COPENHAGEN — I’m the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” a work that grapples hard with our pessimistic view of the environment. It’s a serious book on a serious subject. But it has now been denounced by the Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty — yes, such a body exists! — in a manner reminiscent of medieval book-burnings. And many environmentalists have cheered from the side, world-wide.
How did this happen and what are the consequences?
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I am Danish, liberal, vegetarian, a former member of Greenpeace; and I used to believe in the litany of our ever-deteriorating environment. You know, the doomsday message repeated by the media, as when Time magazine tells us that “everyone knows the planet is in bad shape.” We’re defiling our Earth, we’re told. Our resources are running out. Our air and water are more and more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming extinct, we’re paving over nature, decimating the biosphere.
The problem is that this litany doesn’t seem to be backed up by facts. When I set out to check it against the data from reliable sources — the U.N., the World Bank, the OECD, etc. — a different picture emerged. We’re not running out of energy or natural resources. There is ever more food, and fewer people are starving. In 1900, the average life expectancy was 30 years; today it is 67. We have reduced poverty more in the past 50 years than we did in the preceding 500. Air pollution in the industrialized world has declined — in London the air has never been cleaner since medieval times.
This information needs to reach a broader audience, because it concerns our basic priorities. If we fall prey to minor scares and spend a disproportionate share of our resources there, we will have fewer resources left for other areas. Nevertheless, presenting these uncontroversial data has proved to be curiously controversial. In the 16 months since its publication, many have reviewed the book favorably, but others, such as reviews in Nature, and the Scientific American, have been strongly dismissive. The debate continues — passionately.
Apparently unable to counter the main arguments of the book, some, regrettably, have also tried to pressure the publisher, Cambridge University Press, to stop its publication. Others drew the Danish Committee for Scientific Dishonesty (a national review body, with considerable authority) into the debate, asking it to judge the book against a complaint of deliberate and conscious distortion of the data in order to fit preconceived conclusions.
While not agreeing that the data were deliberately and consciously distorted, the Danish Committee decided that the book is “contrary to the standards of good scientific practice.” The raw nerve that my book has struck often makes rational judgment more difficult. I fear that the committee may also have been caught up in the emotion of the debate and have deliberated my case with less than full impartiality. (Its decision and my comments are at www.lomborg.com.)
The committee asserts that the book presents a “systematically biased representation.” Yet its only examples stem from a faithful resume of the four very negative reviews from Scientific American, to which the committee devotes more than a third of its 14 pages, and which it accepts unconditionally. I wrote a 34-page rebuttal, which the committee mentions in just one line.
And the irony goes deeper. My book was also viewed as flawed because it was not initially subject to a peer review. (This is untrue: Cambridge did have it peer-reviewed.) Yet, although many scholarly journals have weighed in, the only published material that the committee referred to in its report come from two popular (i.e. non-peer-reviewed) publications, the above-mentioned Scientific American article and — believe it or not — a half-page article in Time. (“Danish Darts. Reviled for sticking it to the ecological dogma. Bjorn Lomborg laughs all the way to the bank.”)
The committee’s report also speculates on my motives for writing this book. It states that “The Skeptical Environmentalist” wouldn’t have been noticed but for the “overwhelmingly positive write-ups in leading American newspapers and the Economist.
The USA is the society with the highest energy consumption in the world, and there are powerful interests in the USA bound up with increasing energy consumption and with the belief in the free market forces. The USA is also responsible for a substantial part of the research in this and other areas dealt with by Lomborg.” Some might interpret this as the committee seeming to say that I’m in the pocket of “Big Bad America.”
Yet I have no desire to support one interest group over another. My focus is on providing information that allows people to make better choices. This is most obvious in the discussion over global warming. My point has been that, despite our intuition to “do something” about it, economic analyses show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures. Moreover, all current models show that the Kyoto Protocols would have little impact on climate — at a cost of $150 billion to $350 billion annually. With global warming disproportionately affecting Third World countries, we have to ask if Kyoto is the best way to help them. For the amount Kyoto would cost the U.S. per year, we could provide everyone in the world with access to basic health, education, water and sanitation. Isn’t this a better way of serving the world?
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It seems to me that we need to be able to point out such questions without being censured. If the critics want to take each point of the book, dissect it soberly and judge it, that’s their prerogative. So far, however, a fog of hysteria has descended over the debate. The baseless denunciation by the Danish committee — which some have called Orwellian — has led to an academic outcry. In Denmark alone, 280 professors have signed a petition rejecting the decision. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure an open and impartial debate.
Mr. Lomborg, a professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus, Denmark, is the author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World” (Cambridge University Press, 2001).