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Beware: everyone in the environment debate has an interest to protect

By Jennifer Marohasy - posted Friday, 13 February 2004


Last year, on the eve of a visit to Australia by Associate Professor Bjorn Lomborg - Danish statistician and author of the international best seller The Skeptical Environmentalist - Clive Hamilton warned us to be skeptical of him because he had been found guilty of scientific dishonesty and because his book was a political polemic, not a work of science (The Age, September 18, 2003).

Lomborg challenged the dishonesty accusation. Just before Christmas a ruling was handed down by the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation strongly repudiating the findings of its own Committee on Scientific Dishonesty and concluded that the original judgment was emotional and contained significant errors. Lomborg commented, “I am happy that we now have confirmation that freedom of speech extends to the environmental debate”.

While many made much of the dishonesty finding, the repudiation has gone largely unreported.

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Why is it that a witch-hunt was orchestrated against a mild mannered statistician whose main message was simply that we should, “examine the facts before forming our conclusions”? Based on an assessment of internationally accepted official statistics, Lomborg showed that key environmental indicators – including water and air quality and forest cover – show an improving trend in most developed countries. In addition Lomborg showed that some problems are not as serious as suggested and that solutions are indeed being found. That this proposition was greeted with hostility and outrage by many high profile environmentalists is illustrative of the extent to which they are - while claiming great concern over a problem – also deeply committed to the continued existence of the problems.

Societies that tolerate the unencumbered pursuit of knowledge are rare. More often than not religion and ideology dictate their cultural and political landscape, thus constraining scientific research and its reporting. The process used by the Danish Committee of Scientific Dishonesty to declare Lomborg “dishonest” was more reminiscent of some ancient medieval rite than of a scientific committee. That Clive Hamilton and others relied so heavily on this shamefully fabricated verdict to discredit Lomborg speaks volumes. Indeed, environmentalism is emerging as a new and sacred religion, with Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature representing the new church, complete with charity status and tax exemptions - for their multi-million dollar earnings.

It was wrong of Clive Hamiton to state that Lomborg believes, “improvements to the natural environment render environmental activism unnecessary”. On the contrary, in his address to the National Press Club last year Lomborg stated, “I think we should be incredibly happy we have Greenpeace. I think it’s incredibly important to say that people don’t act in bad faith. When business organisations go out and say, ‘don't worry so much about the environment’, they might actually have a point. We should certainly listen to them. But they also have an interest, and we should remember that. Likewise, when Greenpeace go out and say, ‘we're all gonna die and we need to act now’, they might be right too, and we should certainly listen to them, but they certainly also have an interest. The problem is that while few people trust business organizations, most people actually believe Greenpeace over and above independent scientists, university scientists and public organizations. That, I think, is problematic.”

During Lomborg’s visit to Australia renowned Australian environmentalist Professor Ian Lowe cited the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s (ABS) report Measuring Australia’s Progress and specifically land clearing in Queensland as evidence that Lomborg’s treatise does not hold true for Australia. However, if we scrutinize the ABS report in the same way Lomborg scrutinized other official data, we find that the ABS report is actually misleading. The report only shows clearing rates and does not consider the overall trend with respect to vegetation cover. When re-growth is taken into account we find that the trend nationally is one of increasing forest cover. This trend holds true for Queensland where official government estimates showed an increase of 5 million hectares in the extent of woodland and forest ecosystem cover over the last 10 years. The reader may find it hard to believe that the official statistics show 81 percent of Queensland is still covered in remnant vegetation – a figure that has remained constant over the last decade. Just because environmental campaigners ignore the facts, does not mean they go away.

The issue is real for Australia. Despite the perception that our environment is deteriorating, the reality is that air and water quality are generally improving and there has been a net increase in forest cover over the last decade. Koalas, once a threatened species, are now so numerous the Victorian government is introducing a hormone contraceptive plan to control numbers.

Given that we have spent much time and billions of dollars on environmental programs, this good news should not really be surprising. However, as Lomborg would say, this doesn’t mean we can’t do better. But let us move forward on the basis of the evidence rather than the failed predictions of our doomsayers.

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This article was previously published in The Age on February 11, 2004.



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About the Author

Jennifer Marohasy is a senior fellow with the Institute for Public Affairs.

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