THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST: Measuring the State of the Environment

Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Global warming, population, deforestation, mass extinctions—according to environmental groups and environmental scientists, the earth is in ever more dire straits. Should we heed these warnings and take steps to mitigate our impact on the global ecosystem? Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg has come forward to say, not so fast. He claims the environmental state of the world is actually improving, not getting worse. His claims have generated a firestorm of condemnation in the scientific community. Why? And how can we in the general public separate ideology from fact in this debate?

Recorded on Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, the young man who says the sky isn't falling.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge. I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: a disagreement--a sharp disagreement--over the state of the planet. On one side, environmentalists, and a tale of woe: global warming, overpopulation, deforestation, the mass extinction of species. According to the environmentalists, the planet has been in dire straits for decades and things are going to get worse. On the other side, one young man, a Danish statistician who has come forward to say, not so fast. After looking at the figures, he has concluded that the state of the planet has actually been getting better, and is likely to go on doing just that. His claims have generated a firestorm of criticism.

Joining us two guests, an environmental scientist, Dan Kammen, who is a professor of energy and society at the University of California at Berkeley and that young Danish statistician, Bjorn Lomborg, whose book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, started all the trouble.

Title: Simon Says

Peter Robinson: The late economist Julian Simon, "The material conditions of life will continue to get better for most people, in most countries, most of the time, indefinitely." True or false? Bjorn?

Bjørn Lomborg: I think it's true.

Peter Robinson: Dan?

Daniel Kammen: I think it's true if you direct your research appropriately, which we're not doing currently.

Peter Robinson: All right, Bjorn, you describe an environmentalist litany which comes down to this: human beings are exhausting the planet's resources, reproducing too fast, driving other species to extinction, and fouling the environment. Not a cheerful litany. Let's take each of those items in turn. Now you contend, that since The Club of Rome published its famous 1972 report, The Limits to Growth, energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not as The Club of Rome predicted, less so. Explain.

Bjørn Lomborg: Well, the idea is to say we need to take out our myths of understanding of how the world works. And we obviously think that, you know, there's only a limited pool, for instance of iron, so we use up the iron and that leaves very little or none to our kids and grandkids. But actually what we do at the same time--yes, we use up the easily accessible iron ore, but at the same time, we leave more technology so that they're able to get lower grade iron ore, or have to dig deeper for it, but actually do so altogether at a cheaper cost. And so what we do is, in the economist's sense of that word, we leave more available iron at a lower cost for our kids and grandkids, and this is the general idea--in general for most of these resources that actually get cheaper and we leave more and not less. And that of course leaves us with the understanding that, listen, this is not so that we shouldn't--and obviously I think that was probably also what Dan was trying say--it doesn't mean that we shouldn't direct our research in the right direction, but it also means that we shouldn't think, oh God, we're going to run out!

Daniel Kammen: Well, this is--I mean, this is an unfortunate use of the facts because from my perspective, it is true that we discover there is more oil the more we look for it, there is more tin and magnesium the more we look for it, but as many of the critics of your book have brought out I think in great detail, that's not really the central point. The central point isn't how much coal there is in the ground, it's what we do to get it and to burn it. And so it's running out of places to put our waste products as a society that overuses these resources, not the pure amount of tin, magnesium, oil out there.

Bjørn Lomborg: I mean there's no doubt that the original concern was that we were running out of actual stuff, right?

Daniel Kammen: But then you're debating something that's 30 years out of date.

Bjørn Lomborg: Well, I think first of all…

Peter Robinson: It's still in the culture; it's still in the air…

Daniel Kammen: Well, it's not in the environmentalist debate today. When you talk about the raw amount of coal, oil, whatever in the ground, that stopped being a topic for discussion in the '60s and early '70s. Since then the debate really has moved on to: what is our environmental footprint? What is the degradation we do to the environment and to society from using those resources inappropriately?

Bjørn Lomborg: I fail to see that when we're talking about, say iron, or say oil, are we actually having problems in disposing of our garbage? Are we actually having trouble?

Daniel Kammen: We absolutely are. If you look at our impact through oil and through coal, for example of use, you know, coal, still being the biggest, dirtiest fuel out there, that we have extensive damage. I assume we'll into the global warming debate of which your critics have taken on a number in specific detail, but we simply at a regional level, we see very negative impacts of coal use and the mining stage, the tailing stage, impacts on rivers, regional environments, sulfur dioxide, acid rain--we have a whole range of things…

Peter Robinson: On to the second aspect of the environmentalist litany: too many people.

Title: Behind the Green Door

Peter Robinson: 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich wrote, "In the course of the 1970's the world will experience starvation of tragic proportions. Hundreds of millions of people will starve to death." That didn't happen, and Bjorn will tell us why.

Bjørn Lomborg: Well, basically we're able to produce more and more. From the green revolution we've utilized better varieties of grain, we've used pesticides, we've used artificial fertilizer, it's increased our productivity. Basically we haven't expanded very much the use of ground, of agricultural ground--we've gone from ten to eleven percent of the earth's surface, but we've produced much, much more on each hectare. So we've actually been able to feed about 2 billion extra people by now.

Peter Robinson: So from the time Ehrlich published that book in '68, the population of the world then was a little over 3 billion? It's about 6 billion now, and although starvation is--there are people who don't get enough food in general--per capita consumption has gone up…

Bjørn Lomborg: It's gone up.

Peter Robinson: …by adding only one percent of the earth's surface to…

Bjørn Lomborg: The idea of course is to say that, and this is my general point, to say, listen--it's not that things are all hunky dory, we don't need to worry--there's still--we've gone from about 35 percent of all people starving in the developing world down to about 18 percent today, but it still means that there's a little more than 800 million people starving, and unnecessarily so. So it doesn't mean that we shouldn't worry about things, but it means that we shouldn't worry about not being able to feed them. We should much more worry about them not having enough money to actually buy their food.

Daniel Kammen: You see this is an example of one of the areas where John Bongaarts, one of your critics on population said this is a very, very, fast and loose use of statistics. And the problem is this: when you say the total amount of land and production has only increased by a small amount, that is true if you say there is this many hectares of land in use at one time, and there's this many hectares another time, but they're not the same the hectares. The fact is…

Peter Robinson: They're using up land…

Daniel Kammen: …that that piece of productive land has migrated and has left behind it degraded land. So right now, the estimates are that the amount of degraded land, severely degraded, that can't be used currently, around the world, is about equal to the land area of the United States. So it's true that the total land area under production for rice and corn and things is roughly the same, a little bit of increase, but we have left behind an environmental legacy of waste…

Peter Robinson: The contention is that is land that will not regenerate itself, or…

Daniel Kammen: Well, it could, but we need to invest in it. And the thing is that we need to make a commitment to doing so. We have…

Bjørn Lomborg: Why would you want to invest in it? Because the point is that the agricultural prices are down so low now that the real problem is not producing enough, the real problem is getting people sufficiently rich to be able to buy it.

Peter Robinson: John Bongaarts makes a slightly different argument. The best agricultural land has already been deployed, fresh water is in short supply in a lot of countries, and I quote him, "Each new increase in food production is becoming more expensive to obtain."

Bjørn Lomborg: That's clearly not true right, because then otherwise we wouldn't see the price going down. The point is that you don't put in new land right now because the food prices are so low.

Daniel Kammen: Right, but there's a fundamental feature of economics here, and that is that we see in a number of cases, the price for commodities, going down as the demand goes up as we use that resource and we put more effort into exporting them. There's examples from fisheries, from agriculture, from a variety of areas. So…

Bjørn Lomborg: So the price is going up there…

Daniel Kammen: Well, the price is going up in general, but we see individual stocks where the price goes down and then you see a crash.

Peter Robinson: Hang on now, are you now asserting that the marketplace--no doubt there are inefficiencies, little inefficiencies in markets here and there--but you're asserting that the global marketplace is driving prices down so quickly that these resources will be used wastefully, used up quickly…

Daniel Kammen: I haven't used the word used up in what I've said. What I've said is that we have examples of markets--and in many different areas, in fisheries, and in timber, a whole variety of products--where the marketplace permits actors to exploit the resource to a point that we discover that we have critically endangered it not necessarily to it's extinction…

Peter Robinson: But if we've discovered that the resource is becoming scarcer--I mean the fundamental message of price is, is to reflect the scarcity of a resource. So if we, the market--if information is floating in the world that a resource is becoming scarcer, the price should go up, unless you're arguing that there's some sort of catastrophic failure of the marketplace as regards natural resources. Is that your argument?

Daniel Kammen: I will take that one as what I'm arguing with the following caveat, and that is that we have a number of different resources, where we do not see the price going up as you'd expect as we exploit the resource more and more, because we've put in more effort into extracting it, and later on, in that process we then see a massive degradation of the resource…

Peter Robinson: Next topic: biodiversity and the extinction of species.

Title: The Long Goodbye

Peter Robinson: This man says, the threat of biodiversity loss is real but exaggerated.

Bjørn Lomborg: Yeah, I'm simply pointing out that when we've been told that we were going to lose what, twenty, fifty percent of all species within a lifetime or two, that was a catastrophe, and that should really set our alarm bells off, but what seems to be the case is that we are losing species at a much faster rate than what would naturally be happening. But if you sort of make that up into--what is the absolute size of this, it's about 0.7 percent over the next fifty years.

Peter Robinson: We lose seven tenths of one percent of species?

Bjørn Lomborg: Species within the next fifty years.

Daniel Kammen: Now that's of course debated by a number of ecologists.

Bjørn Lomborg: Well, the point is that they just don't want to hear the argument, but that's all what they've come down to. They've realized that they were talking about these twenty, fifty percent and they didn't come through.

Daniel Kammen: Right, but now let's go back to Tom Lovejoy's initial criticism of your paper, and that is that you looked at the Costa Rica data, and the number of species that went extinct is documented to be 7 or 8 in the initial response he gave…

Peter Robinson: The Costa Rica data is what?

Daniel Kammen: This is data on looking at the number of species that have been determined to have gone extinct in Costa Rica during a time of some significant change in landscape. The fact that we see, and is pointed out by Lovejoy and his response to you is that look, the number of species that are being put into marginalized and unviable habitats is significantly increasing so that those species over the next decades we expect to lose or we expect to see their numbers degraded…

Peter Robinson: Isn't that an enormous concession? I mean they've gone from saying we're going to lose vast numbers of species to saying, well all right, I grant that it hasn't happened, but it will, it still will.

Daniel Kammen: I don't understand why you say it's a weak argument. I think it's an argument better understanding…

Peter Robinson: Because it didn't happen that's why.

Daniel Kammen: …but they didn't say by that time. I mean, the point is that these are areas where we see--there's interesting new work on how do you connect habitats of marginal species, what do you do to maintain them…

Peter Robinson: Now how can you be so confident that it's going to be so tiny?

Bjørn Lomborg: Oh, but the point is I'm--these are arguments to say--their initial arguments was if we cut back 90 percent of the forest, we're going to lose about 50 percent of our species. This is sort of a rule of thumb and the Costa Rica argument is one of those places where we say, well maybe we didn't see it happen in this kind of way, but it may still be an argument in saying well they're just barely clinging on. We know from research that's been done on birds, for instance, of about thousand birds that are endangered from dying out, only a handful of them will actually die out within the next twenty-five years mainly because we actually do worry about these.

Daniel Kammen: We are worried about these, true.

Bjørn Lomborg: So, we are actually going to save a lot of these. But the main point and the reason why I'm putting out this 0.7 percent comes from the estimate of the UN, the Global Biodiversity Report which put out the idea that we were eradicating species at hundreds--maybe even thousands of times the natural background rate. And that works into about 0.7 percent. Depending on your…

Daniel Kammen: But that's the point, I think you really need to focus in on that. Removing species at rates far in excess of the natural background rate of extinction. That is a significant change in ecosystems…

Bjørn Lomborg: Yeah, yeah…

Daniel Kammen: …to finish the point--we may not know and we certainly don't know what the impacts of that were going to be. In terms of, you know, understanding ecology and in making wise decisions. To say that's an acceptable rate because of our human appetite for resources, when we have lots of ways to innovate to change that. That is another case that I mentioned before, of a bad use of resources. And we don't need to do that.

Bjørn Lomborg: And Dan, I would tend to say that this is one of the points that I try to make to say, in this world there are lots and lots of different problems, and we really have to make up our minds which ones of them do we want to do first. And the idea is to say, if you think 50 percent are going to be eradicated, you're likely to say we really, really got to fix this. If it's 0.7 percent, you might be more inclined to say, well we should do something about this, but maybe there are other issues that requires to be solved first.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask Bjorn about the connection he draws between pollution and affluence.

Title: Putting on Airs

Peter Robinson: Tell us about London and what that has to say about Sao Paulo.

Bjørn Lomborg: Well, the idea of course is to say that most people think air pollution is a fairly recent phenomenon that's getting worse and worse. Seventy percent of all Americans think that air pollution is actually getting worse in the U.S., and that's just not so. We have data from 1585 in London and basically it's been getting worse and worse and worse up until about 1890, and from then on it's declined dramatically. And so the idea is it's actually now down below what it was in 1585. It doesn't mean that we don't actually want this to get down even further. But we should do so not because we worry excessively, but because it's a good idea. And air pollution is actually one of the most important pollutants.

Daniel Kammen: That's true. In industrialized, rich nations, we have seen that transition. And the argument that you make in the book, that again I think is false, is that we can therefore expect that richness around the world, or increasing affluence in poor countries today is going to naturally follow that same path. And we have lots of data that's not the case. We have lots of cities where, as affluence has increased, we have not seen those commensurate increases in air quality.

Bjørn Lomborg: In the richest developing countries, in Mexico and Chile, you have declining levels of air pollution in both Mexico City and…

Daniel Kammen: Well, but look at Mexico City, which is in fact not getting cleaner.

Bjørn Lomborg: Yes it is.

Daniel Kammen: It's not, that's actually wrong. If you look at emissions from vehicles alone…

Bjørn Lomborg: The World Bank, their latest report for 2002, just states that …

Daniel Kammen: …that's actually not the full--again, that's case of not using all the data. The World Bank also has reports looking at the informal sector on Mexico City which says that overall pollution has increased even if the official government sponsored indicators show its decreased and that's the problem.

Bjørn Lomborg: These are the concentrations, these are not the emissions. It's actual measurements in Mexico City…

Daniel Kammen: No, I realize.

Bjørn Lomborg: …and the air is just getting cleaner. And that of course also points back to the idea that you were saying earlier, when you were talking about where we may not be running out of resources, but we may be running out of places to store all the garbage that we put out, and air pollution and acid rain was one of the important ones. And we've actually seen dramatic declines in sulfur dioxide emissions.

Daniel Kammen: Now when you say dramatic, do you mean dramatic for where?

Bjørn Lomborg: Dramatic for Europe, and there've been declines--significant declines of about half or so…

Daniel Kammen: You're right; the most affluent countries have shown that history.

Peter Robinson: So why does it not stand to reason that we should encourage affluence elsewhere?

Daniel Kammen: Because one of the reasons why we have become cleaner in the U.S. and Europe--there's two reasons: one is emission controls; and the other one is we have exported a number of dirty industries to developing countries, and so they are dirtier to make us cleaner. And that's an inescapable fact when you look at the export of steel, a whole variety of production industries that we see that trend around the world. So it's not fair to say--and it's not accurate to say…

Bjørn Lomborg: But they can certainly get those much cleaner, which is what we do, because we also have a lot of those technologies--steel production in the industrialized countries--and they are much cleaner.

Daniel Kammen: They are much cleaner, that's right but this argument that you've said that simple increased affluence in developing countries will result in the same trends we see in developed countries, is in fact false.

Bjørn Lomborg: Well no, I mean, we both do see that, which I also point out. And we also see the fact that they import our technology, so they actually get cleaner. It's true that at the same time they also import the dirty technology, which is where their competitive edge is. So yes, we do have these conflicting trends but it's a--can you possibly imagine the situation where when they get sufficiently rich, that they wouldn't also impose stringent regulations?

Daniel Kammen: All right but that's not--but look at what that sufficiently rich point is. I mean people have looked in detail at the so-called knee in the Kuznet's curve for what point that may happen. I actually think there was some major problems with the Kuznet's curve argument and that's been actually pointed out in literature. But the problem is that those "knees in the curve" when they're discovered at all--and it's in fact only so far demonstrated for sulfur dioxide, not for many other pollutants--that those "knees in the curve" are at a point of affluence, sufficiently far in the future, that most of the ecological, the social indicators indicate that we will have, and we are currently building up this large environmental debt which we will in some sense have to pay.

Peter Robinson: One environmental debt according to a lot of people: global warming. But what should we do about it?

Title: Some Like It Hot

Peter Robinson: You grant that carbon dioxide emissions are causing the planet to warm; yet you object to the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Why?

Bjørn Lomborg: Well, I'm basically pointing out that if we start realizing things are in general getting better but it doesn't mean that there are no problems and it doesn't mean that we shouldn't focus, but it means we should focus on the right things. We have to ask ourselves, is Kyoto the best thing to do? Well, Kyoto is going to limit carbon emissions from the developed world about 30 percent from what they would otherwise have been in 2010. So it's not a little thing, but you know, what is it actually going to do? Well, we can run the same models again and it shows that it will basically postpone warming for about 6 years by 2100. So the guy in Bangladesh who has to move in 2100 because his house gets flooded can wait until 2106. I mean, if we could do all things, we'd also like to do that, because it's a little good--but the cost is going to be phenomenal at $150-350 billion a year. And I'm simply…

Daniel Kammen: That's simply false though.

Bjørn Lomborg: I'm simply pointing out that we could spend that money much, much better if we, for instance, just to give you one example, for the cost of Kyoto for just one year, we can solve the single biggest problem in the world. We could give clean drinking water and sanitation to every single human being on earth permanently.

Peter Robinson: Your argument throughout has been allocation of resources--we're wasting resources. He is suggesting that actually complying with the Kyoto protocol would waste resources.

Daniel Kammen: Bjorn has cited numbers saying that the costs of doing this could be somewhere between 3 and 30 billion dollars a year and that the benefits would be somewhere in the 5 billion range.

Peter Robinson: The costs are so high that no industrialized nation was ever serious about complying with Kyoto.

Daniel Kammen: I have to go back ten years when people said Montreal protocol for CFC reductions, too expensive, we can't do it. Well now that we discover that it was in fact cost effective to reduce CFC emissions, now everyone turns around and says well that's an easy example, it's of course trivial. The fact is that we haven't invested, not just the money, but more critically the innovative power, and this is the one area where I actually do agree with something in which you say--that we have invested the innovative power in these technologies. When we find that we invest in ways to make lights more efficient, or to reduce the emissions from vehicles and things, we discover in a number of cases--in fact almost all of them--that those costs are far less then we thought, and in many cases, it's not a cost, it's a benefit.

Peter Robinson: He does raise a very important point which is to say, you argue food production is going up, we don't have to worry about that as much as they would have had us believe; that pollution isn't as bad as they would've had us believe. And he answers, oh yes, but part of the reason things are getting better is because we environmentalists have pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed. How much of that do you grant?

Bjørn Lomborg: I totally think that part of the reason, when you look at the London curve, the first part is probably not so much because of environmental concern, but certainly the last part of us coming down all the way is because of environmental concerns.

Peter Robinson: Banning the burning of certain kinds of coal in London and so forth.

Bjørn Lomborg: Sure, and so the idea is we can pretty much do whatever we want in the world, only we can't do all of it. So we really have to make sure that we do the right thing…

Peter Robinson: Doesn't the tenor of your argument then come down to this: things are getting better; environmentalists have caused them to get better, now environmentalists should get off our backs.

Bjørn Lomborg: No, environmentalists have partly caused us to worry about a lot of different things; some of them have actually been incredibly good. Like for instance cutting smoke and cutting particulate pollution. Some of them have probably been fairly marginal like worrying intensely about cancer from pesticides--something we haven't talked about at all--those are probably--that's a concern very, very far down the road.

Daniel Kammen: No, but Bjorn, I think you just conceded the point though. I mean, I really think that if we recognize that environmentalists and people looking at environmental risks have recognized and have highlighted a number of these key issues, and then when we decided they were salient enough, we turned our effort and we discovered in a whole variety of cases that the costs are certainly less than the initial doom-sayers say, and that the benefits of those changes are in fact quite large. And we have lots of examples of that--and that's the critical thing. And I do agree where you said that we need to put our innovation dollars where are mouths are--we're not doing that and the reason is partially the sort of litany that your book plays out and that is that we don't need to worry about these things because things will get better on their own. The fact is they've gotten better because of this attention, not in spite of it.

Bjørn Lomborg: But they've gotten better in a whole range of areas where people are worried about education, worried about healthcare. We need to make sure that we worry about the right things. I'm saying that when we get environmental improvements, it's very often because of environmentalists. The issue though is should we worry about these things or should we worry about some of the many other things that are still left over for us.

Peter Robinson: Last topic: why has Bjorn been so roundly attacked by environmentalists?

Title: The Bjorn Identity

Peter Robinson: The Economist magazine: "Virtually every large environmental group has weighed in with a denunciation, numerous heavy weights of science, have penned damning articles and reviews while Scientific American recently devoted 11 pages to attacks." I read those 11 pages, in my judgment they only lay a small finger on you here and there, but the tone is relentless, it's vicious, why? Am I not mistaken? Did you also get a pie thrown in your face recently by the way?

Bjørn Lomborg: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: How come? You sound like a quite reasonable person, you have a back and forth in the argument, why are they so infuriated?

Bjørn Lomborg: It's very much a situation of saying the environmental movement certainly in Europe have the agenda setting power although they may not have had the political power--no organization has that--but they certainly have had the ability to set the agenda, and suddenly somebody comes and questions the basic fear that they very often play on, and for quite obvious reasons. That's what an interest organization does.

Peter Robinson: Let me tell you, you are the exception, and I will…

Daniel Kammen: I know the list of scientists who refused to come on.

Peter Robinson: We called a lot of people and they refused to appear with him, to give him credibility by appearing with him.

Daniel Kammen: Right, and I actually disagree with that. I think that when poor scholarship comes along, it needs to be refuted. This is a process where there is a great deal of scholarship, and the debate has moved on from Bjorn's litany, which I believe is 30 years out of date, and they've said, "I have debated it in print," Steven Schneider has written responses, and they say, "I'm not going to do this for the fifteenth time. I will provide this once, and if Bjorn chooses not to listen…"

Peter Robinson: I invite anyone in America to read those 11 pages in Scientific American. They say a little of this, they say a little of that--they don't touch his overriding thesis.

Daniel Kammen: Oh I disagree…

Bjørn Lomborg: I would like to say that--because you've been using that several times, you know, there's lots of critiques saying this and that to bolster your argument. I mean, the John Holdren, he says that I say it's 20 percent of electricity production instead of--sorry, energy production instead of electricity production. Obviously that's an error that has no bearing on the fact. In a book that's so…

Peter Robinson: On the argument.

Bjørn Lomborg: …sorry on the argument. In a book that's so long, you would expect that, and I certainly accept that I put it on my website as being changed in the new edition--it'll make no change to that argument and I really honestly think that there's no other arguments than those very, very small ones, and that really worries me.

Daniel Kammen: No, but I think that the argument I made is in fact the one that comes behind Holdren's argument, Ehrlich's argument, Lovejoy's, Bongaart's, and that is that you take a smattering of the facts on this case and you build an argument that is basically around the following theme: the world is getting better and that our natural industrial activity is in fact the result of that. And the counter argument which I think we just sort of nailed here, is that those improvements are due to vigilance and the application of R & D innovation to address these issues and that's not what this book…

Peter Robinson: You get a ten second rebuttal and that's it.

Bjørn Lomborg: No, the argument is to say that things are getting better so we need to worry about the right things.

Peter Robinson: Bjorn Lomborg, Daniel Kammen, thank you very much, we'll continue this as the credits role. I'm Peter Robinson. For Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us. Now go back to fighting.