Volume 2, Number 32
2 January 2002

Skeptical of the Skeptical Environmentalist

Dear Friends,

In TQE #29, I quoted favorable reviews in The Economist and the Washington Post of Bjorn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Lomborg is a Danish professor of statistics who examined the claims of environmentalists that the world is getting worse, and found them to be mainly wrong.

Now come the negative reviews, primarily in Scientific American, January 2002; the web pages of the Union of Concerned Scientists and the World Resources Institute; and the December 12 issue of an online journal, Daily Grist. There are many more, but these cover the ground very well.

The statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists is representative of the whole:

"The heavily promoted book, published in September by Cambridge University Press, has received significant attention from the media and praise from commentators writing in The Economist, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. ... Does this book merit such positive attention? Does Lomborg provide new insights? Are his claims supported by the data? ...

"To answer these questions, UCS invited several of the world's leading experts on water resources, biodiversity, and climate change to carefully review the sections in Lomborg's book that address their areas of expertise. We asked them to evaluate whether Lomborg's skepticism is coupled with the other hallmarks of good science — namely, objectivity, understanding of the underlying concepts, appropriate statistical methods and careful peer review ...

"These separately written expert reviews unequivocally demonstrate that on closer inspection, Lomborg's book is seriously flawed and fails to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis. The authors note how Lomborg consistently misuses, misrepresents or misinterprets data to greatly underestimate rates of species extinction, ignore evidence that billions of people lack access to clean water and sanitation, and minimize the extent and impacts of global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases ..."

So, was I "taken in" by Lomborg when I wrote TQE #29? Possibly, and I will eat humble pie if I deserve it. Before doing so, however, a few points disturb me. First, while I respect these scientists and am influenced by them, I also know of other scientists who disagree with them. For example, Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at M.I.T., finds that the earth has ways of offsetting temperature changes. While he believes that global warming is occurring, he finds it to be a natural phenomenon, since the earth has warmed and cooled many times over the centuries (see TQE 29). A quote from TQE #30: "Sallie Balliunas, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, and her co-workers studied records of the past 120 years and found the Sun responsible for much of the Earth's temperature shifts.

The scientist critics reply that most students of this subject believe the sun cannot be responsible for the warming of 1970-2000 (Some say it is responsible for 30%, Lomborg says 40%).

Charles Harper, planetary scientist at Harvard, criticized the inter-governmental report for being based more on deficient computer models than on ground-based temperatures during the period in which greenhouse gases were mainly omitted."

The scientist critics reply that because ground-based temperatures are inconsistent with each other, the computer models are all we have, deficient though they may be.

Second, some of these same scientists made predictions about running out of resources by the year 2000, which turned out not to be true. Lomborg cites these predictions.

Third, from United Nations data, as interpreted by Nicholas Eberstadt, demographer with Brookings Institution, and William Nordhaus, economist at Yale, I am persuaded that population in the more developed areas is already decreasing, and in the less developed countries the growth rate is declining, so much so that world population growth will probably level off to zero by 2050. The world's agricultural capacity to feed such a population will be more than sufficient. (See TQE #6). However, the scientists criticize Lomborg for saying just that.

Fourth, scientists and environmentalists frequently do not take costs into account. It is here that economists would be of help, but they are generally ignored. Scientists would explain the environmental facts as best they know them, and together with economists (and other social scientists) they would propose policies, of which the economists would calculate the costs. This would be a cooperative enterprise.

I wish scientists and economists jointly would write a book as easily read by lay people as Lomborg's is, to explain all environmental problems in lay language, covering the disagreements among them and the uncertainties. The anti-Lomborg reviewers write of a "consensus" among scientists (theirs), when in fact there is no consensus. Yet they appear to be on more solid ground than Lomborg. If any of you know of such a book, I would appreciate your telling me.

Nevertheless, we seek the truth. So, I must make up my own mind — inexpert as I am — since I believe anyone living on this earth should have an opinion and a policy. I do not have the qualifications to perform the studies myself, so I am at the mercy of those who do. Combining Lomborg with the scientists' reviews, I come to the following inexpert opinions — subject to change with new evidence.

  1. Environmentalists have been guilty of exaggerating the ill effects of environmental change. Lomborg pinpoints these exaggerations. The scientist reviewers say that no responsible scientist holds them anyway, yet among the reviewers are the guilty ones. These exaggerations should be resisted and reasonable estimates publicized, along with their probabilities.
  2. Global warming is indeed occurring, but no one knows how much is anthropogenic (human induced) and how much is the natural cycle in which the earth warms and cools. The vast majority of scientists believe that anthropogenic warming is serious (more than Lomborg does), and they have persuaded me. But they do not agree on how much so.
  3. We should already be thinking more about how to adjust to the effects of global warming than how to prevent it. To the extent that global warming is part of the natural cycle, it cannot be prevented. To the extent that it is anthropogenic, prevention will be politically difficult (or impossible) because peoples not directly affected will refuse to pay the cost.
  4. Given that world population is now as large as it is (and we do not want to take lives through war or starvation), biotechnical seed breeding probably saves many lives, as Lomborg points out. Potential ill effects — such as the spreading of "monster seeds" — should be controlled as best we can.
  5. While Lomborg points to only a small decrease in the land devoted to forests, he does not distinguish between primeval forests and tree plantations. The primeval forest is needed to promote a desirable diversity of species. I am persuaded by the scientists that Lomborg has underestimated the extinction of species.
  6. Policies should be formed to conserve water and energy and to inhibit the pollution of air and water if only because doing so creates a more desirable world, regardless of whether it prevents global warming. These policies should be implemented as far as is politically possible, but we should not attempt the impossible. Scientists have not adequately addressed the political and cost aspects That is not their field, but they have not sufficiently cooperated with those whose field it is.
  7. Governments are not satisfactory agencies for implementing these policies, since governments represent polluters as well as environmentalists. Instead, we should seek market-type instruments for controlling pollution. The tricky point is that governments may be necessary to develop the market-type instruments. Political activists, get to work!
  8. Following the Clean Air Acts in the United States, among the market-type instruments are pollution permits. Determine a maximum permissible amount of any type of pollution, and issue permits for that amount, according to some political process. The permits would be salable. Those who can reduce pollution more cheaply than the market value of the permits would sell their allotments to others for whom pollution reduction would be more expensive. Thus pollution would be limited to the permissible amount at least cost.
  9. Martin Feldstein, professor of economics at Harvard, has offered a similar plan to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Determine the maximum amount of gasoline that should be permitted, and issue permits for it. Those who buy gasoline would pay the pump price, plus the cost of a permit. Having to pay for both would constitute an increase in price.
  10. But energy prices should be allowed to rise anyway, because only then will renewable energy sources, such as windmills, fuel cells, and photo-voltaic cells become cost-effective.
  11. If we wish to protect the poor against increases in energy prices, we should give them money. If they decide to spend it on other things than energy, so much more energy will be conserved.

One of my editorial board members commented that it would be difficult for me, having backed Lomborg so enthusiastically, now to backtrack. Why? Don't we seek the truth? And doesn't the truth come in small morsels?

I do not expect all readers to agree with my opinions, and I certainly do not aim to persuade you. Rather, I like to hear what you think. Remember, this is an interchange, and I learn from you.

Peace, and a Clean World,

Jack Powelson

PS I am indebted to TQE readers Jack Herring, Merlyn Holmes, and Karen Street for bringing these reviews to my attention.

Readers' Comments:

Please send comments on this or any TQE, at any time. Selected comments will be appended to the appropriate letter as they are received. Please indicate in the subject line the number of the Letter to which you refer! The email address is tqe-comment followed by @quaker.org. All published letters will be edited for spelling, grammar, clarity, and brevity. Please mention your home meeting, church, synagogue (or ...), and where you live.

Jack, I am amazed and delighted at how closely my view of current problems and policies resembles yours. In case you haven't seen it, the New Yorker of Jan 7th has a relevant story about work being done in Greenland by an international group of scientists. Since Greenland lies mostly north of the arctic circle it has a snow pack which is 9500 feet deep or high. This has taken about 100,000 years to accumulate. With great difficulty they are extracting cores which enable fairly accurate temperature variations over that period. There have been tremendous swings, ice ages coming and going, and warm cycles sprinkled within. The effects of our global warming are picayune compared to what has been and what will be the continuum of heating and cooling.

— Dick Wolf (college classmate of Jack's).

This is simply to let you know that, insofar as my limited time and energy allow, I read and try to understand what you are saying to us Friends — and will continue to do so. Please don't interpret my lack of substantive response to your series of essays as lack of appreciation for your considerable effort and knowledge.

— Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting

I sent out my own condensation of The Economist article on Bjorn Lomborg's book to a Quaker Feminist e-mail list and received back two responses from women who work for environmental organizations — both of whom wish to remain anonymous. They each had checked the info in The Economist article with their higher-ups and found that the scaled back evaluations that Lomborg gave were known to their organizations. They were both told, however, that the higher numbers and shorter time periods Lomborg cited as exaggerations would continue to be used for fundraising purposes.

One of the women commented that there were a couple of scientists who had literally made their reputations on "scare stories" about the environment who had indicated that they weren't about to reverse themselves now. One stated that he thought Lomborg could be discredited, and he intended to work on that.

— Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).

You cite costs as something an economist can help with, but do you take into account all of the costs?

  1. One that has been evident has been freaky weather, more than usual. The reinsurance companies, who are the ones who will have to pay for it, have been worried.
  2. If the tundra warms up, it won't help a lot with food because there's little topsoil. If the growing areas of the world heat up, who knows what will happen? It might become too dry for many crops, or it might require different crops with less yield, or unknown things may happen.
  3. Tropical diseases may spread north.

In all, the uncertainties are huge, and potentially devastating. Cleaning up is something we SHOULD do, and if it makes life better (or possible), that's a great side effect. Much of the opposition to cleaning up seems to come from companies who seem to think that cleaning up their act will cost them money. Not cleaning up their act may cost all of us much more, perhaps even our civilization.

Given uncertainty with a huge amount at risk and a finite cost, I think the conservative thing to do is to radically change society to prevent further damage.

— Jim Caughran, Toronto (Ontario, Canada) Friends Meeting.

Although I am not a scientist, I have followed environmental disputes with great interest for years. It seems to me that many environmentalists, even scientists, treat their beliefs like a religion. They are quite emotional about it and often have the attitude that they can't be wrong. Also, they act as if people who disagree with them are immoral rather than mistaken. But over the years they have been proved wrong time after time. So my gut instinct is to take these debunkers of Bjorn Lomborg with many grains of salt. Lomborg, don't forget, started out very hostile to Julian Simon, whom he set out to disprove. But he is that rare man: an honest environmentalist, and he went where the data led him, by all accounts.

— Judy Warner, Lutheran, Rohrersville, Maryland.

The environmental field is a money-making operation for every side and each side has developed its own style of advertising. The "green jeans" environmental side uses scare tactics to strike fear and guilt in people. From this people give them money to reduce their guilt and "help" the environment. The industrial side says that they can not produce all the good stuff without pollution and that everyone needs to just back off and leave them alone. Government is just busy being the government, taking the side of who ever keeps the wheels moving the easiest. It seems they try hard but it is hard to purchase good people to work at minimum wage.

By uncovering the assumptions, options, rationales and basis for the major statements made by the environmental community, Lomberg in effect sheds light on the truth.

— Willard Vaughan, Environmental Engineer, Nashville (TN) Meeting


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Northampton, MA.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Merlyn Holmes, Boulder, Colorado.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2002 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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