The Magazine

Green with Rage

Why environmentalists throw pies at Bjorn Lomborg.

Feb 25, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 23 • By JAMES K. GLASSMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

SHEER PANIC. That's the only way to describe the reaction of green activists to a fact-filled 515-page book by a young Danish statistician, published in English late last year by Cambridge University Press. The statistician, a slim, laid-back former Greenpeace member named Bjorn Lomborg, dared to question the conventional wisdom of the alarmists who dominate the fund-raising arm of the environmental movement: that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

In "The Skeptical Environmentalist," Lomborg argues against all the doomsaying, which he dubs The Litany. The planet and the people who live on it are getting healthier, he argues, calamities like global warming are exaggerated, and, in any event, environmental mitigation requires a thorough analysis of costs and benefits. (See Charles T. Rubin's review in this magazine, "Green No More: The Education of an Environmentalist," Dec. 24, 2001.)

Lomborg's message is one that the public deserves to hear--and wants to hear. The book is the number-one bestseller in Amazon.com's "Nature and Ecology" category. Of all the books sold on the website, "The Skeptical Environmentalist" last week ranked number 67--a remarkable achievement. "The State of the World 2002," by Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, a group that Lomborg cites for particularly egregious distortions, ranks 5,915.

Lomborg is no dogmatist. As an associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus, he makes his case calmly and transparently, providing 2,930 footnotes and a 70-page bibliography.

But calm is not the word for his critics. They have gone berserk. Nasty, bitchy, hysterical, paranoid--those are apt adjectives to describe the response to the book. The Economist, which, despite its own green leanings, lavishly praised Lomborg's book when it came out, last week reported that "Mr. Lomborg is being called a liar, a fraud and worse. People are refusing to share a platform with him. He turns up in Oxford to talk about this book, and the author (it is claimed) of a forthcoming study on climate change throws a pie in his face."

The World Resources Institute has posted a special media alert on its website: "WRI is urging journalists to exercise caution in reporting on or reviewing the new book, 'The Skeptical Environmentalist.'" It's as though Lomborg were armed and dangerous. And, in a way, of course, he is: armed with facts and dangerous to a movement whose claims are rarely checked. Grist magazine, Tompaine.com, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and on and on--they're all trying to debunk Lomborg. There's even a site called www.anti-Lomborg.com.

But worst of all is Scientific American, which devoted 11 pages of its January issue to a special section portentously headlined, "Science Defends Itself Against 'The Skeptical Environmentalist'"--as though all of the mighty scientific establishment were lined up against pitiful little Lomborg. The editor, John Rennie, asked "four leading experts to critique Lomborg's treatments of their areas." Hope you weren't expecting balance.

One of the four authors is Stephen Schneider, whose fatuous article on global warming epitomizes the worst kind of priggish academic posturing ("So how does the reality of the text hold up to its premise? I'm sure you can already guess. . . ."). Well, yes, we can. In fact, experienced readers could guess what Schneider would write even before opening the magazine.

How? Well, this is the same Stephen Schneider, professor of biological sciences at Stanford, who has publicly declared himself in favor of environmental scientists' striking a "balance" between getting their radical agenda accomplished and actually telling the truth. The Economist quotes his famous statement to Discover magazine in 1989. It reflects a widespread attitude in the movement and goes a long way toward explaining the wild reaction to Lomborg:

"[We] are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place. . . . To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. . . . Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

As the Economist deadpanned: "Science needs no defending from Mr. Lomborg. It may very well need defending from champions like Mr. Schneider."

Even more distressing is the response to the book of E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and prolific and celebrated author. He deplores what he calls "the Lomborg scam" because of "the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat [him] in the media. . . . [Mr. Lomborg and his kind] are a parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval."

Back in the 1960s, campus radicals used to say that their demonstrations would provoke college administrators, the police, and government authorities into showing their "true nature." That is what Lomborg's book--unwittingly--has done with the environmental movement. What has he revealed? A petulant, angry, selfish child that whines that it must have its own way.

Wilson complains about wasting time, but what of Lomborg himself? He devotes 33 pages, with tiny type, on his website (www.lomborg.org) to refuting the criticisms of Schneider, Wilson, and the other Scientific American authors.

Lomborg's unruffled earnestness is admirable, and he is a wonderful witness for the prosecution. When he presented his views at a panel discussion I moderated at the American Enterprise Institute last October, he wore a T-shirt and jeans and drank water from a McDonald's cup. In an article this month in the American Enterprise magazine, Eli Lehrer aptly describes him as "a mild-mannered Danish statistics professor who believes in environmental protection laws, votes on the political left, avoids eating meat, and thinks that governments should redistribute wealth....The left-wing environmental movement hates him with a passion."

And this is the point. The environmental movement does not defend "science," as editor Rennie would have it. Rather, it uses science as a weapon to advance the cause, as Charles T. Rubin put it in his Weekly Standard review. In a letter to Scientific American, Matt Ridley, author of Genome, writes, "By the end of the four articles I was astonished to find that none of the critics had laid a glove on Lomborg. They . . . found only a few trivial misquotations and ellipses--mostly by distorting the point Lomborg was making." What Lomborg had revealed, said Ridley, was "a narrow but lucrative industry of environmental fund-raising that has a vested interest in claims of alarmism." Ridley continues, "Lomborg is as green as anybody else. But he recognizes that claims of universal environmental deterioration have not only been proved wrong often, but are a counsel of despair that distracts us from the many ways in which economic progress can produce environmental improvement as well."

Yes, but radical--or, more accurately, reactionary--environmentalism has become a religion, or a religion-substitute. Arguing from reason, with 2,930 footnotes, against The Litany may be as futile as arguing from reason against communism or fanatical Islam. Still, it's great to see someone try. What Lomborg is doing is precisely what Rennie claims that his four horsemen of the apocalypse are doing: defending science against lies and distortions.

James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, host of the website TechCentralStation.com, and author of the new book "The Secret Code of the Superior Investor" (Crown).