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In Wall Street Journal op-ed, Bjorn Lomborg urges delay with misleading stats

Posted on 20 February 2013 by dana1981

This is a re-post from Climate Science Watch of an excellent debunking of a Bjorn Lomborg Wall Street Journal op-ed by Climate Nexus and the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (in PDF format here)

Bjorn Lomborg’s latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal displays a brand of doublethink that has become his trademark. He switches between recognizing climate change and its risks, to rejecting the need for meaningful action in the near term. While he makes several sensible recommendations in this op-ed, he also incorporates misleading and discredited scientific information to justify dangerous delays in climate action. 

The claim:

Lomborg makes many statements that almost all climate scientists would agree with. These include:

  • Investments in hurricane resilience should be increased due to projected increases in storm intensity.
  • In the long run, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Investments in renewable energy technology R&D should be dramatically increased.

However, Lomborg ends these common-sense recommendations with the conclusion that current investments in climate mitigation, including renewable energy subsidies, are wasteful. He uses a series of distracting and misleading statements about trends in extreme weather to minimize the risks we face and delay action.

The context:

  • The Wall Street Journal has a long history of reporting on the impacts of climate and environmental threats in their news pages, but minimizing and discrediting the same threats in their editorial pages.
  • In 2003, a Danish government committee found Lomborg guilty of scientific dishonesty. He was later cleared by a separate investigation, but he has been a controversial figure since.

The facts:

Lomborg’s statements on wildfires, drought, hurricanes, and economics are all extremely misleading.

  • On wildfires, Lomborg references only the number of global fires. Length of active wildfire season and total area burned are considered much more accurate metrics, and both have increased significantly along with global warming.
  • On drought, Lomborg is right that some areas across the globe have become more severely droughted, while some have become less so. This is consistent with climate predictions: dry areas get drier while wet areas get wetter. Lomborg implies that these changes simply cancel each other out, and can thus be ignored. In fact they are often devastating due to crop losses in the droughted areas and flooding in the wetter areas.
  • On hurricanes, Lomborg references Accumulated Cyclone Energy, which is still under debate as a way to measure overall hurricane activity. He also references a projected decline in damages as a percentage of GDP without stating that damages are increasing, just more slowly than GDP.
  • On economics, Lomborg implies in his op-ed that the climate problem can be solved solely through investment in research and technology. While economists are divided on the role of subsidies, nearly all agree that a price on carbon is necessary to drive innovation and change (including Lomborg himself).

Straight from the scientists:

“Lomborg loves to play the nit-picky ‘I'm the honest statistician’ role and then use this stance to imply that doing much of anything except R&D is a waste, ignoring the huge body of evidence that pricing GHG emissions can have large net benefits. We need to be putting a substantial price on our GHG emissions either with a cap and trade program or with a tax. AND we should be investing heavily in R&D on reducing the carbon and energy intensity of the economy. I’m quite sure that most economists, Republican and Democrat, would agree with these statements.”

- William Shobe, Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies and a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Virginia

“Using number of global fires as a metric of climate-induced wildfire dynamics is wrong, in that most fires globally are human-caused for agricultural clearing. The better metrics are length of active wildfire season, which has increased by about 2 months in the western US in the last 40 years, and area burned, which has also doubled ... Future projections indicate a dramatic increase in area burned.”

- Steven Running, Regents Professor, Forest Ecology, College of Forestry & Conservation at the University of Montana, and Director of the Numerical Terradynamics Simulation Group

“The area of drought worldwide is not really very relevant when it is particular areas being impacted with greater and greater intensity ... When those regions are particularly important to society, such as major grain-growing regions, the impacts can be very severe.”

- Mike MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs with the Climate Institute, former senior global change scientist to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, former President of the International Association of Meteorology and Atmospheric Sciences

“Lomborg's allusions to hurricane response to climate change are misleading in a number of respects. While it is true that one published report indicates decreasing global accumulated cyclone energy (ACE), that report was based on a hurricane data set known to have strong biases outside the North Atlantic region. Independent analyses based solely on satellite data show that the proportion of high intensity hurricanes has been increasing in most places. As to the projected decline in hurricane damage as a fraction of GDP, an even casual reading of the relevant paper shows that while actual damage is predicted to increase in most places, GDP is forecast to go up even faster, so that the ratio declines. That paper's projection of increased hurricane damage is consistent with numerous scientific studies that project increasing numbers of the most destructive hurricanes.”

- Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science at MIT

“The President did not refer specifically to hurricanes, but he did refer to extreme precipitation events. The Northeast region of the country has experienced a 75% increase in these events.  This means that routine nor'easters, especially when they follow storms like Sandy (that eliminate much of the capacity of natural protection from dunes and marshes) create much more damage ... [NYC] has invested billions over the past few years in adaptation investments. Some have worked well, but some have been overwhelmed by recent events. Only slowing the pace of climate change will allow adaptation investments ... to keep pace...

- Gary Yohe, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Wesleyan University

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Comments

Comments 1 to 24:

  1. There seem to be a number of people saying that GDP is projected to increase faster than damage from global warming - and then say let's wait because we will be better able to pay for the damage as it happens in the future. 

    I don't see the analysis of the interaction between the two.  It's as if the aforementioned people see GDP growth and global warming travelling on separate paths and never intersecting, which doesn't make sense to me.  As adverse weather events become more common and worse, surely there will come a point where the cost of reparation and recovery starts to affect the gross domestic product, and GDP will not rise as projected and probably start declining.  

    What is needed is to do what we can now to avoid that situation, which can only happen if we both cut carbon emissions as well as prepare for worse droughts, floods, storm surges, fires etc.

    When rebuilding after floods and cyclones in developed nations at least, building codes and planning schemes are usually altered to increase resilience for the future.  During a drought desal plants and added water storage are built or planned.  So that part is already happening to some degree.  

    I suspect that many planners/decision-makers are finding it difficult to envisage what a two degree rise will bring though.  People like Lomborg (and Pielke Jr) aren't helping.

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  2. To compare "GDP" with the physical and biological changes resulting from glbal warming is to make a serious category mistake; you're comparing two different ontological modalities, two different modes of existence, something that exists independently of our human beliefs, desires, and expectations--the biosphere, the Earth System--and something whose existence is entirely dependent on our human beliefs, the abstractions of economics, all of which will vanish when we humans no longer tread the Earth, and which may come about all the sooner if we continue to take them for concrete reality. As a professional philosopher, I am always amazed when scientists, whom one would expect to be pretty hard-nosed about what exists in the physically actual world and what doesn't, fails to mark this obvious distinction.

    The important thing to understand about our socially constructed reality, our economics, politics, word-and-number games and the like, is that we humans can change these creations of ours. The physical and biological world, on the other hand, we screw around with at our peril. What is the meaning of "money," "cost," etc. when the stability of the system that supports our actual lives is at stake?

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  3. Agree with Citizen 7.  I call it 'short-termism'.  

    I got to thinking about this issue because Lomberg et al don't factor in the medium to longer term impacts of 'waiting'.  (And even then I'm only thinking medium to long term in regard to human civilisation - centuries and millennia, not to the entire earth timespan which would be hundreds of millennia to billenia.)

    We've set in train long term ecological changes - loss of biodiversity, changes to waterways and long term warming.  It's as if the Lomborg's, Pielke Jrs etc only see twenty or thirty years ahead (and even then are blinkered to system-wide impacts) instead of looking ahead on the century and millenia time scale.

    As Citizen 7 implies, economics is not the right tool.  We need to do a lot more work to develop a more holistic and far-sighted discipline to address this critical situation.  This will probably mean stepping back from human-centric disciplines like economics and putting more emphasis on earth system studies, while providing some sort of 'translation' device with the human-centric disciplines for practical implementation.  (Not sure where I'm heading with this one - better minds that I are undoubtedly working on it.)

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  4. In my reading of Lomborg's stuff,the thing I was always bothered by was that he would compare the costs of averting global warming with the costs of achieving a reduction in one adverse factor via different methods - but he would do them one at a time. For example, if the effect of global warming was reduced crop yields, he'd compare the total cost of averting climate change with a cost of doing something like increasing agricultural productivity through breeding or irrigation, or some such. And he'd say it was cheaper to just invest in technology to maintain crop yields.

    The catch was that He'd make the comparison over a number of climate-related efects, but he'd keep treating the cost of preventing climate change as if it was a new cost each time - he'd never factor in that we'd already paid that cost when we solved problem A, and we don't need to pay it again when we want to solve problems B, C, and on up to Z. Yet the alternative "solutions" never got added up to see what the total cost was. Even if preventing climate change costs Y=20*X, and you have a hundred X's that are solved with one cost Y, he'd always compare one Y to one X, not one Y to 100 X's.

    Speculation as to whether he knew he was doing this falls outside the comments policy.

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  5. About 20 years ago I picked up a copy of the Skeptical Environmentalist in a bookshop and opened it at random. My eye fell on a sentence in which Lomborg stated that we didn't need to worry about tropical deforestation because forests in the temperate latitudes were expanding.

    'Nuff said.

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  6. GDP:  Well, GDP does have a real impact on people's lives, but I believe it has been demonstrated that mitigation is cheaper than adaptation.

    Bob has said what I was also thinking; the cost of hurricanes is not the only cost of unmitigated climate change, but Lomborg treats it in isolation.

    Loosely related, an op-ed on the Keystone XL in the New York Times was responded to by Jim Hansen.  Nocera has a mental blockage; he states, "He said that such a tax could reduce emissions by 30 percent within 10 years. Well, maybe. But it would also likely make the expensive tar sands oil more viable. "

    Huh?  The tar sands are more carbon heavy than conventional oil and would receive a higher rate; how would that favor tar sands over conventional?

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  7.  Two things.  It would be good to have a link to the original article.  I cannot get there from here.  Not sure of the original date.  It seems to be something from January 23 ?    

    The second thing is that while Lomborg is an awfully optimistic lukewarmer, there is one thing referred to above that is correct.   

    "renewable energy subsidies, are wasteful"

    They are indeed if compared to the alternative of actually putting a price on CO2 emissions that is realistic, one that in FACT changes behaviours. and alters business plans.   The change we want to make is to make less CO2.   Any indirect attempt to make some technology or energy source competitive with the emitting industries invites inefficiency and is apt to fraudulent exploitation.  The "Cap and Betrayed" debacle with the banksters clipping the CO2 tickets is merely one example. 

    So there is this tiny point on which I am agreeing with Lomborg.... and a whole world of hurt that I am blaming him for. 

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  8. For more information about Bjørn Lomborg please look into:

    http://www.lomborg-errors.dk/

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  9. Damage caused by hurricanes

    Bjorn Lomborg writes that the global damage costs of hurricanes will decrease from 0.04% of gross domestic product to only 0.02% in 2050, representing a decrease of 50%.

    Bjorn Lomborg makes a comparison of non-comparable entities. The damage caused by hurricanes will be concentrated in the coastal areas especially around the Caribbean. The increase in gross domestic product will come from all areas of the world, such as from Russia, Austria etc. People in the coastal areas prone to hurricanes, will not experience it as a diminishing threat, but as a growing threat of rising claims costs and Russia or Austria will not pay for the damage caused by these hurricanes. It does not make sense what Bjørn Lomborg writes.

    It is likely that we - in the hurricane prone areas - will see people moving to other places, improvements in building standards, better protections of dikes and better warning. Therefore, the total damage costs per. hurricane - all else being equal - will be smaller. However, it is uncertain if this will balance out the increased frequency of Major Hurricanes. Bjørn Lomborg does not write this.

    The insurance and reinsurance industry has developed tools to simulate the damage costs of hurricanes. We can using this tool simulation the costs of a storm passing 200 km north of the actual storm track or letting a 25 year old storm passing through the same area today and calculating the damage cost.

    There is therefore a good opportunity to explore what a historical storm would have affected of damage to day. The problem is to assess the impact of improved building construction or location, etc. Experts in this field are Swiss Re, Munich Re, U.S. insurance companies and a couple of consulting companies.
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  10. It is fascinating how some people equate GDP and wellfare without considering that it is quite possible for GDP to rise while we as a society are worse off than before since it only measures production and doesn't take loss of value into account. Thus having something worth 1 million $ destroyed in a flood and then replacing it with a new thing of the same value increases the GDP by 1 million $ without producing any kind of new value. The money would surely have been better spent elsewhere.

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  11. Gustafsson @10, that is not the only problem with GDP.  Essentially it only measures productive work done for payment.  Accordingly, as measured by GDP, if some householder starts growing their own veggies rather than buying them from the supermarket, the economy, and the general welbeing declines.  Likewise, by this measure, if four neighbours each build their own tenis court, and spend their time bouncing balls of the practise wall, they have contributed more to general well being than if they construct a single, shared tennis court and spend their time playing doubles.

    Flawed measure though it undoubtedly is, it still represents a reasonable index of improved economic well being.

    My problem with the econometric approach to global warming is not that they use GDP as the measure of economic wealth; but that their models assume global warming will not impact on growth of GDP.  In the models, Queensland may lose the Great Barrier Reef, and Brazil the Amazon; but their GDP will keep on growing that the 20th century average rate.  To my mind, that makes those models as informative as a model of orbital mechanics based on Aristotelian physics as a means of planning moon landings.

    In fact, by incorporating that feature in their models, they are making it a premise (not a conclusion) of their models that the harm from global warming will be small relative to economic growth.

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  12. bjchip@7: I think the word you're looking for is inefficient, or maybe insufficient. The purpose of the subsidies is to increase the amount if renewable energy deployed relative to what would have been in the absense of the subsidy. In order for the subsidy to be wasteful, you would have to show that more renewables would have been deployed without the subsidies in place, which doesnt appear to be true.

    Certainly a carbon tax or something like it would have been more effective (depending on the price), but it's not an either/or proposition between subsidies and carbon pricing. So Lomborg is still wrong.

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  13. What we have here, in terms of what actually exists in the ontologically objective modality, is a global Earth System inhabited by, among other lifeforms, a species of primate which has become remarkably numerous, has temporarily escaped from its original ecological niche and its evolutionarily expected trophic level, and is consuming a greater and greater proportion of planetary NPP in addition to tapping more and more of fossilized solar energy, fragmenting and impoverishing ecosystems and driving other species into extinction at a rate many orders of magnitude above the background rate, and, of course, altering the chemistry and increasing the available energy of the atmosphere and the oceans in the process, threatening to throw the whole system into a wholly new "basin of attraction." Why are we continuing to do this, now that we're aware of its ultimately suicidal consequences?

    In order to answer that, we have to turn to the ontologically subjective modality, our shared human belief systems. What enabled us to accomplish all of this (and some still seem to feel quite proud of attaining this state of affairs!) was our development of the ability to symbolize, to have sounds and marks on paper stand for things, properties, relationships, qualities and quantities--we learned to speak and write and count, and this enabled us to cooperate together in groups and build things. Our human cultures built up their own worldviews out of this process of symbolization, and recently they've been coalescing into a kind of globalized "belief bubble" that unfortunately incorporates many assumptions woven into western, industrialized culture: the idea that everything else besides humans, living or dead, is nothing but a "resource" for human use, for example, and also the notion that continual "growth" in just about everything is necessary and good and can continue on forever--growth in the human population, growth in the material throughput fueling human societies, growth in concrete and pavement and pipelines and fish harvests, and above all growth in the numerical abstractions of economics, like "GDP," which, as several of you have pointed out, is a measure of monetized throughput that goes up just as much when rebuilding from a disaster as it does when something actually new and beneficial is created. 

    Why do we not see the difference between an abstract mathematical sum and the real world of living organisms linked together in biological systems? As scientists, you can surely see the difference between what is produced when green plants carry out photosynthesis and what is "produced" through the mathematical calculation of compound interest, or when a bank "creates money out of nothing" by making a loan. If we're going to come to our senses as a species and seriously start cutting down our GHG emissions, we're going to have to tackle that "belief bubble" that has us all mystified. We're currently giving more ontological credence to our own social constructions--which ultimately reduce to nothing but shared sets of beliefs and expectations in the heads of us human primates--than we are to planetary realities.

    To come to terms with this problem, of course, we have to start seeing ourselves as the ultimate "groupish" animal, highly influenced by "what other people think," to the point that, if other people appear to think that "the economy" is more real than the ecology, we as individuals conform to their assumptions and go along with it too. Nonsense. We need more people in the mold of Mark Twain and Stephen Jay Gould who can point out that the "Emperor's new clothes" don't really exist in actuality. There are much saner ways for us humans to organize our collective activities upon this Earth than the ways in which they are organized now. Just playing the same old game with an added "carbon tax" or a subsidy here and there won't come close to solving the problem. We have to get tough with ourselves, and first comes honesty about what's real and what is entirely contingent and mutable.

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  14. Bob Loblaw @4 pointed out that Lomborg inappropriately compares the total cost of addressing climate change with only the individual costs of climate change impacts rather than the collective cost of all impacts.  SkS has done many posts on the cost of action vs inaction on climate change that are nicely summarized on this graphic.

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  15. I would not get hung up on using GDP. 

    Is it a perfect measure?  No.

    Are people living in a country with a GDP that equals $40,000 per person generally living more comfortable lives than people living in a country where the figure is $20,000?  Yes


    How you measure the prosperity of a country is subject to vagueries on how the money is counted, exchange rates, inflation, etc., but that does not mean the metrics are not useful.

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  16. Tom Curtis has it.  There are those who fail to see that GDP is not independent of the ecology on which people depend.  Trash the ecology, and GDP will be negatively impacted.

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  17. Here is an analogy: 

    What would it have cost to, say, discourage increasing wheat production in west-central America in the years leading up to 1933? 

    What did the dust bowl cost America?

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  18. bjchip @7 - the original article is linked in the greenbox at the top of the post.

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  19. Lomborg says: "Consider hurricanes [or droughts, fires, etc] ... If the aim is to reduce storm damage, then first focus on resilience... better building codes and better enforcement [and, presumeably, SECOND, or last, focus on prevention]".  It sounds reasonable but prevention is needed TODAY to prevent DROWNING tomorrow, not just 'storm damage'.  I think Lomborg's 'dirty little secret' is that prevention measures take 30-40 years to have any effect, thanks to the heat capacitance of the oceans.  You can harden Miami all you want, but without prevention it's still going to float away.  And the WINDOW whereby you prevent that fate is closing NOW.

    Lomborg: "Instead of pouring money into subsidies and direct production... focus on ... research..."  And how much CO2 does research prevent from entering the atmosphere again?  Lomborg here seems not to understand how capitalism works.  First you build the market and THEN the investors come (and hire the researchers, etc).  For example, much of the cost innovation in Germany's solar program is in the supply chain.  How does a researcher simulate THAT development in the lab?  This call to put our faith in the 'X factor' of pure research is just a delay tactic, but in any case works against Lomborg as easily as for him.  Why don't we stop burning fossil fuels until the 'X factor' invents ways to easily sequester CO2?  Lets have our cake and eat it too!  Of course, cap n trade or a carbon tax would be more consistent with capitalism, but Obama's direct support for solar and wind is just an end run around a Congress that will never support those reasonable measures (despite the fact that Republicans invented them).  What Lomborg is really saying is to put alternative energy behind closed gov't research doors, where it'll be 'out-of-sight/ out-of-mind'.  He's saying this despite the fact that that is exactly where they've been for the last 40 years.

    On Lomborg's website, a review of his book, 'Cool-It' says that he "argues that we should first focus our resources on more immediate concerns, such as fighting malaria and HIV/AIDS and... a safe, fresh water supply".  This is astonishing: the reason we haven't solved AIDS is because of those global warming nutcases.  Now I understand those Chevron commercials: "We Agree!  AIDS is going to lose!"  Despite an overwhelming desire to launch into multiple lines of sarcasm, I'm going to treat this astonishing claim as serious.  Seriously, then: Lomborg doesn't want his audience to know that the WINDOW for preventing the worst effects of global warming in the next half-century is closing NOW.  THAT IS WHY there's such a rush on the subject of PREVENTION, among people who take it seriously.  You snooze... and your grandchildren lose.  

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  20. what is Accumulated Cyclone Energy?

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  21. Somewhere I read reports written by insurance companies regarding the future of global climate changes and that industry. It's about the cost of replacement, not what it is pitted against.

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  22. Another major problem with the use of GDP is how impacts on it are used. There appears to be a fundamental assumption of linearity. That is, if agriculture is 10% of the GDP, and agricultural yields are reduced by 10%, the GDP takes only a 1% hit. This is probably correct for small changes. But if the changes are large, this is clearly not correct. If agriculture takes a 20-30% hit, then the folks who generate the other 90% of the GDP are going to be spending most of their time looking for food, so the GDP takes a much larger dive. This is but one small example – I’m sure others can generate more.

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  23. Comment on bchip at #7 above:

    Missing from the thread are comments on the ways the legal and political system in the U.S. impedes renewable implimentation in cases in which subsidies are not needed.

    Example:

    1. Since 1977 the price of standard crystalline solarcells has fallen by a factor of 35. This is sometimes referred to as "The Swanson Effect".  See URL http://www.marctomarket.com/2012/12/great-graphic-solar-energy-and-swansons.html

    2. But the he price of installation of solar cells varies strongly from place to place, and is much less in Germany than in the U.S. See the URL

    3.  The plummiting cost of crystalline silicon solar cells was a contributor to the Solyndra bankruptcy; and make technologically more complex concentrating solar systems less important.  See:

    http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/business/companies/solyndra/index.html

    and:

    http://www.solarpowerworldonline.com/2012/11/business-issues-the-capitalist-case-for-solar/

    4. 

      Over half of the homes in Bangladesh lack a grid connection. But for $300 a typical off grid user can power light bulbs, a television set, and a fan by off grid rooftop solar.  

    5.  I then pose the following rhetorical question: In, say, Connecticut, although a well heeled person might construct his/her sustainable home via a combination of solar and geothermal, why cannot someone who lives, say,  in an apartment flat instead purchase solar installations for a large scale desert location in a part of the country with better insolation and receive corresponding cuts in his/her electric bill? On a smaller scale, such a concept was recently tested in California by  

    Conclusion:

     

    There is an obvious solution to this problem

     

     

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    Moderator Response: [RH] Fixing font size on link that's breaking page formatting.
  24. Here's his latest along these lines:

    Don’t blame climate change for extreme weather

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