When authors and scientists take their debates to wielding cream filled pies at each other instead of arguing out their concepts on the pages of books and articles, something has gone amiss. On September 5th, Mark Lynas, a British environmental author and activist hefted a cream pie in the face of Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg as he was giving a reading of his controversial book at a Borders bookstore in Oxford.
        Overshadowed by the events of September 11th, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which was published in early October in the US by Cambridge University Press, has caused barely a ripple inside the American environmental community against Dr. Lomborg, the 36-year-old statistics professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark.
        What has created shock is that his findings, in many instances, tend to paint a rosy picture about the state of the global environment today when nearly everyone else in the community is pointing to looming catastrophe. The book touches on a vast interdisciplinary array of subjects—acid rain, food distribution, cancer, GM crops, global warming, deforestation, AIDS, species extinction, etc.—virtually every topic that affects the people and the environment on a global scale.
        In a series of articles written for British newspaper The Guardian prior to the UK release of his book in the UK, Dr. Lomborg laid out his thesis about global warming, species extinction, and air pollution. What followed has been outrage, antagonism, and sheer disbelief by many environmentalists in Europe. When the first version of his book came out in Denmark in 1998 it caused a similar reaction in the Scandinavian environmental community.
        On global warming, Dr. Lomborg states in The Guardian, "It will not decrease food production; it is not likely to increase storminess, the frequency of hurricanes, the impact of malaria, or indeed, cause more deaths. It is even unlikely that it will cause more flooding, because a much richer world will protect itself better."
        Citing figures estimated by Yale professor William Nordhaus, Bjorn Lomborg puts the cost of combating global warming at $5 trillion. He also states that "if Kyoto is implemented with anything but global emissions trading, it will not only be inconsequential for the climate, but also constitute a poor use of resources. The cost of such a pact, just for the US, would be higher than the cost of solving the single most pressing global problem—providing the entire world with clean drinking water and sanitation."
        According to his findings supported by nearly 3,000 footnotes in the entire book, implementation of the Kyoto agreement as it stands now would put off global warming for six years. A vast inefficiency of resources, he says, which would not help the people Kyoto is supposed to help most—those in the developing world and low lying areas across the globe.
        "On average, global warming is not going to harm the developing world," Dr. Lomborg said in my interview with him in Hyde Park in London. "So we’re basically talking about helping the Third World, and that’s an important proviso. If that’s the case I think you have to say if we are willing to spend $150 billion to $250 billion per year on Kyoto, can we do better than giving Bangladeshis six more years to move? Obviously, yes. There are so many other things we can do that will do so much more good, that will help people in need now, much better and much more efficiently.
        "The obvious issue is providing clean drinking water and sanitation to every single human being on earth at the cost of little more than one year of the Kyoto treaty."
        Mark Lynas, who decided to take to pie-ing, though he stated he had reservations about its ethical and tactical issues, is working on a book about the effects of climate change on ordinary people around the globe. He recently spent a month with native communities in Alaska studying the consequences global warming has for them. Though he admitted he has not read Dr. Lomborg’s entire book, he said he read the section on global warming and had followed his arguments in the British press.
        "Lomborg makes great play of the fact that if implemented the cuts it mandates in CO2 emissions will have almost no effect on the climate," Mr. Lynas said. "Well, we all knew that already, which is why many people have criticized it as being inadequate. Since greater cuts involving more countries are likely to be agreed upon to take effect during the second compliance period after 2012, Lomborg’s exercise of calculating Kyoto’s effect on the climate by 2100 is at best irrelevant, and at worst intentionally misleading.
        "Lomborg is clearly on a political exercise, producing an anti-environmental polemic not entirely different from the kind of statements emanating from the current Bush White House—just with more footnotes."
        But on the surface Dr. Lomborg is no right-wing stooge. He describes himself as left leaning, a vegetarian, and a former member of Greenpeace (though not active, he states). "Initially I declined to comment on where I stand," he said. "Even if I was a bad right wing guy, to the extent of whether my arguments are right or wrong, they’re right or wrong independently if I’m right or left."
        And it shouldn’t matter. If you look at the arguments scientifically, and if the book was presented in a way which lays out the arguments in an objective, straightforward language, it shouldn’t. But there are problems with how some of the language of the book tries to support his findings. Lomborg seems to fall into the same trap which he accuses environmental groups in his book, that of using catch phrases and sensationalism to overstate his case.
        "Obviously any group that has to have funding also needs to get attention to their issues," he said. "They will focus on these issues and have the tendency to pull out the worst figures, the most spectacular figures. I don’t think it entails actually giving information that is deliberately wrong, but it does entail certainly casting issues in the most dire framework."
        But Lomborg, in trying to present scientific findings while also offering opinions about the lobbying tactics of environmental organizations, straddles the high-horse somewhere between scientist and demagogue. Most portentous is the term ‘The Litany,’ what he describes as the persistent gloom and doom view presented to the public by such groups as Greenpeace, Worldwatch Institute and the World Wildlife Fund. For one, the term had religious undertones portraying a zealous nature. And though he may be correct in stating that environmental organizations act just like any other lobbying group in trying to get their message across, being a scientist and an academic it would be more wise to let the factual arguments support themselves instead of preaching about them.
        He is also well aware that those opposed to environmental legislation could enlist his book for their purposes. He is aware that it could be taken apart and used as sound-bytes to say that everything is all right with the world, which is something he says he doesn’t want. Dr. Lomborg doesn’t want to be known as the "Everything is okay" guy, he says, because he thinks there is a lot more to be done, but done in a different way.
        "Once they get your ideas into the political arena people will bounce your arguments back and forth, misrepresent them, misread them, or just not understand them. I’m sure environmental researchers have felt very uncomfortable about environmental organizations perhaps misstating or overstating their results as well.
        "But this is an occupational hazard of being a scientist. You say this is the best information I have and then you realize that not everyone is going to read the footnotes or the whole book, so people are going to get the wrong impression. My trust is very much in democracy working, and if people make fundamentally wrong statements eventually someone will come around and say ‘this is incorrect.’ I certainly worry and feel uncomfortable that people I have very little in common with politically will be able to use my arguments. It would be seriously misleading to be a scientist and say, ‘Oh well, in that case I probably shouldn’t publish it. It would help Bush.’
        "I really have to stress, I don’t have a positive view. I’m not here to cheer people up. If the bottom line was negative, that is what we should say. I really try to say things as they basically are and it so happens that it is a good message that things are getting better, but there are still problems."
        On species diversity, Dr. Lomborg says the threat of biodiversity loss is real, but exaggerated. Tropical forests are not being lost at annual rates of 2-4%, but at less than 0.5% he says, stating current UN figures. Current professional understanding also backed by UN estimates, he says, sees a 0.7% species loss over the next 50 years. "The loss of 0.7% of biodiversity is a problem," he writes, "but nowhere near the catastrophe of losing 25-50% of all species, which is still so commonly claimed."
        One example he gave of biodiversity and species loss as not being as dire as we may believe was Puerto Rico where over 400 years, primary forest was reduced by 99%, and seven of 60 species of bird have become extinct. Presumably that would leave the existing birds in fewer numbers and with much less habitat. A catastrophe, or just a matter of perception?
        "I think it gets very philosophical when you get to the point where you say, for example, ‘Well, there are fewer Bengal tigers.’ That’s true, but does it matter to the individual Bengal tiger? It’s getting really metaphysical that somehow there should be a lot of them.
        "To the extent that it means there are fewer of these birds, then we might feel that we have a loss. But it doesn’t seem to me that there is a loss either in a moral sense or in a bio-diversity sense, in the sense of, well if they remain there, though less populous, then they’re still there."
        Since Dr. Lomborg’s book first came out in Denmark he has had detractors and critics attack various aspects of his claims. Danish colleagues have fired back at him in the press, and one from his own department at the University of Aarhus, Dr. Mikael Skou Anderson, claims Bjorn Lomborg uses a ‘precarious model’ in his use of Nordhaus’ economic calculations about the cost-benefit analysis of the greenhouse effect.
        "The Nordhaus model is a global model without regional divisions," he wrote for the Danish newspaper, Jyllandsposten in 1998. "(The model) purports to be able to prognosticate the costs associated with CO2 reduction hundreds of years ahead, but the model has no options for changing between various types of fuel, for instance from coal to natural gas or solar power, and CO2 reduction can therefore only be achieved by reducing energy consumption and thus production. The model does not operate with possibilities for technical improvements in energy efficiency. Finally, the model assumes that one will continue to squander away energy in China, Russia, and India, where the model does not employ world market prices."
        Current executive Director of Friends of the Earth, Charles Secrett, also criticizes the model, saying it overestimates the cost of action and underestimates the cost of inaction while making unjustified assumptions about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s forecasts.
        "I say it is $5 trillion," said Dr. Lomborg of the cost of enacting global warming emissions legislation. "The UN figure is about $7.8 trillion. That’s in the ballpark. So am I that unreasonable to the extent that it is clearly wrong. It’s actually underestimating the cost, if anything."
        Dr. Lomborg contends that Mr. Secrett says he misrepresents the IPCC when he says there will be little increase in storminess. "He said that it isn’t true, that it isn’t what you can read from the IPCC. I backed it with a lot of evidence from the post-IPCC assessment, from the World Health Organization and the last IPCC in 1996. They are so sure they are right that they can’t even be bothered to point it out and say, ‘here’s my quote’. If I was wrong you’d think it would be fairly easy to show I was wrong."
        Former director of Friends of the Earth, Tom Burke, countered Dr. Lomborg’s claims about deforestation, saying that "Lomborg may or may not be wrong about the estimation of tropical rainforest that’s been lost at a rate of around 0.5% because it is notoriously difficult to estimate the area of tropical rainforests, not just because there is a wide range of what you could classify as tropical, and not everyone agrees on what is to be counted and what actually counts as lost."
        Dr. Lomborg’s reaction to this statement is to point back to The Litany, which he says distorts the findings and scares people more than they need. "There is still a problem," he says. "But it is much smaller."
        He also states that the two great worries loss of tropical rainforests would cause—disruption as ‘lungs of the earth’ and biodiversity loss—are not much of a problem because they are getting better, though still a problem. "With those two issues gone it becomes primarily a question of, ‘Well in Surinam do they manage their forests properly?’ And there are so many third world countries that don’t manage many other things properly. I do consider our care nice, but it may be misplaced. There are many other things we should worry about first in those places."
        According to Jon Fjeldsa, Professor of the Vertebrate Department at the University of Copenhagen, Bjorn Lomborg’s claims on species extinction are "absurd and irrelevant," he wrote in the Danish newspaper Politiken. "Lomborg overlooks the fact that we find enormous concentrations of life forms in certain specific areas and that this reflects special local conditions. In contrast, most of the world is inhabited by widely distributed and very adaptive species due to the dynamic stability of these areas."
        Because of the wide variety of topics covered in The Skeptical Environmentalist, pie toting Lynas says it is extremely difficult to pin Dr. Lomborg down, as most environmentalists restrict their expertise to one or two areas at best. "One of the biggest problems facing the environmental community in analyzing Lomborg’s book is that his work, as flawed as it is, has clearly been very time-consuming and meticulous. In a busy and under funded world, few people have the time or background knowledge to plow though 3,000 footnotes checking his sources. It is impressively interdisciplinary."