TCS Daily


Lomborg Muzzled at Last?

By Jan Arlid Snoen - June 14, 2002 12:00 AM

OSLO -- In this week's cover story, Business Week lists the 50 most interesting "leaders at the forefront of change" in Europe. Among them are the Dane Bjørn Lomborg, who became world famous last year with the publication of The Sceptical Environmentalist. The best-selling story of the true state of the environment was met with high praise from influential newspapers and magazines from the Washington Post to The Economist and The Guardian. The scientific press has however been mostly critical, and the green movement up in arms.

The Associate Professor of Statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark has become used to controversy since the publication of an earlier version of the book in Danish in 1998. Most critics have focused on alleged factual errors and omissions and systematic bias. Lomborg has defended himself with bravado.

Now his recommendation that environmental policy should be based on cost-benefit analysis has become equally controversial in Denmark, although most economists would heartily agree. Environmentalists point to the real problems of calculating the costs of environmental degradation or benefits of clean-ups, and many therefore oppose cost-benefit analysis on principle. But as economic scarcity is a basic fact of life, this begs the question. In the real world, the deep green insistence that environmental concerns should always have the priority, whatever the costs, inevitably leads to loss of welfare.

When environmental goals conflict with other goals, there must be a way of balancing the two and find the proper trade-off. Cost-benefit analysis, however difficult, is nothing more than a way of expressing costs and benefits in a common denominator: money. This is often mistaken for blatant materialism.

This new emphasis on the cost-benefit controversy came with the appointment in February of Lomborg to head the new Environmental Assessment Institute (EAI). The free-market Venstre party last November won the general election, and in coalition with the Conservative party replaced the social-democratic government. During the long reign of Environmental Minister Svend Auken, Denmark pursued an activist environmental agenda, both at home and abroad. Partly as a result, Denmark achieved significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, not least because the flat and windy country has become world leader in wind power. This and other environmental policies have been costly, but the forceful Auken has crushed all opposition.

The change of government signifies an end to this environmental activism, although not a complete reversal of policies. Whereas Auken wanted Denmark to be an environmental pioneer, and was less concerned about the costs, the new Environmental Minister Hans Christian Schmidt stresses cost-efficiency. Among the most important policy changes has been the cancellation of several large offshore wind farms, and large cuts in economic support for environmental projects in Eastern Europe. Instead, the new government wants to support so-called joint implementation projects in that area, whereby the Danish government or Danish companies pay to reduce emission of greenhouse gases abroad, and the reduction goes towards meeting the Danish Kyoto target.

In order to obtain advice on how to achieve "more bang for the buck", the government decided shortly after winning the election to establish an independent Environmental Assessment Institute. Although the yearly budget is only €1,3 million, the establishment of a new institute is significant. The government at the same time, in an unprecedented and highly controversial move, abolished more than 100 advisory boards and councils, among them more than a dozen in the environmental field. Almost so as to spite the green lobby, the conservationist Environmental Council (Naturrådet) was abolished and the EAI located in its former offices.

Lomborg had advised both the previous and new governments to establish such an institute, and the government's decision led to frantic attempts from the greens to block a possible Lomborg appointment as head of the institute. To no avail. Lomborg was chosen among 16 applicants, although the coalition minority partner, the Conservatives, was sceptical. The prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen told the press that "the fact that some disagree with Bjørn Lomborg does not alter the government's belief that he is precisely the right man to head the EAI," and that Lomborg's academic merits were "at the very top".

Lomborg is eager to prove that he is not a simple pawn in the government's game. The day after his appointment, he criticised the government's cut in subsidies for renewables and aid to environmental projects in Eastern Europe. He also explained that a more cost-efficient environmental policy does not mean a general downplaying of environmental concerns, rather that more money will be spent where the effects are most beneficial, and less in other fields.

His background as a former Greenpeace sympathiser and a public statement that he has never voted for a party right of centre has not dampened the shrill criticism from the greens and the political left. When TCS asked him whether the criticism from the left and warm embrace from the American right bothered him, Lomborg denied this: "I am a scientist committed to the truth, not preoccupied with politics."

Lately, Lomborg has kept a low profile. In order to avoid confusion between Lomborg, the controversial writer and Lomborg, the head of the Environmental Assessment Institute, in Denmark he will from now on only comment on EAI matters. No official EAI publications or assessments have yet been published. Perhaps the green lobby should be happy they didn't succeed in blocking his appointment. The Danish government has achieved what they could not - to muzzle perhaps their most competent opponent. Lomborg will however continue to participate in the international environmental debate.

As a service to all those that want to assess the merit of the critique of The Sceptical Environmentalist, Lomborg presents and answers all is major critics at his own home-page - www.lomborg.org.
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