The Skeptical Environmentalist

The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg is a fantastic book that goes over the state of the planet using official statistics. The book is about 10 years old now so reading it provides some distance to the publication and it is possible to re-evaluate the book. The first time I read this book was a revelation. Here was a thorough, systematic and independent examination of environmental claims by someone who was an environmentalist. It is in some ways the Silent Spring for people who are skeptical of environmental claims.  The book is replete with almost a graph on every page, and the reference section is hundreds of pages long.

The environmental movement staged a campaign against the book and its author. The story of the anti publication effort and criticism of the book is interesting in itself. It is examined in Aynsley Kellow’s Science and Public Policy: The Virtuous Corruption of Virtual Environmental Science in some detail. The remarkable ad homenim attacks that were aimed at Lomborg culminating in a special in Scientific American dedicated to the books show the way in which the environmental movement felt threatened by the book.

The book is divided into 6 parts. They are: The Litany ; In which the claims of the environmental movement are looked at, Human Welfare : where the state of humanity is looked at, Can Human Prosperity Continue: Where resource depletion is examined, Pollution: does it undercut human prosperity : where the impact of pollution is looked at,  Tomorrow’s Problems : where chemicals, biodiversity and global warming are looked at final a summary with The Real State of the World.

The first two parts are not particularly controversial. The idea the people are no better off than at any time in history is something that even some environmentalists would agree with. Life expectancy and human wealth have clearly increased significantly and continue to do so. Hunger has declined drastically. The views expressed in books like The Population Bomb have been shown to be wrong. The has not been a Malthusian collapse. The World’s population growth is declining and a stable world population is on the horizon. Lomborg also looks at why we hear so much bad news which still holds. Gradual improvements are not exciting and the media exaggerates anything that goes awry.

Part III: Can Human Prosperity Continue is controversial. The environment movement has ‘sustainability’ as a core and there is a firm belief amongst many people that current prosperity is unsustainable. Lomborg first looks at food and how despite having billions more people on the planet hunger is declining and people around the world have more and more food. Since the book has been written the world has passed the point of more people being overfed and overweight than underweight for the first time in history. Lomborg looks at forests and points out that according to the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) there is actually slightly more forest in the world than in 1945. When it comes to energy Lomborg looks at the reserve sizes we have and previous predictions. He points out that the known reserves of oil in 1955 was 35 years and how we continue to find more oil and become better at extracting it. He also looks at nuclear and coal and points out the vast reserves remaining and with nuclear energy how fast breeder reactors could actually expand the fuel supply to be even larger. He looks at renewables and regards them as the energy sources of the future. He points out how the price has been steadily declining and how with 30-40 years it is likely that a considerable proportion of world energy supplies will come from renewables because they will become cheaper than other sources.

Non-energy resources are looked at the considerable reserves of them. Lomborg points out that as recycling becomes better and better that we may reach a point where we can just continuously use what we have for many materials. The world water problem is also looked at and shown not to be such a great issue.

Part IV looks at pollution. Air pollution is looked at first. The amazing point that the air in London is now cleaner than at any time since the 1600s is made. Lomborg points out that pollution was an issue when people burnt wood and coal in their homes, but today the issue is greatly diminished in the developed world. Lomborg recognizes how it still a really big issue in poorer countries. Acid rain and the great acid rain scare of the 1980s is given a thorough investigation. The overstatement by the environmental groups at the time is clearly demonstrated. Water pollution is also examined.

In Part v Lomborg goes through the threats from chemicals in our environment and gives a good view of the relative risks of cancer from pesticides and other things. The Biodiversity section is great. Lomborg looks at the incredible claims of extinction of 40 000 species per year and demolishes it. He does recognize that the extinction rate is significantly – probably hundreds of times greater than the background rate of extinction before the industrial revolution. But he says that we have to balance this against the increase in human wealth that has caused the greater extinctions. Lomborg also points out that total known extinctions since 1600 is 1033.

The final part of part V looks at Global Warming and the views expressed are controversial and, interestingly, very up to date. Lomborg accepts the IPCC’s climate science which included the then current Mann Hockey stick that has since become the object of considerable controversy. He calmly points out that it contradicts much of the climate reconstruction before it. His summary of the warming science is good and standard. He then looks at the economics of cutting C02 emissions and says that doing a small amount may be worthwhile but that overall it is cheaper to adjust to warming than to attempt to rapidly reduce C02 emissions. He refers to the Nordhaus models for the economics and talks about the importance of the discount rate. He points out that the very low social discount rates indicate that you should never ever spend money and instead always save it for the future which is the problem with low, or as in the Stern report, practically no discounting.

It would be interesting to have Lomborg do similar calculations with the rates of warming due to the slight reduction in temperature ever year since 2001 that have occurred. With the lower rates of warming that some skeptics suggest are more accurate, of 0.5 to 1.5 C it would be good to have the economics reviewed.

But, what is most striking about the Global Warming is how little has changed in 8 years. The rhetoric of environmentalists has escalated, but the skepticism of the public is also increasing. Politicians continue to grandstand and say they will do something, but when push comes to shove and the costs become apparent they back away. This year’s Copenhagen summit will be very interesting, to say the least.

The final part is a summary of the book and a description of what Lomborg views as the real state of the world. The picture he paints is positive and is backed up by a huge amount of very solid research. Lomborg and the researchers who worked with him should be extremely proud. The book they have produced is remarkable. It is the book I’d recommend for any environmentalist, at least so that they can see a lot of the data. I have offered this book to a number of people but it’s always been refused, it appears that people will do many things for the environment, but reading 330 pages of data about it is rarely one of them. But presumably it has been read by many folks in the last 10 years and will be read by many more. It would be very interesting to get an environmentalists take on the book. Presumably it could be read but the conclusions on global warming and long term sustainability could be contended, but it would be fairly difficult to contend much of the thesis.

The book stands up excellently, it will be interesting to compare it with other environmental books of the past like The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth.



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