Greener than you think

Published January 1, 2002

“That the human race faces environmental problems is unquestionable. That environmental experts have regularly tried to scare us out of our wits with doomsday chants is also beyond dispute.”

With those two remarkable sentences, Denis Dutton opens a Sunday, October 21, front-page Washington Post “Book World” review of Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.

A Danish former Greenpeace member, Lomborg jauntily clings to his left-wing academic credentials while exposing as hype virtually every environmental gloom and doom scenario, and scary claim, of the last 25 years.

“The media treat the environment as a subject of ceaseless decline, hastened by the indifference of ruthless capitalists and their toady politicians. But The Skeptical Environmentalist, a superbly documented and readable book by a former member of Greenpeace, has a different story to tell,” writes Ron Bailey in an October 2 review of the book in The Wall Street Journal.

The book’s author, Bjorn Lomborg, is a professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. A self-described environmentalist, he was angered by an article about economist Julian Simon, in which Simon claimed the state of humanity and the natural environment were both improving. Lomborg directed his students to find the data to debunk Simon’s claims. Instead, Lomborg and his students found overwhelming indications that things are, in fact, improving.

Using figures drawn from reports of the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization, United States Environmental Protection Agency, International Panel on Climate Change, and other sources, Lomborg takes on what he calls “the litany” of environmental groups. He makes the case that the problems of deforestation, global warming, poor air and water quality, and endangered species have been overblown by advocacy organizations in search of funding.

With more than 3,000 footnotes, Lomborg makes a strong case that, contrary to the claims of many environmental groups, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant; more food is being produced and fewer people are going hungry; species extinction rates are not skyrocketing; and most forms of environmental pollution are decreasing.

Lomborg’s statistics lead him to a central argument–that “the litany” of misrepresented environmental problems distracts attention and shifts much-needed resources from other, more pressing societal needs.

At a recent debate organized by the Joint Center for Regulatory Studies (AEI-Brookings), Lomborg noted that by most accepted standards, the provisions of the Kyoto treaty would at best delay the effects of global warming by about six years. For the $150 to $300 billion per year it would cost to implement the treaty, Lomborg argues “the whole Third World could be provided systems for clean drinking water that would save 2 million lives a year.”

One glaring error

After these glowing reviews, it may seem churlish to critique Lomborg’s book, which is currently undermining the environmental alarmists. But that’s our job.

Lomborg follows squarely in the footsteps of Julian Simon (The Resourceful Earth and other titles), and also But is it True? by Aaron Wildavsky (Harvard University Press). He departs, however, by accepting the IPCC science report as correct and unbiased. Here in his own words, speaking at he American Enterprise Institute in October 2001:

“I’m just going to talk very shortly about global warming because that is obviously, in a sense, probably the biggest issue of the day. That is the word that most people hear right now.

Well I’m not going to get into at all the discussion about the science of global warming. There’s a lot of discussion about the uncertainty there. It seems to me that what we really need to know more about is to what extent is global warming going to harm us?

We’re still talking about 25 years of research. We basically have the same doubling of carbon dioxide, the sensitivity, and it’s still the same range, 1.5 degrees Celsius up to 4.5 degrees Celsius. The one thing would not harm us very much, the other thing would harm us dramatically and we’d really like to know which is true. We still don’t know, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten much closer to saying that. But it seems incontrovertible that carbon dioxide is warming the planet.”

He is quite wrong about this and he needs to become aware of it. He should read Lindzen in the June 11, 2001 Wall Street Journal:

“The panel was finally asked to evaluate the work of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, focusing on the Summary for Policymakers, the only part ever read or quoted. The Summary for Policymakers, which is seen as endorsing Kyoto, is commonly presented as the consensus of thousands of the world’s foremost climate scientists. Within the confines of professional courtesy, the NAS panel essentially concluded that the IPCC’s Summary for Policymakers does not provide suitable guidance for the U.S. government.

“The full IPCC report is an admirable description of research activities in climate science, but it is not specifically directed at policy. The Summary for Policymakers is, but it is also a very different document. It represents a consensus of government representatives (many of whom are also their nations’ Kyoto representatives), rather than of scientists. The resulting document has a strong tendency to disguise uncertainty, and conjures up some scary scenarios for which there is no evidence.

“Science, in the public arena, is commonly used as a source of authority with which to bludgeon political opponents and propagandize uninformed citizens. This is what has been done with both the reports of the IPCC and the NAS. It is a reprehensible practice that corrodes our ability to make rational decisions. A fairer view of the science will show that there is still a vast amount of uncertainty–far more than advocates of Kyoto would like to acknowledge–and that the NAS report has hardly ended the debate. Nor was it meant to.”

S. Fred Singer is professor emeritus of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia and president of the Science & Environmental Policy Project. His “The Week that Was” column can be found at

For more information . . .

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State Of the World was written by Bjorn Lomborg and published by Cambridge University. It is available for $19.56 (paperback) through; point your Web browser to

The book was reviewed enthusiastically by Denis Dutton in the Washington Post of October 18. To view the entire article, go to

For a really nasty review, see Nature 414, 149 – 150 (2001).