AIDS And Heat

In 1985, in the middle of an otherwise excellent set of essays, the author-physician Gerald Weissmann laid a memorable egg titled AIDS and Heat. Weissmann’s economic argument against researching an AIDS vaccine hinged on the point that we could save more lives on a per-capita basis by handing out air conditioners in regions prone to heat waves. The argument made sense, of course, only if death toll from both AIDS and heatstroke remained exactly the same.

Needless to say history proved him wrong.

For reasons that should become obvious Weissmann’s misguided essay kept coming to mind as I read this this latest from “skeptical environmentalist” Bjorn Lomborg. Many of Lomborg’s points come close enough to the Weissmann fallacy to qualify as copyright infringement. For example:

The typical cost of cutting a ton of CO2is currently about $20. Yet, according to a wealth of scientific literature, the damage from a ton of carbon in the atmosphere is about $2. Spending $20 to do $2 worth of good is not smart policy. It may make you feel good, but it’s not going to stop global warming.

As with AIDS in 1983 the costs associated with climate change are almost exclusively future costs. Losing one major coastal city (or another one if you count New Orleans) would completely overturn Lomborg’s glib accounting. Updated IPCC estimates suggest that rising sea levels will inundate dozens of them.


It seems logical to expect more heat waves and therefore more deaths. But though this fact gets much less billing, rising temperatures will also reduce the number of cold spells. This is important because research shows that the cold is a much bigger killer than the heat. According to the first complete peer-reviewed survey of climate change’s health effects, global warming will actually save lives. It’s estimated that by 2050, global warming will cause almost 400,000 more heat-related deaths each year. But at the same time, 1.8 million fewer people will die from cold.

Future mortality estimates ignore heatstroke and “cold” deaths (note that Lomborg doesn’t cite where he got his “1.8 million” number) because in the greater scheme of things, those numbers are rounding errors. Two thirds of the human race lives within 37 miles of a coast and roughly one hundred percent of us depend on stable food production. If global temperatures rise to the point that heatstroke becomes a major issue, then rising sea levels will have already forced billions to migrate and shifting agricultural productivity zones will have thrown food production into flux. The scenario in which heatstroke becomes our primary overriding mortality problem simply doesn’t exist.

Like Weissmann on AIDS, Bjorn Lomborg’s polemic on heat shows the fundamental weakness of argument by spreadsheet. Pretty numbers make it too easy to overlook the weak assumptions on which they’re based.

13 replies
  1. 1
    TTT says:

    This is the same Lomborg who said that fisheries can’t be in decline, because, hey, just look how many fish we’re catching! People like him really cannot comprehend events that take place outside the junction points of the imaginary and perfect supply/demand curves in their textbooks.

  2. 2
    Zifnab says:

    Like Weissmann with AIDS, Bjorn Lomborg’s heat polemic shows the fundamental weakness of argument by spreadsheet talking point.

    Let’s face it. The entire purpose of this essay was to stab a big hole in the Gore’s Global Warming balloon. In that sense, I’m willing to be dollars against donuts that he walked into this research project firmly committed to proving Global Warming ain’t so bad.

    I’m honestly fatigued by one breed of global warming denier after another. We all agree that getting better gas mileage on your car is a good thing. We all agree that solar power and hydro power are vastly more appealing to both the environment and society as a whole than limited, mined resources like coal, oil, and natural gas. We all agree that lowering one’s power bill is a good thing.

    Why do we constantly need to justify opposition to common-sense steps in developing our energy infrastructure with “OMG! Teh GW fallacy!” It’s like people are actively using global warming as an argument against improvement, by constantly playing the “it’s not that bad” and “there’s nothing we can do about it” cards. Who the hell wins, here?

  3. 3
    rachel says:

    Who the hell wins, here?

    Big oil?

  4. 4
    Brian says:

    Who wins? Military industry and the proponents of the security state. Look at just a couple of their “solutions”: invading and holding hostile oil producing nations and building lots of costly nuclear plants.

    Both “solutions” are inherently centralizing and authoritarian, requiring invasive, ever expanding governments and police state measures. Perfect for the 28%ers who get to rule (the minority at the top) or more importantly, they get to obey unthinkingly.

  5. 5
    MobiusKlein says:

    An amazing, little known fact of anatomy – Lomborg has been scientifically found to be 97.34712% anus, or in the vernacular, a complete …

    A prediction. In 50 years, if the worst comes true, the same wingnuts will complain that the scientists: ruined the debate by making it polarized, not civilized. And that they didn’t warn us clearly enough too.

  6. 6
    jcricket says:

    In 50 years, if the worst comes true,…

    Doesn’t matter what happens. If sanity rules and we do smart things (conservations, renewable energy, recycling, waste reduction, LEDs, whatever)… and that helps, Republicans will either claim credit for the fixes or claim that things were on their way to being fixed on their own. This is much like the anti-vaccine nutbags claim diseases that vaccines cured were on their way out before the vaccine came around.

    If insanity continues to rule and bad things happen, Republicans will claim Dems were obstructionists and partisanship got in the way of finding solutions.

    You can’t win with people whose only goal is obtaining and keeping power. Which is why Dems need to stop trying to appease the wingnuts. The wingnuts are clearly projecting when they claim appeasing their “enemies” will only lead to our destruction. It is the wingnuts we need to start ignoring if we want to get America(ns) to do what’s right.

  7. 7
    ramster says:

    I used to consider Lomberg an interesting, “out-of-the-box” thinker. But his schtick is increasingly becoming tiresome as it clearly is an apologia for the do nothing movement. His suggestion that we’d be better off spending money on treating disease in Africa is a sick joke considering that the people who latch on to his arguments aren’t exactly proposing handing out millions of mosquito nets in lieu of implementing Kyoto.

    As far as the cost of reducing CO2 emissions and its impact on economic growth goes, I’m amazed that people don’t factor in the price of oil. The price of oil has increased by about $50 a barrel over the last 7 years. That corresponds to an increase in crude oil costs to the world economy of 1.5 TRILLION dollars a year (based on 85 million barrel/day consumption levels). That’s 2.3% of the world’s $65 trillion total output. Yet world GDP has grown steadily in that time at about 4% annually despite those huge oil price increases.

    So the notion that spending a few hundred billion annually to reduce CO2 emissions would devestate the economy is bogus. This is especially true since the most effective method of reducing CO2 emissions is to reduce fuel consumed in transportation, which constitutes about a third of C02 emissions. And what happens as fuel consumption drops? Oil demand drops and oil prices drop (if not collapse). All the expense going into hybrid cars, solar cells, wind power, R&D in general will be recouped in lower oil prices. It may well save the world economy money and boost economic growth!

    This is a win-win situation for everyone. The up-front costs of the new technology are more expensive so a reasonable approach is that the OECD countries start right away while the emerging countries get a grace period before reducing emissions (maybe 5 years for China and 10 for India…no other developing country really matters except maybe Brazil). So who gets hurt as oil prices drop? Who wants to see oil demand and prices continue to rise (which means opposing Kyoto and any other binding caps on CO2 emissions). The oil producers and anyone else who makes money from oil today. Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Exxon, Russia, Total, the province of Alberta, Haliburton, etc. Follow the money.

  8. 8
    Ellison, Ellensburg, Ellers, and Lambchop says:

    Losing one major coastal city (or another one if you count New Orleans) would completely overturn Lomborg’s glib accounting.

    …If global temperatures rise to the point that heatstroke becomes a major issue, then rising sea levels will have already forced billions to migrate and shifting agricultural productivity zones will have thrown food production into flux.
    …Pretty numbers make it too easy to overlook the weak assumptions on which they’re based.

    Read more closely. I think Lonborg, in the first few paragraphs, pretty plainly rejects the notion that a major coastal city would be lost, so your scenario is a non-starter for him. He writes that a foot rise in ocean level over 100 years would be roughly equal to what happened in the past 150 years, and that modern methods to combat (very) gradually rising water would avert catastrophic flooding and mass migration:

    But let’s remember that very little land was lost when sea levels rose last century. It costs relatively little to protect the land from rising tides: We can drain wetlands, build levees and divert waterways. As nations become richer and land becomes a scarcer commodity, this process makes ever more sense: Like our parents and grandparents, our generation will ensure that the water doesn’t claim valuable land.

    So, it’s not that Lonborg ignores your assumptions — it’s that he finds them inconsequential.

  9. 9
    elf says:

    Bless you Tim

    I thought that article was just a little too pretty.

    Am so glad you are as good as you are and can tell explain it well.


  10. 10
    Tim F. says:

    it’s not that Lonborg ignores your assumptions—it’s that he finds them inconsequential.

    Do you know where Lomborg got his data? Of course you don’t. I doubt that Lomborg knows either. His conclusion that (1) sea level will only rise one foot, and (2) that a one foot rise will not endanger any coastal populations, are 100% pulled out of his ass. Predictions of a 7-23 inch rise don’t take into account that Greenland glacier melt has accelerated dramatically since the last IPCC report was finalized. Bangladesh, for example, has already abandoned some of its most productive rice fields because of seawater encroachment.

    As I said already, Lomborg’s pretty numbers hide the weakness of his assumptions.

  11. 11
    KevinD says:

    I just saw this Lomborg guy on CSPAN or something. He says that, well, sea level has risen one foot in the last hundred years or so because of “thermal expansion” and we dealt with it, so another foot increase won’t hurt us. He totally blows off the Greenland/Antartic ice melt, or the fact that the Earth is heating up much faster now and in the future then it was before. He also has the habit of taking ONE consequence of global warming, promotes a cheap band aid fix (Mesquito nets for all!)and compares that against the total cost of Kyoto style prevention (See, this is so much cheaper!).

  12. 12
    Steven in Mexico says:

    A few points of clarification regarding the comments already made. First, for those who think that Lomborg is a Republican, you are wrong. Lomborg is a leftist. Furthermore, he does not reject global warming, as other people do. He believes in Global Warming, but just feels that dealing with other problems with clear solutions is the better approach. Finally, for those who write that Republicans don’t spend money on diseases in Africa, they should stop for a moment and look at the data. Clinton, for all his good intentions, did a lot of talking about AIDS in Africa, but did very little to address it. Bush, for all his faults, has done much more to address the problem of AIDS in Africa than any previous president. The last 5 years Bush has spend $15 billion on AIDS, mostly in Africa. The new proposal is to spend $30 billion over the next 5 years.

  13. 13

    One last comment. If anyone truly believes that Democrats “care about Africa” and Republicans do not, we should simply be reminded of the genocide in Rwanda, which occurred under the carefully watchful eye of “America’s first black president”, Bill Clinton. Clinton not only sat by and watched a million Rwandans being slaughtered, but he actually had his staff calling up rebel leader Paul Kagame (current President of Rwanda), telling him NOT to stop the genocide. With these kind of caring Democrat friends, who needs enemies?

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