Bjorn Lomborg’s op-ed sense and non-science

By Daniel Collins 12/11/2009

Bjorn Lomborg, noted climate change contrarian, has a point. Climate change is not the only hazard to worry about. But his arguments don’t always hold water, particularly in terms of water resources.

In a series of Wall Street Journal op-eds leading up to the Copenhagen climate change meeting, Bjorn Lomborg is interviewing ’ordinary people’ about their views of climate change. This week’s piece featured a Bangladeshi woman and her family very much in dire straights. Their problem is not climate change tomorrow, but getting enough food today:

As a cart-puller, Mrs. Begum’s husband earns about $44 each month. The family has no savings. Mrs. Begum believes that education could help her children achieve a better life. But her eldest daughter dropped out of school at age 13. The family could not afford the $22 annual fee for books and uniforms. “It’s better that she stays at home and helps out,” Mrs. Begum said.

Lomborg goes on:

In the developed world, when we consider how best to help Bangladesh, our minds quickly turn to policies that would reduce the amount of carbon emissions to lessen the risk that global warming will lead to rising sea levels over the next 50 or 100 years.

Bangledesh, home to some 162 million people, faces many natural and man-made hazards. Water resource hazards feature prominently:

  • Due to geological circumstance, its aquifers are rich in arsenic. As groundwater pumping increased, and water tables declined, oxygenation of the aquifers mobilised this arsenic turning it into poison for household water supplies.
  • The mighty Brahmaputra brings seasonal floods, affecting thousands, sometimes millions, for individual floods.
  • Sanitation is rare. Household water supplies may merely be several metres away from the household latrine. We strive for tertiary wastewater treatment in the developed world, while they often lack even primary treatment.
  • Rising sea-level over the coming century will likely displace millions of people living along the low-lying coast.

All of these problems are technically avoidable, but they come at a financial and political cost that is realistically untenable. In the spirit of cost-benefit analysis, then, Lomborg makes a choice (emphasis added):

Getting basic sanitation and safe drinking water to the three billion people around the world who do not have it now would cost nearly $4 billion a year. By contrast, cuts in global carbon emissions that aim to limit global temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius over the next century would cost $40 trillion a year by 2100. These cuts will do nothing to increase the number of people with access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Cutting carbon emissions will likely increase water scarcity, because global warming is expected to increase average rainfall levels around the world.

Now I can’t weigh in on his numbers, but being a hydrologist, I can dispute his last sentence.

From the IPCC’s 2008 Climate Change and Water (Executive Summary):

  • Climate model simulations for the 21st century are consistent in projecting precipitation increases in high latitudes (very likely) and parts of the tropics, and decreases in some subtropical and lower mid-latitude regions (likely).

  • By the middle of the 21st century, annual average river runoff and water availability are projected to increase as a result of climate change at high latitudes and in some wet tropical areas, and decrease over some dry regions at mid-latitudes and in the dry tropics.

  • Increased precipitation intensity and variability are projected to increase the risks of flooding and drought in many areas.

  • Water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline in the course of the century,…

  • Higher water temperatures and changes in extremes, including floods and droughts, are projected to affect water quality and exacerbate many forms of water pollution

  • Globally, the negative impacts of future climate change on freshwater systems are expected to outweigh the benefits (high confidence)

And for Bangladesh in particular, again from the IPCC, this time the 2007 Fifth Assessment Report:

  • In Bangladesh, production of rice and wheat might drop by 8% and 32%, respectively, by the year 2050 (Faisal and Parveen, 2004). (Ch. 10, p. 480)

  • With a 1 m rise in sea level, 2,500 km2 of mangroves in Asia are likely to be lost; Bangladesh would be worst affected by the sea level rise in terms of loss of land. Approximately 1,000 km2 of cultivated land and sea product culturing area is
    likely to become salt marsh, and 5,000 km2 of Red River delta, and 15,000 — 20,000 km2 of Mekong River delta are projected to be flooded. (Ch. 10, p. 481)

  • India, China and Bangladesh are especially susceptible to increasing salinity of their groundwater as well as surface water resources, especially along the coast, due to increases in sea level as a direct impact of global warming (Han et al., 1999). (Ch. 10, p. 483)

  • Using a coarse digital terrain model and global population distribution data, it is estimated that more than 1 million people will be directly affected by sea-level rise in 2050 in each of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta in Bangladesh, the Mekong delta in Vietnam and the Nile delta in Egypt. (Ch. 10, p. 485)

  • Climatic changes in Pakistan and Bangladesh would likely exacerbate present environmental conditions that give rise to land degradation, shortfalls in food production, rural poverty and urban unrest. Circular migration patterns, such as those punctuated by shocks of migrants following extreme weather events, could be expected. Such changes would likely affect not only internal migration patterns, but also migration movements to other western countries. (Ch. 10, p. 488)

  • Impacts of extremes on human welfare are likely to occur disproportionately in countries with low adaptation capacity (Manabe et al., 2004a). The flooded area in Bangladesh is projected to increase at least by 23-29% with a global temperature rise of 2°C (Mirza, 2003). (Ch. 3, p. 187)

So, if you managed to read through the quote mine, you will see that Lomborg grossly misrepresents the science in regards to the water resource impacts of climate change. Bangladeshis are exposed to many risks, short-term and long-term, climate change being one. Simply disregarding the long-term risks shifts the burden to future generations. By analogy, looking both ways when crossing the street doesn’t stop the chain smoker from dying from cancer.

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