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Environmental Skeptic Debunked

Critique of Bjorn Lomborg, environmental skeptic, author of 'The Skeptical Environmentalist'.

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"Skeptical Environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg is Still Bungling the Truth About Our Environment

In 2001, statistician pseudo-environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg wrote a book called "The Skeptical Environmentalist." In a nutshell, the book's aim was to use facts and figures to show that the environmental movement—a movement Mr. Lomborg claims to have spent many years being a part of—had gotten many, many things wrong, and that environmental conditions were picture of BJORN LOMBORG much, much better than greenies were making them out to be. This caused a great roar in the environmental community, and the name Bjorn Lomborg soon joined monikers like Quisling and Arnold (as in Benedict Arnold, not as in Arnold The Gubernator).

But the environmental community did not just cop an attitude; they also policed Bjorn Lomborg's work. Many highly respected scientists used facts and reasoning to make Swiss cheese out of "The Skeptical Environmentalist."

But did that stop Bjorn Lomborg? Nope. He's still out there offering reasonable-sounding but fallacious thoughts on environmental topics. So, is Lomborg's goal evil and underhanded, or is he just getting his facts and figures wrong? Or maybe he's just trying to keep things interesting for this global reality show we call "Survivor: Planet Earth"?

Today's Eco-Logical takes a look at Bjorn Lomborg's 2005 appearance on C-SPAN, the US network that lets you see politicians and pundits up-close, personal, and pontificacious.


Bjorn Lomborg claims that the solutions to global warming are difficult and costly, and that even significant—but practical—cuts in greenhouse gas emissions won't stop global warming. Hence, the tremendous amount of money it would take to combat climate change would be better spent on more immediate disasters, like HIV-AIDS, malaria, and malnutrition.

Lomborg is partly right here: Our industrial societies have been built on a foundation of cheap energy and unrestricted emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. There are no alternative energy sources on the horizon for powering our vehicles, shipping fleets, and homes that are as cheap or abundant as fossil fuels—the chief greenhouse-gas offenders. There is a lot of work going on in the area of alternative energy, but breakthroughs that would allow us to radically change our current energy mix are still decades away. Such technologies will not be available soon enough to allow us to painlessly make the 60-80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that will truly be needed to stave off big trouble from global climate change.

But saying that global warming's solutions are difficult and costly and therefore should not be bothered with is akin to saying that the passengers on the Titanic would have been better served by improving their sick bay (i.e. short-term benefit for some passengers) rather than their navigation and lookout functions (i.e long-term benefit for almost all passengers).

Lomborg's concern for the millions of people in need of immediate relief from disease is admirable, but to say that we should ignore the huge long-term threat posed by climate change and spend all our time and money on short-term problems is to doom billions to a dire fate in the long run. The dirty little secret here is that such reasoning allows opponents of climate-change action to seemingly take the high road, making themselves out to be the good guys while preserving their wealth for their own lifetimes by avoiding the cost of dealing with global warming, and sentencing our children and grandchildren to a very sick planetary ecosystem.

The amount of global temperature change that is likely to occur, based on the current trend of greenhouse-gas emissions, is predicted to be on the order of the temperature change of the last ice age, but in the opposite direction. Such a dramatic change will wreak havoc on the earth's ecosystems—most importantly the agriculture system. There are few other global threats on this order, and in most cases (like a large asteroid colliding with earth), we can't control such events. But there are things we can do about global warming, even if they are hard and costly. Just throwing up our hands and focusing only on short-term problems sentences future generations to big, big trouble.


In the C-SPAN interview, Bjorn Lomborg stated that pesticide residues "probably kill about 20 people in the US every year" and that we should focus instead on air pollution, which kills 135,000 people every year. Well, he's half right—we should clearly be putting much more effort into reducing air pollution, which is a very serious problem in the US and around the world. He even takes the Bush Administration to task for backing off on air-pollution regulations. But he tried a slight of hand with the pesticide problem that must be exposed for the trick that it is.


Here are a couple of quick takes on some of Bjorn Lomborg's views:

BJORN LOMBORG: "I have not heard of any problems with the ordinary plastics we use for food."
GP RESPONSE: Bis-phenol-A, a common component in plastics, including those used to wrap food, is now suspected to be a major endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors will likely be one of the major emerging health findings of the 21st century.

BJORN LOMBORG: "Our [chemical] regulation process, both in the US and Europe, is amazingly thorough."
GP RESPONSE: This is nonsense. In the US, most of the 80,000 or so chemicals registered with the EPA have never undergone proper long-term testing. Europe is doing somewhat better, having recently started a process of considering chemicals hazardous until proven otherwise, but these measures are already being challenged by the chemical industry, which likes operating in a relaxed regulatory environment.

First, we must not limit our thinking on pesticides to the just effects in the US and just to the consumers of food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated one to five million cases of pesticide poisoning occur every year among agricultural workers and their families, resulting in several thousand fatalities. [1] Similarly, the cumulative long-term exposure to pesticides via contaminated foods has health implications for the world's food consumers, particularly for infants and children. The exposures may not result in deaths that can be directly tied to pesticides—at least not using our current rough measures of such things—but the effects of pesticides are indeed serious for those exposed to them, whether through direct contact or ingestion of tainted food. The effects can include low birth weight and birth defects; child development problems, including diminished cognitive ability; neurological problems and hormone disruption; and cancers, including leukemia, brain cancer, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. [2] Many of these effects come on over time and can result in serious disease, even death—even though the deaths would not be counted statistically as having been pesticide-related.

Bjorn Lomborg also asserts that pesticides have allowed us to provide cheap fruits and vegetables (and, hence, antioxidants and other nutrients) to the masses, thereby avoiding many additional cases of cancer. This is mostly wrong. Pesticides are NOT critical to feeding the US or the world, at least not in the sense of "we must use pesticides or we will all starve" sense. Long-term studies have found that yields from organic farm fields can be equivalent to conventional yields, and that total food yield from a multi-cropped organic field—typically featuring a variety of fruits and vegetables and small-scale animal agriculture—is far higher than the yield of food from a single conventional crop (like corn or soybeans) in the same field.

Beyond the food-consumption issue, chemical pesticides are part of an agricultural system that is slowly ruining the earth's topsoil—that thin layer of nutritive "dirt" that we grow most of our food in. Pesticides also wash off of farm fields into nearby streams, ponds, rivers, and groundwater, affecting wildlife as well as human drinking water supplies and local freshwater fisheries. And with the advent of modern fish farming, pesticides are now even invading our waterways directly when they are applied to fish in overcrowded net cages.


World Hunger and the Myth of the Green Revolution

Chemical Pesticide Exposure and Effects on Children

Pesticides and other "green revolution" technologies are the equivalent of steroid use—impressive at first, but disastrous in the end. Pesticides are generally a good deal for only one segment of the human population—pesticide companies.


Perhaps the most obvious error that Bjorn Lomborg made in his C-SPAN appearance was to offer the canard that as countries get richer, they get less polluted; thus, the solution to pollution is to make every country as rich as those in North America and Europe.

The US, Canada, and European countries are indeed cleaner than most countries with developing industrial economies. And Lomborg is right when he says that part of the reason is that people in the richer countries have passed the point of food and shelter being a daily concern, so they can spend some time and money on changing how they do things, with the result being a cleaner, healthier environment.

The problem with Lomborg's analysis is that he assumes each country is insular, that it exists in its own vacuum rather than in the real world with other countries. Once one realizes that the economic growth of developed countries was (and still is) built on cheap resources and cheap-labor pools, much of which now comes from developing countries—and that we will eventually run out of developing countries to provide such benefits to those countries coming up the economic ladder below them—the whole process falls on its face.


BJORN LOMBORG: "[Population] is not a great concern in most of the world right now... Yes, an extra person is an extra mouth to feed, but it's also two hands and a brain to work and to think, and it typically works out pretty even on those areas. Second ... we peaked in [terms of] percentage increase in the early 1960s; we peaked in absolute addition to the world in the early 1990s; and what we're seeing now in most developed-world [countries] is actually a decline in populations..."

GP RESPONSE: Wow. This guy's gotta stop drinking! First, remember that "population times per capita consumption" is the real measure of population impact. Then realize that it is only European nations that are experiencing a leveling off of population. The United States, the most consuming nation in the world, is experiencing very strong population growth. In terms of global population, in the first half of the 21st century, humans are predicted to increase from roughly 6 billion to 9 billion. Given unlimited resources, those extra hands and brains could certainly feed those extra mouths. But resources and characteristics like ocean fisheries, groundwater, topsoil, and crop yields are finite and are already hitting walls. Population levels are a VERY serious part of our global sustainability problem.

So, economic growth is based on the benefits that developing countries provide to developed countries—cheap resources, cheap labor, and in many cases, the unrestricted ability to pollute. In such a system, you can't turn developing countries into developed countries without eliminating the foundation of the process. It's an impossibility.


To listen to Bjorn Lomborg speak is to hear a man who believes what he is saying; who appears to believe in beneficial but practical solutions; who sometimes champions an environmental problem in need of a fix, sometimes not. But many of his positions rest on oversimplified and sometimes erroneous grounds. We at Grinning Planet have come to the conclusion that Bjorn Lomborg is not an evil or greedy political hack (like some anti-environmentalists); rather, he is just a bit inept. He favors short-term, easier, more affordable solutions that have immediate impact, and discounts longer-term, more expensive solutions to more complex—but far more serious—problems. This is akin to eating your seed corn; that is, maximizing sustenance for current generations at the expense of future generations.

If you believe the whole world will shortly end in a giant fireball anyway, that view makes sense. Otherwise, we hope you will join us in changing the channel from "The Short-Term Thinkers Network" to the "Healthy People For As Far As We Can See Channel."

Do you know someone who falls prey to specious arguments like those made by Bjorn Lomborg? Please forward this environmental skeptic article to them.

Publish date: 23-AUG-2005

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