Bjorn Again! Fundamentalist Greens
Launch Smear Campaign
By: Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine, Science Correspondent
Suggesting to ideological environmentalists that the natural world is not about to collapse under the assault of a greedy and heedless humanity is akin to telling a convention of Southern Baptist preachers that gambling, drinking and dancing are not sins. In both circumstances, the Green ideologues and the Baptists will denounce you as a venal heretic who must be cast out of the company of decent men and women before you contaminate them with your dangerous ideas.
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Bjorn Lomborg, the author of the superb book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, just published by Cambridge University Press, has raised the ire of the environmental fundamentalists. Consequently, this former Greenpeace member is now suffering through a savage disinformation campaign orchestrated by some of the world's largest and most prominent environmentalist lobbying groups, including the World Wildlife Fund and the World Resources Institute.
As part of that campaign, the WWF and WRI have sent a joint press release to every member of the Society of Environmental Journalists warning them "to exercise caution in reporting on Bjorn Lomborg's new book." Why? Among other reasons, the book "has been heavily publicized and championed by conservatives."
The WWF/WRI press release, signed by WRI President Jonathan Lash, claims that the book is "riddled with misleading arguments and factual errors." They then go on to list "Nine Things That Journalists Should Know About The Skeptical Environmentalist," including the hoary old ad hominem strategy of questioning a challenger's credentialsattack the man, not the argument.
Pimm's Cup of Nonsense
However, in checking out the "Nine Things," I found that journalists and all other readers had better be wary of the misinformation being peddled by green lobbyists who are finding their franchises threatened by Lomborg's book. For example, in point #2, the WWF/WRI charges Lomborg with "pseudo-scholarship" because he cites "articles that that have not undergone scientific peer review."
This claim is parroted in an invidious Nature review of the book which alleges, "[l]ike bad term papers, Lomborg's text relies heavily on secondary sources. Out of around 2,000 references, about 5% come from news sources and 30% from web downloads - readily accessible, therefore, but frequently not peer reviewed. A mere 1% are original papers in Nature
. This bias towards non- peer-reviewed material over internationally reputable journals is sometimes incredible
One of the reviewers selected by Nature is the notorious environmental alarmist, Stuart Pimm, a Columbia University Conservation Biology Professor. Interestingly, Professor Pimm has just published, The World According to Pimm, and a quick look at the 245 or so endnotes backing up his ideologically orthodox and therefore gloomy -- assessment of the state of the natural world, finds that at least half of the sources that Pimm himself cites are from non-peer reviewed sources including numerous reports from environmentalist lobby groups like WRI and the Audubon Society, and international and government agencies like the FAO, UNEP, and others. He also cites numerous non-peer reviewed books like Cadillac Desert andGuns, Germs and Steel, along with numerous secondary sources, like the Encyclopedia Britannica, media reports from the New York Times, Barron's, The Economist, and Vanity Fair
In fact of the 245 endnotes, Pimm cites Nature articles only 10 timesadmittedly that is 2.5% not 1%. But it is not clear that an additional 1.5% more Nature citations adds to his credibility since, after all, Lomborg must have cited Nature at least 20 times to get 1% as calculated by Pimm.
As for Pimm's disparagement of "web downloads," looking at Lomborg's references one finds that most of the web downloads are in fact of reports by international and government organizations that collect and publish the environmental statistics that even alarmists like Pimm use in his own book. So Pimm is criticizing Lomborg for doing exactly what he himself does and which he knows is a perfectly acceptable thing to do. Clearly, Nature 's editors should be ashamed of themselves for publishing this shoddy and intellectually dishonest review.
The Forest for the Trees
The WWF/WRI attack press release cites as an example of Lomborg's "pseudo-scholarship" an alleged misquotation of a WWF report that found the "nearly 2/3rds of the world's original forests, dating to the pre-agricultural period (defined as 6000 BC), had at one time been cut." Actually, Lomborg does no such thing. He is merely refuting a misleading WWF press release from October 8, 1997 that announced, "WWF today revealed shocking new figures which show, for the first time, that nearly two-thirds of the world's original forests have been destroyed. Of the 8,080 million hectares of forest existing in the world 8,000 years ago, only 3,044 million hectares remain today."
First note how the WWF rhetoric was subtly shifted from the original inflammatory "forests have been destroyed" to the more judicious "had at one time been cut." Furthermore, the WWF "report" was apparently never issued much less peer-reviewed.
As for 8 billion hectares cited for "original" forest cover, one of the world's leading forest researchers Roger Sedjo, who is a senior fellow at Resources for the Future in Washington, DC says that that number is much too high. In fact, a study issued by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 1997 found that forests might have covered an estimated 6.8 billion hectares 8,000 years ago. Even more interestingly, if one goes back 18,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age, the Oak Ridge study found that forests covered only 2 billion hectares of the earth. Note also that 18,000 years ago, tropical rainforests covered about half a billion hectares while tropical forests of all types covered just over 0.9 billion hectares. Today, 18,000 years after continental glaciers retreated and even after humanity's impact, tropical forests cover about 1.7 billion hectares. Although not directly comparable to the Oak Ridge forest data, the latest U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization report on the state of the world's forests finds that global forest cover is 3.9 billion hectares.
"Look, the relevant issue is what is happening to forests today," says Sedjo. "The fact is that northern temperate forests have been expanding for decades and the rate of tropical deforestation is slowing." Sedjo also agrees with the experts that Lomborg cites that about 20% of the forests have been converted to other uses, primarily agricultural, in the past two centuries.
Reversing Cause and Effect
Next, the WWF/WRI press release claims that Lomborg has mistaken "association for causation," specifically that Lomborg "attributes environmental improvements to increases in standard of living rather than to improved scientific understanding research or to firm environmental policy." This is completely misleading to the point of being dishonest. Lomborg favors strengthening some environmental regulations and clearly states "it is probably fair to say that regulation is one of the reasons for the reduction of pollution."
However, unlike his ideologically motivated antagonists, Lomborg further points out that "technological factors also play a major role" in reducing pollution. For example, consumers have done a lot to clean up the air simply by choosing to switch from relatively dirty fuels like wood and coal to cleaner electricity and natural gas. The World Bank has identified "environmental thresholds" that occur when average incomes in a country reach certain levels, e.g., $1200 for clean drinking water, and $3200 and $3800 for the beginning of cuts in air particulates and sulfur dioxide. The green ideologues have in fact largely reversed cause and effect themselvesgood science and strong environmental regulations are adopted when people achieve a certain level of income. In other words, as people's incomes rise, then they become concerned with environmental amenities.
When Is an Endorsement Not an Endorsement?
Next, the Nature reviewers make recourse to the nasty tactic of calling up their ideological confreres to "refute" Lomborg. Specifically, Lomborg cites doomsters Paul Ehrlich and E.O. Wilson as supporting the Wildlands Project which would reserve 50% of the North American continent as uninhabited wildlands. So, Pimm and Harvey say that they simply called up Ehrlich to ask him if he supported such a plan. "I know of no such plan," replied Ehrlich. "If there were one, I wouldn't support it." So Lomborg must be wrong, right? Wrong.
Lomborg and all other readers of Science magazine may well be forgiven for thinking that Ehrlich and others support the project since. After all, an article entitled "The High Cost of Biodiversity" in the June 25, 1993 issue of Science plainly said that they did.
"[T]he principles behind the Wildlands Project have garnered endorsements from such scientific luminaries as E. O. Wilson of Harvard, Paul Ehrlich of Stanford (who describes himself as an "enthusiastic supporter"), and Michael Soule of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is one of the project's founders," reported Science. Could this be a case where an ideological environmentalist forgets what he said earlier when it was convenient to do so?
The Dismal Science
On climate change, the WWF/WRI press release dismisses Lomborg for allegedly relying on "one controversial economic model" in his analysis of the costs of trying to cut fossil fuel emissions as a way to control global warming through the Kyoto Protocol. A negative review of Lomborg's book by British analyst Michael Grubb in the November 9, 2001 issue Science agrees with WWF/WRI and asserts that Lomborg's book "reaches its nadir when Lomborg turns to climate economics and the Kyoto Protocol."
Amusingly, the very same issue of Science in which the Grubb review is published appears an article by Yale University economist William Nordhaus called "Global Warming Economics". Nordhaus oversees the very same "controversial economic model" that is dismissed by WWF/WRI and Grubb. Nordhaus calculates that had President Bush not withdrawn from the Kyoto-Bonn Protocol, implementing it would have cost the United States $125 billion a year, reaching a total of $2.5 trillion over next ten years. Even without U.S. participation, implementing the treaty will cost Kyoto signatories more than $600 billion to implement over the next ten years. "The Kyoto-Bonn Accord will make little progress in slowing global warming while incurring a substantial cost," concludes Nordhaus. So much for oft-heard green assertion that cutting fossil fuel use will save more money than it costs.
Again, without a hint of embarrassment about the fact that they had just excoriated Lomborg for allegedly using web-based information and non-peer-reviewed sources, the Nature reviewers finish their critique by pointing readers to a website, Anti-Lomborg.com, which contains no peer-reviewed analyses whatsoever, only unoriginal, standard issue, doomsaying by environmentalist ideologues. The site does contain a picture of a green ideologue throwing a pie at Lomborg's face at a book event now how's that for reasonable debate?
And the green hate campaign against Lomborg rolls on. According to Pimm and Harvey, Scientific American has commissioned 5 reviewers to debunk Lomborg nothing like prejudging the conclusion.
Finally, in book dealing with so vast a topic as "Measuring the Real State of the World" there are bound to be minor errors and missteps in interpretation and analysis. Finding and correcting those is an important and honorable exercise, but that is not what the environmentalist ideologues are doing. Instead they try to find minor flaws and then exaggerate their significance while hinting at larger errors. By thus vilifying Lomborg, they hope to prevent concerned citizens, policymakers, and journalists from reading and evaluating The Skeptical Environmentalist for themselves.
"If you're a little skeptical of both sides, I think you'll see that I continually cite scientific evidence and arguments," says Lomborg. "My critics continually try to prejudice readers against me, to sort of attack my character rather than my arguments. That would tend to make me a little suspicious of their arguments." Amen.
Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent and the editor of Earth Report 2000: Revisiting the True State of the Planet (McGraw-Hill).
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