Environmental Skeptic

University of Maryland economist Julian Simon was one of those provocative people that others can rarely be neutral about. The late Dr. Simon was an environmental optimist who believed that the world was getting better and that the most obvious proof of this was the continual increase in life expectancy. He is perhaps best known for his bets with environmental doomsayers like Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Simon bet Ehrlich that a basket of raw materials would grow less expensive over a ten-year period, indicating these materials were becoming less scarce.  Simon won the wager. He made a number of similar such bets and he usually won.

In 1997, a self-described “old left-wing Greenpeace member” Bjørn Lomborg of the University of Aarhus, Denmark, read an interview with Simon in Wired magazine. Lomborg’s first reaction was that Simon was just spreading typical “American right-wing propaganda” which, of course, is far more dangerous than the mere garden-variety “right-wing propaganda.”

Simon disputed the conventional environmental “litany” that pessimistically sees a world where air and water pollution are relentlessly increasing, raw materials are rapidly becoming scarcer, energy grows harder to find, and the quality of life generally begins to decline. Lomborg subscribed to the litany and set out to examine commonly available data and demonstrate Simon’s error.

After considerable research aided by his students, Lomborg’s intellectual honesty forced him to adjust his view in light of evidence. He wrote a number of controversial articles in Denmark. This work grew into the comprehensive, and well-documented book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. By merging the intuition of an economist, the numerical care of a statistician, and the concern of an environmentalist, Lomborg takes a hard look at the “state of the world.”

Lomborg documents how air and water pollution are rapidly decreasing. For example, the last time the air in London was this clean was the 1500s. Fossil fuels are not becoming scarcer and will not run out in the foreseeable future. Life expectancy and health are steadily improving and this progress can be expected to continue. The Green Revolution has given us ample food, while food prices are decreasing and growth in food supplies will be sufficient to accommodate expected increases in population. More and more people have access to clean water and sanitation. The fraction of the world’s population in poverty is decreasing. Levels of education and literacy are increasing. People are generally safer and less likely to die in an accident.

One can sense in Lomborg a real disappointment with how important figures in the environmental movement have displayed either willful deception or incredible naiveté in trying to present the case that the world is becoming less hospitable. For example, Lester Brown, of the Worldwatch Institute, uses minor decreases in rice yields, associated with year-to-year fluctuations, to argue that rice yields have peaked. However, the long-term curve clearly shows increasing yields. A few years after Lester’s comments, the yields were clearly increasing again. Moreover, these sorts of errors or deceptions were not isolated to single incidents, but are repeated frequently. Honest scientists are the first ones to point out and address potential problems with their data and to offer alternative hypotheses. Lester Brown appears more like an attorney trying to win a case than a dispassionate observer.

The largest section in Lomborg’s book addresses global warming. After reviewing the evidence, Lomborg believes that there is a significant anthropogenic (man-made) component to increasing surface temperatures. Lomborg spends considerable time evaluating models for predicting future climate changes. The model problem is complex and the question of the interaction of aerosols, water vapor, and clouds are still unresolved. These models suggest a range of 1 to 5 degrees centigrade increase in temperature over this century, depending on both which model is used and which scenario is chosen in terms of growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is an international group of scientists and others chartered “to assess the scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change.” What is disconcerting is that the panel has typically assumed yearly growth rates of 0.64 percent in carbon dioxide emissions throughout this century for modeling purposes, whereas the 1980s emissions grew by 0.47 percent and by 0.43 percent in the 1990s. These small differences compounded over a century create dramatic differences in predicted climate changes. In Lomborg’s view, increases in temperature over this century will trend toward the lower end of 1 to 2 degrees centigrade.

The real questions of environmental policy are a combination of the expected costs of environmental effects versus the costs of mitigation. The logical policy is the one that minimizes the total costs of mitigation and environmental damage. Inefficient use of economic resources means there will be less to spend on other priorities like education, health, and welfare.

Coupled economic and environmental models suggest that a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions of 11 percent gradually applied over this century minimizes total costs. These reductions are far smaller than the more Draconian cuts of the Kyoto accords. The carbon dioxide restrictions of the Kyoto accords will substantially increase net world mitigation and environmental costs. Moreover, the costs of the Kyoto-level reductions could be substantially trimmed if carbon dioxide emission rights could be traded internationally, a policy that is meeting political resistance.

The question of minimizing economic costs is, of course, always open to debate as knowledge and modeling improve. Unfortunately, in its latest report, the IPCC did not provide estimates of the economic costs and benefits of abatement of carbon dioxide emissions, making it more difficult to reach a consensus on environmental policy.

In a perfect world, what could be better than if scientists found a clean, inexpensive, inexhaustible source of energy that could replace fossil fuels? At one point, we thought there was just such a possibility, as reports emerged that hydrogen fusion at room temperatures was possible, so called cold fusion. Unfortunately, it now appears these reports were premature and we cannot expect respite from this energy source in the near future.

Nonetheless, Lomborg notes that the reaction to the news by extremists in the environmental community is illuminating. Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends, thought such a development was, “the worst thing that could happen” because it would allow man to exploit the planet even more. John Holdren, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley lamented, “…clean-burning, non-polluting hydrogen-using bulldozers still could knock down trees…” Laura Nader, also of Berkeley believes that “…many people just assume that cheaper, more abundant energy will mean that mankind is better off, but there is no evidence for that.”

Most people are concerned both about their economic and environmental future. The world is not perfect and there still are many problems to overcome, but fortunately the evidence suggest that human life and the environment are getting better. We need to constantly weigh the costs and benefits of environmental improvements. However, for the vocal minority in the environmental movement, environmentalism is a mere device to enforce a Luddite, anti-technology agenda on the rest of us.

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