Commentary Magazine


The Mau-Mauing of Bjorn Lomborg

The power of the environmentalist movement rests on many factors, from widespread (and often misplaced) fears about pollution to the wholly laudable conservationist instincts of ordinary people. But the authority of the movement rests above all on its claim to speak for, and in the name of, science.

That claim was first advanced in 1962 by Rachel Carson, who argued in Silent Spring that the only way to avoid catastrophe was by taking the issue of environmental protection out of the hands of elected representatives and empowering scientists to formulate a response to the dangers that science itself had foreseen. Today, no fewer than 18,000 officials inside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established in 1970, run the national government’s most powerful regulatory regime in the name of science, while a host of environmentalist organizations raise the banner of science to silence outside critics and skeptical legislators alike. Such is the intimidating force of that banner that, in the face of it, the Bush administration has backed down on a number of major environmental issues even at the cost of disappointing some of its key backers.

That is why it was newsworthy when a book appeared last year that dared to take on, head first, precisely the claim of the environmental movement to speak for science. The title of the book was The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World,1 and the reaction it elicited from the movement and its defenders tells us much about one of the most entrenched orthodoxies of our age.

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The book’s author, Bjørn Lomborg, is a Danish professor of statistics in his mid-thirties who was once a Greenpeace activist and who still thinks of himself as a dedicated environmentalist. His twin interests, in statistics and the environment, came into alignment when he was provoked into investigating the veracity of a statement by the late American economist Julian Simon. According to Simon—who was also an inveterate gadfly of orthodox environmentalists—the statistical record failed spectacularly to bear out the popular notion that we were in imminent danger of environmental ruin. Lomborg, together with a group of his brightest students, set out to prove Simon wrong. In the event, however, he found him largely right. The Skeptical Environmentalist marshals a formidable array of evidence to demonstrate why.

The book begins by describing the contemporary conventional wisdom about the state of the environment as gleaned from newspapers, magazines, and school curricula. Typical is this, from a children’s book published by Oxford University Press: “[T]he balance of nature is delicate but essential for life. Humans have upset that balance, stripping the land of its green cover, choking the air, and poisoning the seas.” The Skeptical Environmentalist then goes on to compare such standard fare, which Lomborg dubs the “environmental litany,” with what we can learn from science itself, which turns out to be something altogether different. Over the course of some 500 closely argued pages, and with the aid of 2,930 footnotes, Lomborg shows with relentless thoroughness how environmental activists have fed the public an unending pack of what Huck Finn delicately termed “stretchers.”

Some examples:

  • While we have been assured that air pollution is a modern plague, air quality in major cities in developed countries is actually much cleaner than it was 50 or 100 years ago. London’s air is cleaner than at any time over at least the last 400 years.
  • While we have been warned that human population is surging ever upward to a point that will guarantee mass starvation, the world’s population growth will actually level off by 2200.
  • While we have been informed that our forests and lungs are being decimated by acid rain, the most authoritative study of the matter shows little if any damage to trees in North America.

Lomborg hardly asserts that the environment is in perfect shape. He notes, for example, that even despite vast improvements in the quality of the air, pollution in developed countries still does some harm to health. He also owns that a couple of problems are getting worse—specifically, we are losing species, and we are wanning the earth—but he accuses environmentalists of exaggerating both of these problems wildly.

Thus, on the issue of species extinction, activists regularly cite predictions that the earth will lose anywhere from 25 to almost 100 percent of its species by the end of the 21st century. But, Lomborg points out, most mainstream scientific estimates of species loss actually run much lower, on the order of 0.7 percent over the next 50 years: “not a catastrophe, but a problem—one of many that mankind still needs to solve.”

This distinction between a problem and a catastrophe is critical to the psychology of the environmental movement. A problem presents us with choices about its priority in relation to other problems; a looming catastrophe impels us to do whatever the “experts” tell us we must do to avert it. That has particular relevance to the second issue, global warming. For if, as we are constantly being told, global warming is indeed a looming catastrophe, then it follows we must do everything we can to slow it down; and the way to do that (say the “experts”) is by ratifying and enforcing the severe measures contained in the Kyoto Protocol.

Lomborg demurs, on the ground that global warming, while a problem, is only a problem. For one thing, he reminds us, the actual degree of global warming over the next century may be rather insignificant: projections by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) range from a relatively manageable 1.4 to an admittedly alarming 5.8 degrees centigrade. The fact that leading organs of the press have predictably ignored the lower figure and reported only the higher does not oblige the rest of us to reach for the panic button.

Moreover, Lomborg shows, the IPCC has resolved uncertainties in its climatological models in ways that maximize the amount of the projected increase. And even if one were to posit the reliability of those models, the IPCC’s predictions of future carbon-dioxide emissions, which critically affect its most alarming predictions of temperature increases, are also too high, being based on the unwarranted assumption that the price of solar power and other alternatives to fossil fuels will drop much more slowly than it has been doing; in fact, by 2050 these alternatives will enjoy a price advantage for many uses, and emissions of carbon dioxide will be on the wane.

The upshot, in Lomborg’s judgment, is that by century’s end, temperatures are likely to have increased by at most 1.5 degrees and thereafter to go down. But, he adds, suppose he is wrong about all this and the IPCC is correct in projecting higher temperatures; even so, the result “will not decrease food production, . . . probably not increase storminess or the frequency of hurricanes, [and] not increase the impact of malaria or indeed cause more deaths.” And in the meantime, what will we have accomplished by adopting Kyoto with its draconian measures? If faithfully implemented by each of its signatories, this agreement would end up costing “at least $150 billion dollars a year and probably much more,” and it would succeed in delaying the IPCC’s projected warming by—six years. According to Lomborg’s calculations, the cost of Kyoto for one year alone would pay for eliminating the unsanitary drinking water that now kills two million people every year. From the point of view of human welfare, is this not a far better way to spend the money?

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Lomborg’s book was published in August 2001, and it attracted a very great deal of attention in the general press, much of it favorable. But the attack came hot and quick. That activists should have been furious at The Skeptical Environmentalist was to be expected; more surprising, at least on the surface, was the wildly intemperate response of the key scientific journals. The reviewers for Nature, the most prestigious of the natural-science magazines, went so far as to relegate Lomborg to the class of “those who . . . argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.” Scientific American, in its January 2002 issue, published a scathing anti-Lomborg editorial, and followed it up in the same issue with no fewer than four equally scathing notices by individual scientists. In Science, a review of The Skeptical Environmentalist bore the derisive title, “Manna from Heaven.”

Not content with attacking the book, the established journals then blocked any ripostes. Here Nature proved something of an exception, publishing a letter from its former Washington editor asserting that the attacks on Lomborg “exemplif[ied] the unfortunate tendency of some environmental activists, when challenged with well-founded objections to the scientific viability of their alarmist claims about the state of the planet, to respond with diversionary tactics.” But Science and Scientific American circled the wagons. Science refused to publish any replies to its attack, not even a brief letter from Lomborg himself, and Scientific American mounted a defense in depth.

Upon first learning of that venerable magazine’s intentions for its January 2002 issue, Lomborg had contacted the editor-in-chief, John Rennie, asking for permission to respond in the same issue. Rennie put him off for a half-year, finally allotting him space in May. In the meantime, Lomborg posted a response on his own website, in which he reproduced Scientific American‘s attack and commented on it paragraph by paragraph. The reaction of the magazine was to demand that he remove this “dialogue” from the Internet or be sued for infringement of copyright.

Lomborg then suggested that the magazine transfer the dialogue to its own website. But this, too, it declined to do, and after more threats Lomborg removed his response. In the end, Scientific American did post his response, but only after it had prepared a lengthy rebuttal to it—which Lomborg again asked permission to reproduce so that he could respond to it point by point; again he was warned off.

Whatever else one may say about this exercise, it was the very opposite of the free give-and-take that is supposed to characterize responsible scientific discourse.

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What, then, were the actual criticisms leveled at The Skeptical Environmentalist? These ranged widely. It was asserted, for example, that as a statistician rather than an earth scientist, Lomborg lacked the necessary credentials even to address the issues on which he had presumed to pass judgment. In a related charge, his publisher, Cambridge University Press, was accused of perpetrating a fraud by having allegedly neglected to get the book reviewed by earth scientists prior to acceptance. Lomborg’s work was also pilloried for relying heavily on secondary sources rather than on a thorough scrutiny of original research. His attacks, it was said, were misdirected: no responsible scientists actually espoused the doomsday scenarios he attributed to them. Finally, and most crucially, he was said to be simply wrong or, at best, misleading as to the facts themselves.

One can pass over some of these charges summarily. The idea that Lomborg had no standing because, in the words of one of his attackers, he was not “an expert as regards environmental problems,” was exceedingly strange coming from scientists, a class of humans who supposedly pride themselves on valuing the truth over mere credentials, on judging the message rather than the messenger. In any event, Lomborg is no lesser an expert in his specialty than his critics are in theirs, and his specialty happens to be one of the dozens, from atmospheric physics to zoology, that are relevant to measuring the real state of the world. The only point legitimately at issue is whether he properly employed the data in appraising the assertions of the environmental movement.

As for the attack on Cambridge University Press, it was simply dishonorable, not to say McCarthyite. One prominent scientist called upon Cambridge to fire the editor responsible for Lomborg’s book, while others suggested that henceforth the press itself should be shunned by all right-thinking scientists. The past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the organization that publishes Science, wondered aloud how Cambridge “could have published a book that so clearly could never have passed peer review.” As it happens, however, the manuscript had indeed been submitted to (in the words of its editor) four “senior figures . . . from leading departments on both sides of the Atlantic,” including three earth scientists and one social scientist, all of whom recommended it for publication.

No less unfounded was the complaint that Lomborg relied too heavily on secondary scientific sources, as well as—horrors—journalistic ones (“like bad term papers,” sniffed a critic in Nature). It is true that about 5 percent of the citations in Lomborg’s footnotes are to journalistic sources; these quite properly document the standard “environmental litany” that is fed to the public. When it comes to the citation of scientific sources, what is important to understand is that primary sources usually address extremely specific issues—for example, the impact of a given type of acid rain on a given kind of tree. It is to secondary sources that one typically turns for a synthesis of primary studies for the purpose of addressing broader issues—for example, the impact of all kinds of acid rain on forests. Thus, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change draws upon hundreds of primary sources to produce its reports on global warming. Lomborg frequently cites these reports—and so do his critics, who also routinely laud them as authoritative.

Have eminent scientists ceased to utter prophecies of doom? Here, Lomborg’s critics had a point, but a small one. Most scientists do now refrain from making wild predictions; those cited by Lomborg to the effect that we will soon lose from 25 to almost 100 percent of the world’s species came in the past. Nevertheless, such predictions, loudly promulgated by the environmental movement and its favorite journalists, keep circulating and are widely accepted as the truth—which was exactly Lomborg’s point. Moreover, few if any are the scientists who have troubled to stand up to repudiate them.

Finally, did Lomborg get the scientific facts wrong? Was he guilty, as Scientific American charged, of a “misunderstanding of the underlying science,” of “numerous errors,” and of writing a book “rife with careless mistakes”?

In its eleven-page attack, Scientific American itself came up with a total of only nine claimed factual errors in The Skeptical Environmentalist, and seven of these melt away upon inspection. In three of them, Lomborg was accused of having overlooked fundamental points that (he has persuasively shown) he not only did not overlook but explicitly recognized and discussed. In the case of three more, his attackers quoted him out of context and distorted the plain meaning of his words. One purported “error” involved not facts but a disagreement over policy. In the remaining two instances, Scientific American did manage to identify real errors, but wholly trivial ones—i.e., Lomborg’s statement that nuclear energy constitutes 20 percent of energy production in countries with nuclear power (the phrase should have read, 20 percent of electricity production) and his one-time use of the word “catalyzing” instead of “electrolyzing.”

Trivial as these mistakes were, they were also immaterial to Lomborg’s conclusions, and cast no shadow on the credibility of his book as a whole, which is remarkably free of factual errors. (Lomborg himself has posted a list of such errors on his website, www.lomborg.com.) Scientific American actually committed more mistakes in its eleven-page attack than it was able to identify in Lomborg’s 500-page book. Indeed, the paucity of outright errors in The Skeptical Environmentalist is what forced Lomborg’s critics to adopt another, secondary line of attack against it, claiming not so much that he had gotten his facts wrong as that he framed them—well, inappropriately.

Take, again, the issue of species extinction. Most mainstream projections, as Lomborg pointed out, now suggest that we will lose only 0.7 percent of the world’s species over the next 50 years. That may be the case, Scientific American grudgingly conceded; but what Lomborg should have reported was that the present extinction rate is 1,000 times higher than the “normal” rate.

Should he have reported this? If the issue is how best to frame the facts for the purposes of making policy choices, I would contend that Scientific American‘s way is, to say the least, not very helpful. By the “normal” extinction rate, the magazine appeared to mean the rate at which extinctions would take place if there were no people on earth. Surely this is a bizarre framework in which to think about the issue—unless one is determined to push the radical agenda of the environmentalist movement and is concerned about rousing public support for it.

That, indeed, would appear to be the concern of Scientific American. As its editor in chief candidly put it, a

public that knows [that] action would cut the extinction rate from 1,000 times the background level to only 500 times could find reasonable motivation to act. A public hearing that extinction rates would drop from 0.7 percent per 50 years to 0.35 percent might wonder why it should bother.

Exactly so. Of course, Scientific American is free to “frame” the facts as it will. But it is hardly in a position to accuse Lomborg of bad science if he frames them differently.

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None of this is to say that Lomborg’s book is beyond criticism, or that his own formulations could not have been improved upon at points. In contending, for example, that the earth has plenty of unused arable land to meet projected population growth, he should have acknowledged that little of this land is in countries likely to experience the highest growth, and that those countries are likely to undergo massive dislocations, if not wars and famines. Overall, however, Lomborg’s command of the facts is impressive indeed, and his method of argumentation, unlike that of his critics, is both cogent and fair.

The key point, however, is not who scored more points in debate. The key point has to do with the reception awaiting anyone who challenges the environmental litany. At the top of the editor-in-chief’s statement in the January 2002 Scientific American, there appeared the following caption: “Science defends itself against The Skeptical Environmentalist.” But “science” was not Lomborg’s target, and “science” should have had no need to defend itself against him. In choosing to treat The Skeptical Environmentalist as an attack on environmental science, Lomborg’s scientific critics inadvertently revealed the degree of their own complicity with the misrepresentations and propagandistic distortions he so skillfully exposed. If they had used a tenth of the energy they expended on him to refute the pseudo-science of their environmentalist allies, Lomborg would have had less reason to write his book in the first place.

But this also brings us to the broader issue of which the Lomborg story is a symptom. Even as Cambridge University Press was being threatened with a boycott, an editor at another prestigious house was being similarly menaced. There, a proposal had come in for an anthology of essays designed to expose undergraduates to diverse perspectives in environmental studies. Asked to comment on the proposal, one prominent scientist responded to the editor as follows:

The anthology contains a paper by Julian Simon and Aaron Wildavsky. Publish that [and] you’ll never get me to review anything for you ever again, recommend any author to you, or buy any of your press books. I didn’t get beyond that entry, but were the anthology to contain anything I have written . . . I must inform you that I will not be giving the author’s permission.

If you want to maintain a scholarly reputation you do not publish trash.

The reviewer then passed on his missive, which soon received wide circulation. To appreciate the viciousness of his tone, it is only necessary to know that the co-author of the “trash” to which he referred was the same Julian Simon whom Lomborg initially set out to refute and ended up confirming.

In short, what we are dealing with here are issues not of science but of power—and, it would seem, power embattled.

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The release of Lomborg’s book last fall was attended (as I have already noted) by a great deal of publicity all over the world, and the book itself immediately garnered respectful notices in places like the Washington Post and the Economist. This positive reception challenged the power of the environmental movement at a pivotal point: its claim to represent scientific truth. Lomborg may not have been the first to threaten this power, but he was far and away the most dangerous.

A recent article by Roger Pielke, Jr. (in, to its credit, Nature) helps explain why. Writing about the making of environmental policy, Pielke identifies what he calls an “ ‘iron triangle’ of mutually reinforcing interests”: politicians, scientists, and environmental activists. According to Pielke, politicians are loathe to make controversial decisions on environmental issues and so pass the buck to “science.” The scientists are happy to be given the power, not to mention the research grants that come along with it. The environmentalists lean on the scientists for justification of their policy agenda. Each leg of the triad depends on the others for support.

I would add to Pielke’s triad a fourth element: the staffs of federal agencies, like the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, that fund research. These agencies can grow their budgets by presenting issues within their jurisdiction not as problems but as looming catastrophes (to revert to our earlier distinction). This creates an incentive to steer grants to researchers whose work supposedly points to such grave threats, and that in turn creates an incentive for researchers to exaggerate the threat contained in their findings.

Still another factor is the EPA. Contrary to its image as a “science” agency, EPA devotes only 7 percent of its budget to research and development. Its bread and butter is regulation, and its regulatory activities are dominated by lawyers and managers rather than by scientists. EPA regulators are in the business not of producing research data but of characterizing the implications of such data—and in ways, naturally, that justify regulation. The same, of course, goes for environmental activists on the outside.

Lomborg has threatened the power of this augmented iron triangle like nobody before. As a foreigner, and a professor of statistics rather than earth science, he is not dependent on the good graces of any governmental science agency. As a former Greenpeacer and a self-identified leftist, he cannot be dismissed as a purchased corporate hack. As a talented writer and a good self-publicist, he has caught the attention of the press. Suddenly, environmental “public-interest organizations,” long accustomed to presenting themselves, and to being treated, as the good guys, have found themselves on the receiving end.

Because Lomborg’s book questioned the scientific credibility of the environmental movement, his own credibility had to be utterly destroyed. That is why he was compared to a Holocaust denier, accused of having no standing, and ridiculed for failing to get his facts straight. The bad news is that, because his attackers have included scientists, the false impression may have been generated that Lomborg has no case. The good news, as attested by the letter in Nature, is that the attack itself has been so strident and overblown as to create further doubts, at least among some, about the dogmatic orthodoxies of the environmentalist faith.

In the end, what Bjørn Lomborg has succeeded in showing, and his critics have conspicuously failed to dispute, is that the environmental movement frequently misleads the public and elected officials by presenting policy choices as necessities driven by scientific facts. They are no such thing. Policy choices are the province of those officials, and when it comes to deciding what the choices should be, no one speaks for “science.” This is a hard lesson to learn, but an invaluable one.

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Footnotes

1 Cambridge University Press, 496 pp., $27.95 (paper). See the review by Kevin Shapiro in the November 2001 COMMENTARY.

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