THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST by DR BJORN LOMBORG

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THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST by DR BJORN LOMBORG

Good news arrives in small paragraphs. Take, for example, remarks from John Caldwell, a professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, at a United Nations conference on demography.

If his report was published at all, it was buried behind the stories of tanks rolling into Palestinian camps and the usual warnings about the decline of civilisation through pollution, poor spelling and video games.

But Caldwell spoke of a large ray of light. It appears fertility is dropping to lower than expected levels and the trend means that over-population, long the bogeyman to frighten an already nervous planet, might not happen.

Caldwell even said the world's population - once expected to exceed 10 billion, up from the present 6.1 billion - might pass itself on the way down again.

This is a rare piece of good news - but would have come as no surprise to Dr Bjorn Lomborg, once an inconspicuous statistician and associate professor of political science at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, who is now a household name and bete noire in the homes of insecure environmentalists everywhere.

Lomborg, a 36-year-old Dane with the boyish good looks of a Eurovision song contest competitor, announced last year that things were not as bad as we had been led to believe, and were actually considerably better.

A former member of Greenpeace, Lomborg is a different kind of Euro-sceptic, and a highly unpopular one with the many scientists and eco-activists who recoiled from his projections of a moderately bright future on uncrowded, increasingly clean and fossil fuel-dependent Planet Earth.

61Fpm_r5YoL._SX350_BO1_204_203_200_Lomborg's controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, published by Cambridge University Press last year, made some radical and unfashionable claims which grabbed headlines and column centimetres. The Herald's lengthy article last June was one of hundreds that appeared in the international press and which tossed this researcher into a lions' den of claim and counter-claim.

According to Lomborg's findings, while the threat of biodiversity loss is real, it is exaggerated. His statistical studies also showed our air and water is becoming less polluted, that the population explosion predicted by Dr Paul Ehrlich's 1968 book, The Population Bomb, which asserted hundreds of millions starving to death in the 1970s, simply didn't happen, that natural resources are not running out, and it is far too expensive to do anything about global warming.

His book, 350 pages of jargon-free language and with a whopping 2930 footnotes, tackled doomsayers such as Isaac Asimov and Frederick Pohl, who wrote in 1991 that it was already too late to save the planet and all we could do was decide just how bad we were willing to let things get.

"Mankind's lot has actually improved in terms of practically every measurable indicator," wrote Lomborg. But he cautioned that while things have improved, that doesn't mean it's good enough.

Even so, Lomborg was giving a big thumbs-up and his book, which effectively skewered the environmental-protection industries for their alarmist scenarios, came trailing favourable reviews from The Economist, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and even Rolling Stone. Because of its populist style it was one of the few science books reviewed in the popular press.

Matt Ridley, author of Genome (an analysis of the 23 human chromosomes), considered it something which "should be read by every environmentalist so that the appalling errors of fact the environmental movement has made in the past are not repeated".

Needless to say, the environmental lobby and many scientists saw it somewhat differently and the author has since been at the centre of a firefight.

Lomborg, with appropriately lefty interests such as the use of surveys in public administration, was accused of misinterpreting or being selective with his data. He was pilloried for not being an environmental scientist (his degree is in political science), nailed as an anti-environmentalist who gave comfort to the machinery of rapacious capitalism, and much more.

Websites crackled with angry accusations, and the considered response of fellow-author Mark Lynas, who is working on a book about the effects of climate change, was to shove a pie in Lomborg's face at a book-signing in London.
"I don't see why the environment should suffer every time some bored, obscure academic fancies an ego trip. This book is full of dangerous nonsense," he said after delivering Lomborg what media reports waggishly called "his just desserts".

The debate has been heated, but scientific journals full of technical talk and graphs don't have the headline-grabbing glamour of a good stoush. And for laypeople, the science-speak which refutes Lomborg is too dense to be comprehensible.
Among the other charges, many scientists say Lomborg has exaggerated for effect (a device he criticises others for doing) and that he used discontinued data. There were also suggestions of an evil conspiracy.

Richard Bell, of the Worldwatch Institute, noted that the Washington Post reviewer was Dennis Dutton, identified as "a professor of philosophy who lectures on the dangers of pseudoscience at the science faculties of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand". Dutton - who hailed the book as "the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962" - is also the editor of the website Arts and Letters Daily.

Bell said darkly, "The Post did not tell its readers that Dutton's website features links to the Global Climate Coalition, an anti-Kyoto consortium of oil and coal businesses".

To be fair, the Post also didn't tell you Dutton's website has links to ifeminist, the religious studies journal Killing the Buddha, Village Voice and about 100 other magazines, journals and newspapers. It also has "Lomborg pro and con" pages.

High-profile Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, who visited New Zealand this month, was sceptical, not to say downright cynical, about why The Skeptical Environmentalist had received such wide coverage.

It was not only a good news story - rare in the media - but on his website he suggested "the reason the book received so much publicity is because of the deep pockets and influence of some big businesses that have vested interests in maintaining the status quo".

He too cited Lomborg's take on the state of the planet as similar to the positions of some large industry-financed institutes and groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition.
"These groups wage big-budget campaigns to confuse the public about issues like air pollution and global warming."

And yet, says Suzuki, Lomborg's views went largely unchallenged in the media, although his beliefs ran contrary to most scientific opinion and, even before his book was published in North America, his views had already been widely discredited by many of his colleagues at Aarhus University.

Other Lomborg critics said that by coming under the imprint of Cambridge University Press, one of the most hallowed of names in scientific publishing, his book was afforded immediate cachet and credibility by book review editors, and it was often reviewed by those without the time and resources to analyse that litany of footnotes. Who checks footnotes anyway?

Well, some scientists did - and found Lomborg's research and interpretations wanting. In January Scientific American ran an 11-page attack on Lomborg which contained articles by four well-known environmental specialists: Stephen Schneider of Stanford University; environmental scientist and energy expert John P. Holdren of Harvard; John Bongaarts, a vice president at the Population Council in New York City, and Thomas Lovejoy, chief biodiversity adviser to the World Bank.

They battered Lomborg for "egregious distortions" (Schneider), for "elementary blunders of quantitative manipulation and presentation that no self-respecting statistician ought to commit" (Holdren), and for sections "poorly researched and presented ... shallow ... rife with careless mistakes" (Lovejoy).

The real concern is that while Lomborg grabbed the headlines and book reviews, those who are challenging his contentions are not getting equal time. The Union of Concerned Scientists' webpage opened with the quote by Sir Winston Churchill: "A lie gets halfway round the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."

In fact some scientists looked at Lomborg's book early on, but simply dismissed it as foolishness. It was only after articles started appearing which said Lomborg had exposed environmentalists as wrong about just about everything that the scientific community realised it had a fight on its hands.

And it still rages.

One simple question comes up frequently: Why has Lomborg had no support from any major environmental organisation anywhere in the world for his assertions?
The answer is perhaps obvious: it is hardly in any such agencies' interests (especially if it is seeking government funding or public donations) to lie down with those who might say things are hunky-dory.

"I thought initially we would have a couple of weeks of debate and that would be it and we'd all move on," said Lomborg recently. "But it just kept on and on and on."
That's because saving the planet is a big business full of professional lobbyists and fundraisers, market share jargon and ad agencies. And for business to be good it must expand.

Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace who fell out with the organisation over its radical tactics, has long asserted that, having been successful in its early battles, the environmental lobbies had to invent new concerns.
Despite the international outcry, the Danish Government announced it was appointing Lomborg to head a new, small environmental monitoring agency, the Institute for Environmental Evaluation. Its mission will be to decide the best ways to spend taxpayer dollars on environmental remediation.

Many environmentalists are mad as hell.

However, Lomborg has sent a blast through the environmental lobbies, found sympathy within some for the need to be objective rather than emotive, and produced some curiously telling responses.

Tom Burke, a member of the Executive Committee of Green Alliance, an environmental adviser to BP and as green as it gets, wrote a lengthy plain-English rebuttal of Lomborg's contentions which was apposite, tart and convincing, but also of great interest to those who shove dollars in a Greenpeace envelope and feel good when they walk to work rather than taking the gas-guzzler out of the driveway.

bjorn_lomborg_1705400cBurke says no environmental organisation or leading environmentalist asserts we are having an energy crisis (it was in the 1970s when many did, apparently), that environmentalists do not believe natural resources are running out (that dates from the Club of Rome in 72), and "that some environmentalists exploit, sometimes aggressively, the gap between perceptions and reality, playing on people's fears to generate headlines and revenues". These are revealing admissions from a greenie on the inside.

And Suzuki's latest book, co-written with Holly Dressel, is Good News for a Change, which counters the criticism that environmentalists are all a bunch of doomsayers. "We've got to give people a sense of hope ... thousands of things [are] going in the right direction".

But that doesn't change his overall message about the seriousness of our global problems.

So maybe we're not going to eco-Hell. Or maybe it will be worse than we've been warned. Or maybe we simply don't know. But we do need to question closely the banner-wavers of all persuasions.

On the Scientific American website author Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, has a column headed "Baloney Detection" in which he makes a valuable point. After challenging common beliefs held by many of his students, he is often asked by them why they should believe him.

"My answer: You shouldn't."

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