|Original title||Verdens sande tilstand|
|Translator||Hugh Matthews - responsible for translation of the original title from Danish|
|Publisher||Cambridge University Press|
|LC Class||GE149 .L65 2001|
|Followed by||Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming|
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Danish: Verdens sande tilstand, literal translation: The True State of the World) is a book by Danish environmentalist author Bjørn Lomborg, controversial for its claims that overpopulation, declining energy resources, deforestation, species loss, water shortages, certain aspects of global warming, and an assortment of other global environmental issues are unsupported by statistical analysis of the relevant data. It was first published in Danish in 1998, while the English edition was published as a work in environmental economics by Cambridge University Press in 2001.
Due to the scope of the project, comprising the range of topics addressed, the diversity of data and sources employed, and the many types of conclusions and comments advanced, The Skeptical Environmentalist does not fit easily into a particular scientific discipline or methodology. Although published by the social sciences division of Cambridge University Press, the findings and conclusions were widely challenged on the basis of natural science. This interpretation of The Skeptical Environmentalist as a work of environmental science generated much of the controversy and debate that surrounded the book.
Prior to becoming the Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and Adjunct Professor at the Copenhagen Business School, Bjørn Lomborg was an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Aarhus.
Some critics[who?] focus on his lack of training or professional experience in the environmental sciences or economics. Supporters[who?]argue his research is an appropriate application of his expertise in cost-benefit analysis, a standard analytical tool in policy assessment. His advocates further note that many of the scientists and environmentalists who criticized the book are not themselves environmental policy experts or experienced in cost-benefit research.
In numerous interviews, Lomborg ascribed his motivation for writing The Skeptical Environmentalist to his personal convictions, making clear that he was a pro-environmentalist and Greenpeace supporter. He has stated that he began his research as an attempt to counter what he saw as anti-ecological arguments by Julian Lincoln Simon in an article in Wired, but changed his mind after starting to analyze data. Lomborg describes the views he attributes to environmental campaigners as the "Litany", which he at one time claims to have affirmed, but purports to correct in his work.
The general analytical approach employed by Lomborg is based on cost-benefit analyses as employed in economics, social science, and the formulation and assessment of government policy. Much of Lomborg's examination of his Litany is based on statistical data analysis, therefore his work may be considered a work of that nature. Since it examines the costs and benefits of its many topics, it could be considered a work in economics, as categorized by its publisher. However, The Skeptical Environmentalist is methodologically eclectic and cross-disciplinary, combining interpretation of data with assessments of the media and human behavior, evaluations of scientific theories, and other approaches, to arrive at its various conclusions.
In arriving at the final work, Lomborg has used a similar approach in each of his work's main areas and subtopics. He progresses from the general to the specific, starting with a broad concern, such as pollution or energy, dividing it into subtopics (e.g. air pollution; fossil fuel depletion), and then identifying one or more widely held fears and their source (e.g. our air is growing increasingly toxic, by X measure, according to Y). From there, Lomborg chooses data that he considers to be the most reliable and reasonable available. He then analyzes that data to prove or disprove his selected proposition. In every case, his calculations find that the claim is not substantiated, and is either an exaggeration, or a completely reversed portrayal of an improving situation, rather than a deteriorating one. Having established what he calls "the true state of the world", for each topic and subtopic, Lomborg examines a variety of theories, technologies, implementation strategies and costs, and suggests alternative ways to improve not-so-dire situations, or advance in other areas not currently considered as pressing.
The Skeptical Environmentalist's subtitle refers to the State of the World report, published annually since 1984 by the Worldwatch Institute. Lomborg designated the report "one of the best-researched and academically most ambitious environmental policy publications," but criticized it for using short-term trends to predict disastrous consequences, in cases where long-term trends would not support the same conclusions.
In establishing its arguments, The Skeptical Environmentalist examined a wide range of issues in the general area of environmental studies, including environmental economics and science, and came to an equally broad set of conclusions and recommendations. Lomborg's work directly challenged popular examples of green concerns by interpreting data from some 3,000 assembled sources. The author suggested that environmentalists diverted potentially beneficial resources to less deserving environmental issues in ways that were economically damaging. Much of the book's methodology and integrity have been subject to criticism which argue that Lomborg distorted the fields of research he covers. Support for the book was staunch as well.
"The Litany" comprises very diverse areas where, Lomborg claims, overly pessimistic claims are made and bad policies are implemented as a result. He cites accepted mainstream sources, like the United States government, United Nations agencies and others, preferring global long-term data over regional and short-term statistics.
The Skeptical Environmentalist is arranged around four major themes:
Lomborg's main argument is that the vast majority of environmental problems—such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, and species loss, as well as population growth, hunger, and AIDS—are area-specific and highly correlated with poverty. Therefore, challenges to human prosperity are essentially logistical matters, and can be solved largely through economic and social development. Concerning problems that are more pressing at the global level, such as the depletion of fossil fuels and global warming, Lomborg argues that these issues are often overstated and that recommended policies are often inappropriate if assessed against alternatives.
Lomborg analyzes three major themes: life expectancy, food and hunger, and prosperity, finding that life expectancy and health levels have dramatically improved over the past centuries, even though several regions of the world remain threatened, in particular by AIDS. He dismisses Thomas Malthus' theory that increases in the world's population lead to widespread hunger. On the contrary, Lomborg claims that food is widespread, and humanity's daily intake of calories is increasing, and will continue to rise until hunger's eradication, thanks to technological improvements in agriculture. However, Lomborg notes that Africa in particular still produces too little sustenance, an effect he attributes to the continent's dismal economic and political systems. Concerning prosperity, Lomborg argues that wealth, as measured by per capita GDP, should not be the only judging criterion. He points to improvements in education, safety, leisure, and ever more widespread access to consumer goods as signs that prosperity is increasing in most parts of the world.
In this section, Lomborg looks at the world's natural resources and draws a conclusion that contrasts starkly to that of the well known report The Limits to Growth. First, he analyzes food once more, this time from an ecological perspective, and again claims that most food products are not threatened by human growth. An exception, however, is fish, which continues to be depleted. As a partial solution, Lomborg presents fish farms, which cause a less disruptive impact on the world's oceans. Next, Lomborg looks at forests. He finds no indication of widespread deforestation, and notes that even the Amazon still retains more than 80% of its 1978 tree cover. Lomborg points out that in developing countries, deforestation is linked to poverty and poor economic conditions, so he proposes that economic growth is the best means to tackle the loss of forests. Concerning energy, Lomborg asserts that oil is not being depleted as fast as is claimed, and that improvements of technology will provide people with fossil fuels for years to come. The author further asserts that many alternatives already exist, and that with time they will replace fossil fuels as an energy source. Concerning other resources, such as metals, Lomborg suggests that based on their price history they are not in short supply. Examining the challenge of collecting sufficient amounts of water, Lomborg says that wars will probably not erupt over water because fighting such wars is not cost-effective (one week of war with the Palestinians, for instance, would cost Israel more than five desalination plants, according to an Israeli officer). Lomborg emphasizes the need for better water management, as water is distributed unequally around the world.
Lomborg considers pollution from different angles. He notes that air pollution in wealthy nations has steadily decreased in recent decades. He finds that air pollution levels are highly linked to economic development, with moderately developed countries polluting most. Again, Lomborg argues that faster growth in emerging countries would help them reduce their air pollution levels. Lomborg suggests that devoting resources to reduce the levels of specific air pollutants would provide the greatest health benefits and save the largest number of lives (per amount of money spent), continuing an already decades-long improvement in air quality in most developed countries. Concerning water pollution, Lomborg notes again that it is connected with economic progress. He also notes that water pollution in major Western rivers decreased rapidly after the use of sewage systems became widespread. Concerning waste, Lomborg notes once again that fears are overblown, as the entire waste produced by the United States in the 21st century could fit into a square 100 feet thick and 28 km along each side, or 0.009% of the total surface of the United States.
In this last section, Lomborg puts forward his main assertion: based on a cost-benefit analysis, the environmental threats to human prosperity are overstated and much of policy response is misguided. As an example, Lomborg cites worries about pesticides and their link to cancer. He argues that such concerns are vastly exaggerated in the public perception, as alcohol and coffee are the foods that create by far the greatest risk of cancer, as opposed to vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides. Furthermore, if pesticides were not used on fruit and vegetables, their cost would rise, and consequently their consumption would go down, which would cause cancer rates to increase. He goes on to criticize the fear of a vertiginous decline in biodiversity, proposing that 0.7% of species have gone extinct in the last 50 years (as compared to a maximum of 50%, as claimed by some biologists). While Lomborg admits that extinctions are a problem, he asserts that they are not the catastrophe claimed by some, and have little effect on human prosperity.
Lomborg's most contentious assertion, however, involves global warming. From the outset, Lomborg "accepts the reality of man-made global warming" though he refers to a number of uncertainties in the computer simulations of climate change and some aspects of data collection. His main contention involves not the science of global warming but the politics and the policy response to scientific findings. Lomborg points out that, given the amount of greenhouse gas reduction required to combat global warming, the current Kyoto protocol is grossly insufficient. He argues that the economic costs of legislative restrictions that aim to slow or reverse global warming are far higher than the alternative of international coordination. Moreover, he asserts that the cost of combating global warming would be disproportionately shouldered by developing countries. Lomborg proposes that since the Kyoto agreement limits economic activities, developing countries that suffer from pollution and poverty most, will be perpetually handicapped economically.
Lomborg proposes that the importance of global warming in terms of policy priority is low compared to other policy issues such as fighting poverty, disease and aiding poor countries, which has direct and more immediate impact both in terms of welfare and the environment. He therefore suggests that a global cost-benefit analysis be undertaken before deciding on future measures. The Copenhagen Consensus that Lomborg later organized concluded that combating global warming does have a benefit but its priority compared to other issues is "poor" (ranked 13th) and three projects addressing climate change (optimal carbon tax, the Kyoto protocol and value-at-risk carbon tax), are the least cost-efficient of its proposals.
Lomborg concludes his book by once again reviewing the Litany, and noting that the real state of the world is much better than the Litany claims. According to Lomborg, this discrepancy poses a problem, as it focuses public attention on relatively unimportant issues, while ignoring those that are paramount. In the worst case, The Skeptical Environmentalist argues, the global community is pressured to adopt inappropriate policies which have adverse effects on humanity, wasting resources that could be put to better use in aiding poor countries or fighting diseases such as AIDS. Lomborg thus urges us to look at what he calls the true problems of the world, since solving those will also solve the Litany.
The Skeptical Environmentalist was controversial even before its English-language release, with anti-publication efforts launched against Cambridge University Press. Once in the public arena, the book elicited strong reactions in scientific circles and in the mainstream media. Opinion was largely polarized. Environmental groups were generally critical.
Dr. Chris Harrison (Publishing Director of social science publishing for Cambridge University Press), anticipating the level of controversy a book like The Skeptical Environmentalist would likely provoke, took extra care with the book's peer-review process. Instead of choosing candidates from the usual list of social science referees, Cambridge University Press chose from a list provided by their environmental science publishing program. Four were chosen: a climate scientist, an expert in biodiversity and sustainable development, a specialist on the economics of climate change (whose credentials include reviewing publications for the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)) and a "pure" economist. All four members of Cambridge's initial review panel agreed that the book should be published.
While criticism of the book was to be expected, the publisher was apparently surprised by the pressure brought against it to not publish The Skeptical Environmentalist. The complaints of some critics included demands that Cambridge convene a special panel to review the book in order to identify errors (despite existing pre-publication peer review), that Cambridge transfer their publishing rights to a "non-scholarly publishing house" and that they review their own policies to prevent publication of any book described as "essentially a political tract" in the future.
In the article, entitled "Peer review, politics and pluralism", Dr. Harrison noted that "many of the critical reviews of The Skeptical Environmentalist went beyond the usual unpicking of a thesis and concentrated instead on the role of the publisher in publishing the book at all. The post tray and e-mail inbox of editors and senior managers at the press bore witness to a concerted campaign to persuade Cambridge to renounce the book." He went on to describe complaints from environmentalists who feared the book would be "abused by corporate interests". Cambridge University Press felt it necessary to issue a formal, written statement, in order to "explain the editorial decisions that led not just to publishing the book but also to Cambridge's resistance to concerted pressure to withdraw it from the market." With these complaints and the publication of a Scientific American issue regarding the book (described below), Cambridge stated, in response to those who claimed the book lacked peer-review credentials, "it would be quite wrong to abandon an author who had satisfied the requirements of our peer-review system."
Cambridge took the additional step of inviting submissions of publishing proposals for books which offered an opposing argument to Lomborg's but noted that they had, to the best of Chris Harrison's knowledge, seen no attempt by any of the critics to submit such a proposal. This is seen by some[who?] to suggest that criticism of the book was political rather than academic. Subsequent to Cambridge's unequivocal assertion that The Skeptical Environmentalist had been subject to peer-review, Harrison noted that
we were surprised and disappointed to see the critics' letter being quoted in an issue of Time magazine (2 September 2002)... in which the authors repeated their charge that the book had not been peer-reviewed despite the assurances to the contrary that they had by then received by the press... It has become part of the anti-Lomborg folklore that this book bypassed the usual Cambridge peer-review process... This is a charge that is repeated in many of the public and private attacks in the press, and it is unfounded.
Cambridge University Press maintained their position and the book was published.
The January 2002 issue of Scientific American contained, under the heading "Misleading Math about the Earth", a set of essays by several scientists, which claim that Lomborg and The Skeptical Environmentalist misrepresent both scientific evidence and scientific opinion. The magazine then refused Lomborg's request to print a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal in his own defence, on the grounds that the 32 pages would have taken a disproportionate share of the month's installment. Scientific American allowed Lomborg a one-page defense in the May 2002 edition, and then attempted to remove Lomborg's publication of his complete response online, citing a copyright violation. After receiving much criticism, the magazine published his complete rebuttal on its website, along with the counter rebuttals of John Rennie and John P. Holdren.
Nature also published a harsh review of Lomborg's book, in which Stuart Pimm of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University and Jeff Harvey of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology wrote: "the text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren't dying of AIDS, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on."  Lomborg has also been criticized for using straw man arguments, with charges that his Litany of environmental doom-mongering does not accurately represent the mainstream views of the contemporary green movement.
Jerry Mahlman's appraisal of the chapter he was asked to evaluate, states:
One critical article, "The Skeptical Environmentalist: A Case Study in the Manufacture of News", attributes this media success to its initial, influential supporters:
The media was criticized for the biased selection of reviewers and not informing readers of reviewers' background. Richard C. Bell, writing for Worldwatch noted that the Wall Street Journal, "instead of seeking scientists with a critical perspective," like many publications "put out reviews by people who were closely associated with Lomborg", with the Journal soliciting a review from the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Ronald Bailey, someone "who had earlier written a book called The True State of the World, from which much of Lomborg's claims were taken." Bell also criticized the Washington Post, whose Sunday Book World assigned the book review to Denis Dutton, identified as "a professor of philosophy who lectures on the dangers of pseudoscience at the science faculties of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand", and as the editor of the web site Arts and Letters Daily. Bell noted that:
"The Post did not tell its readers that Dutton's web site features links to the Global Climate Coalition, an anti-Kyoto consortium of oil and coal businesses, and to the messages of Julian Simon --the man whose denial that global warming was occurring apparently gave Lomborg the idea for his book in the first place. It was hardly surprising that Dutton anointed Lomborg's book as 'the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962. It's a magnificent achievement.'"
Some critics of The Skeptical Environmentalist took issue not with the statistical investigation of Lomborg's Litany, but with the suggestions and conclusions for which they were the foundation. This line of criticism considered the book as a contribution to the policy debate over environment rather than the work of natural science. In a BBC column from August 23, 2001, veteran BBC environmental correspondent Alex Kirby wrote:
Kirby's first concern was not with the extensive research and statistical analysis, but the conclusions drawn from them:
On September 5, 2001, at a Lomborg book reading in England, British environmentalist author Mark Lynas threw a cream pie in Lomborg's face. In a September 9, 2001, article, "Why I pied Lomborg", Lynas stated:
The December 12, 2001 issue of Grist devoted an issue to The Skeptical Environmentalist, with a series of essays from various scientists challenging individual sections. A separate article examining the book's overall approach took issue with the framing of Lomborg's conclusions:
Addressing the apparent difficulty of scientists opposing The Skeptical Environmentalist in criticizing the book strictly on the basis of statistics and challenging the conclusions about areas of environmental sciences that were drawn from them, Lynas contends:
Influential UK newsweekly The Economist weighed in at the start with heavy support, publishing an advance essay by Lomborg in which he detailed his Litany, and following up with a highly favorable review and supportive coverage. It stated that "This is one of the most valuable books on public policy—not merely environmental policy— to have been written for the intelligent general reader in the past ten years...The Skeptical Environmentalist is a triumph."
Among the general media, the New York Times stated that "The primary target of the book, a substantial work of analysis with almost 3,000 footnotes, are statements made by environmental organizations like the Worldwatch Institute, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace." The Wall Street Journal deemed Lomborg's work "a superbly documented and readable book.". A Washington Post review claimed that "Bjørn Lomborg's good news about the environment is bad news for Green ideologues. His richly informative, lucid book is now the place from which environmental policy decisions must be argued. In fact, The Skeptical Environmentalist is the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962. It's a magnificent achievement." Rolling Stone wrote that "Lomborg pulls off the remarkable feat of welding the techno-optimism of the Internet age with a lefty's concern for the fate of the planet."
In March 2003 the New York Law School Law Review published an examination of the critical reviews of Skeptical Environmentalist from the Scientific American, Nature and Science magazines by Professor of Law David Shoenbrod and then Senior Law Student Christi Wilson of New York Law School. The authors take the perspective of a court faced with an argument against hearing an expert witness in order to evaluate whether Lomborg was credible as an expert, and whether his testimony is valid to his expertise. They classify the types of criticisms leveled at Lomborg and his arguments, and proceed to evaluate each of the reasons given for disqualifying Lomborg. They conclude that a court should accept Lomborg as a credible expert in the field of statistics, and that his testimony was appropriately restricted to his area of expertise. Of course, Professor Shoenbrod and Wilson note, Mr. Lomborg's factual conclusions may not be correct, nor his policy proposals effective, but his criticisms should be addressed, not merely dismissed out of hand.
The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty raised concern about the responses of certain sections of the scientific community to a peer reviewed book published under the category of environmental economics. The groups worried that the receptions to Lomborg were a politicization of science by scientists. This unease was reflected in the involvement of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty in "When scientists politicize science: making sense of controversy over The Skeptical Environmentalist", where Roger A. Pielke argued:
The use of science by scientists as a means of negotiating for desired political outcomes – the politicization of science by scientists – threatens the development of effective policies in contested issues. By tying themselves to politics, rather than policy, scientists necessarily restrict their value and the value of their science.
In "Green with Ideology - The hidden agenda behind the "scientific" attacks on Bjørn Lomborg’s controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist", Ronald Bailey stated that "The bitter anti-Lomborg campaign reveals the hidden crisis of what we might call ideological environmentalism." He further wrote:
The Skeptical Environmentalist obviously should be held to high standards of accuracy, but to insist that it read like a scientific paper is both specious and disingenuous. The book is essentially a response to such popular environmentalist tracts as the State of the World report and the reams of misinformation disseminated by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Ecologist, the Turning Point Project, Grist, Wild Earth, and the rest of the sprawling eco-media propaganda complex.
After the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg was accused of scientific dishonesty. Several environmental scientists brought a total of three complaints against Lomborg to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a body under Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Lomborg was asked whether he regarded the book as a "debate" publication, and thereby not under the purview of the DCSD, or as a scientific work; he chose the latter, clearing the way for the inquiry that followed. The charges claimed that The Skeptical Environmentalist contained deliberately misleading data and flawed conclusions. Due to the similarity of the complaints, the DCSD decided to proceed on the three cases under one investigation.
On January 6, 2003, a mixed DCSD ruling was released, in which the Committees decided that The Skeptical Environmentalist was scientifically dishonest, but Lomborg was innocent of wrongdoing due to a lack of expertise in the relevant fields:
The DCSD cited The Skeptical Environmentalist for:
On February 13, 2003, Lomborg filed a complaint against the DCSD's decision with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MSTI), which oversees the group.
On December 17, 2003, the Ministry found that the DCSD had made a number of procedural errors, including:
The Ministry remitted the case to the DCSD. In doing so the Ministry indicated that it regarded the DCSD's previous findings of scientific dishonesty in regard to the book as invalid. The Ministry also instructed the DCSD to decide whether to reinvestigate. On March 12, 2004, the Committee formally decided not to act further on the complaints, reasoning that renewed scrutiny would, in all likelihood, result in the same conclusion.
Another group of Danish scientists collected signatures in support of the DCSD. The 640 signatures in this second petition came almost exclusively from the medical and natural sciences, and included Nobel laureate in Chemistry Jens Christian Skou, former university rector Kjeld Møllgård, and professor Poul Harremoës from the Technical University of Denmark.
A group of scientists published an article in 2005 in the Journal of Information Ethics, in which they concluded that most criticism against Lomborg was unjustified, and that the scientific community had misused their authority to suppress the author.
The claim that allegations against Lomborg were unsubstantiated was challenged in the next issue of Journal of Information Ethics by Kåre Fog, one of the original DCSD petitioners. Fog reasserted his contention that, despite the ministry's decision, most of the accusations against Lomborg were valid, and rejected what he called "the Galileo hypothesis", which portrays Lomborg as a brave young man confronting an entrenched opposition.
Fog has established a curated catalogue of criticisms against Lomborg, which includes a section for each page of every Skeptical Environmentalist chapter. Fog enumerates and details what he believes to be flaws and errors in Lomborg's work. He explicitly indicates if particular mistakes may have been made deliberately by Lomborg, in order to mislead. According to Fog, since none of his denunciations of Lomborg's work have been proven false, the suspicion that Lomborg has misled deliberately is maintained. Lomborg has written a full text published online as Godehetens Pris (Danish)  that goes through the main allegations put forward by Fog and others.
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