NY Times uncritically cited "statistician" and discredited global-warming skeptic Bjorn Lomborg

››› ››› BEN ARMBRUSTER

A New York Times article about Al Gore's congressional testimony on global warming reported that "Danish statistician and author" Bjorn Lomborg testified at the same House hearing, but the article did not mention climate experts' criticism of Lomborg's writings on global warming or that Lomborg has previously misrepresented Gore's claims on global warming.

A March 22 New York Times article about former Vice President Al Gore's March 21 congressional testimony on global warming reported that "Danish statistician and author" Bjorn Lomborg also testified to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The article noted that Lomborg is "critical of people who present environmental problems as a crisis" and that, during his testimony, he "asserted that Mr. Gore's portrayal of global warming as a problem, and his prescription for solving it, were deeply flawed." But the Times did not report the criticism leveled at Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001) by several well-known environmental specialists, which Media Matters for America recently documented. Nor did the Times mention that Lomborg has previously misrepresented Gore's claims regarding global warming.

The Times devoted the last two paragraphs of its article on Gore's Capitol Hill appearance to Lomborg's criticism:

In written testimony for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and author critical of people who present environmental problems as a crisis, asserted that Mr. Gore's portrayal of global warming as a problem, and his prescription for solving it, were deeply flawed.

Mr. Lomborg said that "global warming is real and man-made," but that a focus on intensified energy research would be more effective and far cheaper than caps or taxes on greenhouse gas emissions or energy sources that produce them.

Yet the article did not mention that in The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg purported to conduct a "non-partisan analysis" of environmental data in the hope of offering the public and policymakers a guide for "clear-headed prioritization of resources to tackle real, not imagined, problems." His conclusion was that the concerns of scientists regarding the world's environmental problems -- including global warming -- were overblown. But in January 2002, Scientific American ran a series of articles from four well-known environmental specialists that lambasted Lomborg's book for "egregious distortions," "elementary blunders of quantitative manipulation and presentation that no self-respecting statistician ought to commit," and sections that were "poorly researched and ... rife with careless mistakes."

A backgrounder by the Union of Concerned Scientists similarly reported that Lomborg's findings and methodology "fail[] to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis."

Further, in a February 7 New York Sun op-ed, Lomborg purported to debunk a claim made by Gore in the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth by comparing it with a recently released report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Lomborg wrote:

[The IPCC] fundamentally rejects one of the most harrowing scenes from Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth." In graphic detail, Mr. Gore demonstrated how a 20-foot rise in the sea level would inundate much of Florida, Shanghai, and Holland. The IPCC report makes it clear that exaggerations of this magnitude have no basis in science -- though clearly they frightened people and perhaps will win Mr. Gore an Academy Award.

Indeed, the Times itself made the same comparison, as Media Matters noted. In a March 13 article, Times science writer William J. Broad stated that the IPCC report, which "estimated that the world's seas in this century would rise a maximum of 23 inches," contradicted Gore, who, according to Broad, "envisions rises of up to 20 feet" while "citing no particular time frame."

But Lomborg's criticism and Broad's similar claim rely on a false comparison. In the book associated with the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (Rodale Books, May 2006), Gore wrote that if the West Antarctic ice shelf "melted or slipped off its island mooring into the sea, it would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet." He added that "the West Antarctic ice shelf is virtually identical in size and mass to the Greenland ice dome, which also would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet if it melted or broke up and slipped into the sea" (Page 190):

The East Antarctic ice shelf is the largest ice mass on the planet and had been thought to be still increasing in size. However, two new studies in 2006 showed first that the overall volumes of ice in East Antarctica now appear to be declining, and that 85 percent of the glaciers there appear to be accelerating their flow toward the sea. Second, it showed that air temperatures measured high above this mass of ice appear to have warmed more rapidly than air temperatures anywhere else in the world. This finding was actually a surprise, and scientists have not yet been able to explain why it is occurring.

East Antarctica is still considered far more stable over long periods of time than the West Antarctic ice shelf, which is propped up against the tops of islands. This peculiar geology is important for two reasons: first, its weight is resting on land and therefore its mass has not displaced seawater as floating ice would. So if it melted or slipped off its island mooring into the sea, it would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet. Second, the ocean flows underneath large sections of this ice shelf, and as the ocean has warmed, scientists have documented significant and alarming structural changes on the underside of the ice shelf.

Interestingly, the West Antarctic ice shelf is virtually identical in size and mass to the Greenland ice dome, which also would raise sea levels worldwide by 20 feet if it melted or broke up and slipped into the sea.

Gore made the same claim in the film:

GORE: If [the West Antarctic ice shelf] were to go, sea level worldwide would go up 20 feet. They've measured disturbing changes on the underside of the ice sheet. It's considered relatively more stable, however, than another big body of ice that's roughly the same size -- Greenland would also raise sea level almost 20 feet if it went.

The IPCC, however, addressed rising sea levels as they are affected by "[c]ontinued greenhouse gas emissions at or above current rates." A chart projecting the rise of sea levels in six different scenarios showed that the "the best estimate for the high scenario," which defined the "likely range" of temperature increases over the next century to be from "2.4°C to 6.4°C," resulting in an increase in sea levels between 0.26 meters and 0.59 meters, which converts to a range of 10.24 inches to 23.23 inches. The IPCC further claimed that "[c]ontraction of the Greenland ice sheet is projected to continue to contribute to sea level rise after 2100" and that "[i]f a negative surface mass balance were sustained for millennia, that would lead to virtually complete elimination of the Greenland ice sheet and a resulting contribution to sea level rise of about 7 m," which is equivalent to approximately 23 feet.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
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