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
, 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.
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 subjectsacid
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,
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 problemproviding 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
mostthose in the developing world and low lying areas across
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 were basically talking about helping the Third World,
and thats an important proviso. If thats 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. Lomborgs 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, Lomborgs exercise
of calculating Kyotos 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 Housejust 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, theyre right or
wrong independently if Im right or left."
And it shouldnt
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 shouldnt. 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 dont
think it entails actually giving information that is deliberately
wrong, but it does entail certainly casting issues in the most dire
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
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 doesnt want.
Dr. Lomborg doesnt 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. Im 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 shouldnt publish it. It would help Bush.
"I really have to
stress, I dont have a positive view. Im 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. Thats
true, but does it matter to the individual Bengal tiger? Its
getting really metaphysical that somehow there should be a lot of
"To the extent that
it means there are fewer of these birds, then we might feel that
we have a loss. But it doesnt 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 theyre
Since Dr. Lomborgs
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
"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
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."
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 Changes 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. Thats
in the ballpark. So am I that unreasonable to the extent that it
is clearly wrong. Its actually underestimating the cost, if
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 isnt
true, that it isnt 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 cant even be bothered to point
it out and say, heres my quote. If I was wrong
youd think it would be fairly easy to show I was wrong."
of Friends of the Earth, Tom Burke, countered Dr. Lomborgs
claims about deforestation, saying that "Lomborg may or may not
be wrong about the estimation of tropical rainforest thats
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
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 causedisruption
as lungs of the earth and biodiversity lossare
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 dont 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 Lomborgs 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 Lomborgs 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."