Green Skepticism About the Skeptical Environmentalist


Bjorn Lomborg

Nothing annoys ideological green doomsayers more than pointing out that most global environmental trends are positive. And few people arouse green ire more than Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001) and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming (2007). Newsweek's science reporter (and Al Gore fangirl) Sharon Begley is now touting the latest effort to "debunk" Lomborg: Howard Friel's The Lomborg Deception which will be published by Yale University Press next month. The Begley column opens:

In naming roustabout, lumberjack, ironworker, and dairy farmer America's "worst jobs," omitted one whose awfulness is counterbalanced only by its public-spiritedness: fact-checking Bjørn Lomborg.

The Danish political scientist won fame and fans by arguing that many of the alarms sounded by environmental activists and scientists—that species are going extinct at a dangerous rate, that forests are disappearing, that climate change could be catastrophic—are bogus. A big reason Lomborg was taken seriously is that both of his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist (in 2001) and Cool It (in 2007), have extensive references, giving a seemingly authoritative source for every one of his controversial assertions. So in a display of altruistic masochism that we should all be grateful for (just as we're grateful that some people are willing to be dairy farmers), author Howard Friel has checked every single citation in Cool It. The result is The Lomborg Deception, which is being published by Yale University Press next month. It reveals that Lomborg's work is "a mirage," writes biologist Thomas Lovejoy in the foreword. "[I]t is a house of cardsFriel has used real scholarship to reveal the flimsy nature" of Lomborg's work.

Fair and balanced? Oh well. Nobody's perfect (including me), but I think there are good reasons to be skeptical of this latest attack on Lomborg. But first, I can't help but note that a foreword from Lovejoy on the scientific accuracy of environmental trends is pretty laughable. As I have previously reported:

At a 1979 symposium at Brigham Young University, Thomas Lovejoy, former president of The H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics, and the Environment announced that he had made "an estimate of extinctions that will take place between now and the end of the century. Attempting to be conservative wherever possible, I still came up with a reduction of global diversity between one-seventh and one-fifth." Lovejoy drew up the first projections of global extinction rates for the Global 2000 Report to the President in 1980, which asserted that between 1980 and 2000: "Extinctions of plant and animal species will increase dramatically. Hundreds of thousands of species—perhaps as many as 20 percent of all species on earth—will be irretrievably lost as their habitats vanish, especially in tropical forests." If Lovejoy had been right, between 15 and 20 percent of all species alive in 1980 would be extinct right now. No one believes that extinctions of this magnitude have occurred over the last three decades.

Talk about "flimsy," but let's move on. Begley cites three examples from Friel about Lomborg's errors, e.g., polar bear population trends and climate change, human deaths from heat versus cold, and the implications of Antarctic ice shelf disintegration. You can read Begley's reporting and judge for yourself. (With regard to polar bears, let's assume that Begley's reporting of Friel's analysis is accurate and that Lomborg's sourcing is, how should one put it, thin and misleading. However, I do note in passing that a 2009 review article in the journal Environmental Reviews cited literature that found that only four of 13 Canadian polar bear subpopulations were declining, four were stable, three were increasing, and two were unknown. Canada is home to about 60 percent of the world's polar bears. Since Cool It was published in 2007, Lomborg couldn't cite this literature, but Begley could have.)

No doubt Lomborg's work contains inaccuracies—all books do—but as one might say about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, a few errors do not invalidate the overall argument. In any case, you can read Lomborg's rebuttal to some of Friel's claims and make up your own mind.

For more background, you may also want to take a look at my 2002 debunking of the first scurrilous attacks on Lomborg's work by green ideologists in Scientific American.

Disclosure: I am not too popular with ideological greens either.