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Lomborg Lands in DC to Demolish Eco-Terror Myths

By Duane D. Freese - October 3, 2001 12:00 AM

Global warming is a problem, but trying to fix it would make the world worse.

That's one of many conclusions by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg in his iconoclastic new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, that most environmental activists don't like.

But World Wildlife Fund Director David Sandalow and World Resources Institute chief information officer Allen Hammond failed to refute it Wednesday as panelists before a packed-house at the American Enterprise Institute.

The event sponsored by the AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies and moderated by Tech Central Station Host James K. Glassman examined Lomborg's claim that the environment really is "getting better, not worse."

"There are a lot of myths about how the world works," a t-shirted Lomborg told the audience. "I try to tell my students not to take the myths as true, and go check the data. As a committed Greenpeace member, I was so upset by Julian Simon's claims. So I decided, 'Go check the data.'"

What he found, Lomborg says, was that Simon was mostly correct. And it led him to write his book, attempting to make two important points.

First, he wanted to remove myths about the environment. "Doomsday is not neigh," he said. "Thus we don't need to act in desperation."

He noted that by the United Nation's definition of what makes for a better life - food, work, leisure time, health care, water and air quality and all other measures - the world is getting better and not worse. And he demonstrated with graphs and statistics from his book how it is doing so without future generations of resources they may need, such as fossil fuels. "The oil age won't come to an end from a lack of oil," he said, quoting Sheik Yamani of Saudi Arabia, "just as the stone age didn't end from a lack of stones. Something better will simply come to take its place."

Realizing this is important, Lomborg said, because when people feel cornered they don't set priorities to spend money where it will do the best. "When someone puts a gun to your head and says, 'Give me your wallet,' you don't think maybe you'd rather spend your money on a toaster instead. You just hand over the money."

And that led to his second point for writing the book -- to encourage people to get the essential information necessary to make the best possible decisions. "There is only one bag of money," he said. "We need to make sure it is put to good uses."

On this score, spending on some environmental programs may make sense, he said. He noted that particulate pollution has plunged in recent years, but that still more investment might achieve additional health benefits that are worth the cost.

On global warming, what he calls "the biggest issue of the day," Lomborg is more skeptical.

He accepts, with all its uncertainties, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's best estimate of temperature rise of 2.1 degrees C (3.8 degrees F) in average world temperature, calling that a serious increase. And he said the cost to developing countries of $5 trillion to accommodate it over the next century is not trivial, even in a world economy estimated to grow to $900 trillion by then.

Still, he said, the best economic estimates put the cost to industrial nations at $150 billion to $300 billion a year (about $50 trillion over the century) to implement the Kyoto Protocol, a U.N. agreement for reducing greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels negotiated by Vice President Al Gore in 1997 but rejected by President George W. Bush this spring. And Kyoto would at best only delay problems caused by warming by six years. "We aren't saving (the Third World villager) or his house," Lomborg said. "We're merely buying him six more years before he has to move."

"That's a bad way of helping the Third World," he continued. For less than one year's cost of meeting Kyoto, he noted, the whole Third World could be provided systems for clean drinking water that would save 2 million lives a year.

The point of his book, Lomborg went on, isn't that there are no problems or nothing to worry about; it is to raise questions about priorities. He cited one federal study that showed that $21 billion in spending for health, workplace safety, environment and other matters saved 60,000 lives in total. But he noted it took nearly 200 times as much spending on the environmental measure to save a life as it did on the health measure. "If current priorities lead you to spend $21 billion to save 60,000 lives when different priorities could spend $21 billion to save 120,000 people, you could say your current priorities are not saving 60,000 lives or, more harshly, that they actually kill 60,000 people," he concluded.

Finally, Lomborg asked his critics if they could raise specific issues where things are getting worse, and also where the spending they propose to fix things would not only make things better for someone - "if you spend a billion dollars you ought to make someone happy" -- but "make as many people as possible happy."

Sandalow and Hammond didn't rise to that challenge.

Instead, Sandalow critiqued Lomborg's nearly 500 page book with its hundreds of footnotes, pointing out four typographical and citing errors which he claimed amounted to poor sourcing. That should cause readers of Lomborg's book, he said, "proceed with caution" when reading it.

Hammond argued the book set up straw men to knock down while missing the real environmental issues of today - transparency in exposing pollution, accountability for those who produce it and collaboration with business and industry to solve problems. He also said the economic models Lomborg relied on for his global warming forecasts suffered from an over precision. "A small reduction in carbon dioxide," he argued, "could have a big effect for future generations."

When finally asked by Glassman whether they thought the environment was getting better or worse, both men admitted that on average things were, as Lomborg wrote, getting better, not worse.

For a complete transcript [Click Here]




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