Sunday, February 03, 2008

‘The skeptical environmentalist’ strikes back

Tolga Temuge
Malta Independent Online

February 03, 2008

Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish statistician and author of the controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001) which enraged the scientific community due to its claim that “the dangers of global warming had been exaggerated and that trying to slow it was a waste of money”, is back with a new book.

Cool it: The Skeptical Environmentalists Guide To Global Warming (2007), is, according to his website, “A groundbreaking book that transforms the debate about global warming by offering a fresh perspective based on human needs as well as environmental concerns.”

Lomborg even managed to find his way into the Maltese newspapers with one of his recent articles published on the Project Syndicate ticket. This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about Lomborg as he has been a “celebrity” for some time. Following the publication of his controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist in 2001, Lomborg was joyfully embraced by the World Economic Forum and selected by them as “Global Leader for Tomorrow”.

It did not take too long for the corporate media in the US to give more prominence to this self-proclaimed “environmentalist” and help him with his book sales. In June 2002, Business Week named Lomborg one of the “50 Stars of Europe”, in the category of Agenda Setters. His greatest accolade to date was given by the influential US magazine, TIME, when he was selected as one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2004.

But on the path to becoming “One of the most influential people in the world”, the Danish statistician has attracted some criticism – at Borders Bookshop in Oxford he was hit in the face by a pie while he was promoting his controversial book in 2001. “Pie-man” Mark Lynas said he was unable to ignore Lomborg’s comments on climate change.

“I wanted to put a baked Alaska in his smug face, in solidarity with the native Indian and Eskimo people in Alaska who are reporting rising temperatures, shrinking sea ice and worsening effects on animal and bird life.”

One of Lomborg’s key arguments was that continuing to burn fossil fuels was cheaper than switching to clean energy to prevent runaway global warming. His critics felt that Lomborg’s book thus served the agenda of profiteering multinational oil giants like Exxon Mobil.

While other opponents chose not to “put a baked Alaska” in Lomborg’s face, they had some strong and valid arguments about his claims about climate change and environmental issues. In 2003, a prestigious Danish scientific committee accused the environmental maverick of scientific dishonesty which led the Danish government to request a panel of five academics to evaluate reports from the environmental institute headed by Bjorn Lomborg.

This dishonesty seems manifest throughout The Skeptical Environmentalist with its claims that the world’s forests are barely declining, few animals have become extinct lately and rivers and oceans are becoming cleaner.

Lomborg also criticised the vast sums being spent on tackling pollution, arguing that the amount spent on reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be enough to provide every person in the world with access to clean water and sewerage. Why he chose to target the money spent on reducing greenhouse gases over the spending on military expenditure is “unclear” but Lomborg was surely becoming more and more popular in certain circles – particularly the ones that crowned him with titles like “Global Leader of Tomorrow”.

Lomborg, even went on to claim that “It is also expected that the oil price will once again decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020.” Now, anyone who drives a car has every right to ask this “Global leader of Tomorrow” if he still thinks that the oil price will decline to $20 from the almost $100 it has reached now.

The environmental organisation Friends of the Earth was also disturbed by Lomborg’s book. The group had said: “There is a place for serious intellectual analysis of environmentalist arguments. But Lomborg’s work is not serious enough. He has turned a proper scepticism about green claims into a slapdash attempt to dismiss all environmental arguments. This may help him sell books and secure column inches. But it fatally undermines his claim to be taken seriously.”

Now Lomborg is back with his new book Cool it in which he appears finally to acknowledge climate change as a serious concern. However, rather than addressing the source of the problem, he chooses to focus on “end solutions”.

In the age of spin, we are likely to see more of these kinds of self-proclaimed environmentalists who will go on to claim that they know better about the conservation of our common natural heritage than the “bewildered herd” or even the scientific community. It is up to each individual to decide whether these claims are based on short-sighted self interest of “environmentalists” like Lomborg or the common good of all the living beings that share this planet with us.

Tolga Temuge is the Executive Director of BirdLife Malta

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