Skeptical of the Skeptical Environmentalist
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:
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.
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,
PS I am indebted to TQE readers Jack Herring, Merlyn Holmes, and Karen Street for bringing these reviews to my attention.
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?
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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