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Why have Lomborg's detractors taken such a narrow view of his book?

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 30 October 2003

When ever my wife orders me to do some work on our garden I abandon my natural inclination towards development and briefly turn greenie.

“Its an ecosystem!” I protest. “It’d be interfering with the natural balance!”

These protests seem to do me no good. Within a few minutes I find myself mowing back what is otherwise untended bush, consoling myself with the thought that by maybe I am killing a cockroach or two by cutting grass.


Having thus firmly established my greenie credentials I will move onto the subject of the recent visit of Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish associate professor of statistics and former member of Greenpeace turned green skeptic who has written the Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Overshadowed by the subsequent, simultaneous visits of the leaders of both China and US, Professor Lomborg’s brief tour and speaking engagements still managed to cause a flurry of articles both for and against his assertions that much of what has been previously written about the environment is unduly alarmist and that the world has gradually been getting better, not worse.

Having looked through the Skeptical Environmentalist I cannot see what the fuss is about. Prof Lomborg has checked out the statistics on a host of environmental demons, ranging from world hunger through to pesticides, via biodiversity and global warming, and he vanquishes almost all of them (we will come to global warming in a moment), giving all his references along the way. But the bulk of it had been said before, in bits and pieces, by scientists of a standing far greater than Lomborg.

Several parts of his book, such as those on pesticides causing cancer and acid rain destroying forests, dealt with environmental scares that had come and gone before I started paying attention to them, so I had not seen some of the information presented this way. He points out with some force that the increasing use of pesticides and chemicals of all kinds does not seem to have had any discernable effect on the overall health of people in advanced countries – increases in cancer are accounted for by the general aging of the population and smoking – and acid rain was found to have no effect on trees.

One part of his book, where he similarly debunks the notion that the world’s forests are disappearing, intrigued me sufficiently to check his reference, the United Nations body the Food and Agricultural Organisation. Results from FAO satellite surveys available on the forestry section of the site show that the overall rate of forest loss both world wide and in specific areas such as the Amazon Basin is minute and is slowing. I was aware the claims about deforestation were exaggerated but not the degree of the exaggeration.

In the process of checking claims against what hard evidence there is, Lomborg uncovers some very shoddy research by environmental scientists. Again, this not so much new as interesting - I have heard environmental scientists complain strongly about the poor quality of research being done in their field.


The book does not count as scientific research in any meaningful sense. All Lomborg has done is compare the propaganda with a careful examination of the freely available statistics and, very importantly, the definitions used in compiling those statistics. (Definitions are very important. When is a person classified as “starving”? One would think this should be straight forward but the number of people classified as starving can increase or reduce dramatically if the definition of starving is changed. Changes in definitions can be very useful for activists trying to draw attention to their cause by quoting alarming statistics.)

The book is then a useful compilation of counter-arguments to Greenie agit-prop but, as previously noted, occasionally someone is rash enough to compare the evidence to the propaganda and write about it. The Green movement then simply dismisses the critic as being in the pay of the coal companies or, worse, in favour of development. Enough said.

So why was Lomborg not dismissed in the same fashion? Why did the Green movement draw additional attention to the book by screaming about it?Why did magazines such as Scientific American waste 11 pages in its January 2002 issue pillorying the Professor and his book? Why did the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) find that he is "systematically one-sided" early this year, after much lobbying by the green movement, especially when the book is not strictly a work of science? My guess is Lomborg’s real sin, as opposed to what the Green movement says is his sin, is to push the proponents of the Kyoto Protocol off the moral high ground.

At one point in his book he suggests that instead of spending money trying to meet the carbon dioxide emissions targets set in the Kyoto Protocol, a fraction of the money consumed in meeting that target could be used to give everyone in the world clean drinking water and sanitation. He argues that global warming is a reality (I shall look at global warming in another column) but its occurrence, on balance, may not affect humanity very much at all. In any case, the Kyoto protocol is too little and too late. So why not use the money to do something else of direct, substantial benefit to humanity?

The point about spending money to provide clean drinking water is just one of many made by Lomborg and is certainly not prominent in the book. It is not even indexed. I had to hunt for it. But the point is frequently mentioned in the reviews-attacks I have seen.

Perhaps it is so frequently mentioned because it cuts too close to a very sensitive subject. The proponents of the Kyoto Protocol had an unshakable moral case in pushing for it, or so they thought. The fact that the US refused to agree to the protocol made it all the better. Now this most active and vocal section of the green movement, itself a quasi-religion in which moral outrage seems to be very important, has found its sacred objective under very effective attack. How can they argue against giving everyone clean drinking water? No wonder they are angry.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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