BJORN LOMBORG, a Danish
statistician, no doubt hoped to spark controversy with his book, "The
Skeptical Environmentalist"--an attack on "the litany", as
he calls it, of bogus doom and gloom about the state of the planet. He has
not been ignored, which is probably an author's worst fate, but he may be
wishing he had been. The response to the book in many quarters has been
apoplectic. Mr Lomborg is being called a liar, a fraud and worse. People
are refusing to share a platform with him. He turns up in Oxford to talk
about his book, and the author (it is claimed) of a forthcoming study on
climate change throws a pie in his face.
The Economist is not a neutral in all this. Before Mr Lomborg published
"The Skeptical Environmentalist", we ran a signed essay by him
which gave a summary. Later we reviewed his book in glowing terms. What
has inspired the subsequent fury? Mr Lomborg argues that the environment
is not in nearly such bad shape as green activists and their dupes in the
media would have the public believe; that technology is improving lives
across most of the planet; that western civilisation is environmentally
sustainable; and that the Kyoto agreement on carbon emissions is bad
policy as it stands. How dare he say that? Mr Lomborg defends these
positions on the basis of official data and published science.
Environmentalists typically use the same sources, but, as Mr Lomborg lays
bare, are much less scrupulous about setting short runs of data in their
long-term context, for instance, or about quoting ranges of data, where
that is appropriate, rather than whatever extreme of any given range best
suits their case. Mr Lomborg diligently piles on the footnotes (2,930 of
them) so there is no dispute about where his numbers have come from. His
claims, of course, could still be true or false. They are largely true, in
our opinion. But what is strangest in all this fuss is the idea that
simply by making them he has put himself far beyond the pale of
respectable discourse, as so many of his critics appear to believe.
Mr Lomborg, it is important to note, does not say that all is well with
the world. And The Economist for that matter does not say that Mr Lomborg
is right about every issue he addresses. Environmental policy involves
uncertainty, as Mr Lomborg emphasizes; now and then this raises doubts
that deserve more attention than he gives them (see page 83; this article
also provides web links to Mr Lomborg's essay for us, and to other
relevant material). We do believe, however, that he is right on his main
points, that his critique of much green activism and its reporting in the
media is just, and, above all, that where there is room for disagreement,
Mr Lomborg invites and facilitates discussion, rather than seeking to
silence it. The same cannot be said for many of his critics.
The January issue of Scientific American devoted many pages to a
series of articles trashing "The Skeptical Environmentalist".
The authors, all supporters of the green movement, were strong on contempt
and sneering, but weak on substance. The arresting thing about Scientific
American's coverage, however, was not this barrage of ineffective
rejoinders but the editor's notion of what was going on: "Science
defends itself against the Skeptical Environmentalist," he announced.
That is amazing. Mr Lomborg's targets are green scare-mongers and their
credulous servants in the media. He uses the findings of scientists to
press his case. How can using science to criticise the Kyoto agreement, to
show that the world's forests are not disappearing, to demonstrate that
the planet's supplies of energy and food will suffice indefinitely, and
the rest, constitute an attack on science? If that is so, the scholars
whose work supports those positions are presumably attacking science too,
and had better stand in line for a pie in the face.
More is at stake here than a row about a book or the judgment of a
magazine editor. Many of Mr Lomborg's critics are respected scientists.
Some seem to think that Mr Lomborg's lack of training in their fields
disqualifies him from debating environmental policy. E.O. Wilson, one of
the world's most distinguished scientists, and a dedicated green, deplores
"the Lomborg scam" because of "the extraordinary amount of
scientific talent that has to be expended to combat [him] in the media...[Mr
Lomborg and his kind] are the parasite load on scholars who earn success
through the slow process of peer review and approval." That would be
wrong even if all scientists shared Mr Wilson's fear that the world will
become a "hellish place to exist", which they do not.
Environmental policy involves politics and economics, compromises and
trade-offs, a division of burdens geographically and over time. It could
not be left to scientists, even if they agreed on the science. We
parasites would even then be right to insist on having our say. Leeches of
the world, unite
Mr Wilson's insufferable arrogance is bad enough, but there's worse. The
fuss over Mr Lomborg highlights an attitude among some media-conscious
scientists that militates not just against good policy but against the
truth. Stephen Schneider, one of Scientific American's anti-Lomborgians,
spoke we suspect not just for himself when he told Discover in 1989:
"[We] are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most
people we'd like to see the world a better place...To do that we need to
get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That,
of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up
scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little
mention of any doubts we might have...Each of us has to decide what the
right balance is between being effective and being honest." In other
words, save science for other scientists, in peer-reviewed journals and
other sanctified places. In public, strike a balance between telling the
truth and telling necessary lies.
Science needs no defending from Mr Lomborg. It may very well need
defending from champions like Mr Schneider.
the Twain Shall Meet”
ACADEMIC disciplines are often separated by gulfs of mutual
incomprehension, but the deepest and widest may be the one that separates
most economists from most environmentalists. The ferocious row over
"The Skeptical Environmentalist", a new book by Bjorn Lomborg, a
statistician with a taste for economic analysis, is a case in point. We
discuss that fight in detail this week in our leader pages and in the
Science and Technology section. What underlies rows like this, as well as
the more insidious refusal even to engage with the other side, is not so
much disagreements about facts as disagreement about how to think.
Almost all economists are intellectually committed to the idea that the
things people want can be valued in dollars and cents. If this is true,
and things such as clean air, stable sea levels, tropical forests and
species diversity can be valued that way, then environmental issues
submit--or so it is argued--quite readily to the disciplines of economic
analysis. Trade-offs can be struck between competing ends, in principle at
least, and one can begin to think about how the world's consumption of
environmental goods can be optimised, as economists say, subject to the
constraint that people cannot have everything they want. Most
environmentalists object to the very first step in the argument--the idea
that environmental goods can be reduced, as they would put it, to a cash
equivalent. In fact, most environmentalists not only disagree with this
idea, they find it morally deplorable. So tempers on both sides start to
be lost at the outset.
Ordinary voters are far more likely to agree with environmentalists on
this than with economists. To them it seems absurd and wrong to suppose
that a value can be put on, say, the survival of the Indian tiger. Yet the
fact remains that choices must be made. Even if environmentalists ruled
the world, difficult choices would have to be confronted--and, working
backwards from those choices, made according to whatever criteria, it will
always be possible to calculate the economic values that were implicitly
attached to different environmental goods. Environmentalist rulers might
prefer not to know what these implicit valuations were, but that would not
alter the fact that trade-offs, measurable in dollar terms, had in fact
However, this does not prove that moving from values to policy, as
economists prefer, will yield better results than working backwards, and
deducing (if you care to) values from policy. Suppose that economists are
very bad indeed at attaching values to environmental goods. Then it might
be better to work the other way round: take a guess at good policy, and
leave the economists to do their (pointless) bookkeeping later.
There is a lively debate in economics about valuing the environment, and
some strands of the literature do favour, or at least sympathise with,
this environmentalist perspective. For instance, a new paper by Philip
Graves, a professor at the University of Colorado, suggests that
economists systematically undervalue environmental goods, possibly by a
The standard approach to valuing public goods (including environmental
goods) goes back to a classic paper by Paul Samuelson in 1954. It says
that, in principle, governments should be guided in providing public goods
by what people would be willing to spend on them if the goods could be
bought in a market. One difficulty is discovering what people would be
willing to spend. But that point is old hat. Mr Graves's idea is that even
if you knew how much of their existing incomes people would spend on
environmental goods, this would not tell you how much they would spend if
they were actually given the choice--because if people could buy
environmental goods, they might work harder and earn more, and spend the
extra income on them.
Mr Graves guesses that people might work 10% harder on average. (One
component of this shift: at least some green activists and drop-outs would
get higher-paying jobs, or any jobs, if they could spend their wages on
environmental goods.) That number, on which everything depends, looks
awfully high. It may seem more plausible in Colorado than it would across
the Atlantic in, say, Essex--where, if people had an opportunity to trade
less environmental protection for extra leisure and private goods, they
would probably take it. Still, if Mr Graves were anywhere near right about
this figure, the implied undervaluation of environmental goods by standard
methods would be quite enormous.
Does this point the way to detente? Probably not. If Mr Graves is right
about the theory and in the ball-park with his number, his analysis
favours a very large expansion in efforts to improve the environment.
Environmentalists would no doubt applaud that result. But Mr Graves is
still, deplorably in their view, trying to attach monetary values to
things he ought not. Mr Graves's analysis, and other green-friendly work
by economists, is still about economic efficiency, about striking a better
trade-off--and, in the end, about finding the point at which further
spending on the environment would be too much. How many environmentalists
can even imagine such a point?
Litany and the Heretic”
"I'M AFRAID there isn't much scientific controversy about Mr Lomborg.
He occupies a very junior position in Denmark (an 'associate professor'
does not exactly mean the same thing that it does in the United States),
he has one possibly very flawed paper in an international journal on game
theory, no publications on environmental issues, and yet manages to
dismiss the science of dozens of the world's best scientists, including
Nobel laureates, Japan and Crawford prize-winners and the like. As any
sensible person would expect, his facts are usually fallacies and his
analysis is largely non-existent."
Those contemptuous words from Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation
biology at Columbia University, are fairly representative of the response
from many environmental scientists and activists to Bjorn Lomborg's recent
book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist". In the weeks since the
book's release, virtually every large environmental group has weighed in
with a denunciation. Numerous heavyweights of science have penned damning
articles and reviews in leading journals. Dr Pimm, for one, railed against
Dr Lomborg in Nature, while Scientific American recently devoted 11 pages
to attacks from scientists known for their environmental activism.
Dr Lomborg's critics protest too much. They are rattled not because, as
they endlessly insist, Dr Lomborg lacks credentials as an environmental
scientist and is of no account, but because his book is such a powerful
and persuasive assault on the central tenets of the modern environmental
movement. Just the facts Curious about the true state of the planet, the
author--who makes no claims to expertise in environmental science, only to
statistical expertise--has scrutinised reams of official data on
everything from air pollution to energy availability to climate change. As
an instinctive green and a former member of Greenpeace, he was surprised
to find that the world's environment is not, in fact, getting ever worse.
Rather, he shows, most environmental indicators are stable or improving.
One by one, he goes through the "litany", as he calls it, of
four big environmental fears:
Natural resources are running out.
population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.
Species are becoming rapidly extinct, forests are vanishing and fish
stocks are collapsing.
Air and water are becoming ever more polluted.
In each case, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom is wildly
exaggerated. Known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals have risen.
Agricultural production per head has risen; the numbers facing starvation
have declined. The threat of biodiversity loss is real but exaggerated, as
is the problem of tropical deforestation. And pollution diminishes as
countries grow richer and tackle it energetically.
In other words, the planet is not in peril. There are problems, and they
deserve attention, but nothing remotely so dire as most of the green
movement keeps saying.
Nor is that all he shows. The book exposes--through hundreds of detailed,
meticulously footnoted examples--a pattern of exaggeration and statistical
manipulation, used by green groups to advance their pet causes, and
obligingly echoed through the media. Bizarrely, one of Dr Lomborg's
critics in Scientific American criticises as an affectation the
book's insistence on documenting every statistic and every quotation with
a reference to a published source. But the complaint is not so bizarre
when one works through the references, because they so frequently expose
careless reporting and environmentalists' abuse of scientific research.
The replies to Dr Lomborg in Scientific American and elsewhere score
remarkably few points of substance*. His large factual claims about the
current state of the world do not appear to be under challenge--which is
unsurprising since they draw on official data. What is under challenge,
chiefly, is his outrageous presumption in starting a much-needed debate.
Some argue that scientists who favour stronger policies to improve the
environment must use the same tactics as any other political lobby--from
steel companies fighting for tariffs on imports to farmers demanding more
subsidies. The aim, after all, is to win public favour and government
support. Whether such a view is consistent with the obligation science
owes to the truth is debatable, at best. If scientists want their views to
be accorded the respect due to science, then they must speak as
scientists, not as lobbyists.
Dr Lomborg's work has its flaws. He has made some errors in his
statistical analysis, as he acknowledges on his website. And there are
broader issues, especially to do with the aggregation of data and the
handling of uncertainty, where his book is open to challenge. For
instance, his approach of examining data at a global level, while
statistically sound, tends to mask local environmental trends. Global
marine productivity has indeed risen, as he says--but this disguises
collapses in particular species in particular places. Dr Lomborg argues
that such losses, seen in a long-term perspective, do not matter much.
Many would disagree, not least the fishermen in the areas affected.
Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute (WRI) makes a related
point. He accepts Dr Lomborg's optimistic assessment of the environment,
but says it holds only for the developed world. The aggregate figures
offered in the book mask worsening pollution in the mega-cities of the
poor world. Dr Lomborg agrees that there are local and regional
environmental pressures, and that these matter a lot, but it is fair to
point out that the book has little to say about them, except to argue that
rising incomes will help.
The book gives little credit to environmental policy as a cause of
environmental improvement. That is a defensible position, in fact, but the
book does not trouble to make the case. And another important question is
somewhat skated over: the possibility that some environmental processes
involve irreversible "triggers", which, once pulled, lead to
sudden and disastrous deterioration. Climate scientists believe, and Dr
Lomborg does not deny, that too much warming could lead to irreversible
bad outcomes such as the collapse of the mid-Atlantic "conveyor
belt" (an ocean current that warms Europe). The science here is thin:
nobody knows what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would
trigger such a calamity. But the risk argues for caution.
Dr Lomborg's assessment of the science in this area leads him to venture
that warming is more likely to be at the low end of the range expected by
leading experts than at the high end. He argues that the most-cited
climate models misjudge factors such as the effects of clouds, aerosols
and the solar cycle. That is plausible, and there is science to support
it, but the conclusion is far from certain. Again, it is reasonable to
argue that such uncertainty makes it better to err on the side of caution.
Sensible people will disagree about the course that policy should take. Dr
Lomborg--a courteous fellow--seems willing to talk calmly to his
opponents. For the most part, while claiming in some cases to be men of
science, his opponents do not return the compliment. Homo ecologicus
Despite its limitations, "The Skeptical Environmentalist"
delivers a salutary warning to conventional thinking. Dr Lomborg reminds
militant greens, and the media that hang on their every exaggerated word
about environmental calamity, that environmental policy should be judged
against the same criteria as other kinds of policy. Is there a problem?
How bad is it? What will it cost to fix? Is that the best way to spend
This is exactly what Tom Burke, a leading British environmentalist, denied
in a debate he had with Dr Lomborg in Prospect, a British magazine.
"What I find most egregious [in] your climate-change argument,
however, is the proposition that the world faces a choice between spending
money on mitigating climate change, and providing access to clean drinking
water and sanitation in the developing world. We must and can do both.
Such artificial choices may be possible in an academic ivory tower where
ideas can be arranged to suit the prejudices of the occupant, but they are
not available in the real world and it is dishonest to suggest that they
On the contrary, Mr Burke. Only in an ivory tower could choices such as
these be called "artificial". Democratic politics is about
nothing but choices of that sort. Green politics needs to learn that
resources are not unlimited.
THIS is one of the most valuable books on public policy--not merely on
environmental policy--to have been written for the intelligent general
reader in the past ten years. Its target is environmental pessimism, the
defining mood of the age. By the end, fair-minded readers will find that
most of the concerns they had about the future of the planet have given
way to fury at the army of dissembling environmentalists who have
dedicated themselves to stirring up panic by concealing the truth.
The idea that the world is heading for ruin seems to be taken for granted
by almost every television news programme and newspaper, whether the
subject is poverty in Africa, global warming, trends in population,
traffic jams in Manchester or a spell of bad weather in Detroit. This
gloom directly affects the debate on environmental policy, of course, but
its influence goes wider than that. It supports the conviction that
capitalism is self-destructive, and so lurks in the background of many an
economic debate, broad or narrow. Yet this faith in looming environmental
disaster, Mr Lomborg shows, is false. The author is a professor of
statistics at the University of Aarhus. His expertise lies in numbers and
sources. So in "The Skeptical Environmentalist" he examines the
views of the world's leading environmental pressure groups simply by
consulting the sources (if any) they cite, together with other relevant
literature. Again and again, he finds that the pessimists' claims are
falsified not merely by the available scientific evidence but by their own
The accumulating power of the book lies in the sheer toll of carefully
documented examples. Bearing that in mind, consider just one, to get a
flavour. The Worldwatch Institute has claimed that the world's forests
have "declined significantly" in recent decades. In fact, the
longest data series, gathered by a United Nations agency, shows that
global forest cover grew between 1950 and 1994. In particular, the
institute noted, Canada is losing 200,000 hectares of forest a year. On
checking the quoted source, Mr Lomborg finds that Canada's forests grew by
174,000 hectares a year. This is representative: the book exposes
countless errors, evasions and distortions of this sort.
As well as insisting on statistical probity, Mr Lomborg brings another
intellectual virtue to the task: an interest in feasible alternatives. On
global warming, for instance, he shows that standard claims about the
extent of the problem are deliberately exaggerated (though he does not
deny that some global warming is going on); beyond that, however, he asks
about costs. The cost of preventing warming could easily outweigh the harm
caused by letting it happen, and by a very wide margin, depending on the
method. If concern for developing countries came first (and that is where
global warming will cause most harm), there would be much better ways of
spending money than on schemes such as the Kyoto plan. Providing universal
access to clean water would do more good than the tiny cut in warming
envisaged by Kyoto, at about a fifth of the price.
Lomborg is not the first to take a stand of this sort against the excesses
of the environmentalist movement. He follows in the footsteps of the late
Julian Simon, one of the 20th century's unsung heroes of economics. (Mr
Lomborg generously acknowledges Simon's role.) But Simon was a quirky
conservative, and therefore ignored by the mainstream media. Mr Lomborg is
a soft-left Greenpeace defector, a photogenic blond Dane, a charming
self-promoter who understands the importance of, as he puts it,
"being seen to be nice". That makes him a story. His findings
have caused a furore in Scandinavia and, with this book, show signs of
being noticed elsewhere. Good. More power to him. "The Skeptical
Environmentalist" is a triumph.
BACK in 1987, a panel headed by Sweden's Gro Harlem Brundtland defined
sustainable development as growth that meets our needs without
compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. This
important new book from the International Energy Agency (IEA), a
quasi-governmental agency, argues that that vision "has slowly
evolved from a slogan for environmentalists into a guiding principle for
Toward that end, the IEA has produced a how-to manual for pursuing more
sustainable energy policies. Smog, acid rain and global warming, for
example, are linked at least in part to man's use of fossil fuels.
Notably, the work does not gloss over difficulties: it points out that
liberalising power markets can make it harder to subsidise renewable
energy sources, and that reducing emissions from transport might involve
unpopular moves such as raising fuel taxes or ending perks like company
cars. LONG before the term became fashionable, Maurice Strong was a
leading advocate of sustainability. The charming Canadian has seamlessly
woven together a career in business with green activism and global
policymaking. Though the book's writing can be plodding, his remarkable
career and personal exuberance save it from dullness.
He helped pull together the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. That gathering saw
the largest-ever collection of heads of state, including George Bush
senior, launch the effort to tackle climate change. Ironically, its
culmination--the Kyoto Protocol--has been rejected by Mr Bush's own son.
Even so, Mr Strong hopes that the next big Earth Summit, to be held in
Johannesburg in September 2002, can revive the goal of sustainable
development, and he offers prescriptions for doing so.
KEITH TUTT also worries about the link between energy and sustainable
development. His tone is evangelical: we are "fossil addicts",
he writes, caught in a "self-destructive spiral" threatening our
survival. You do not, though, need to share Mr Tutt's vision of impending
cataclysm to be interested in his profiles of inventors and entrepreneurs
searching for clean, bountiful sources of energy.
Mr Tutt writes persuasively that these folk are by no means all quacks.
His writing is clear, his reporting thorough and his arguments crisp. A
good example of what "The Search for Free Energy" has to offer
is his account of cold fusion. This was widely ridiculed as the scam of
the century. But Mr Tutt lays out the reasoned case for why some version
of this approach could play a role in the future of energy production.
THIS gem provides a contrast with those above, which look to a green
future. Tim Flannery casts his gaze back. This is a literate, meticulously
researched work on the environmental history of North America. Perhaps
this book's greatest strength is Mr Flannery's ability to bring ancient,
inanimate scenes to life. When he describes the great asteroid that
crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula (so ending the era of
dinosaurs), he does so in such detail that the reader feels almost afraid.
Mr Flannery worries that a continent which has proved so accommodating and
adaptable may have met its match in climate change. Controversially, he
holds that North America "will feel its effects more violently and
well in advance of other continents."
No More; The Education of an Environmentalist”
The Skeptical Environmentalist, Measuring the Real State of the World,
by Bjorn Lomborg, Cambridge University Press, 540 pp., $ 69.95
In 1997, Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor of statistics and a
self-professed "old left-wing Greenpeace member," came across a
book by Julian Simon, one of the great critics of contemporary
Lomborg set up a study group with ten of his "sharpest students"
to refute Simon. But it turned out "a surprisingly large" number
of Simon's points "stood up to scrutiny." Lomborg became
convinced that "the Litany" -- the cliched collection of beliefs
that the world is subject to ever increasing environmental degradation and
poised on the brink of destruction -- has it wrong. Most global trends are
improving and can be expected to continue improving as the world grows
wealthier. Fears of environmental disaster are exaggerated and have little
scientific basis. While there is no reason to think the world is already
good enough, there is every reason to expect human ingenuity will continue
the improving trend. So Lomborg sat down and produced The Skeptical
Environmentalist, a critical examination of many of the key issues of
contemporary environmentalism, which he hopes will "lead to an
appreciable change in attitude about environmental problems." If we
"forget our fear of imminent breakdown," we may be able to
achieve a "reasonable prioritization" of the measures necessary
to improve the well-being of man and nature.
Lomborg deserves the impact for which he hopes, but if past experience is
any indication, he won't obtain it. You can catch a hint of that in the
publicity which has swirled around The Skeptical Environmentalist
so far -- all of it less concerned with the message than with the
messenger's betrayal of his old environmentalist faith.
In eighteen careful chapters, Lomborg covers most of the issues
environmentalists use to foment panic. Food production is increasing, and
a smaller percentage of the globe faces starvation than ever before. Life
expectancy is growing in most of the world. More people are prosperous and
secure. Water and air pollution trends are improving; indeed, urban air in
the developed nations may be cleaner now than it has been in centuries.
Our fears of chemicals are greatly exaggerated. In short, we are in a
period of "unprecedented human prosperity."
But isn't this prosperity built on an orgy of consumption that sacrifices
future generations? Aren't we successful only by undercutting the
integrity of nature itself? Lomborg excels in dissecting such examples of
the environmentalists' Litany. He demonstrates that statements like
"The world is losing 109 species a day" have no basis in
empirical research; indeed, the scientists most likely to put forward such
claims have the least interest in doing the necessary research. Similarly,
in three and a half well-crafted pages, he demolishes the idea that we are
running out of room for landfill and points out the link between rising
prosperity and improved air quality. Whether he is hunting down the source
of claims that provoke environmental alarm or providing the context that
was left out in order to heighten fears and grab headlines, Lomborg shows
how to evaluate claims about environmental degradation and danger.
The Skeptical Environmentalist is particularly good at
recontextualizing environmental problems -- the main focus of its
introductory and concluding chapters. Lomborg skillfully uncovers the
source of the bias towards bad environmental news in the scientific
community, environmental interest groups, and the media. Drawing valuable
lessons about tradeoffs and priorities, he makes clear why environmental
goods cannot be treated as uniquely privileged -- and he suggests how
pernicious it is that over half of America's voters think we cannot do too
much to protect the environment. "The expressed dislike of
prioritization does not mean that we will not end up prioritizing, only
that our choices will be worse."
Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist has so many virtues (to
say nothing of its 2,930 endnotes), it seems unfair to predict that the
book will not succeed at creating the "appreciable change in attitude
about environmental problems" its author desires. But think for a
moment about the fate of Julian Simon -- and the parallel fates of Judd
Alexander, William Baarschers, John Baden, Ronald Bailey, Robert Balling
Jr., Joe Bast, Ben Bloch, Karen Bolander, Alston Chase, George Claus,
Leonard Cole, Edith Efron, Gregg Easterbrook, Alan Fitzsimmons, Bernard
Frieden, Michael Fumento, Jay Lehr, Marc Landy, Bernard Lewis, Harold
Lyons, William Rathje, Dixy Lee Ray, Marc Roberts, Michael Sanera, Jane
Shaw, Fred Singer, Stephen Thomas, Elizabeth Whelan, Aaron Wildavsky, and
At various times over the past four decades, each of these writers has
produced works that attempt to show the shortcomings of contemporary
environmentalism. They have not all been as comprehensive as Lomborg's,
but taken as a whole they have covered much the same territory. Other than
providing valuable updates, The Skeptical Environmentalist breaks
little new ground in environmental criticism.
Lomborg's work is no less necessary for being the latest in a string of
such works. Still, that leaves the question of environmentalism's
extraordinary persistence. Why don't the facts seem to count for much in
The answer needs to go beyond Lomborg's analysis of the Litany. The state
of the world as Lomborg sees it depends on a powerful sense of progress --
a justified sense, but one that must remain, in all honesty, uncertain.
Past results do not guarantee future performance, as advertisements for
investment funds always note, and it is always difficult to see clearly
the fragile components of the foundations upon which one lives.
Environmentalists exploit this uncertainty, promising in its place
complete certainty if only we remake the world as they desire. Lomborg
believes things will get better, which seems rather likely.
Environmentalists believe things can be made the best, which seems
extremely unlikely. You'd think the possibility of Lomborg's vision would
easily vanquish the impossibility of the environmentalists' -- but the
magic of claiming "the best" always trumps the dullness of
claiming "the better."
Similarly, Lomborg sees present problems as opportunities for human
ingenuity as capable of achieving increasing security for increasing
numbers of people, while environmentalists turn them into apocalyptic
presentiments. Here again, Lomborg has only common sense on his side. The
environmentalists have the universal human imagination of the end of the
world: If things appear to be going well, they are only going well so
far, and this or that environmental indicator is a bellwether of
As we accumulate experience of disasters not happening, this kind of
argument ought to lose its power. But the persistent ability of
environmentalists to conjure up the world's end is based on shifting the
burden of proof. Somehow, critics of environmentalism have been put in a
position of having to prove definitively that something will never happen.
This maneuver represents a tremendous rhetorical triumph. When critics are
forced -- as they must be -- to admit that proving a negative is
impossible, they seem to concede that there is something genuine about the
The real issue in dispute, as Lomborg recognizes in his discussion of
global climate change, is what we want the future to look like. Lomborg
does not develop this insight into the essentially political nature of the
environmentalist program as much as he could have. Reasonable people may
disagree about whether the environmental vision stems from
"secularized" religious belief, from self-interested behavior
within liberal democratic institutions, or from a utopian mindset. But
there is little question environmentalism is driven primarily by a vision
of the way the world ought to be -- a vision that puts the environment
above liberty, self-government, human diversity, and material well-being.
Science is a weapon in advancing this vision, but its use among devoted
environmentalists is purely tactical. In The Skeptical
Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg, like his many predecessors, has
performed a valuable service in attempting to block the misuse of science
for political ends. But until more people understand that the world
promised by contemporary environmentalism is not a world in which they
would want to live, there will be little change in our arguments about the
T. Rubin is professor of politics at Duquesne University and the author of
The Green Crusade: Rethinking the Roots of Environmentalism.
Holes In Litany of Loss”
Times Higher Education Supplement
Rarely has an essentially academic book created as much media attention as
Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist. One wished this attention
was because the book presented many new insights, facts or ideas.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. There is little in this book that
cannot be found in earlier works such as The State of Humanity, The
Ultimate Resource or Small is Stupid, written or edited by Julian Simon or
Wilfred Beckerman -whom Lomborg strangely does not cite. The book's
objective is to prove to the reader that environmentalists such as Paul
Ehrlich, Norman Myers and Lester Brown from the Worldwatch Institute, as
well as environmental activist groups such as Greenpeace and the World
Wildlife Fund (WWF), are almost always wrong in their warnings about
large-scale environmental degradation and the need to take decisive action
against it. Lomborg argues that what he calls the "litany" put
forward by these people and groups is not based on sound facts and
scientific research and is therefore plain wrong. Contrary to the litany,
he purports to show that "mankind's lot has actually improved in
terms of practically every measurable indicator", and while some
environmental problems exist, they have often been vastly exaggerated -
environmental quality is rising rather than falling in most instances. He
follows the lead of others in denying that an environmental problem exists
or, if it does exist, denying that it presents cause for alarm. Acid rain?
Does not kill forests. Pollution? The "air and water around us are
becoming less and less polluted". Biodiversity loss? Vastly
exaggerated. Global warming? Lomborg believes it "will not decrease
food production; it will probably not increase storminess or the frequency
of hurricanes; it will not increase the impact of malaria or indeed cause
more deaths". And so on.
If this argument is not new, why has the book received so much media
attention? One reason could be that Lomborg, contrary to Simon, Beckerman
and others, once believed in the litany himself and the conversion of a
former sinner always makes for good marketing. Lomborg describes himself
as an "old leftwing Greenpeace member" who was provoked by
reading an interview with Simon in a magazine, tried to refute Simon's
arguments with statistical facts and soon resigned himself to accepting
that Simon was right and the litany wrong.
One might wonder why millions of people, including many academics, still
follow the litany when a sober look at the facts purportedly demonstrates
that it is all wrong. To this Lomborg gives the same answer as Simon and
Beckerman before him: the media are to blame because they focus on bad and
alarmist news. Also, they fail in their duty to distinguish sound science
from the errors of the litany. Ironically, environmentalists such as Paul
and Anne Ehrlich in their book, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How
Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens our Future, also argue that the
media give far too much attention to a "body of anti-science".
There are two aspects of Lomborg's book that are different from the
earlier debate between what one might call environmental optimists and the
environmental pessimists under scrutiny in this book. First, he does not
assume the highly aggressive and arrogant tone characteristic of the
earlier debate. He does not engage in personal attacks and ad hominem
arguments. Second, he is more cautious about dismissing the existence of
environmental problems. His optimism is based on arguing that
environmental problems are vastly exaggerated rather than that they are
imaginary. In addition, his book is marvellously referenced, providing
many details with a comprehensive list of all sources of data.
But having said this, it suffers from a number of shortcomings. To begin
with, Lomborg is at fault in believing that science can provide a clear
answer to the severity of environmental problems and thereby prove that
environmental optimism is right. He fails to recognise that the dispute
between environmental optimists and pessimists has its roots in science
and is a consequence of the scientifically contested nature of
environmental problems. Whether, for example, the world really loses
biodiversity at a rate of 0.7 per cent per 50 years (as Lomborg firmly
believes) is highly contested, and not just by the proponents of the
Second, Lomborg ignores the politically and socially contested nature of
environmental problems. He does not appreciate that individuals can have
divergent views on what the correct political and social response to an
environmental problem should be. Lomborg assumes a welfarist position:
environmental problems are one of many that humankind faces, and
environmental protection must be subjected to a stringent cost-benefit
analysis. Only if the benefits outweigh the costs (including opportunity
costs) should environmental protection be initiated. Otherwise, scarce
resources are wasted. While this is one possible view of how mankind
should treat nature, it is certainly not a position one would call
"environmentalism". Lomborg does not seem to understand that
environmentalists want to give priority to certain environmental
protection measures independent of any estimated cost-to-benefit ratio,
because with environmental destruction something unique may be
irreversibly lost. Whatever Lomborg might be, he is not an
environmentalist because he regards the environment as he does any other
commodity. His "environmentalism" is one of the "we all
care for the environment" kind, which paints over the fact that some
people actually benefit from environmental degradation and that there are
real conflicts between environmentalists and non-environmentalists on how
far efforts to protect the environment should be pursued. Consequently, he
fails to understand that, for example, from an environmentalist
perspective, even a loss of tropical forests at an annual rate of
"only" 0.46 per cent, which Lomborg suggests is the true rate as
opposed to the 1.5 to 4.6 per cent put forward by the litany, is cause for
Third, in his focus on the litany, Lomborg neglects the fact that many
environmentalists have a more sophisticated perspective on the changing
welfare of humankind and the environmental problems it faces. While, for
example, drawing time and again on data provided by the World Resources
Institute, Lomborg fails to appreciate the good research and policy work
undertaken by this particular environmentalist institution as well as many
others, including many environmentally concerned academics all over the
world. It is too easy to refer time and again to Ehrlich, Myers, Brown and
their followers while ignoring the existence of an entirely different
strand of environmentalism. Those who are more sophisticated than the
proponents of the litany in their arguments, appreciate that in a world of
scarce resources, not all claims for any and every environmental
protection effort can be satisfied.
Fourth, Lomborg fails to give credit to environmentalists whose frequent
and sometimes unfounded alarms about imminent environmental destruction
have mobilised policy-makers into bringing about the many environmental
improvements he correctly celebrates in his book. Whatever the fault of
the strand of environmentalism under attack in this book might be, its
often exaggerated claims have historically been important in waking up a
dormant public and community of policy-makers. While he is right in
arguing that policy decisions should not be based on exaggerated claims,
he could give some credit to the proponents of the litany here.
So far no attempt has been made to refute any of Lomborg's claims in this
review. There are two reasons for this. In many, but by no means all
instances I share Lomborg's view. Where I disagree, there is not enough
space here to attempt a substantive engagement with his detailed
arguments. Instead, I have tried to put Lomborg's book into context as
part of a much older debate between environmental optimists and
One lesson to be learnt from this book is that one might want to
differentiate between different aspects of the environment. If one agrees
with one side of the debate in some respects, one does not need to agree
with it in all respects. For example, if one shares the environmental
pessimists' view on global warming or biodiversity extinction, there is no
need to share their view on non-renewable mineral and energy resources
too. The world economy has exhibited a remarkable capability to overcome
natural resource constraints via substitution and technical progress. The
false alarms about the running out of essential resources are a case in
point, as Lomborg says. Global environmental resources, such as the global
atmosphere or biodiversity, on the other hand, lack a defined
property-rights system and functioning markets; therefore prices cannot
play the role of a self-correcting feedback loop. These environmental
resources are more vulnerable and, because they are more important to
mankind, one needs to be cautious about a threat to them even if the
existence of the threat is contested. Such resources often need collective
action by countries to provide for the global public good.
It is the failure to suggest a way out of the old trenches in the debate
between environmental optimism and pessimism that is disappointing about
this book. Which environmental problems are non-existent or relatively
harmless, and which provide cause for real concern from an
environmentalist's point of view? Lomborg does not tell us. In the end his
book is essentially just another contribution to environmental optimism.
But to his credit, he has written probably the most comprehensive,
up-to-date and provocative contribution to environmental optimism so far,
and a book that is accessible to academics, students and virtually anybody
interested in environmental issues. Given that what the book calls the
litany is all too often taken as incontestable truth in the literature on
the environment, agriculture and conflict, this is no small achievement.
Eric Neumayer is lecturer in environment and development, London School of
Economics and Political Science.
HALF-BAKED, ill-researched and designed to capture the moral high ground
rather than to advance the cause of knowledge, says Bjorn Lomborg. He's
been scrutinising environmental statistics. He should know: he's a
statistics professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. "The Skeptical
Environmentalist" came out in Danish three years ago. Its translation
into English has caused a sensation. Lomborg looks at a huge range of
statistics on environmental change, globally and locally. He says things
are getting better, refuting the doomsday environmentalists.
Part of the problem is that doing a bit better doesn't set things right.
Concern about the state of the environment does have a lot to do with
adverse trends, such as the rapid loss of bird populations in Britain - an
indicator not mentioned by Lomborg. But it also has something to do with
the widening gap between the state of the environment and the state that
many people want, their aspirations fed by better education and rising
incomes. So Lomborg's chapter on global extinctions comes as scant
reassurance to, say, salmon anglers who not only lament the decline of the
salmon but demand more fishing as we get richer. Arguing that total forest
cover in the world is increasing (it is) is less than reassuring if
expanding temperate forests do not compensate for declining tropical
But the greatest ire is going to be reserved for Lomborg's chapter on
global warming. The science is clear; it is not rational policy to proceed
as if the probability of induced warming is zero. Lomborg asks an
economist's question: do the benefits of controlling warming outweigh the
costs ? He agrees that global warming will damage the world, but says that
human misery would be greatly reduced if the huge cost of dealing with
global warming went to solve the immediate problems of the poor.
Those who take a moral view about intergenerational equity will want to
challenge this cost-benefit thinking, but Lomborg has identified a basic
truth of economics moralists often ignore: you can't spend money twice.
Money is not just money, it is hospitals and schools, water and clean air.
Just as compelling is the fact that the Kyoto Protocol, even if the US had
signed up, will postpone reaching the predicted warming levels for 2100 by
only 6 years if we spend the estimated dollar 5 trillion now. Lomborg's
view is that it's far better to invest in adaptation than pretend we can
hold back warming.
I doubt if his conclusion needs to be so extreme. Targeting carbon should
accelerate the switch to renewable fuels, rather than market forces as
Lomborg advocates. This brings lots of dividends - reduced congestion and
lower pollution from non-CO2 gases. Perhaps the mistake in the debate has
been to get too hung up about warming itself, rather than focusing on the
need to get technology moving.
If readers can't quite square Lomborg's optimism with what they see around
them, this is no surprise. Even 178 graphs and 3000 footnotes can't cover
all the issues that people worry about. If he has debunked some doomsters,
good. The only risk is that people will confuse the "things are
getting better" message with a Panglossian "things are as good
as they can be" message. But all scientists have a duty to tell it as
Pearce is professor of environmental economics at University College
Tom Burke & Bjorn Lomborg”
1st September 2001
I welcome your challenge to the environmental movement. There is too much
self-righteousness and, indeed, self-satisfaction within the green ghetto.
Unchallenged ideas always become tired and irrelevant. Your book, The
Skeptical Environmentalist, has been written to dispel a collection of
false beliefs propagated by greens, a collection you call "the
litany." The core of your argument is that this combines with four
other factors to cause "a disjunction between perception and
reality," which you have set out to remedy. The four other factors
are: lopsided scientific research; the need of environmental groups to
generate revenues; the media's preoccupation with bad news and something
you call "poor individual perception."
The trouble is that the litany you describe is a caricature of your own
creation, which is perhaps why you cite a science fiction writer as its
most compelling exponent.
It is true that some environmentalists play on people's fears in order to
generate headlines and revenues. But, in doing so, they are only following
a well-trodden path established by the business world and those seeking
political office. Wrongs never add up to rights and I would certainly
prefer to live in a world with a more rational public discourse but,
sadly, this is no easier to find than the one lived in by better people.
It is, however, a gigantic leap of logic to go from here to the idea that
the whole environmental community, of some tens of millions of
professional and volunteer members, has colluded in a conspiracy with the
mass media to gull most people into thinking the environment is in a much
worse state than it actually is. There is indeed an environmental litany.
It is a litany of tragedy. It reads: DDT, Bhopal, Torrey Canyon, Sveso,
Exxon Valdez, Flixborough, CFCs, Chernobyl, BSE...
These are not words that people have written, but events that have
happened. These events, and many more, were brought to the public's
attention by the carelessness or ignorance of businesses and governments,
not by environmentalists. In my 30 years as an environmentalist, nothing I
or my colleagues have ever said or written has had as much influence on
the public as these events.
The central thrust of your argument is that environmentalists, and Lester
Brown in particular, have ignored the dramatically rising trajectory of
human wellbeing throughout the 20th century, in order to promote a message
of doom. You, together with your British soul mate, Matt Ridley, believe
that all will be well in humanity's future.
This sunny enthusiasm leads you not only to misrepresent Brown but also to
miss the point. This is illuminated in your discussion of his views on
food. Brown, you say, keeps on "telling us that food production is
going down the tubes." He does no such thing. He did write, in the
passage you quote from 1965, "the food problem emerging in the less
developing regions may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing
man over the next few decades." He was right. It has been a nearly
insoluble problem. In 1974, Henry Kissinger promised the world food
conference that by 1984 no one would go to bed hungry. In 1996,
governments at the world food summit in Rome cut this target in half and
doubled the time it would take to reach it. Three years later they agreed
that even this goal was unlikely to be achieved.
You rightly point out that food production has greatly increased and that
the proportion of people starving has gone down. Brown agrees and has said
so often. You also both agree that the absolute number of people starving
has remained almost constant because of population growth. The point you
miss here is whether production growth can continue to outpace population
A broader point you miss is that environmentalists are not arguing that
life has not got better for many people in many places, but that it has
got better in ways that cannot be maintained if it is to be enjoyed with
everyone-that is to say all of the 9 billion or so people that we expect
to be sharing our economy and our ecology later in the 21st century. The
point is not to stop things getting better, but to ensure that they get
better in smarter ways.
In setting out to storm unoccupied positions and slay already dead
dragons, you have committed all of the offences that you so robustly, and
occasionally correctly, criticise in the environmentalists. You exaggerate
for effect, substitute forceful assertion for weight of argument,
sometimes make sweeping generalisations from particular instances, are
inconsistent in your use of logic and selective in using evidence and
quotation. These are the familiar and allowable features of polemic. They
are only illegitimate in scholarship. What renders your book dishonest is
its claim to scholarship.
* * * *
4th September 2001
You claim that what I call the litany-the oft-repeated claim of an ever
deteriorating environment-is a caricature, and that I am forced to quote a
science fiction writer because true environmentalists do not express such
In fact, Isaac Asimov's influential book (described by Michael McCloskey,
former director of the Sierra Club, as "the one ecology book to
read") is only mentioned in my footnotes. My main examples of the
litany are from the American Time magazine and the British New Scientist.
In 2000, Time tells us how "everyone knows the planet is in bad
shape" and how "the decline of the earth's ecosystems has
continued unabated" over the past 40 years. And in its 2001 global
environment supplement, New Scientist describes the impending
environmental "catastrophe" and how our thoughtless actions risk
consigning "humanity to the dustbin of evolutionary history."
This may not characterise the environmental debate in which you are
engaged, but it certainly characterises the debate which most people read
and believe. Denying this is implausible, and leads to neglecting the
litany's real impact on public policy. In any case, you do not have to
look too far to find similar statements coming from reputable
environmental organisations. The Worldwatch Institute, for example, says
"the key environmental indicators are increasingly negative,"
noting how "local ecosystems are collapsing at an accelerating
pace" and repeatedly uses phrases like "the environmental
decline of the planet."
You accept that many people have a poor perception of the environment but
surely the solution is for greens to provide better information. We need
to curb the sweeping statements of the litany and instead provide useful
knowledge, both of real problems and success stories.
Curiously, you then go on to confirm my claim of a litany-you say that
there is a litany of environmental tragedy and list examples such as DDT,
oil spills from Torrey Canyon and Exxon Valdez, and CFCs damaging the
ozone layer. Because these are actual events, they somehow show that the
environmental decline is real and not just the creation of
environmentalists. But singular events cannot reliably be used to describe
general trends. It is as incorrect as noting that one's grandfather
chain-smoked and yet lived to be 97, thus concluding smoking to be
You also neglect to put these problems in perspective-DDT has helped wipe
out endemic malaria in both Europe and north America, and its cheap
protection still works wonders for third world malaria, while its risks to
humans are minimal. Since malaria is one of the top killers, with more
than 1.1m deaths a year, surely this information is also necessary for
people to get a truer perception of the world? Likewise, CFC gasses have
been almost completely phased out and the ozone layer is projected to heal
over the next 50 years. Isn't that important information, too? Equally,
you find time to mention two large oil spills, but you do not put them in
perspective. Though the Exxon Valdez oil spill killed at least 250,000
birds, this is roughly equivalent to the number of birds that die in one
day from colliding with plate glass in the US or two days' death toll from
domestic cats in Britain. The total spill was less than 2 per cent of the
pollution caused by powerboats in the US every year. The ecology of the
sound has almost completely recovered. Perhaps most important, the number
and mass of oil spills has declined dramatically over the past three
decades, despite much increased oil transport.
Your last point on Lester Brown is remarkable. You say that he was right
when he said the world food problem would be nearly insoluble. Insoluble
is a vague term but, since Brown said this, more than two billion more
people have been fed properly, the percentage of hungry people has
declined from more than 35 per cent to 17 per cent and even the absolute
number of hungry people has declined from about 1,000m to 760m. (You can't
seriously argue that because Kissinger's over-optimism didn't hold, things
have got worse.)
The UN (in line with the World Bank) expects the proportion of hungry
people to decline even further to 6 per cent in 2030, down to some 400m.
While this is still not good enough, it represents a dramatic improvement.
You claim that Brown can legitimately interpret the future more
pessimistically, but that neglects one of the central points of my book:
Brown does not have models supporting his pessimism, while the only
world-wide models addressing the long-term issues of food and population
(UN, World Bank) show more food per person, despite more people. Moreover,
you evade the overwhelming evidence presented in my book, which shows how
Brown's previous claims of pessimism have been entirely wrong. In 1998,
Brown predicted that the 1996 wheat price spike was an indicator of a
long-term upward price trend, caused by scarcity. In 2000, the wheat price
hit a new all-time low. Equally, in 1995 Brown thought that China's grain
imports would topple the world food market and his predictions were more
than six times gloomier than anyone else's. In 2001, China is still
* * * *
6th September 2001
The environmental debates into which you jump with such abandon are full
of complex issues contested by hundreds of thoughtful and informed
participants. Their positions on unresolved matters are carefully nuanced,
in the recognition that reality is often elusive and a little humility
helpful in its pursuit.
Take Norman Myers. You robustly criticise his 1979 estimate of a loss of
biodiversity of some 40,000 species a year, and are quick to take him to
task for not providing "other references or argumentation." But
you omit to point out that Myers himself made it clear that this was a
first cut assessment, exploratory in character, and you seem to have
forgotten the 80-odd papers he has written in the 20 years since 1979.
Even more surprising, you seem to have forgotten the 1994 publication of a
detailed account of the long running debate between Myers and your mentor
Julian Simon on this very issue.
And it is not just Myers who is overlooked. You make much of the work of
Ariel Lugo on Puerto Rico, but say nothing about Storrs Olson's repeated
rebuttal of those findings. You rest great weight on the views of Ian
Heywood and Neil Stuart on scientific uncertainty, but say nothing about
the work of Peter Raven, Michael Soule and David Woodruff, among dozens of
others on the same theme. You are confident in your belief that there is a
natural extinction rate of about two species a decade, but fail to mention
the work of David Jablonski, Douglas Erwin, David Raup and a host of
others who take a different view.
A final point. Models are not reality, as you point out in your chapter on
climate change. So it is inconsistent to criticise Lester Brown's
judgements on the basis that they are unsupported by a model.
Further-more, not all models are equally good approximations of
reality-climate models are like Rolls-Royces compared to those we have for
the economy. Different modellers build different models of the same
reality and even when different people use the same model they often come
to different conclusions because they start from different assumptions. A
World Resources Institute study, for example, found that different
modellers, using different assumptions, estimated the impact of tackling
climate change on the US economy as ranging from +3 per cent of GDP to -7
per cent. As a statistician I would expect you to be more conscious of the
limitations of the mathematical modelling of trends.
* * * *
7th September 2001
I put forward a fairly straight argument about the environment in my book,
documenting most of the important facts and figures, using more than 1,800
references and almost 3,000 footnotes. Naturally, we cannot cover all of
these issues here, but presumably you picked out some of my most obviously
mistaken arguments for your first letter. You found three general
objections. First, you claimed that my litany was a caricature of my own
creation, second that tragedies like DDT, CFC and oil spills shaped the
environmental perception of the general public and third, how I was wrong
to attack Lester Brown for his consistently incorrect track record.
The first point you appear to accept is untenable, and the latter two you
seem to have given up defending. When criticised, you do what most of my
opponents have done-you change the subject. Such tactics are hard to
handle, since you can just throw up lots of new issues. Let me answer two.
You mention how I appear to have forgotten a 1994 publication detailing
the long running debate between Myers and Simon. I know the book, but
didn't include it because it added nothing new to the debate. (Indeed,
perhaps you could tell me what weighty point this book presents that would
undermine my argument.) You also claim that I only mention a natural
extinction rate of about two species per decade and fail to take into
account other estimates. I do indeed give several references to this
estimate (including the UN), but you have to show that the other evidence
would change my conclusion.
The environmental debate should be based on facts. Despite my best
efforts, I may have got some of them wrong, in which case I would be happy
to have them corrected. But offering weak objections, dodging criticism
and constantly throwing up new issues is not very constructive.
* * * *
9th September 2001
The following headlines appear in the latest issue of the Worldwatch
Institute's publication Vital Signs: "Soybean Harvest Sets
Record"; "Fossil Fuel Use Falls Again"; "Milk
Production Maintains Momentum"; "Global Temperature
Steady;" "Solar Power Market Surges"; "Carbon
Emissions Continue to Decline." This hardly supports your view that
greens never report good news.
You are right about one thing, I am not quarrelling with your facts-how
could I? What I am quarrelling with is your selection of subsets of the
facts, with the interpretation you put on that selection and with your
judgement as to the significance of those interpretations. Nowhere is this
more important than on climate change, and particularly the economics of
climate change, the issue to which you devote most attention in your book.
You blithely assert: "Economic analyses clearly show that it will be
far more expensive to cut carbon-dioxide emissions radically than to pay
the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures." As I have
pointed out before, some do and some do not. But our understanding of the
impact of climate change is limited not only by the uncertainties about
the climate change itself-which you point out at some length-but also by
the even larger uncertainties about the ecological, social and political
responses to those changes.
Uncertainties in this context mean that the errors could go either
way-things could be better or they could be worse. If we are not sure what
is going to happen and we are as unsure about how we will react to what
does happen, you have to be very brave, or an economist, to try and
calculate costs and benefits. No one is in a position to make a reliable
estimate of the costs either of the temperature rises or of any
adaptations that might be made to those rises. Calculating the true costs
of things in the past is very difficult, as was pointed out by William
Nordhaus. Predicting costs in the future is even more difficult.
Furthermore, the whole art of economic modelling is, as yet, so immature
as to make such estimates relatively useless as a guide to public policy.
Your economic argument relies heavily on the outputs of an economic model
developed by the same William Nordhaus who pointed out how difficult it
was to estimate costs that had occurred in the past. His work has been
criticised in the technical literature for exaggerating the costs and
ignoring the benefits of acting on climate change-something you omit to
What I find the most egregious element about your climate change argument,
however, is the proposition that the world faces a choice between spending
money on mitigating climate change and providing access to clean drinking
water and sanitation in the developing world. We must and can do both.
Such artificial choices may be possible in an academic ivory tower where
ideas can be arranged to suit the prejudices of the occupant, but they are
not available in the real world and it is dishonest to suggest that they
By the way, Bjorn, I would be most grateful if you would let me know where
I might find any of your arguments in a peer reviewed journal.
* * * *
10th September 2001
You make three main points on global warming. First, you claim that some
models show cutting carbon emissions would be a bad deal, some a good
deal. This is incorrect. The conclusion of the latest meeting of all the
cost-benefit modellers was: "Current assessments determine that the
optimal policy calls for a relatively modest level of control of
CO2." Even major cuts will only marginally change warming. The Kyoto
protocol, proposing 30 per cent carbon cuts in 2010, will only postpone
warming in 2100 by six years. The six years' delay is based on the
physical (not economic) global warming models and are accepted by
everyone. Thus, the real policy question is marginal: "How much are
we willing to spend on postponing (not avoiding) global warming for six
years?" The models show that Kyoto will cost $150-350 billion
annually. But even if we pay this amount throughout the 21st century, we
will still have to pay the costs associated with global warming, a mere
six years later.
Second, this undermines much of your uncertainty principle argument. Even
if global warming would cause the Gulf Stream to stop (which currently no
models forecast) the question is still marginal: would we pay $150-plus
billion annually throughout the 21st century just to postpone its shutdown
for six years?
Third, you say that you find it egregious that I dare ask if we could not
use our resources better. I merely point out that handling global warming
is about helping the third world (which will bear the brunt of its
disadvantages). The cost of Kyoto for just one year could permanently
solve the single biggest problem on Earth: we could provide clean drinking
water and sanitation to every person on the planet, saving 2m lives every
year. What makes cutting carbon emissions so holy that we must not
question a better use of our resources? You glibly suggest that we should
do both, but linking a good use of resources (drinking water) to a bad use
(Kyoto) does not make the bad use magically good.
Your concluding attack distracts from your arguments, but begs a short
answer. Cambridge University Press (my British publisher) does peer review
its books. But, honestly, this is a terrible argument from authority-even
if it was not peer reviewed, would it matter? If I am wrong, you have had
a chance to point out where and have singularly failed to do so. Clutching
at peer review makes it sound as if you want to exclude my arguments from
public debate on a technical objection.
Times Higher Education Supplement
Bjorn Lomborg (right) has grabbed headlines by questioning the value of
the Kyoto Protocol. But while Lomborg might be a skeptical
environmentalist, he is no Bushite propagandist, argues Fred Pearce
I'm not sure what I expected of Bjorn Lomborg, the new hero of the
anti-greens. A crusty, pedantic reactionary of the English school, maybe,
or a sharp-suited rightwing Bushite. But Anglo-Saxon cultural stereotypes
do not work for Danes. In Denmark, environmentalism is so much the
mainstream that youthful rebellion requires some scepticism about the
hand-me-down green dogma. So no tweed jackets or sharp suits for Lomborg.
More jeans, a cowboy shirt and the rucksack he dumps in the corner as -in
keeping with the politically uncorrect nature of our enterprise -we meet
over coffee at Starbucks to discuss his book, The Skeptical
"I find it uncomfortable that this book could help George W.
Bush," he begins. "It is the last thing that I want." How
come? With Matt Ridley and Lewis Wolpert giving the back-cover citations,
I would expect to see it sitting on plenty of bookshelves next to
root-and-branch anti-green texts such as Julian Simon's The Ultimate
Resource. But Lomborg is as rude about Simon and his band of American
free-marketeers as he is about the greens. "With Simon, the politics
comes first. Sometimes he is right, but sometimes he is wrong. It is the
same with Bush. Some of the things he says about the Kyoto Protocol -how
much it would cost and how little it would achieve -are right. But he is
saying it because of his oil buddies. I start with the science. If, as a
scientist, you put politics first, you are doomed."
Who would argue with that? "All I am saying is that there are lots of
problems in the world that need solving -such as poverty and development
and wealth distribution -as well as environmental issues. We have to
address the most important things first, to get our priorities right. I
think environmentalists usually get their priorities wrong."
One of Lomborg's prime concerns is our sometimes obsessive desire to rid
the world of even the smallest residues of toxic chemicals. "There is
just a blanket fear of chemicals. But the world is made up of chemicals.
And we forget that while pesticides may carry risks, they also save lives
by providing more and cheaper healthy food. Think of all the fruit and
vegetables that pesticides have helped put into the shops and all the
cancers that people have avoided by eating them."
Environmentalists ignore that, he says. They never draw up a balance.
"Without that you can reach a false conclusion. In Europe, there is a
great tendency to spend huge amounts of money on such false
The same is often true of air pollution, he says. "In Denmark, the
feeling is that anything that you can measure has to be dealt with. Will
we save more lives by investing in hospitals in developing countries or in
I waited for some blanket assertion about how air pollution didn't matter.
But Lomborg surprised me again. "When you look at it, there are some
forms of pollution that we have to address. Investment in cutting
particulate pollution would pay off."
The evidence, he says, is growing that particulates, especially the
smaller carcinogenic particles that come from diesel engines and lodge
deep in the lungs, are extremely damaging to health. They are causing
epidemics of lung and heart disease across many urban areas. Investing in
removing that pollution would help clean out hospital wards.
Lomborg's argument is not just a forensic point-by-point analysis of green
claims. He goes further. He says the green world view is permeating all
our lives and getting in the way of clear, scientific thinking. "As
long as we have the moral picture that everything is going to hell, we
cannot make the prioritisation that is necessary," he says. We are
hooked on doomsday scenarios.
But Lomborg has gone the other way. If greens are the new Marxists, then
he is a new Whig. A former member of Greenpeace, he is now an
environmental optimist that is at least as perverting as green pessimism.
"Since the industrial revolution we seem to have hit on a way of
improving the world and there seems no end in sight," he says.
And he believes that greens are failing to address the real needs of the
poor. Environmentalism, he believes, is part of the caution of the rich,
who have more to lose, and has little to offer the poor, who are prepared
to take more risks with their environment and who, above everything, need
to get rich. "Why would a Bangladeshi be worrying about sea level
rising when there are so many more day-to-day concerns?" It is a fair
question. And in this analysis, his complaint seems to be as much as
anything about the new colonialism of ideas -about green imperialism. It
occurred to me afterwards that he was offering a new version of Graham
Greene's famous novel of Indo-China, The Quiet American. Just replace the
spook from the CIA, whose naive idealism caused such havoc, with a
campaigner from Greenpeace.
I think there is something in that. But he seems to go astray when he
addresses climate change. He accepts that this is a big global
environmental issue. But his analysis of why the Kyoto Protocol is not
worth pursuing seems to me reckless and illogical.
Choosing the most pessimistic economic projections, he says that to bring
the protocol into force will cost 2 per cent of the gross national product
of industrialised nations. Yet, "all it will do is postpone climate
change for five or six years". Therefore, it is not worth it, he
says. "We say we are doing it to stop Bangladeshis being flooded out.
But maybe there are better ways to spend money on helping Bangladeshis
-such as giving them clean drinking water." The cost of fulfilling
the Kyoto Protocol would be enough to give the whole world clean drinking
water, he says. It would bring big benefits now, not theoretical benefits
far into the future.
But the comparison is facile. Meeting the Kyoto Protocol would be a down
payment on survival. Think of the cost of not doing it. It would bring
climatic disruption far into the future. He says that there is unlikely to
be a long-term climate problem -not because he does not believe climate
science, but because he believes the problem will solve itself, or that we
will solve it inadvertently by adopting renewable-energy technologies.
"My argument would be incorrect if we were going to use fossil fuels
for ever," he says. "It hinges on the fact that renewables will
take over. They will become cheaper. They are close to that now. By the
middle of the century we will be generating huge amounts of power from the
But who would have been investing in renewable energy technologies over
the past decade -bringing down the price of wind and solar power -without
the expectation of legal limits on fossil fuels of the kind included in
the Kyoto Protocol? Lomborg was not sure -he just thinks someone would
The greens may not always be right. But the green view is the stimulus for
much of what even Lomborg acknowledges needs to be done. You have, surely,
to will the means as well as the ends? He half agrees.
"I'm happy that we have organisations such as Greenpeace to speak
against power and money. We needed them as a corrective back in the 1960s
and 1970s." The problem is not them, he says. "They are
special-interest groups with an argument to make. The problem is more with
the rest of us, with those who do not realise that the green groups are a
special-interest group, with their own agendas, just like industry. We
treat them uncritically, rather than sceptically."
Grabbing his rucksack, he concludes: "Science should be about going
against the grain. I feel awkward about what I am saying politically, but
great about it intellectually."
It is tempting to call Lomborg not so much sceptical as confused. But his
book contains insights and useful correctives amid the naivety and
pedantry. I enjoyed it in places. But I think he should feel awkward about
it intellectually as well as politically.
The Skeptical Environmentalist is published by Cambridge University Press,
Pounds 17.95. Fred Pearce was a principal contributor to the AAAS Atlas of
Population and Environment (California University Press), Pounds 45.00.
Truth about the Environment”
ECOLOGY and economics should push in the same direction. After all, the
"eco" part of each word derives from the Greek word for
"home", and the protagonists of both claim to have humanity's
welfare as their goal. Yet environmentalists and economists are often at
loggerheads. For economists, the world seems to be getting better. For
many environmentalists, it seems to be getting worse.
These environmentalists, led by such veterans as Paul Ehrlich of Stanford
University, and Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, have developed a
sort of "litany" of four big environmental fears:
resources are running out.
The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.
are becoming extinct in vast numbers: forests are disappearing and fish
The planet's air and
water are becoming ever more polluted.
Human activity is thus defiling the earth, and humanity may end up killing
itself in the process.
The trouble is, the evidence does not back up this litany. First, energy
and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so since
the Club of Rome published "The Limits to Growth" in 1972.
Second, more food is now produced per head of the world's population than
at any time in history. Fewer people are starving. Third, although species
are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to
disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been
predicted. And finally, most forms of environmental pollution either
appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient--associated with the
early phases of industrialisation and therefore best cured not by
restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it. One form of
pollution--the release of greenhouse gases that causes global
warming--does appear to be a long-term phenomenon, but its total impact is
unlikely to pose a devastating problem for the future of humanity. A
bigger problem may well turn out to be an inappropriate response to it.
Can things only get better?
Take these four points one by one. First, the exhaustion of natural
resources. The early environmental movement worried that the mineral
resources on which modern industry depends would run out. Clearly, there
must be some limit to the amount of fossil fuels and metal ores that can
be extracted from the earth: the planet, after all, has a finite mass. But
that limit is far greater than many environmentalists would have people
Reserves of natural resources have to be located, a process that costs
money. That, not natural scarcity, is the main limit on their
availability. However, known reserves of all fossil fuels, and of most
commercially important metals, are now larger than they were when
"The Limits to Growth" was published. In the case of oil, for
example, reserves that could be extracted at reasonably competitive prices
would keep the world economy running for about 150 years at present
consumption rates. Add to that the fact that the price of solar energy has
fallen by half in every decade for the past 30 years, and appears likely
to continue to do so into the future, and energy shortages do not look
like a serious threat either to the economy or to the environment.
The development for non-fuel resources has been similar. Cement, aluminium,
iron, copper, gold, nitrogen and zinc account for more than 75% of global
expenditure on raw materials. Despite an increase in consumption of these
materials of between two- and ten-fold over the past 50 years, the number
of years of available reserves has actually grown. Moreover, the
increasing abundance is reflected in an ever-decreasing price: The
Economist's index of prices of industrial raw materials has dropped some
80% in inflation-adjusted terms since 1845.
Next, the population explosion is also turning out to be a bugaboo. In
1968, Dr Ehrlich predicted in his best selling book, "The Population
Bomb", that "the battle to feed humanity is over. In the course
of the 1970s the world will experience starvation of tragic
proportions--hundreds of millions of people will starve to death."
That did not happen. Instead, according to the United Nations,
agricultural production in the developing world has increased by 52% per
person since 1961. The daily food intake in poor countries has increased
from 1,932 calories, barely enough for survival, in 1961 to 2,650 calories
in 1998, and is expected to rise to 3,020 by 2030. Likewise, the
proportion of people in developing countries who are starving has dropped
from 45% in 1949 to 18% today, and is expected to decline even further to
12% in 2010 and just 6% in 2030. Food, in other words, is becoming not
scarcer but ever more abundant. This is reflected in its price. Since 1800
food prices have decreased by more than 90%, and in 2000, according to the
World Bank, prices were lower than ever before.
Dr Ehrlich's prediction echoed that made 170 years earlier by Thomas
Malthus. Malthus claimed that, if unchecked, human population would expand
exponentially, while food production could increase only linearly, by
bringing new land into cultivation. He was wrong. Population growth has
turned out to have an internal check: as people grow richer and healthier,
they have smaller families. Indeed, the growth rate of the human
population reached its peak, of more than 2% a year, in the early 1960s.
The rate of increase has been declining ever since. It is now 1.26%, and
is expected to fall to 0.46% in 2050. The United Nations estimates that
most of the world's population growth will be over by 2100, with the
population stabilising at just below 11 billion (see chart 1).
Malthus also failed to take account of developments in agricultural
technology. These have squeezed more and more food out of each hectare of
land. It is this application of human ingenuity that has boosted food
production, not merely in line with, but ahead of, population growth. It
has also, incidentally, reduced the need to take new land into
cultivation, thus reducing the pressure on biodiversity.
Third, that threat of biodiversity loss is real, but exaggerated. Most
early estimates used simple island models that linked a loss in habitat
with a loss of biodiversity. A rule-of-thumb indicated that loss of 90% of
forest meant a 50% loss of species. As rainforests seemed to be cut at
alarming rates, estimates of annual species loss of 20,000-100,000
abounded. Many people expected the number of species to fall by half
globally within a generation or two.
However, the data simply does not bear out these predictions. In the
eastern United States, forests were reduced over two centuries to
fragments totalling just 1-2% of their original area, yet this resulted in
the extinction of only one forest bird. In Puerto Rico, the primary forest
area has been reduced over the past 400 years by 99%, yet "only"
seven of 60 species of bird has become extinct. All but 12% of the
Brazilian Atlantic rainforest was cleared in the 19th century, leaving
only scattered fragments. According to the rule-of-thumb, half of all its
species should have become extinct. Yet, when the World Conservation Union
and the Brazilian Society of Zoology analysed all 291 known Atlantic
forest animals, none could be declared extinct. Species, therefore, seem
more resilient than expected. And tropical forests are not lost at annual
rates of 2-4%, as many environmentalists have claimed: the latest UN
figures indicate a loss of less than 0.5%.
Fourth, pollution is also exaggerated. Many analyses show that air
pollution diminishes when a society becomes rich enough to be able to
afford to be concerned about the environment. For London, the city for
which the best data are available, air pollution peaked around 1890 (see
chart 2). Today, the air is cleaner than it has been since 1585. There is
good reason to believe that this general picture holds true for all
developed countries. And, although air pollution is increasing in many
developing countries, they are merely replicating the development of the
industrialised countries. When they grow sufficiently rich they, too, will
start to reduce their air pollution.
All this contradicts the litany. Yet opinion polls suggest that many
people, in the rich world, at least, nurture the belief that environmental
standards are declining. Four factors cause this disjunction between
perception and reality.
Always look on the dark side of life
One is the lopsidedness built into scientific research. Scientific funding
goes mainly to areas with many problems. That may be wise policy, but it
will also create an impression that many more potential problems exist
than is the case.
Secondly, environmental groups need to be noticed by the mass media. They
also need to keep the money rolling in. Understandably, perhaps, they
sometimes exaggerate. In 1997, for example, the Worldwide Fund for Nature
issued a press release entitled, "Two-thirds of the world's forests
lost forever". The truth turns out to be nearer 20%.
Though these groups are run overwhelmingly by selfless folk, they
nevertheless share many of the characteristics of other lobby groups. That
would matter less if people applied the same degree of scepticism to
environmental lobbying as they do to lobby groups in other fields. A trade
organisation arguing for, say, weaker pollution controls is instantly seen
as self-interested. Yet a green organisation opposing such a weakening is
seen as altruistic, even if a dispassionate view of the controls in
question might suggest they are doing more harm than good.
A third source of confusion is the attitude of the media. People are
clearly more curious about bad news than good. Newspapers and broadcasters
are there to provide what the public wants. That, however, can lead to
significant distortions of perception. An example was America's encounter
with El Nino in 1997 and 1998. This climatic phenomenon was accused of
wrecking tourism, causing allergies, melting the ski-slopes and causing 22
deaths by dumping snow in Ohio.
A more balanced view comes from a recent article in the Bulletin of the
American Meteorological Society. This tries to count up both the problems
and the benefits of the 1997-98 Nino. The damage it did was estimated at
$4 billion. However, the benefits amounted to some $19 billion. These came
from higher winter temperatures (which saved an estimated 850 lives,
reduced heating costs and diminished spring floods caused by meltwaters),
and from the well-documented connection between past Ninos and fewer
Atlantic hurricanes. In 1998, America experienced no big Atlantic
hurricanes and thus avoided huge losses. These benefits were not reported
as widely as the losses.
The fourth factor is poor individual perception. People worry that the
endless rise in the amount of stuff everyone throws away will cause the
world to run out of places to dispose of waste. Yet, even if America's
trash output continues to rise as it has done in the past, and even if the
American population doubles by 2100, all the rubbish America produces
through the entire 21st century will still take up only the area of a
square, each of whose sides measures 28km (18 miles). That is just
one-12,000th of the area of the entire United States.
Ignorance matters only when it leads to faulty judgments. But fear of
largely imaginary environmental problems can divert political energy from
dealing with real ones. The table, showing the cost in the United States
of various measures to save a year of a person's life, illustrates the
danger. Some environmental policies, such as reducing lead in petrol and
sulphur-dioxide emissions from fuel oil, are very cost-effective. But many
of these are already in place. Most environmental measures are less
cost-effective than interventions aimed at improving safety (such as
installing air-bags in cars) and those involving medical screening and
vaccination. Some are absurdly expensive.
Yet a false perception of risk may be about to lead to errors more
expensive even than controlling the emission of benzene at tyre plants.
Carbon-dioxide emissions are causing the planet to warm. The best
estimates are that the temperature will rise by some 2degrees-3degreesC in
this century, causing considerable problems, almost exclusively in the
developing world, at a total cost of $5,000 billion. Getting rid of global
warming would thus seem to be a good idea. The question is whether the
cure will actually be more costly than the ailment.
Despite the intuition that something drastic needs to be done about such a
costly problem, economic analyses clearly show that it will be far more
expensive to cut carbon-dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs
of adaptation to the increased temperatures. The effect of the Kyoto
Protocol on the climate would be minuscule, even if it were implemented in
full. A model by Tom Wigley, one of the main authors of the reports of the
UN Climate Change Panel, shows how an expected temperature increase of
2.1degreesC in 2100 would be diminished by the treaty to an increase of
1.9degreesC instead. Or, to put it another way, the temperature increase
that the planet would have experienced in 2094 would be postponed to 2100.
So the Kyoto agreement does not prevent global warming, but merely buys
the world six years. Yet, the cost of Kyoto, for the United States alone,
will be higher than the cost of solving the world's single most pressing
health problem: providing universal access to clean drinking water and
sanitation. Such measures would avoid 2m deaths every year, and prevent
half a billion people from becoming seriously ill.
And that is the best case. If the treaty were implemented inefficiently,
the cost of Kyoto could approach $1 trillion, or more than five times the
cost of worldwide water and sanitation coverage. For comparison, the total
global-aid budget today is about $50 billion a year.
To replace the litany with facts is crucial if people want to make the
best possible decisions for the future. Of course, rational environmental
management and environmental investment are good ideas--but the costs and
benefits of such investments should be compared to those of similar
investments in all the other important areas of human endeavour. It may be
costly to be overly optimistic--but more costly still to be too
* * *
are several links to other reviews of
The Skeptical Environmentalist.
These are critical reviews of Lomborg's book that have appeared on the
Union of Concerned Scientists' web page.
Waldo? A Review of The Skeptical Environmentalist"
Warming: Misuse of Data and Ignorance of Science."
Wilson, et.al., "Biodiversity
Distortions in Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist."
The following article also
appeared in Scientific American:
"Misleading Math about the Earth: Science Defends Itself against The
Here are two replies written by
Lomborg to the criticisms of his book that were published in
Here are some interesting
Letters to the Editor
that were written in response to the
You might also want to explore the following article that was published in
on August 16, 1991:
Are Ecologists Crying Wolf?"
* * *
Here is a recent article from the
New York Times (January 8, 2003) that discusses a review of The
Skeptical Environmentalist by the
Danish Committees on Scientific
Environment and Science: Danes Rebuke a 'Skeptic'
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
branch of the Danish Research Agency
has concluded that Prof. Bjorn Lomborg, an author whose upbeat analysis of
environmental trends has been embraced by conservatives, displayed
"scientific dishonesty" in his popular book, "The Skeptical
Professor Lomborg, who has a doctorate
in political science and teaches statistics at the University of Aarhus,
has portrayed the book as an unbiased scientific refutation of dire
pronouncements by environmental groups. But it has been attacked as deeply
flawed by many environmental scientists since its publication in English
in 2001 by Cambridge University Press.
Many experts have said that
environmental conditions, in most cases, are not nearly as good as
Professor Lomborg portrays them, but also not nearly as bad as some
environmental groups and scientists have said.
The Danish Committees on Scientific
Dishonesty, after a six-month review following several complaints filed by
scientists, issued a 17-page report yesterday concluding that the book
displayed "systematic one-sidedness."
"Objectively speaking," the committees
found, "the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall
within the concept of scientific dishonesty," as defined by Danish rules
for scientific integrity.
But because Dr. Lomborg was not found
grossly negligent, he could not be found formally to have been
scientifically dishonest, the report said.
The committee said it found no evidence
that Professor Lomborg deliberately tried to mislead readers, which would
have been a graver issue, and settled on a relatively mild rebuke,
concluding, "The publication is deemed clearly contrary to the standards
of good scientific practice."
The committees, divisions of the Danish
Research Agency, are composed of a variety of scientists and headed by a
judge from the Danish High Court.
In a telephone interview, Professor
Lomborg, 38, defended the book and challenged the committees to come up
with specific examples of errors or bias.
"You can't say I'm scientifically
dishonest or in breach of good scientific conduct unless you point the
finger and say this is the smoking gun," he said. "It's like saying you
committed murder but we won't tell you who you killed. It's impossible for
me to defend myself."
He said the committees' conclusion
could get him fired from his new position as director of the Danish
Institute for Environmental Assessment, in which he reviews the
effectiveness of government spending on environmental programs. Government
officials, however, told Danish news organizations that the criticism of
the book did not jeopardize Professor Lomborg's job.
Cambridge University Press has also
been criticized by scientists for publishing the book. Officials at the
publishing house declined to comment on the findings, saying they had not
had a chance to read them.
The report did not cite specific
examples, but asserted that the book — although presented in the style of
a scientific treatise, with copious footnotes and diagrams — was actually
"a provocative debate-generating paper."
It extensively cited a long critique of
Professor Lomborg's book that was published in Scientific American last
year. Professor Lomborg and his supporters said that critique was itself
biased and written by scientists who have long portrayed the environment
as dangerously degraded.
The book — a dense review of data on
forests, climate change, food supplies, population growth and other issues
— has not been a runaway best seller but has been widely cited by
conservative groups, commentators and elected officials who oppose strict
At the same time, the book posed a
sharp challenge to environmental groups and many scientists who have long
spoken of looming ecological and climatic catastrophes that have yet to
"The environment is a field where, when
people do some light calculations like Lomborg did, it's easy to argue for
a happy-times kind of conclusion," said Dr. Peter H. Raven, the director
of the Missouri Botanical Garden and president of the American Association
for the Advancement of Science.
But such findings should not be
portrayed as science, he said, adding, "This is a just outcome that ought
to bring his credibility to a halt except for those who desperately want
to believe what he says."
* * *
However, here is an article which raise
serious doubts regarding the scientific objectivity and intellectual
integrity of the Danish Committee and its report on
Jan 9th 2003
scourge of the greens is accused of dishonesty
Bjorn Lomborg saga took a decidedly Orwellian turn this week. Readers will
recall that Mr Lomborg, a statistician and director of Denmark's
Environmental Assessment Institute, is the author of “The Skeptical
Environmentalist”, which attacks the environmental lobby for
systematically exaggerated pessimism. Environmentalists have risen as one
in furious condemnation of Mr Lomborg's presumption in challenging their
claims, partly no doubt because he did it so tellingly. This week, to the
delight of greens everywhere, Denmark's Committees on Scientific
Dishonesty ruled on the book as follows: “Objectively speaking, the
publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the
concept of scientific dishonesty.”
odd. Why, in the first place, is a panel with a name such as this
investigating complaints against a book which makes no claim to be a
scientific treatise? “The Skeptical Environmentalist” is explicitly not
concerned with conducting scientific research. Rather, it measures the
“litany” of environmental alarm that is constantly fed to the public
against a range of largely uncontested data about the state of the planet.
The litany comes off very badly from the comparison. The environmental
movement was right to find the book a severe embarrassment. But since the
book was not conducting scientific research, what business is it of a
panel concerned with scientific dishonesty?
One might expect to find the answer to this question in the arguments and
data supporting the ruling—but there aren't any. The material assembled by
the panel consists almost entirely of a synopsis of four articles
published by Scientific American last year. (We
those articles and the editorial that ran with them in our issue of
February 2nd 2002.) The panel seems to regard these pieces as
disinterested science, rather than counter-advocacy from committed
environmentalists. Incredibly, the complaints of these self-interested
parties are blandly accepted at face value. Mr. Lomborg's line-by-line
replies to the criticisms (see
are not reported. On its own behalf, the panel offers not one instance of
inaccuracy or distortion in Mr Lomborg's book: not its job, it says. On
this basis it finds Mr. Lomborg guilty of dishonesty.
panel's ruling—objectively speaking—is incompetent and shameful.
* * *
You might find the following
critique of the Danish Committee's report interesting as well:
* * *
Here is an article that reports on the
response by Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology to the Danish
Committees on Scientific Dishonesty's (DCSD) criticism of Lomborg.
reprieve for free speech
Dec 18th 2003
scourge of the greens wins a round
NEW developments to report in the
saga of Bjorn Lomborg and “scientific dishonesty”. Dr Lomborg, currently
the director of Denmark's Environmental Assessment Institute, is the
author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, a global bestseller that
embarrassed green groups by documenting their systematic exaggeration of
the Earth's environmental problems. Furious environmentalists brought a
complaint about the book before a body called the Danish Committees on
Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), which, as we reported on January 11th of
this year, found that: “Objectively speaking, the publication of the work
under consideration [Dr Lomborg's book] is deemed to fall within the
concept of scientific dishonesty.”
This finding, and the total absence of
evidence or argument to support it, struck many as bizarre. Having read
the DCSD's report, we ourselves concluded, “The panel's ruling—objectively
speaking—is incompetent and shameful.”
On December 17th, Denmark's Ministry of
Science, Technology and Innovation published its own response to the
DCSD's finding. It is more politely expressed than ours, but comes to much
the same conclusion. The ruling is thrown back to the DCSD with
instructions to think again. Among a long list of telling criticisms, the
ministry says this: “the DCSD has not documented where [Dr Lomborg] has
allegedly been biased in his choice of data and in his argumentation,
and...the ruling is completely void of argumentation for why the DCSD find
that the complainants are right in their criticisms of [his] working
methods. It is not sufficient that the criticisms of a researcher's
working methods exist; the DCSD must consider the criticisms and take a
position on whether or not the criticisms are justified, and why.”
Quite so. What kind of panel is it that
purports to be concerned with scientific dishonesty, but needs somebody
else to point this out?
* * *