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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World

Environmental Facts, Not Rhetoric

Bjørn Lomborg has shaken up the world of environmentalists. Describing himself as “an old left-wing Greenpeace member,” the Danish statistician has produced a book that undermines most of the apocalyptic scares that keep Greenpeace afloat. The Skeptical Environmentalist makes a persuasive case that the environment is improving, not getting worse, and that most of the problems that Greenpeace and other activist groups call imminent crises such as acid rain and global warming are, instead, manageable problems.

At first, Lomborg’s book was greeted enthusiastically, and, as a vegetarian backpacker, he was hailed as a charming curiosity. Writing in the New York Times, Nicholas Wade found it “a surprise to meet someone who calls himself an environmentalist but who asserts that things are getting better . . . and that even global warming is not as serious as commonly portrayed.”

But then the long knives were drawn. Prominent individuals, including scientists who have taken hard-line positions on environmental topics, apparently felt attacked by Lomborg’s impressive 515-page tome. They turned on him. An almost hysterical review by ecologists Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey asked why Cambridge University Press “would decide to publish a hastily prepared book on complex scientific issues which disagrees with the broad scientific consensus, using arguments too often supported by news sources rather than by peer-reviewed publications.”

When one actually looks at the book, it is difficult to see how anyone could honestly make such charges. To begin with, The Skeptical Environmentalist is written in a thoughtful, conversational manner, with little dogmatism and plenty of humility. The discussions are backed by solid data, often carefully organized into graphs and tables. For anyone who has scrutinized these issues dispassionately (as I have tried to do in previous writings, as have many others, such as Julian Simon, Ronald Bailey, Joseph Bast, P. J. Hill, Wallace Kaufman, Gregg Easterbrook, and Michael Sanera), Lomborg’s conclusions are reasonable and well-supported.

Lomborg’s chief goal is to identify broad trends, some strictly environmental (such as whether 40,000 species are becoming extinct each year, as some claim) and others relating more directly to human conditions (such as whether food production is outpacing population). He explains that one could “easily write a book full of awful examples” or,alternatively, a book “full of sunshine stories,” but both would be “equally useless.” In addition to assessing global trends, he analyzes specific environmental hazards.

For the most part, Lomborg relies on widely accepted source materials (which makes the Pimm/Harvey complaint ludicrous). These are respected (although imperfect) collections of data from organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. For U.S. data, Lomborg relies on sources such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture. What his critics are loath to admit is that these mainstream sources tell a story of steady improvement in human conditions and lessening of environmental risk. (In the case of global warming, which involves not so much factual material as predictions based on computer models, Lomborg relies on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], the best-known scientific organization dealing with global warming.)

Sometimes Lomborg takes issue with his source material — specifically, he questions some of the IPCC decisions — but for the most part he accepts the conclusions of governmental and U.N. organizations. For example, when the EPA claims that 15,000 to 22,000 people are dying in the United States each year from radon seeping into their homes, he does not dispute it, although many have. Rather, he points out that such indoor air pollution is often ignored under a welter of worries about far less serious problems uch as fears of cancer from pesticide residues on foods.

Undoubtedly, some of the reaction to The Skeptical Environmentalist stems from Lomborg’s criticism of a few luminaries among environmental doomsdayers, such as Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute and Paul Ehrlich of Stanford. Lomborg shows how Brown misuses short-term trend data so that they appear to support his pessimistic claims. For example, Brown selected the beginning and ending point of a recent historical period to give the impression that grain yields are falling. In fact, the longer trend shows them rising. Lomborg’s critique of Brown is unassailable, and he is not the first to level it. But Brown’s friends have chosen to circle the wagons. Perhaps because the book is such an impressive collection of statistical data, they feel they must knock it own if they can.

Eventually, the brouhaha will subside and The Skeptical Environmentalist will take its place on our shelves as a useful reference. Indeed, the book is already being cited as a source. For those more interested in facts than rhetoric, it will be valuable for years to come.