Good News About the Environment: A Review of Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist
by Amy Ridenour
You can tell you've won the debate when your opponent's remaining intellectual argument is to throw a pie in your face.
Bjorn Lomborg, a former Greenpeace supporter, experienced that happy and, perhaps, tasty satisfaction during a talk at a Borders bookshop in Oxford, England on September 5, when British environmental activist Mark Lynas threw a baked Alaska in his face.
"I wanted to put a baked Alaska on his smug face," Lynas said in a statement afterward, "in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life."1
Lomborg has become an anathema to true believers such as Lynas because, after studying the available evidence, Lomborg no longer embraces the environmental community's shibboleths about runaway global warming.
An associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, Lomborg, like Lynas, once believed the world was "going to hell" - transported there mainly by selfish Americans who insisted on running their air conditioners in summer, their snowmobiles in winter and their SUVs year-round.
Lomborg's view of global warming began to change when he put aside his gut feelings and reviewed the latest scientific evidence on the subject.
Lomborg has analyzed those studies in a brilliant new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist,2 and concluded that "we have more leisure time, greater security, less pollution, fewer accidents, more education, more amenities, higher incomes and fewer starving people" than any other generation in history.
So why do so many of us apparently believe otherwise? In large part, Lomborg says, because the challenges of climate change, deforestation, poor air and water quality and endangered species have been vastly overblown by advocacy groups in search of funding and a somewhat gullible media in search of headlines and air time.
"That doesn't mean there are no problems, but things are getting better and better despite what media and environmental organizations say," says Lomborg, whose carefully-researched book contains nearly 3,000 documenting footnotes.
Americans who read Lomborg's book will find a tonic from the daily doses of "the sky is falling" leitmotiv that pervades our media-driven culture.
Consider a few:
* The percentage of people in the developing world with access to clean water has increased to 80% from 30% since the early 1970s.
* Literacy levels have increased to 86%
from 25% in less than a century.
* Life expectancy has followed an upward trajectory for more than 100 years with even those in the most impoverished countries now living longer than did most Europeans in the 1900s.
* The average daily food intake has increased to 2,650 from 2,000 calories over the past four decades.
In the 1970s it was predicted that widespread starvation would take place, even in highly-developed first world countries, by the end of the 20th Century. The march of time and progress has rendered this prediction preposterous. Likewise absurd are 1970's predictions of a coming ice age. When that prophesy failed to materialize, its prophets reversed course and began warning us about global warming and its supposed catastrophes: melting ice caps, rising seas, farmland droughts and huge increases in the spread of communicable diseases such as Malaria.
While the Earth is indeed in a cyclical phase of warming - one degree over the past century - there is scant evidence to suggest that pace will accelerate and even less evidence to suggest that human consumption of fossil fuels or other human activities is responsible.
Rather than have the United States commit economic suicide by signing a Kyoto treaty that would cost it up to $350 billion a year to implement, and cause economic dislocations that would fall particularly harshly on the poor, Lomborg would prefer to see the world community finance a program to extend safe-drinking water to the 1.2 billion humans that still lack it.
"For less than one year's cost of meeting Kyoto," he says, "we could provide systems for clean drinking water that would save two million lives a year."
Lomborg remains a self-described environmentalist and vegetarian. He regards his altered course from the environmental mainstream not as a heresy, but as an enlightenment. "Of course, we must continue to vigorously clean up the major problem areas in the environment," he said after a recent talk at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. "But we must do it in the most efficient manner rather than throwing money at phantoms."
Americans and others in the West would do well to follow his advice and critically evaluate what he terms "the litany" of dire environmental messages that spring at us each day "on television, in the newspapers, in political statements and in conversations at work and at the kitchen table."
In short, thinking for oneself.
1 Press Release, The Rising Tide Coalition for Climate Justice, Oxford, England, September 5, 2001, downloaded from http://www.risingtide.org.uk/pages/lomborg.html on October 10, 2001.
2 Bjorn Lomborg, "The Skeptical Environmentalist," Cambridge University Press, 2001.
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Amy Ridenour is President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to [email protected].