get defensive about former Greenpeace member's stats published in
"The Skeptical Environmentalist"
By James K. Glassman -
Tech Central Station
Sheer panic. That's
the only way to describe the reaction of green activists to a
fact-filled 515-page book by a young Danish statistician, published in
English late last year by Cambridge University Press. The statistician,
a slim, laid-back former Greenpeace member named Bjorn Lomborg, dared to
question the conventional wisdom of the alarmists who dominate the
fund-raising arm of the environmental movement: that the world is going
to hell in a handbasket.
In "The Skeptical Environmentalist," Lomborg argues against
all the doomsaying, which he dubs The Litany. The planet and the people
who live on it are getting healthier, he argues, calamities like global
warming are exaggerated, and, in any event, environmental mitigation
requires a thorough analysis of costs and benefits.
Lomborg's message is one that the public deserves to hear--and wants to
hear. The book is the number-one bestseller in Amazon.com's "Nature
and Ecology" category. Of all the books sold on the website,
"The Skeptical Environmentalist" last week ranked number 67--a
remarkable achievement. "The State of the World 2002," by
Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, a group that Lomborg cites for
particularly egregious distortions, ranks 5,915.
Lomborg is no dogmatist. As an associate professor of statistics at the
University of Aarhus, he makes his case calmly and transparently,
providing 2,930 footnotes and a 70-page bibliography.
But calm is not the word for his critics. They have gone berserk. Nasty,
bitchy, hysterical, paranoid--those are apt adjectives to describe the
response to the book. The Economist, which, despite its own green
leanings, lavishly praised Lomborg's book when it came out, last week
reported that "Mr. Lomborg is being called a liar, a fraud and
worse. People are refusing to share a platform with him. He turns up in
Oxford to talk about this book, and the author (it is claimed) of a
forthcoming study on climate change throws a pie in his face."
The World Resources Institute has posted a special media alert on its
website: "WRI is urging journalists to exercise caution in
reporting on or reviewing the new book, 'The Skeptical
Environmentalist.'" It's as though Lomborg were armed and
dangerous. And, in a way, of course, he is: armed with facts and
dangerous to a movement whose claims are rarely checked. Grist magazine,
Tompaine.com, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and on and on--they're
all trying to debunk Lomborg. There's even a site called
But worst of all is Scientific American, which devoted 11 pages of its
January issue to a special section portentously headlined, "Science
Defends Itself Against 'The Skeptical Environmentalist'"--as though
all of the mighty scientific establishment were lined up against pitiful
little Lomborg. The editor, John Rennie, asked "four leading
experts to critique Lomborg's treatments of their areas." Hope you
weren't expecting balance.
One of the four authors is Stephen Schneider, whose fatuous article on
global warming epitomizes the worst kind of priggish academic posturing
("So how does the reality of the text hold up to its premise? I'm
sure you can already guess. . . ."). Well, yes, we can. In fact,
experienced readers could guess what Schneider would write even before
opening the magazine.
How? Well, this is the same Stephen Schneider, professor of biological
sciences at Stanford, who has publicly declared himself in favor of
environmental scientists' striking a "balance" between getting
their radical agenda accomplished and actually telling the truth. The
Economist quotes his famous statement to Discover magazine in 1989. It
reflects a widespread attitude in the movement and goes a long way
toward explaining the wild reaction to Lomborg:
"[We] are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like
most people we'd like to see the world a better place. . . . To do that
we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's
imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage.
So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic
statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . . .
Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being
effective and being honest."
As the Economist deadpanned: "Science needs no defending from Mr.
Lomborg. It may very well need defending from champions like Mr.
Even more distressing is the response to the book of E.O. Wilson, the
Harvard biologist and prolific and celebrated author. He deplores what
he calls "the Lomborg scam" because of "the extraordinary
amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat [him] in
the media. . . . [Mr. Lomborg and his kind] are a parasite load on
scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and
Back in the 1960s, campus radicals used to say that their demonstrations
would provoke college administrators, the police, and government
authorities into showing their "true nature." That is what
Lomborg's book--unwittingly--has done with the environmental movement.
What has he revealed? A petulant, angry, selfish child that whines that
it must have its own way.
Wilson complains about wasting time, but what of Lomborg himself? He
devotes 33 pages, with tiny type, on his website (www.lomborg.org) to
refuting the criticisms of Schneider, Wilson, and the other Scientific
Lomborg's unruffled earnestness is admirable, and he is a wonderful
witness for the prosecution. When he presented his views at a panel
discussion I moderated at the American Enterprise Institute last
October, he wore a T-shirt and jeans and drank water from a McDonald's
cup. In an article this month in the American Enterprise magazine, Eli
Lehrer aptly describes him as "a mild-mannered Danish statistics
professor who believes in environmental protection laws, votes on the
political left, avoids eating meat, and thinks that governments should
redistribute wealth....The left-wing environmental movement hates him
with a passion."
And this is the point. The environmental movement does not defend
"science," as editor Rennie would have it. Rather, it uses
science as a weapon to advance the cause, as Charles T. Rubin put it in
his Weekly Standard review. In a letter to Scientific American, Matt
Ridley, author of Genome, writes, "By the end of the four articles
I was astonished to find that none of the critics had laid a glove on
Lomborg. They . . . found only a few trivial misquotations and
ellipses--mostly by distorting the point Lomborg was making." What
Lomborg had revealed, said Ridley, was "a narrow but lucrative
industry of environmental fund-raising that has a vested interest in
claims of alarmism." Ridley continues, "Lomborg is as green as
anybody else. But he recognizes that claims of universal environmental
deterioration have not only been proved wrong often, but are a counsel
of despair that distracts us from the many ways in which economic
progress can produce environmental improvement as well."
Yes, but radical--or, more accurately, reactionary--environmentalism has
become a religion, or a religion-substitute. Arguing from reason, with
2,930 footnotes, against The Litany may be as futile as arguing from
reason against communism or fanatical Islam. Still, it's great to see
someone try. What Lomborg is doing is precisely what Rennie claims that
his four horsemen of the apocalypse are doing: defending science against
lies and distortions.
A version of this article first appeared in The Weekly Standard.