may be path-dependence here: critical attention garners more critical attention. But his own carefully engineered public brand is that of a revolutionary, paradigm-changing thinker. As the strapline to his Cool It! movie (which his charity spent $850k promoting) says: “A light bulb won’t solve global warming; this guy’s bright ideas just might”. Given this courting of attention and controversy, it would seem to me to be rather disingenuous if he were then to complain about the level of scrutiny his output receives. Likewise, I would suggest that when a public intellectual such as Lomborg attracts significant funding – particularly from public coffers – it would seem to me unreasonable to then complain about the scrutiny that this funding attracts.
      Which brings me to the more general and, I hope, positive point that I want to end on. I think we are both agreed that the kind of role Lomborg plays is a vital one. I have used the term ‘public intellectual’ because I cannot think of a better term, but the role itself is that of a broker between academic research, direct policy advocacy in governments and intergovernmental fora, and public debate. I have also defended the position that such figures can play an important role inside as well as outside publicly-funded universities.
      But, it seems to me indisputable that such figures nonetheless need to be held to account for the claims they make and the way they make them. This, it seems to me, is something that academia in general has not been good at. There are certainly many journalists, NGOs, and advocacy groups out there contesting the various claims of such public figures and tracing networks of influence, funding, and lobbying. But this kind of attention often takes on a somewhat conspiratorial framework, whatever its political positioning.
      How can, and should, academia contribute towards this process of holding public intellectuals to account? I do not have a fully developed answer to this. I certainly think that we have a role, and that it should probably be tied in the first instance to the kind of ‘fact-checking’ I have undertaken here (however poorly). Public intellectuals like Lomborg potentially exert huge influence over public opinion and they do so largely by digesting and ‘framing’ academic research, but they are not subject to the same level of routine scrutiny of their claims that we are through the peer review system (however flawed it may be). Misuse of scientific research is by no mean restricted to ‘climate denialists’; Greenpeace, for instance, is argued to have indulged in ‘preposterous scientific claims’ in the past. That academia should play a part in holding Greenpeace, Lomborg, and other public intellectuals to account for the use they make of our collective research endeavour seems to me both necessary and desirable. If Lomborg has been the victim of a particularly, unreasonably intense scrutiny, it seems to me that this is partly because of the controversial attention that he himself courts, and partly because we have not yet as academic worked out how to contribute more routinely and systematically to accountability in public debate.

  4. Hi Graham

    This is a very interesting discussion, that I’d be keen to continue. I am totally swamped with work, now so may not get to it for a while, but I will try to before it gets too stale.

    Cheers
    Dave

  5. Hi Graham

    I wrote a reply to your detailed response (of May 22) not too long after that, but it looks like I failed to finish it off and post it. It’s pretty late in the day now, but here it is anyway.

    Thanks for the further comments. It was interesting to read about how you came to write it. I came to read it via a link from an anti-Lomborg article in the Guardian. It said, more or less, that you had done the detailed checking and proved that Lomborg’s work is rubbish. You motivated the piece by saying that you wanted to demonstrate “that concern over Lomborg’s credentials is not mere ideology but the outcome of serious engagement with his output, on his own terms.”

    You certainly demonstrated serious engagement. I wasn’t suggesting bias – sorry if it seemed that way.

    I certainly agree that close scrutiny of his arguments is needed and justified. But the scrutinisers themselves need to get it right and are fair game for scrutiny themselves.

    I hadn’t read your other article on electric cars (I have now and will soon comment on it) so I was evaluating this one “on its own terms”. It had been highlighted by a national journalist as a decisive critique, and summed up by yourself in the next article as demonstrating that Lomborg’s conclusion was distorted. In this context, I think it was worth pointing out that it really isn’t and doesn’t.

    My criticism of your critique was more detailed and specific than just saying that economists would agree with him. You made three substantive points of criticism.

    (1) That his criticism of subsidies for renewables is “distorted” (to use a word from your next post). I don’t believe you showed this at all. I don’t know where he got his estimate of B$1.4 benefits from, but I imagine it’s a carbon price times the estimated total emissions reduction. It’s a very plausible figure. In your detailed reply you are still describing it as “argument by exaggeration”, but I don’t agree with that at all. Even if we were to multiply it by a factor of 10 (e.g. to use an extreme carbon price), the benefits would still be a quarter of the costs.

    (2) That he exaggerated the effect of price on electricity consumption. This is clearly incorrect. If anything, he understated the effect.

    (3) That he exaggerated the effect of renewable subsidies on electricity price. I don’t think you provided sufficient evidence to prove this, but even if it is true, it has no effect on the two basic points of the article (that subsidy costs exceed their benefits and that there is a disproportionate effect on the poor).

    As with many Lomborg critiques, there was a level of nit-picking. My point about this was that it involved holding Lomborg to a higher standard than can reasonably be expected in a media article, even one written by an academic. That’s a minor point.

    I don’t think “Lomborg has been the victim of a particularly, unreasonably intense scrutiny”. Intense scrutiny is very appropriate. It’s the quality of the scrutiny that is of concern. Many critics seem very willing to make strong claims, and readers believe and pass on those strong claims, but even when the critiques are intended to be fair and balanced, I do often find them wanting. Why that should so often be the case is a very interesting question, although I don’t know the answer.

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