|The Skeptical Environmentalist|
|publisher||Cambridge University Press|
|summary||This book takes a careful look at existing environmental data, with some surprising conclusions and resulting controversy.|
The book has caused quite a stir in the circles of environmental activism. Bjorn Lomborg, coming from a green background, has thoroughly reviewed much of the work in the field and raised some concerns about the quality of the consensus analysis and conclusions. Sample chapters and further defense of his work can be found at www.lomborg.com
Disclosure Statement: I am a small 'g' green. I am a member of the Viridian Design Movement if not of the Green Party USA. I hold as a matter of fact that dependence on hydrocarbons is unsustainable for both the developed world and as a path to long-term growth for the developing world. I strongly believe that it is a moral imperative for humanity to preserve as much of the planet's natural beauty and habitat as possible. My general impression with the state of climate studies is that human activity is probably having an effect on the global climate. To what extent is a matter still open for debate in my opinion. But hey, its OUR PLANET we're talking about, so why take chances? That said, I also consider myself to be just as rabid an empiricist. I detest being led about by phony data or false conclusions, and I will not support any cause that cannot bring itself to tell the truth to the public about its data and agenda. If the current data does not fit my model of how life should be, I know that I shouldn't blame the data or the messenger. So, I am trying to be as objective as possible here, but I am coming from the green end and analyzing this work in that light.
Lomborg is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Aarhaus in Denmark. His specialty, indeed his only other major academic paper, is in the field of game theory. Lomborg -- once upon a time a deep green himself -- set out in 1997 to debunk the claims of economist Julian Simon, a environmental degradation doubter. He found that much of the data had a tendency to support Simon. This lead him to a thorough review of much of the major scientific work in four major areas of "the environmental litany" (Lomborg's words).
- We are depleting a finite supply of natural resources.
- The human population continues to grow, threatening our ability to feed the teeming billions.
- Species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, deforestation is accelerating and fish stocks are collapsing.
- The air and water are becoming ever more polluted.
The result was The Skeptical Environmentalist. In each of these areas, Lomborg looks at a broad swath of the scientific work done to date to support these claims and finds them wanting. He gets very specific and points out numerous errors of omission as well as slanting of the data and just plain making up results to fit the hypothesis. Lomborg accuses environmental scientists of behaving more like lobbyists trying to put the best possible spin on an issue by manipulating the facts. He also takes to task a credulous media for swallowing this tripe hook, line, and sinker, as it were. Sadly, in some key areas Lomborg has -- either through ignorance or purposefully -- committed errors of omission and selective data use to make some of the same mistakes in analysis, and this very much reduces his credibility.
The first thing that sets the book apart from almost all nonacademic works in the area is the completeness and openness of the research. The book is copiously footnoted. Because of this it is clear from some of the attacks on Lomborg that his critics have been unable to muster the stomach to give it a thorough read, as many make totally false claims about Lomborg's inclusion or reference to specific studies and specific cases. If for no other reason, this completeness makes The Skeptical Environmentalist a valuable resource for anyone interested in environmental science. It is a very complete bibliography of the current work in the field. There are over 2,900 end notes in this 500 page book.
The thing that makes the environment such a slippery public policy subject is its uncertainty. Although the state of our understanding of climate and ecological complexity grows each year, it is still unable to predict with any certainty future events. The only thing that will prove a particular set of data is the future. At which time, of course, it is impossible to take preventative action.
It is probably quite understandable that environmental scientists would take great umbrage at both Lomborg's cheek and his conclusions; seeing how they pose a threat to a consensus of opinion about the state of the global environment and the degree of risk human activity poses. These are people with years of interest vested in their research and in using that research to try and get through to public and politicians who show a lot of reluctance to take on the problems and potential threats of human impact on the environment.
Lomborg quite correctly points out in his chapter on pollution that the worst pollution effects are the results of the early and middle stages of industrial development. Here he states that things are getting better in the developed world and as technology advances, the environmental impact of human activity will be reduced. He acknowledges that something must be done to help the developing world find a different path of development than that already taken by the developed nations. Lomborg takes the green movement to task here for trying to do everything at once; forcing developing nations to spend on "clean" technologies while spending on health and economic development for the poor nations. After wading through what must have been a mind-numbing torrent of cost-benefit analysis data, Lomborg says that choices must be made, political and financial resources are finite and some levels of protection cost more than they are worth. However, one must deeply fault Lomborg's cost-benefit analysis for not making a good attempt to elucidate the cost of environmental degradation per se but instead focusing on pure human property and health costs. What price does one put on the stability of the Gulf Stream currents? What is the actual opportunity cost of one barrel of oil considering it comes from finite supply for which the actual amount is unknown and the burning of which causes environmental costs we can only approximate? These questions have vexed economists for decades, but the answers are surely not zero.
Lomborg's big picture of the general shape of the global climate and of biodiversity is one that debunks most of the more extreme forecasts. In this he has produced valuable analysis. But by his own admission he has skipped over local trends and impacts that have profound social and economic implications. For example, while stating that the actual rate of species extinction over the next 50 years is more likely to be 0.7% rather than the 20-50% numbers bandied about by the World Wildlife Fund et. al., he misses the threat of local species crashes such as that of Atlantic Cod that nearly ruined the fishing industry Eastern North America and Northern Europe in the 1980s and the resulting threat to previously unfished stocks as industrial fishing operations switched to roughy and so on.
The big picture and long-term focus also misses the boat on another key issue. Recent analysis of deep-ice core samples at the poles and in Greenland have shown that in the past, the climate has changed very sharply and very rapidly; on the order of several degrees of average temperature in a decade or less. These changes are probably due to snap changes in the ocean currents caused by salinity levels and minute temperature deviations that, when they go over a certain level "trigger" such events as the mini-Ice Age of the 1500s to mid-1800s. Lomborg completely bypasses addressing the fact that even the minimal human environmental impact he says the data supports could be enough to tip the balance in these areas. And should such evens occur, even Lomborg would admit they would be economically and politically devastating. Perhaps it is his rigid attention to what is measurable that prevented him from addressing this issue. There is too much uncertainty involved to begin to assess whether or not we even can prevent such "trigger" events and thus begin to make cost-benefit analysis of preventative measures.
The most shocking thing about The Skeptical Environmentalist is not its heretical views (in the eyes of greens) however, but the reception it has received among the environmental movement. Instead of praising its depth and using its own errors to show the way forward the community has -- in the grand tradition of the left eating its young -- gone after Dr. Lomborg with a furious anger. Recently, when Dr. Lomborg showed up at Oxford university, the author of an environmental study with a competing view shoved a pie in his face. In its January 2002 issue, Scientific American devoted 11 pages (electronic copies are US$5.00) to attacking the book, its author and his conclusions.
Not surprisingly, the free-market loving Economist has taken up the defense of Dr. Lomborg with both a lead opinion piece and a feature in the February 6th issue. In addition, the magazine had Lomborg pen a "by invitation" piece in August, 2001, a rare honor. The New York Times has also come to his defense with a "Scientist At Work" puff piece in November, 2001.
But by attacking the book and the author so shrilly, the environmental community risks its own hard-won credibility. It acts just as Lomborg accuses it, like lobbyists with an axe to grind, not cold-eyed, empirically-minded scientists. Lomborg's study has its flaws, as does any environmental study. But those flaws should be attacked on their merits alone. At its worst, The Skeptical Environmentalist merely muddies the waters of scientific and public consensus on global human environmental impact. At its best it provides a crucial reality check for those who seek profound social and economic changes in the name of preserving environmental sustainability.
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