A Conversation With “The Skeptical Environmentalist”

Bjørn Lomborg is an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. In 1998, he published four articles offering a statistician’s look at the environment in the leading Danish newspaper. His findings initiated a massive debate throughout the European environmentalist community. He later expanded his articles into the 2001 book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World. Since its publication, The Skeptical Environmentalist has been translated into numerous languages and has resulted in a wholesale reappraisal of the environmental crisis.
Dr. Lomborg sat down with Crisis Editor Brian Saint-Paul.

♦           ♦           ♦
 

Saint-Paul: Did you have an interest in environmentalism before looking into the issues that became the material for   your book?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Lomborg: Yes, but only in the youthful activist kind of way. I was a member of Greenpeace and worried about the fate of the world. Though I wasn’t out in a rubber boat, protesting, it was one of those constant concerns that I had.
Much later, when I was teaching my statistics students, I would always tell them to check out the claims of various groups. You really have to check the data yourself, because there are a lot of myths out there. I never thought about it relative to the environment, until I read a 1997 interview with Julian Simon in Wired magazine. He was a professor of economics who claimed that things were actually improving environmentally. My immediate reaction was to dismiss it as right-wing American propaganda. And I would have left it there if he hadn’t challenged his critics to check the data. This annoyed me because it’s what I always tell my students.

So, I thought I’d take up his challenge. I like to have my students doing intellectually stimulating things, so I thought this would be a fun thing to do. We all bought the book in the fall of 1997, and sat down to go through the numbers. We were absolutely sure that he was wrong, and we were going to have fun proving it. However, we discovered, week after week, that a lot of what he said was actually true.

In your book, you mention what you refer to as the “environmental litany.” What is this?

It’s the idea that everything is getting worse. That air pollution is getting worse, that there’s not enough food, that we’re despoiling the soil, that we’re creating a world where things are going to hell and that — in the long term — we won’t be able to sustain ourselves.

This is the common belief.

Definitely. And I document this with numerous quotes from a lot of different people. While this is how the issues are generally portrayed, it’s wrong and it’s not helping anyone understand them better. In reality, things are moving in the right direction. It’s not getting worse and worse. {mospagebreak}

Give us a specific example of how your research contradicted one of the common environmental planks. Let’s take the notion that species are becoming extinct left and right. Obviously, there are species that are disappearing, but is this the epidemic so often portrayed by activists?

We are causing some species extinction, simply because we have such a large presence in the world. So the discussion here is not whether or not it’s happening — it is, and we need to face up to it. But we also need to get a sense of proportion in this. Where should we spend our limited resources? What kinds of priorities should we have?

But the common claim that we’re going to lose anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of all species in our lifetimes is simply not true. It’s not backed up by the data that we have. We’ve always lost species and we’re losing more now than ever before. But most experts estimate around 0.7 percent over the next 50 years.

Look, if someone tells us we’re going to lose 25 to 50 percent of our species in the next 50 years, then we’ll go into a panic mode and will reach for any possible solution. After all, if that were true, it would be catastrophic.

A planet-changing phenomenon…

Right. And we’d need to go into an emergency mode. On the other hand, a loss of 0.7 percent is a problem — no question. But it’s one problem among many problems. And there are other problems that may be more pressing. This is where prioritization comes into play.

The analogy I use is this: Imagine someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do something. If that happened, you’d do it quickly, without thinking. You act out of a panic. This is what we must not do, or we’re going to make mistakes.

There’s no environmental gun to our head?

Right.

As a statistician, you can look at the big picture — you can crunch the numbers. But the environmental scientists are experts in their specific fields. They pick up nuances that may be missed in the big picture. How is your macro-view different from what they’re seeing? Surely, they’re not lying about what they’re reporting.

No, of course not. But everyone thinks that his own interest is the most important thing. That’s a very common thing. Before I started doing this, I was working on game theory and computer simulation. Possibly a couple hundred people in the world really cared about what that was. And yet, I thought that was one of the really important areas of study. It’s natural.{mospagebreak}

And so biologists feel uncomfortable when someone comes along and says, “Sure, we’re losing species and that’s a problem. But how does that problem compare to some of the others we’ve got? How big a problem is this really?” This question is outside their scope of discussion, and I under- stand that. But in a political society, we need to have those kinds of discussions. Because we’re prioritizing between a lot of different problems. We only have so many resources to address these issues.

The scientific community — at least significant portions of it — has not reacted well to your work.

That’s putting it mildly. [Laughter]

Scientific American dedicated eleven pages of one issue to criticizing your book!

Yes.

And in Denmark, the Committee for Scientific Dishonesty attacked you viciously, only to have their condemnation overturned by the government.

Yes, the government maintained that the committee was “without any argument” and that their condemnation was “emotional,” if I remember correctly.

The coordinated attack on this book has been almost unprecedented.

Yes. But I really had a dress rehearsal for this in Denmark since it was published there first. And so this is one of the most meticulously examined books in recent memory, since everyone combed through it. As a result, I knew what the objections would be once the book was published outside Denmark. Generally, I’ve found that there are very few arguments with the data or the specific interpretations I’ve used. The general concern is that this book would make people worry less about the environment. Which is a perfectly legitimate political concern. That is why I constantly say this isn’t about saying we shouldn’t worry about the environment — it’s about saying we should worry about the right things.

Air pollution in London has never been better since 1585, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t improve. The point is that we shouldn’t do so because we’re scared witless — we should do so because it’s a good investment. And so most of my book is about saying that we’ve somehow collectively gotten to the point of saying that things are getting worse, and this makes us panicky. Consequently, we don’t think straight, and we make bad decisions.

One of the charges made against you is that you’re a right-wing extremist.

[Laughter] Yes.

But that’s a bit far from the truth.

If anything, I’m left wing. I vote to the left in Denmark, which is probably to the far left in the U.S. I’m also a vegetarian because I don’t want to kill animals. I genuinely care about these things. The point I want [my critics] to consider is that maybe I’m not actually doing this to make a lot of money. Maybe I’m doing this because I genuinely care about the planet.

What will it take to change the scientific paradigm? Right now, you’re in the minority in this field. But these things do change.

That’s true. There are three promising things here, though. First, I happen to have the facts. Second, there are a lot of scientists out there who are looking at the same facts and have come to the same conclusions in their unique fields. Unfortunately, they’ve never had the chance to express this because there’s a dominant, politically correct rule that prevents them. But they’re getting more traction with what they’re saying now because it’s opened up. It’s becoming okay to voice those kinds of concerns. {mospagebreak}

And the third point is that because my opponents genuinely want to do the right thing, this is giving them pause. Maybe they’re wondering before they go to sleep, “Am I on the right track here? Am I really doing enough for the planet?” So I think this is changing a lot of people’s minds.

You’re seeing this?

Yes. But it’s not so much about convincing the top people. They’re entrenched in their positions. It’s about the 95 percent of the rest of us who don’t have a strong position either way. Most people care about the environment, but it isn’t their primary concern. So they’ll listen to both sides and weigh the arguments that way. There is a slow change happening right now. But that change will eventually arrive.

To usher in that change, you helped start a new initiative called the Copenhagen Consensus. What exactly is that?

The Copenhagen Consensus is really an outgrowth of everything I’ve just been talking about. But in it, we try to look at more than just the environment. One of the things I worry about is that because we’re in the First World and have food and water and shelter, we tend to worry about the environment. But a lot of people in the world don’t have food and they don’t have water. They don’t care about the environment 50 or 100 years down the line — they’re more concerned about getting fed tonight. What I’d like to do is to get a sense of proportion over the entire range of problems facing humanity.

Now, we have some problems that we don’t know how to deal with — war, for example. We’d love to address that, but there’s obviously no fix or policy adjustment to eliminate war. But we’d like to identify the major crisis areas where we know the kinds of technological solutions that are available. We try to identify the top-ten problems facing the world — everything from infectious diseases to financial instability, to subsidies and trade barriers, to hunger and malnutrition.

We’ve brought together the top economists in each of these fields, and they are writing special overview papers on all of these areas, looking at the cost-benefit analyses for solutions to these problems.

And then, in Copenhagen at the end of May, we’ll have nine of the world’s top economists, including four Nobel Prize winners. They’ll meet for five days and hear all the evidence and go through the position papers in closed sessions on each of these ten issues. They will then put costs and benefits on each of these. What we’ll end up with at the end of the conference is a ranked list of opportunities for the world.

So, the various advocates will present their evidence. That material is then examined, debated, judged, and — what — assigned a value?

Right. This is vital. No one has ever done this kind of cross-section analysis before. There’s been some cost-efficiency studies, but nothing like this.

But why gather economists and not scientists?

Because each of the problems we’re addressing requires money, and economists are in the best position to weigh the costs and benefits of each proposed solution.

The great outcome of this initiative is that people will finally be forced to prioritize these problems. This is the attitude people need to have. Yes, biodiversity is important. But so is starvation and lack of sanitation. We need to prioritize these things. We can’t afford to do them all.

  • Brian Saint-Paul

    Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Share to...