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The Lomborg Deception
Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming
By HOWARD FRIEL
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2010 Howard Friel
All rights reserved.
2001: A THEOREM'S ODYSSEY
On September 10, 2001, Cambridge University Press published The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, by Bjøn Lomborg, a Danish statistician who argued that the "real" condition of the world's environment is better than what the major environmental organizations have routinely reported. Lomborg argued that the environmental groups—such as Greenpeace and the Worldwatch Institute—were too pessimistic and thus overstated humankind's harmful impact on the Earth's land, air, water, and animals.
At the outset, Lomborg maintained that there was little evidence to substantiate a gloomy picture of the Earth's environment. He rejected this view as the product of an exaggerated "Litany" of bad news generated by environmentalists:
We are all familiar with the Litany: the environment is in poor shape here on Earth. Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and the water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet's species are becoming extinct is [sic] vast numbers—we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing and the coral reefs are dying.
We are defiling our Earth, the fertile topsoil is disappearing, we are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world's ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability, and the limits of growth are becoming apparent.
We know the Litany and have heard it so often that yet another repetition is, well, almost reassuring. There is just one problem: it does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence.
Pursuant to these remarks—in 350 pages of text and nearly three thousand endnotes—Lomborg purportedly set out to expose the exaggerations of the environmentalists and uncover the underappreciated good news about the world's environment. Upon doing so, and writing heroically in the first person throughout his introductory remarks, Lomborg declared: "I will need to challenge our usual conception of the collapse of ecosystems, because this conception is simply not in keeping with reality."
About global warming, Lomborg wrote that it is "almost certainly taking place," though its projected impact is "rather unrealistically pessimistic" and "will not pose a devastating problem for our future." About environmentalists' calls for a significant reduction of manmade greenhouse emissions, Lomborg argued that "the typical cure of early and radical fossil fuel cutbacks is way worse than the original affliction."
From these and many similar statements, we can identify "Lomborg's Theorem," circa 2001, which asserts that the Earth and its environment are not threatened in any fundamental sense by human activity and, for the purposes of this volume, that man-made global warming is not the catastrophe that the environmental organizations claim. Lomborg's book, with its illusion of serious scholarship, given the number of endnotes, was influential in the United States throughout the presidential tenure of George W. Bush, who held power during a critically important window of opportunity to reduce greenhouse emissions to prevent the worst impacts of global warming. Probably more than any single published source, Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist marked global warming as a threat that was "exaggerated" by environmentalists, and helped justify the inaction on greenhouse emissions by the Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress in the United States. Lomborg's influence was such that in 2004 Time named him one of the world's one hundred most influential people.
By November 2007, Lomborg had updated his original analysis in The Skeptical Environmentalist with a book focused exclusively on climate change titled, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming. He began this book as follows:
Global warming has been portrayed recently as the greatest crisis in the history of civilization. As of this writing, stories on it occupy the front pages of Time and Newsweek and are featured prominently in countless media around the world. In the face of this level of unmitigated despair, it is perhaps surprising—and will by many be seen as inappropriate—to write a book that is basically optimistic about humanity's prospects.
That humanity has caused a substantial rise in atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels over the past centuries, thereby contributing to global warming, is beyond debate. What is debatable, however, is whether hysteria and head-long spending on extravagant CO2-cutting programs at an unprecedented price is the only possible response. Such a course is especially debatable in a world where billions of people live in poverty, where millions die of curable diseases, and where these lives could be saved, societies strengthened, and environments improved at a fraction of the cost.
As in The Skeptical Environmentalist, in Cool It Lomborg doesn't doubt the phenomenon of human-induced warming. Rather, he argues that a warming of the Earth threatens "no catastrophe" for humanity or the Earth's environment; consequently, Lomborg sees no need to focus on significant reductions of greenhouse emissions as a matter of national or global policy. The 2007 publication of Cool It thus updated and focused Lomborg's argument that the threat of climate change is exaggerated, and further reinforced the Bush administration's dissent from the scientific consensus on the need for major reductions in greenhouse emissions.
Lomborg's concession on one count—that global warming was happening and that it was predominately human-induced—conferred a superficial appearance of moderation between "the Litany" of the liberal environmentalists and the right-wing denials that CO2 emissions were changing the Earth's climate. Lomborg emphasized this idea of a sober middle course by highlighting his conversion from leftwing environmental orthodoxy, noting in The Skeptical Environmentalist that "I'm an old left-wing Greenpeace member and had for a long time been concerned about environmental questions." The concession and the conversion were inspired credentials from which to forge the "skeptical environmentalist" brand—used in the title of both books—and to invent a genre of anti-environmentalism for the ostensible benefit of the environment and humankind.
As one reads on, one might wonder how Lomborg's work managed to evade serious scrutiny by the major publishing houses—Cambridge University Press (2001) and Knopf (2007)—that issued his two major books, given Lomborg's problematic scholarship (as this volume will detail), and the importance of the global environmental issues that he addressed. Though The Skeptical Environmentalist declares at the outset that it "is critical of the way in which many environmental organizations make selective and misleading use of the scientific evidence," thus emphasizing its scientific implications, as Stephen Schneider noted, it "was published by the social science side of the house" at Cambridge University Press. Schneider, a prominent climate scientist, wrote that it was thus "not surprising that the [in-house] reviewers failed to spot Lomborg's unbalanced presentation of the natural science, given the complexity of the many intertwining fields."
As The Skeptical Environmentalist progressed from its physical creation at Cambridge University Press to book reviews in major newspapers and journals, it somehow survived that level of scrutiny as well. Nicholas Wade, a veteran science editor and writer for the New York Times, seemed favorably disposed to Lomborg's environmental optimism. In one of the earliest incantations of the news media's repetitious descriptions of Lomborg's alleged environmental epiphany, Wade described him as "a vegetarian, backpack-toting academic who was a member of Greenpeace for four years," and acclaimed the "substantial work of analysis with almost 3,000 footnotes."
In its review, the Washington Post depicted the skeptical environmentalist (the person) as "a self-described left-winger and former Greenpeace member" who "feels at one with the basic sentiments that underlie the Green movement." Lomborg is a "vegetarian with ethical objections to eating flesh" who wrote "a massive, meticulously presented argument that extends over 500 pages, supported by nearly 3,000 footnotes and 182 tables and diagrams," and who "found on close analysis that the factual foundation on which the environmental doomsayers stood was deeply flawed." This review in the Post found that The Skeptical Environmentalist (the book) demonstrates "emphatically" that "the population bomb is fizzling, and, far from killing us, pesticides and chemicals are improving longevity and the quality of life."
Like the Times and the Post, the Wall Street Journal's review observed that Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist is "a superbly documented and readable book by a former member of Greenpeace" and "a self-described 'man of the Left.'" "Using uncontroversial data," the Journal continued, "Mr. Lomborg shows that the environment is improving, and the state of humanity too." And "as for global warming, Mr. Lomborg shows that it is unlikely to be catastrophic," and "even if temperatures increase substantially, Mr. Lomborg argues, a draconian cut in fossil-fuel use is not the answer."
Whereas Lomborg was favorably reviewed in the three most important newspapers in the United States, he was challenged more rigorously by the scientific and environmentalist communities that were the critical subjects of his book. Shortly after The Skeptical Environmentalist was published, at least three scientific forums were organized to respond to Lomborg's analysis. One such forum was posted in December 2001 on Grist, a Web site of "environmental news and commentary," where several commentators were invited to submit responses to Lomborg. These included: Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and founder and former president of the Worldwatch Institute; the Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson; Norman Myers, a prominent and prolific scientist on biodiversity and species extinction; and Stanford University scientist Stephen Schneider, who is lead author and coauthor of a number of chapters in the major assessment reports on global warming by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
As founder and former president of the Worldwatch Institute, Brown was the senior author of the institute's annual State of the World reports, which detailed environmental problems worldwide. The subtitle of Lomborg's book—The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World—intentionally co-opts the name of these reports. Brown began his response to Lomborg: "Some years ago, well before many outside Denmark knew of Bjøn Lomborg's name, a group of his fellow faculty members at the University of Aarhus took the unusual step of developing a website specifically to warn the scientific community and others about flaws in his work. Appalled by Lomborg's scientific pretensions and unfounded conclusions, these faculty members, including a former head of the Danish Academy of Sciences, actively disassociated themselves from him.... Lomborg's fellow faculty members are concerned that his work does not satisfy basic academic standards."
Continuing, Brown observed that Lomborg's thesis "is that the environmental movement has overstated the magnitude of environmental threats." Brown then noted that "a serious test of this hypothesis would require a systematic review of the research output of the leading environmental groups, tabulating both the instances where they have overstated and where they have understated threats to the environment." Upon noting other prerequisites that, in Brown's mind, Lomborg did not meet—including "determining which threats identified by environmental groups turned out to be real and which did not," and "tabulating those issues that environmentalists either missed entirely or identified only belatedly"—Brown argued that "only with such an approach could one decide whether environmentalists as a group have overstated or understated the threats to our planet." Brown concluded: "In failing to take such an approach, Lomborg's book becomes nothing more than a diatribe."
Wilson responded a bit more pointedly: "My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media." Wilson described Lomborg's book as "characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists." Referring specifically to Lomborg's claim that environmentalists have exaggerated rates of species extinction, Wilson wrote that "Lomborg's estimate of extinction rates is at odds with the vast majority of respected scholarship on extinction," and, "at current levels of habitat destruction, extinction rates are destined to rise, and—I believe every researcher would agree—dramatically so."
Myers, who debated Lomborg's mentor, Julian Simon, in 1992 at Columbia University, also responded to Lomborg over the issue of species extinction. Like Brown and Wilson, Myers found serious problems with Lomborg's methods: "Bjorn Lomborg opens his chapter on biodiversity by citing my 1979 estimate of 40,000 species lost per year. He gets a lot of mileage out of that estimate throughout the chapter, although he does not cite any of my subsequent writings except for a single mention of a 1983 paper and a 1999 paper, neither of which deals much with extinction rates. Why doesn't he refer to the 80-plus papers I have published on biodiversity and mass extinction during the 20-year interim? In this respect, as well as others, Lomborg seems to be exceptionally selective."
According to Myers: "Lomborg is equally sloppy in his analyses of the utilitarian benefits of species and their genetic resources"; "Lomborg seems disinclined to undertake even a fraction of the homework that could give him a preliminary understanding of the science in question [biodiversity and species extinction]"; and "Lomborg ignores or is ignorant of much of the work on extinction rates."
Echoing his colleagues' complaints about Lomborg's methodology, Schneider focused on Lomborg's analysis of global warming in The Skeptical Environmentalist: "Bjorn Lomborg's chapter on global climate change is a clever polemic; it seems like a sober and well-researched presentation of balanced information, whereas in fact it makes use of selective inattention to inconvenient literature and overemphasis of work that supports his lopsided views. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and other honest assessments don't have the luxury of using such tactics, given the hundreds of external reviewers and dozens of review editors."
In a section of his response to Lomborg titled, "On the Media," Schneider continued: "The real travesty is that the mainstream media have quoted The Skeptical Environmentalist as if it contained something new—some original analysis the rest of the community had missed, or some more balanced assessment. The sooner Lomborg's own unbalanced and incomplete 'analysis' is exposed, the better we will all be." Schneider further objected to "scores upon scores of strawmen, misquotes, unbalanced statements, and selective inattention to the full literature," in addition to Lomborg's "flimsy Greenpeace connection."
Another such forum was initiated shortly after the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The forum's participants, leading scientists in their fields, were Peter Gleick (an expert on freshwater resources), Jerry Mahlman (an atmospheric scientist and climate modeler), Edward O. Wilson, Thomas Lovejoy (at the time the World Bank's chief biodiversity adviser), Norman Myers, Jeffrey Harvey (a physicist at the University of Chicago), and Stuart Pimm (a professor of biodiversity and conservation biology at Duke University).
UCS introduced the forum with a background statement summarizing Lomborg's claims that "population growth is not a problem, that there is plenty of freshwater around, that deforestation rates and species extinctions are grossly exaggerated, that the pollution battle has been won, and that global warming is too expensive to fix." The introductory comments by UCS also noted that "the heavily promoted book [The Skeptical Environmentalist], published by Cambridge University Press, has received significant attention from the media and praise from commentators writing in the Economist, New York Times, and Washington Post." UCS then asked: "Does this book merit such positive attention? Does Lomborg provide new insights? Are his claims supported by the data?"
UCS answered that the separately contributed reviews to its forum "unequivocally demonstrate that on closer inspection, Lomborg's book is seriously flawed and fails to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis," and that "Lomborg consistently misuses, misrepresents or misinterprets data to greatly underestimate rates of species extinction, ignore evidence that billions of people lack access to clean water and sanitation, and minimize the extent and impacts of global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases."
Excerpted from The Lomborg Deception by HOWARD FRIEL. Copyright © 2010 by Howard Friel. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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