Bjorn Lomborg: performance artist extraordinaire

September 3, 2010

One of the most successful performance artists of the 21st century has returned to the stage—and we’re not talking about Lady Gaga here.

Instead, I draw your attention to Bjorn Lomborg, who has just unleashed a dramatic reverse back-flip of his stance on global warming that may very well restore him, at least briefly, to the heights of the media firmament he first enjoyed in 2001, when he announced his apostasy from his (alleged) environmental roots with the publication of the global best-seller, The Skeptical Environmentalist.

On August 30, 2010, the British paper The Guardian published an “exclusive interview” with Lomborg with the following rather breathless opening:

The world’s most high-profile climate change sceptic [sic] is to declare that global warming is “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront”, in an apparent U-turn that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby.”

Bjørn Lomborg, the self-styled “sceptical environmentalist” once compared to Adolf Hitler by the UN’s climate chief, is famous for attacking climate scientists, campaigners, the media and others for exaggerating the rate of global warming and its effects on humans, and the costly waste of policies to stop the problem.

In what may have been a very sly editorial comment, the article’s next sentence very helpfully points out that Lomborg has “a new book to be published next month.”

GET ME CENTRAL CASTING: For those of you who weren’t there at the beginning, a little historical context: back in the summer of 2001, a heretofore unknown and little-published Danish statistician made a huge media splash with the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. The author, Bjorn Lomborg, was as mediagenic as he could be: , a good-looking, tall, blond, politically-left, gay, vegetarian, and to top it all off, a self-described former member of Greenpeace.

Lomborg argued that we had been misled by the scientific community and environmental organizations into thinking that the threats to the global environment were far worse than the “facts” justified. His critique was especially aimed at the ever-growing consensus about the dangers posed by global warming. He never flat-out denied the existence of global warming, but the media were quick to anoint him as the leading global warming skeptic because he claimed that there were far more urgent environmental problems than global warming.

IT’S ALL IN THE FRAME: How you frame a story makes a great deal of difference in how successful you can be in getting the media to pick up your story and repeat it. Lomborg played to one of the classical frames in the environmental arena, the former environmentalist who had “seen the light,” going through a conversion experience to become a truth-teller whom we should trust even more. (The ur-model for this frame is Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.)

Lomborg claimed to have been a supporter of Greenpeace, although he has never documented this claim. Nonetheless, the claim positioned Lomborg to execute his first back-flip, joining a small group of similar apostates who had parlayed experience in the environmental world as a credential for attacking their former colleagues and organizations. (Greenpeace has been an especially potent starting-point. Patrick Moore, who was with Greenpeace Canada. in the early 1970s, was one of the first to demonstrate the value of executing the back-flip, becoming a well-paid consultant for the nuclear power industry and the timber industry..)

The scientific community has long struggled with how to handle attacks in the media on scientific findings, a weakness that the oil and coal industries have exploited to the hilt since the early 1990s. And in 2001, it took months for the scientific community to respond to the media onslaught which Lomborg unleashed, but when it came, the criticism was harsh and unrelenting.

Scientific American weighed in with 4 major articles. on Lomborg’s errors, mistakes, and omissions on global warming, energy, population, and bioidiversity, entitled “Misleading Math about the Earth: Science defends itself against The Skeptical Inquirer.” Nature published an editorial. criticizing the book.

But as with most effective performance art, the swelling drumbeat of criticism had the paradoxical effect of burnishing Lomborg’s credentials, elevating him far above his previous status as a mere statistician.

And like good performance artists everywhere, Lomborg was quick to capitalize on his success, using his burst of visibility to pull together a new organization, The Copenhagen Consensus. The title alone demonstrates Lomborg’s artistic talent, given that the purpose of this new group was to put out research supporting Lomborg’s by now notoriously anti-consensus positions about major environmental issues.

HOW MANY MADONNAS CAN YOU NAME? Performance artists do not, by definition, rest on their laurels. They cannot stop; they must perform. The world is constantly changing, starting most intimately with the changes that a given performance artist introduces, which then become part of the background against which this artist, and all subsequent artists, will be measured. Ignoring such change will almost certainly lead to a loss of one’s audience, and of one’s income.

And in 2010, ignoring the evidence of global warming has become increasingly difficult (notwithstanding the higher level of ignorance which has been showing up in recent polls of the American people.) And lo and behold, we find Lomborg with a new book and a new position.

You’ve seen earlier how the media are now presenting Lomborg’s new claims as a reverse back flip, as if it were important “news” that this former alleged Greenpeacer-turned-climate skeptic is now turning his back on his adopted comrades and returning to his roots.

Here again, we have only to turn to Lomborg himself to see what a master craftsman he is. In his interview with The Guardian, he rejects having executed any flips at all!

Lomborg denies he has performed a volte face, pointing out that even in his first book he accepted the existence of man-made global warming.

“The point I’ve always been making is it’s not the end of the world,” he told the Guardian. “That’s why we should be measuring up to what everybody else says, which is we should be spending our money well.”

And just as Lomborg’s first flip provoked outrage among the scientific community, his back-flip is generating plenty of heat from the world of global warming skeptics and deniers. Here’s a sample from comments on a Yahoo News story:.

“A newly recruited lib puppet to further extend the lies of anthropogenic global warming.”

“This clown is looking for a pay check from obama and his liberal crew of Zombies, follow me follow me to the United States of America Tax money.”[sic]

“All it means is that someone’s in the Green ongoing criminal enterprise, has gotten to him & his price (for his reversal of sides) has been met…Mr.Lomborg can now be called Mr. “SELLOUT”…cause that’s all he is !!”

At the same time, critics of Lomborg’s first flip are showing plenty of skepticism of their own. Here’s Joseph Romm, author of the widely-read Climate Progress. blog, who doesn’t take long to cut to the chase:

Instead of titling the book Smart Solutions to Climate Change, the Danish chameleon should have called it The Bjorn Identity.

Of course, Lomborg doesn’t really know anything about the solutions and most of the people he got to write essays for his book don’t either — and there’s no way of telling if in a few years Lomborg won’t just stick his finger in the wind and flip flop again if that seems like the way to get attention.  So I can’t imagine why someone would want to buy this book.

This type of criticism only boosted sales of The Skeptical Environmentalist, which soared to the number 1 environmental book spot on Amazon for weeks. We will have to watch and see whether his latest act has the same staying power.

Note: For a book-length critique of Lomborg’s previous work, see Howard Friel’s book, The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming, published in March 2010. I first wrote about The Skeptical Environmentalist for the Worldwatch Institute in 2002, here, and here.

Richard Bell is a writer and online activist. He served as a board member of Post Carbon Institute, and vice-president for communications for the Worldwatch Institute. He is a winner of the George Orwell Award for Distinguished Contribution for Honesty and Clarity in Public Language. from the National Council of Teachers of English.

Tags: Activism, Energy Policy, Politics