January 20, 2002
This originally appeared on the
BJORN LOMBORG, a former member of Greenpeace, has been branded a traitor by the international environmental movement. His crime? He debunked almost all of its claims about the earth's perilous state. Now he is a marked man. David Thomas meets him
Bjorn Lomborg does not look like a dangerous revolutionary. When the 37-year-old political science professor from Aarhus University in Denmark slipped into London on Friday afternoon he was wearing trainers, jeans, a brightly-coloured cagoule and a knapsack, just like any other skinny, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian backpacker.
But to the nabobs of the international environmental movement - the researchers, bureaucrats, politicians and protesters whose most passionate beliefs and professional livelihoods are staked on the near-religious conviction that the world is confronting imminent environmental catastrophe - Lomborg is the anti-Christ.
This former ecological activist and member of Greenpeace has had the temerity to suggest that the world is not coming to an end. And the result, as he revealed last week, is that he has become a marked man.
It all began in August when he published a book entitled The Sceptical Environmentalist which reported in painstaking statistical detail that the world's resources were not running out, its species were not rushing to extinction and global warming might not turn out to be quite so disastrous after all.
As Lomborg puts it: "It's unrealistic to say that everything is getting better. But we need to get a sense of priority. For example, the level of pollutants is dropping dramatically in the developed world. The air in London is cleaner today than at any time since 1585. The average person in London was much worse off in the past than today.
"It is worrying that the rainforest is shrinking. But the fact that people are cutting down trees doesn't mean that the world is coming to an end. Even by the most pessimistic scenarios, people in the developing world will be richer in 100 years time than we are now.
"So, by then, a Bangladeshi would also be concerned about the environment and able to afford to set aside land and re-grow forest. It's a temporary problem. We won't lose the rainforest forever."
For daring to utter such eco-heresies, Lomborg has received threats from enraged environmentalists and now opens mail with extreme care for fear of what parcels might contain. So far, however, his experience is marked more by farce than tragedy.
Last September, while preparing for a personal appearance at the Borders bookshop in Oxford, Lomborg was hit in the face with a baked Alaska pie by Mark Lynas, an environmentalist campaigning to save the Arctic wilderness. "I was arranging my slides and I was facing down, towards the projector," Lomborg recalls.
"Suddenly everything turned white. I was astonished. But I took some of the pie out of my eyes, tasted it and said: `At least it tastes good.' I'm surprised I had so much composure."
From the moment that Lomborg first published his ideas as a series of articles in the Danish newspaper Politiken, campaigners have been lining up to assault him as an intellectual fraudster who is motivated by a fascistic desire to discredit the environmental Left.
The Danish environment minister even sent Lomborg's articles to 2,500 civil servants, instructing them to report any mistakes they could find.
Lomborg reports ruefully: "A lot of my Left-wing friends had a hard time with me being so 'immoral' as to say that the environment was actually getting better. There's a presumption that I'd be out there felling rainforests if I could."
The science magazine Nature went so far as to declare that Lomborg "employs the strategy of those who argue that gay men are not dying of Aids, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis and so on". The accusation was particularly tasteless since Lomborg happens to be gay. But then nothing infuriates ideologues more than a traitor to the cause. And, to ecologists, that is just what Lomborg is.
"I was a comfortable, Left-wing, worried kind of guy. If you'd asked me in 1980, I could not have imagined that we wouldn't be running out of resources by now. I'd go to rallies and marches, but nothing where I could get arrested. I'm way too suburban and academic for that."
But then, in 1997, he read an article about a renegade American professor called Julian Simon who had for decades been using official US Government statistics to disprove claims made by environmentalists.
In the late 1960s eco-evangelists such as the best-selling author Paul Erlich stated: "In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programmes embarked on now . . . Before 1985 mankind will enter an age of scarcity in which accessible supplies of many key minerals will be nearing depletion."
Simon argued the opposite: that resources would become more abundant and cheaper, and events proved him right. Even so, when Lomborg read about Simon's work, summed up in a 1995 book called The State of Humanity, he still held the orthodox ecological world view.
"I was totally sure Simon was wrong," he says. "I thought: `It should be easy to show that he's wrong, and it'll be fun debunking him.' So I got my students to go through a chapter of his book each to check his statistics. And to our surprise most of what he said was correct."
Lomborg gives one simple example of the deviance between theory and practice; the conservationists' claim that the world is losing up to 40,000 species of animals and plants to extinction every year and is heading towards the loss of 50 per cent of all species. This estimate is based, Lomborg claims, not on observation, but extrapolation from theoretical equations.
"The theory says that if you cut down 90 per cent of a forest, you lose 50 per cent of the species it contains. But that doesn't seem to be confirmed if you look at specific examples. The Brazilian Atlantic rainforest was almost entirely cut down, mainly in the 19th century.
"By now, many of its species should be extinct. But, as it turns out, the Brazilian Zoological Society and the World Conservation Union compiled a list of 300 species of [indigenous] mammals, birds and plants, and not one of them had become extinct.
"It would be OK for the theory if only 40 per cent or 45 per cent of species had become extinct. But if you find nought per cent extinct, that seriously questions the whole idea because it's dramatically not true."
Lomborg's essential thesis is not anti-environmental at all. He doesn't want to pillage the planet. He simply argues that environmental protection should be based on rational analysis and sensible risk-assessment rather than scare-mongering and ideology.
"The underlying belief behind a lot of recycling policy is that we're running out of resources," he says. "It's a spectacular example of a case where old-style environmentalists were simply wrong. But many people still believe it. Recycling makes sense to a certain extent, but we shouldn't do it religiously.
" We're not going to run out of resources and we're not going to run out of space to put our garbage. Even if the US increased the amount of garbage produced per head by 15 per cent a year, and doubled its population, the total amount of garbage produced by the US in the 21st century could be put in a 100ft high pile covering a 28 x 28 kilometre square.
"In the context of North America, it would be nothing. Garbage siting is a political problem - no one wants it in their backyard. But it's not a space problem."
Similarly, vast sums are due to be spent on combating global warming. But, says Lomborg: "We can help the developing world so much better by doing other things, like giving them clean drinking water and proper sanitation.
"For $200 billion - which is the cost of implementing the Kyoto Agreement [in which the industrial nations pledged to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases] for one year - you could permanently provide clean drinking water for everyone. That would save two million people dying and half a billion people becoming seriously ill every year."
For all our many problems, he says, the world's inhabitants are, on average, richer, healthier, longer-living and better-fed than at any time in the history of humanity. "In 20 years' time," says Lomborg, "we'll look back and wonder why we worried so much. Environmentalism won't be a religion any more, it'll just be good commonsense."
For all the demonisation he has faced, Lomborg still seems remarkably upbeat. His book has sold well on both sides of the Atlantic, although he insists that, "you don't make a lot of money, not compared to the hours you put in". And he has become a minor celebrity.
That, though, is not what gives him the most satisfaction. "It's not fun being famous," he says, and then grins, "but it is fun being right."
Speaking of which: on the morning after my interview with Lomborg, the Today programme on Radio 4 reported an interesting scientific finding. You know how the Antarctic ice is supposed to be melting, as part of the great catastrophe of global warming?
Well, the scientists have just taken another look at the ice. They've measured it very carefully. And it's getting thicker.
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23 jan 2002