Hard News by Russell Brown


Self-described "sceptical environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg will speak in Wellington tomorrow, at the invitation of the Business Roundtable - and a lot of people who should know better will make arses of themselves.

It is not that Lomborg is a charlatan. His book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, offers a fresh - and possibly very useful - perspective on environmental management. Employing the tools of his trade - he's a statistician - he attempts to set environmental problems in a broader context, and suggests both that some problems aren't as bad as they appear, and that we need to reassess our priorities.

Well and good. But the tendency of some people to treat the Dane like the Second Coming - and dismiss various bodies of genuine scientific expertise while they're at it - is actually quite embarrassing.

Lomborg was first brought to attention by The Economist. But Denis Dutton, marshalling all the expert knowledge of an, er, associate professor of the philosophy of art, moved in early to his status as Lomborg's special friend with an adulatory review in The Washington Post. Dutton's review drew a scornful letter from Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, who said the book was "riddled with misleading arguments and factual errors" and that "Lomborg, who has never previously worked or published in environmental science or policy, is simply out of his depth, and your reviewer has mistaken a polemic for a work of scholarship."

Dutton, smug as ever, implied that Lash was a "lobbyist" peddling "Green dogma". Well, hardly. Among other things, Lash is on the biotechnology advisory board at DuPont, not quite the place where you'd expect to find a witchy-poo greenie. Ironically, it's the people who fancy themselves as sceptics who look distinctly witchy-poo here, especially when the topic turns to climate change, where everyone's an expert, even when they're not.

Feel free to read this beautiful post by the "Whiggish" Australian libertarian Jason Soon. Read all of it:

Sorry, I'm more sceptical of the greenhouse-sceptics than some people here. Greenhouse-scepticism as espoused by Tim Blair (who the last time I checked didn't have a science degree) verges on crankery when people are willing to ignore the fact that among environmental scientists/climatologists the majority opinion is that there is something going on. Now, I don't normally go for majority rule but my heuristic is I can't be an expert on everything. In those cases my plausible presumption is that if the majority of qualified experts say X I adopt X as my working hypothesis. It's a courtesy I extend to learned people in other areas just as I don't appreciate it when some graduate in mediavel theology talks nonsense about, say, game theory or expected utility theory.

Grist magazine also has an excellent page of links covering the emergence of the Lomborg phenomenon, its cheerleaders and its angry opponents.

But let's be clear here: Lomborg isn't being junketed around the world because his book is the last word on environmental management, but because what he has to say is what his hosts - like the Business Roundtable - want to hear.

Gordy's already got in his "me too" ("When Lomborg arrives here in a couple of days I expect local worthies to explode with indignation." Oooh, you rebel, you ...) and David Cohen provided this simpering effort for NBR, inviting his readers to have a chuckle at the expense of Lomborg's old "greener-than-thou colleagues within academe and the environmental community." He says:

Dr Lomborg, a onetime Greenpeace activist turned "sceptical environmentalist," the title of his controversial best-seller, not only disbelieves the greenhouse effect but has unpopularly set himself against such fashionable political notions as the imminent exhaustion of the world's natural resources and extinction of vast numbers of species, the problem of overpopulation, and disappearing forests. The self-described "eco-optimist" feels pretty relaxed about genetically modified crops as well.

But does Lomborg really "disbelieve the greenhouse effect"? Actually, no, but he has faulted some projections, and - as he explained at a public meeting in Melbourne last week - he believes it's simply to costly to effectively address at the moment, and that there are better uses for resources.

"The greenhouse effect is a problem definitely," he says. "It's man made and serious and we should definitely contemplate what to do."

It is his solution to the issue that is unusual in environmental circles and has brought industries like coal and aluminium flocking to his Melbourne function. Basically, Lomborg's policy is do nothing.

"Greenhouse is too costly to do anything about in the short term," he says. "But it's a long-term problem. We want to make sure we stop using fossil fuels eventually. And it's likely this will happen even if we do nothing, as renewables are dropping in price dramatically."

So investing in research and development for renewables will do more to solve the problem than the Kyoto protocol on climate change. "Let's do something smart rather than something that feels good but doesn't do much good," Lomborg says.

He is not saying ignore greenhouse forever. Rather, he claims there are more pressing concerns, such as providing clean drinking water to 1.5 billion people who do not have it. The provision of basic services will help spur a process by which the poor countries will be able to support measures to clean up the environment.

This is actually a point of view worth considering. The problem, of course, is that the Kyoto refuseniks aren't presently lining up for the laudable but large job of providing the world with clean drinking water.

Cohen also notes that Lomborg is executive director of the Danish Institute of Environmental Assessment, but doesn't venture to say what the institute does. Which is: not research. It "interprets" and "presents" the research of others, and offers opinions. And what is does say is frequently misinterpreted in the media, as this useful summary points out. His institute's own board recently rapped Lomborg for presenting cost-benefit analyses without establishing a valid frame of reference.

But perhaps we shouldn't be too harsh - Lomborg didn't actually create the DICE cost-benefit model which is the basis of much of his work on global warming. Mikael Skou Andersen, an associate professor in Lomborg's own department at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, has described DICE as so oversimplified as to be almost worthless. While DICE might have been news to philosophy professors at minor universities, Lomborg, he says, "does not acquaint his readers with the extensive discussions that have taken place in professional circles about economic climate models."

Andersen also has a useful page covering the background to the debate, the rebuttals and objections of experts in the various fields in which Lomborg dabbles, and the difficulty faced by other scientists in having their dissenting views represented in the media.

The other view - sympathetically aired by Cohen - is that the claims of unhappy experts are largely decreed by their desire for continued research funding. Which is, of course, very much like the view of fringe elements of the anti-GM lobby. Scientists are not scientists, but craven seekers of the research dollar. This is not only insulting, but, logic would dictate, a fairly risky view to take. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in its explanatory brochure, noting diverse views on the severity of climate change and appropriate response:

Because the stakes are so high and the system complex, policymakers cannot rely on popular interpretations of the evidence or on the views of an individual expert. They need an objective source of the most widely accepted scientific, technical and socio-economic information available about climate change, its environmental and socio-economic impacts including costs and benefits of action versus inaction, and possible response options.

But that would spoil the fun, wouldn't it?

PS:Great news! Overall, New Zealanders are happier than Americans, Australians and the British. Australia beats us for "day-to-day happiness" but apparently harbours some existential gloom when the lights are out. And the dear old Slavs are still the world's most miserable people.