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Scientific Literature

A skeptic causes polemics

Book that reassesses environmental problems arouses criticism from researchers

No book has shaken scientific circles so much in the last few months as The Skeptical Environmentalist – Measuring the Real State of the World, written by 36-year-old Bjorn Lomborg, a professor of statistics at the Political Science Department of the University of Aarhus, Denmark. In 540 pages, one third of them occupied by plentiful footnotes (2,930) and an extensive bibliography filled with official sources, this former Greenpeace activist sends the reader a clear message: forget what you have read before about environmental problems. If the world is not doing so well, in the worst case, it is improving day after day, thanks to technology advances. Broadly speaking, Lomborg sustains the thesis that the planet, from the environmental point of view, is today in better shape than it has been in the past.

Warming of the planet, acid rain, forests destruction, species extinction, air and the water pollution, the hole in the ozone layer, the scarcity of natural resources – all this, and, according to Lomborg, much more, Is a lesser problem, the damages arising from these problems, real or potential, have been exaggerated by environmentalists the media. In his assessment, the world will not run of energy or food in the future. And the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that attempts to limit the gases emissions from the developed companies, linked to the greenhouse effect on Earth, is a bad agreement.

“George Bush is doing the right thing, but for the wrong reasons”, Lomborg opines, in an interview for Pesquisa FAPESP, he has just been chosen to run Denmark’s Institute for Environmental Assessment, a body created by prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, of the Liberal Party. The main critic of Kyoto, the American president, says that the agreement would limit the capacity for growth in the economy of his country. This is not the protocol’s big problem, in the statistician’s opinion. “The money that we would spend implementing Kyoto, perhaps US$ 150 billion a year – the possible effects of which would only be felt by the future generations of the inhabitants of the Third World -, would be better employed in direct aid for the poor countries, which would have an immediate impact”.

Lomborg avoids directly blaming the scientific community as co-responsible for the predominating pessimistic vision of the destiny of the planet. Even so, he has been accused of fraud and called a data manipulator by several scientists. Even a website has been created against him: But he guarantees: “I didn’t want to cause polemics, just to get this debate going”.

It is curious to observe that, strictly speaking, The Skeptical Environmentalist is not even a new book. It was originally launched in Danish, in 1998. In 2000, it won a version in Icelandic and, in the following year, it was translated into Swedish. Until then, the effects of Lomborg’s work – who before diving into looking into environmental issues, occupied himself with themes like simulations of strategies in dilemmas for collective action and the behavior of political parties in proportional voting systems – was restricted to Scandinavia.

The repercussions of his ideas in the United States and in the other European countries – and, indirectly, in the other globalized parts of the world – really spread only after August 30th, when the Cambridge University Press launched the English version of the book. The book quickly became a international success. The Dane, who admits that he is not technically qualified in the subjects on which he wrot, refuses to say how many copies of The Skeptical Environmentalist have already been sold. “My publisher asked me not to make this public”. But he guarantees that he has not gotten rich from the book sales.

By self-denominating himself as a skeptical environmentalist in his polemical book, Lomborg defines at the outset and clearly what he understands by that: “An environmentalist, because I – like most people – am concerned about out Earth, with the health and well being of the future generations, Skeptical, because I am concerned to the point of not wanting us to act on myths, either pessimist or optimist”. Instead of the myths, he adds, “we have to use the best available information for us to join others in the common objective of making a better tomorrow”.

In scientific circles, however, the theses advocated in the book became a target for acid criticisms from well known researchers, in articles written for publications of weight, like Nature and Science. And, outside them, they even got him a cake thrown in his face by English environmentalists, last September, in an Oxford bookstore. The headlines of some stories against Lomborg’s work set well the tone of the complaints that are addressed to him, which, far from being just scientific, are also political.

Two examples: Relying on Manna from heaven, the title of an article written by Michael Grubb, of the Environmental Handling and Policy Group of Imperial College, in London, and of the Applied Economy Department of Cambridge University, in the November 9th 2001 issue of the Science magazine; and Misleading Math about the Earth , the headline drawn up by the American scientific information magazine, Scientific American, to point to four texts written by specialists in environmental questions, which occupied 11 pages of its January issue.

Conflict of visions
Strong evidence of the political nature of the polemics caused by the book lies in the cover given it by the respected English magazine, The Economist. In an editorial published in the issue of February 2nd, for example, in which there is an analysis of the fury inspired by Bjorn Lomborg’s work and of the visions of his critics, the magazine retrieves a curious statement by Stephen Schneider, one of the authors of the texts of the January Scientific American against the skeptical environmentalist, made 13 years ago for the Discover magazine.

In it, Schneider, a professor of Environmental Biology and Global Changes at Stanford University, stated that each scientist, in dealing with environmental issues, ought to decide “the right balance between being effective and being honest”. He observed that scientists “are also human beings”, who, like most people, would like to see a better world. To do so, they would have to get support to catch popular imagination, which implied getting wide coverage in the media. From this point, he concludes the following: “We have, then, to offer frightening scenarios, to make dramatic, over-simplified claims, and to make little mention of any doubts we may have”.

The Economist’s stories, albeit favorable to Lomborg, do not balk at raising problems in his work. In one of them (February 2nd issue), this fault is pointed out: “His approach of examining data at the global level, although it makes sense from the statistical point of view, tends to mask local environmental trends”. Another problem with Lomborg’s vision, according to the magazine, this time relying on an argument from Allen Hammond, of the World Resources Institute: the central postulate that the Earth, as a whole, is improving, even though it is highly questionable, would only make sense for the developed countries. “The figures offered by the book mask the worsening in the levels of pollution in megacities of the poor world”, explains the article. Finally, a third sin of Lomborg’s, also according to The Economist : “The book gives little credit to environmental policy as the cause of improvements in the environmental area”.

In the eyes of an inhabitant of the First World, these methodological defects may even seem like secondary faults of The Skeptical Environmentalist , as the tone of The Economist leads to understand. For anyone who is not in Western Europe, the United States or Japan, the distortion created by the exclusive use of global statistics creates a scenario that is far from the reality of a good part of the Earth. Lomborg admits the limitations of the book, written for the public of the developed countries.

He also recognizes that he made mistakes in dealing with the mountain of data explored in his skeptical-environmental treatise – some of these slips are pointed out in his website (, in which he puts articles and comments on the book. “They are lesser errors that do not jeopardize the argument”, says Lomborg, for whom a large part of the environmental problems of the poor countries will be solved with the economic progress of nations.

A lot of serious people believe that the methodological faults are not so harmless at all. For Carlos Alfredo Joly, of the State University of Campinas and a coordinator of FAPESP’s BIOTA program, the book builds up its thinking that forest are not in danger using data on plant coverage that makes no distinction between native forest, where biodiversity ought to be high, and areas reforested with, for example, eucalyptus, where the variety of species living there is much smaller. “I think that this leads to gross errors”, says Joly. “If we make an assessment of what the forest coverage is in the state of São Paulo, taking into consideration only the remaining native vegetation, we will get from 8% to 9% of forest. But if we add to this the reforested areas, the percentage of forest area may perhaps double”.