Lomborg, Pope Debate the Future of Global Environmental Policy

Published October 1, 2005

Björn Lomborg and Carl Pope, two leading commentators on environment policy, recently debated the future of environmental activism in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy.

Lomborg is best known as the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001). He also has helped organize the Copenhagen Consensus, which has attempted to assess and prioritize efforts at improving conditions for human life around globe.

Pope has led the Sierra Club since 1992 and has been active in the environmental movement for nearly 40 years. He is the author of three books, including Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress (2004).

The lengthy debate features an opening statement by Pope and then several exchanges between the two commentators. Both acknowledged the existence of environmental problems, but they disagreed about the nature of the problems and the appropriate priorities for environmental action.

Linking Poverty, Pollution

Pope begins by arguing the world is facing significant environmental destruction. He recommends, “we can let go of archaic technologies and reckless practices of the past, recognize … solutions … and watch science pleasantly surprise us.”

Lomborg acknowledges there are significant environment problems in the world, but he asserts that increasing human living standards is a crucial first step in safeguarding the environment.

“You say 60 percent of Earth’s ecosystems are in decline, without talking much about people and forgetting the crucial linkage between poverty and pollution,” observes Lomborg.

Setting Priorities

People in Third World nations “care first about feeding their kids, not cleaning the air,” observes Lomborg. “And if you look at the West, that strategy works. Today, London’s air is the cleanest it has been since medieval times. Some of the richest developing countries are already following suit. In Mexico and Chile, air pollution is going down.”

Lomborg says policy leaders must choose the programs most efficient in saving lives and improving the quality of life. Nations must set public policy priorities, he says, because even the wealthiest of governments cannot pay for all environmental initiatives proposed by activists.

Pope rejects Lomborg’s analysis as too greatly attached to the status quo. He insists tougher environmental standards could be implemented without further impoverishing people in Third World nations. He asserts, “village-level power technologies using fuel cells, solar power, and agricultural waste make more economic and environmental sense in India than massive investments in copper wires and coal turbines.”

Debating the Data

Pope accuses Lomborg of misunderstanding and misinterpreting economic and environmental data; in particular, of not truly understanding the long-term costs of current economic activity.

Lomborg argues that when activists such as Pope target minor or nonexistent environmental problems, they divert economic resources from other uses that would better promote human health, welfare, and happiness. Inefficiently directing resources to exaggerated or nonexistent problems creates a “Sophie’s Choice” of “saving” one life at the expense of others.

“Now you suggest funding windmills in China?” asks Lomborg. “I suggest first distributing efficient cookers to combat indoor air pollution, which would save more lives and money. You suggest preserving reefs and mangroves, saving lives in case there is another tsunami. I suggest we first save thousands of times more by tackling curable infectious diseases.”

Taxing Carbon Emitters

Pope says an environmental Sophie’s Choice can be avoided by taxing U.S. carbon emitters.

“With 5 percent of the world’s population, a fair U.S. share of global carbon emissions is 275 million tons a year. At a modest value of $50 per ton, U.S. carbon emitters owe the world’s poorest nations at least $66 billion for this year alone,” argues Pope.

“Your Economics 101 suggests that carbon taxes would have a big impact on emissions and climate change, but real economic models show the exact opposite,” Lomborg counters.

Argument Is Over Values

“The Lomborg-Pope debate continues a pattern of waging political battles through science,” observed Roger Pielke, director of the University of Colorado Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

“Lomborg has a clear political agenda, and Pope does, too,” Pielke explained. “Rather than discuss specifically what actions should be taken and by whom, they instead focus on general discussions of policy and save the specifics for debating scientific details.

“The differences between Pope and Lomborg are not over facts or science, even though they both invoke facts to support their positions,” Pielke summarized. “At its core their dispute is over values–which values should be prioritized in our society and through what means.”

Michael Coulter ([email protected]) teaches political science at Pennsylvania’s Grove City College.

For more information …

The full text of the Lomborg/Pope debate in Foreign Policy is available online at http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3084.

The Copenhagen Consensus Web site is http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com.

The Sierra Club Web site is http://www.sierraclub.com/.