Book Review

The Skeptical Environmentalist
Measuring the Real State of the World

Bjørn Lomborg
Cambridge University Press, 2001, 515 pages


T his book is an objective assessment of claims made by environmentalists, based on real, unbiased scientific evidence and information from respected international bodies such as the World Health Organization. The author is a statistician and a former member of Greenpeace. Needless to say, this does not sit well with environmentalists, and the book has been harshly criticized by environmentalists. The criticisms started several months before the book was even published; much of it was from organizations with names like "Institute for Study of Climatic Change", names that do not inspire confidence in their ability to look at climate change objectively.

Many in the environmentalist movement seem not to wish to know the true state of the environment. For many of them, the Truth is already known: mankind is ruining the earth and radical change is urgently needed, starting with the throttling of industrial society. Environmentalists typically browbeat - often with personal attacks - those who question their conclusions. This can be seen most clearly on Usenet, where anyone who dares question the Greenpeace Litany is immediately pounced upon and subjected to personal attacks and abuse. Even in the prestigious journal Nature, those questioning the Dogma are compared to apologists for Nazism and Hitler (for an example, see Nature 414(6860), 149 (2001)).

Since the book has over 2900 references (which take up 150 pages of the book), any claims by environmentalists that the book is one-sided or omits research must themselves be treated with suspicion. If anything, the book is too lenient on the environmentalists. A skeptical person might even suspect that the hype about this book is really just a way to trick people into reading about environmentalism.

This book systematically examines the doomsday claims of environmentalists, such as claims of continuing deterioration of air and water quality, widespread increases in disease and starvation, and soaring species extinction rates - which if true, would be symptoms of an incipient ecological calamity. The author argues that many of these claims are either highly exaggerated or totally false. Far from benign, the environmentalists' exaggerated claims cause politicians to waste billions trying to solve nonexistent problems, while real ecological problems, drowned in a barrage of hype, are not addressed.

A typical example was the hysteria in the 1980s about "acid rain" caused by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions. After more than half a billion dollars of research, it was finally discovered that SO2 and NOx, far from causing an "ecological Hiroshima", actually act as free fertilizer for plants, causing them to grow faster, while producing only modest health risks for humans. Yet schoolchildren are still told horror stories about ecological harm supposedly caused by acid rain. Foreigners hearing these stories believe America to be a polluted wasteland, and continually repeat false stories created by environmentalists such as the myth that American settlers deforested the Great Plains.

The wild claims of environmentalists also lend support to anti-globalization activists. If one accepts their claim that mankind is destroying the planet, and that mankind is the most destructive force in nature, it is only a small leap to conclude that the best solution would be to eliminate Western society and modern technology altogether. Indeed, some environmentalists have openly proposed this. At best, a pre-industrial economy could support one tenth our current population. If we reverted to such medieval conditions, the fate of the 5.4 billion people who remain can be left as an exercise for the reader.

An example of how a group's credibility can be destroyed by making false claims is the claim of one advocacy group a few years ago that a million children disappear in the U.S. each year. This number was widely reported by the media, and if true would be a scandal of horrendous scale. Finally, someone in the news media calculated that the disappearance of a million children per year would mean that one of every three children has disappeared. In fact, the true number of children that had been reported as being abducted by strangers, according to the National Incidence Study of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Thrownaway Children (NISMART). was fewer than 300 - a number 3,000 times lower than the advocacy group claimed. Thoroughly discredited, the organization has since faded into obscurity.

Similarly, Greenpeace claimed that 50% of Earth's biodiversity will be lost in 75 years, when the actual number of species lost predicted by reputable sources is 0.7% over 50 years - still too high, but indicating a 47-fold exaggeration by Greenpeace. The statistic commonly cited by environmentalists of 40,000 species disappearing each year was simply picked out of a hat. This number is 10,000 times higher than the rate observed by biologists. The author gives numerous other examples of false and exaggerated statements by Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, World Watch Institute, and other environmental activist groups.

The author is less skeptical, however, in the discussion of global warming. If global warming resulting from anthropogenic CO2 is real, it could be an ecological emergency justifying drastic changes in our technologies of energy production. Because such changes would be likely to plunge the world into a deep economic depression, however, it is vital to arrive at the correct answer. It is not sufficient to conclude that because global warming is a possible effect of man-made carbon dioxide, preventative action should be taken, as some environmentalists state. This is muddled thinking. Indeed, the Kyoto accord is an example of muddled thinking at its finest: if you are a little bit sure warming might be occurring, implement a little bit of change. Unfortunately, this is not how the world works.

Given the importance of this issue, one might suppose that an environmentalist would analyze all the evidence, draw a conclusion, and then press for action. Unfortunately, environmental activists often skip the first step.

The author concentrates primarily on the computer models, the IPCC reports, and the correlation between carbon dioxide and surface temperature. However, there are two well-documented problems with the surface temperature data: (1) the increase in temperature does not track CO2 levels: the surface temperature actually decreased between 1940 and 1975, the period of steepest increases in CO2; and (2) the increase occurs predominantly, if not exclusively, in urban heat islands. An objective and convincing analysis would require an explanation of these discordances in the evidence; but these factors are neither mentioned in the book nor by most environmentalists, and the satellite and weather balloon data, which conflict with the surface temperature measurements by showing no tropospheric temperature increase since 1980, are mentioned but not discussed. Thus, the author's conclusions about global warming seem to be based largely on unsubstantiated faith in the surface data. However, other flaws in the IPCC projections are discussed in a thoughtful manner.

Curiously, the observed surface temperature increase is greater at night and in the winter, and occurs mostly in cold regions like Siberia, while summer daytime temperature maxima are almost unaffected. Thus the change, if it exists, would be better described as a "moderation" than a warming, and as the author argues, beneficial.

However, by the end of the chapter, the author's skepticism, worn out from constant struggle, gives up the ghost, and he surrenders to the 2001 IPCC conclusions and their dire warnings in their entirety.

A recent paper in Nature is typical of the environmentalists' approach. Embarrassingly, the researchers' model predicted global cooling instead of warming. By throwing out one piece of data after another, the researchers were finally able to get their computer model to predict the increase in temperatures that they knew must be happening. Only after they discarded the contribution of volcanic emissions were they finally able to obtain the correct answer "proving" that anthropogenic CO2 is producing global warming.

Yet based on these uncertain models and conflicting data, environmentalists continue to compare anyone who questions their Litany with Adolf Hitler. Resorting to personal attacks is a sure sign that the attackers are unable to back up their claims with convincing evidence. Such a biased approach will ultimately undermine the credibility of any future environmental predictions, and risk disaster if a real environmental problem should occur.

The book also describes environmentalists' attacks on genetically-modified foods. Environmentalists, supposedly worried about potential harmful effects of these foods, and caring little about the foods' ability to relieve hunger, have committed acts that can only be described as terrorism.

The environment is too important to be left to environmentalists. It would be better served if they just went away and let scientists determine factually what is and is not happening. Given the rancor of the dispute, the selective presentation of evidence on both sides, and the terrorist tactics often employed by eco-activists, a true skeptic would be forgiven for wanting to ignore this subject - and the entire ecology debate - entirely.

November 18, 2001 Back