The challenge to the environmental movement
Dear Bjorn 1st September 2001
I welcome your challenge to the environmental movement. There is too much self-righteousness and, indeed, self-satisfaction within the green ghetto. Unchallenged ideas always become tired and irrelevant. Your book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been written to dispel a collection of false beliefs propagated by greens, a collection you call “the litany.” The core of your argument is that this combines with four other factors to cause “a disjunction between perception and reality,” which you have set out to remedy. The four other factors are: lopsided scientific research; the need of environmental groups to generate revenues; the media’s preoccupation with bad news and something you call “poor individual perception.”
The trouble is that the litany you describe is a caricature of your own creation, which is perhaps why you cite a science fiction writer as its most compelling exponent.
It is true that some environmentalists play on people’s fears in order to generate headlines and revenues. But, in doing so, they are only following a well-trodden path established by the business world and those seeking political office. Wrongs never add up to rights and I would certainly prefer to live in a world with a more rational public discourse but, sadly, this is no easier to find than the one lived in by better people.
It is, however, a gigantic leap of logic to go from here to the idea that the whole environmental community, of some tens of millions of professional and volunteer members, has colluded in a conspiracy with the mass media to gull most people into thinking the environment is in a much worse state than it actually is. There is indeed an environmental litany. It is a litany of tragedy. It reads: DDT, Bhopal, Torrey Canyon, Sveso, Exxon Valdez, Flixborough, CFCs, Chernobyl, BSE…
These are not words that people have written, but events that have happened. These events, and many more, were brought to the public’s attention by the carelessness or ignorance of businesses and governments, not by environmentalists. In my 30 years as an environmentalist, nothing I or my colleagues have ever said or written has had as much influence on the public as these events.
The central thrust of your argument is that environmentalists, and Lester Brown in particular, have ignored the dramatically rising trajectory of human wellbeing throughout the 20th century, in order to promote a message of doom. You, together with your British soul mate, Matt Ridley, believe that all will be well in humanity’s future.
This sunny enthusiasm leads you not only to misrepresent Brown but also to miss the point. This is illuminated in your discussion of his views on food. Brown, you say, keeps on “telling us that food production is going down the tubes.” He does no such thing. He did write, in the passage you quote from 1965, “the food problem emerging in the less developing regions may be one of the most nearly insoluble problems facing man over the next few decades.” He was right. It has been a nearly insoluble problem. In 1974, Henry Kissinger promised the world food conference that by 1984 no one would go to bed hungry. In 1996, governments at the world food summit in Rome cut this target in half and doubled the time it would take to reach it. Three years later they agreed that even this goal was unlikely to be achieved.
You rightly point out that food production has greatly increased and that the proportion of people starving has gone down. Brown agrees and has said so often. You also both agree that the absolute number of people starving has remained almost constant because of population growth. The point you miss here is whether production growth can continue to outpace population growth.
A broader point you miss is that environmentalists are not arguing that life has not got better for many people in many places, but that it has got better in ways that cannot be maintained if it is to be enjoyed with everyone-that is to say all of the 9 billion or so people that we expect to be sharing our economy and our ecology later in the 21st century. The point is not to stop things getting better, but to ensure that they get better in smarter ways.
In setting out to storm unoccupied positions and slay already dead dragons, you have committed all of the offences that you so robustly, and occasionally correctly, criticise in the environmentalists. You exaggerate for effect, substitute forceful assertion for weight of argument, sometimes make sweeping generalisations from particular instances, are inconsistent in your use of logic and selective in using evidence and quotation. These are the familiar and allowable features of polemic. They are only illegitimate in scholarship. What renders your book dishonest is its claim to scholarship.
4th September 2001
You claim that what I call the litany-the oft-repeated claim of an ever deteriorating environment-is a caricature, and that I am forced to quote a science fiction writer because true environmentalists do not express such views.
In fact, Isaac Asimov’s influential book (described by Michael McCloskey, former director of the Sierra Club, as “the one ecology book to read”) is only mentioned in my footnotes. My main examples of the litany are from the American Time magazine and the British New Scientist. In 2000, Time tells us how “everyone knows the planet is in bad shape” and how “the decline of the earth’s ecosystems has continued unabated” over the past 40 years. And in its 2001 global environment supplement, New Scientist describes the impending environmental “catastrophe” and how our thoughtless actions risk consigning “humanity to the dustbin of evolutionary history.” This may not characterise the environmental debate in which you are engaged, but it certainly characterises the debate which most people read and believe. Denying this is implausible, and leads to neglecting the litany’s real impact on public policy. In any case, you do not have to look too far to find similar statements coming from reputable environmental organisations. The Worldwatch Institute, for example, says “the key environmental indicators are increasingly negative,” noting how “local ecosystems are collapsing at an accelerating pace” and repeatedly uses phrases like “the environmental decline of the planet.”
You accept that many people have a poor perception of the environment but surely the solution is for greens to provide better information. We need to curb the sweeping statements of the litany and instead provide useful knowledge, both of real problems and success stories.
Curiously, you then go on to confirm my claim of a litany-you say that there is a litany of environmental tragedy and list examples such as DDT, oil spills from Torrey Canyon and Exxon Valdez, and CFCs damaging the ozone layer. Because these are actual events, they somehow show that the environmental decline is real and not just the creation of environmentalists. But singular events cannot reliably be used to describe general trends. It is as incorrect as noting that one’s grandfather chain-smoked and yet lived to be 97, thus concluding smoking to be harmless.
You also neglect to put these problems in perspective-DDT has helped wipe out endemic malaria in both Europe and north America, and its cheap protection still works wonders for third world malaria, while its risks to humans are minimal. Since malaria is one of the top killers, with more than 1.1m deaths a year, surely this information is also necessary for people to get a truer perception of the world? Likewise, CFC gasses have been almost completely phased out and the ozone layer is projected to heal over the next 50 years. Isn’t that important information, too? Equally, you find time to mention two large oil spills, but you do not put them in perspective. Though the Exxon Valdez oil spill killed at least 250,000 birds, this is roughly equivalent to the number of birds that die in one day from colliding with plate glass in the US or two days’ death toll from domestic cats in Britain. The total spill was less than 2 per cent of the pollution caused by powerboats in the US every year. The ecology of the sound has almost completely recovered. Perhaps most important, the number and mass of oil spills has declined dramatically over the past three decades, despite much increased oil transport.
Your last point on Lester Brown is remarkable. You say that he was right when he said the world food problem would be nearly insoluble. Insoluble is a vague term but, since Brown said this, more than two billion more people have been fed properly, the percentage of hungry people has declined from more than 35 per cent to 17 per cent and even the absolute number of hungry people has declined from about 1,000m to 760m. (You can’t seriously argue that because Kissinger’s over-optimism didn’t hold, things have got worse.)
The UN (in line with the World Bank) expects the proportion of hungry people to decline even further to 6 per cent in 2030, down to some 400m. While this is still not good enough, it represents a dramatic improvement. You claim that Brown can legitimately interpret the future more pessimistically, but that neglects one of the central points of my book: Brown does not have models supporting his pessimism, while the only world-wide models addressing the long-term issues of food and population (UN, World Bank) show more food per person, despite more people. Moreover, you evade the overwhelming evidence presented in my book, which shows how Brown’s previous claims of pessimism have been entirely wrong. In 1998, Brown predicted that the 1996 wheat price spike was an indicator of a long-term upward price trend, caused by scarcity. In 2000, the wheat price hit a new all-time low. Equally, in 1995 Brown thought that China’s grain imports would topple the world food market and his predictions were more than six times gloomier than anyone else’s. In 2001, China is still exporting grain.
Dear Bjorn 6th September 2001
The environmental debates into which you jump with such abandon are full of complex issues contested by hundreds of thoughtful and informed participants. Their positions on unresolved matters are carefully nuanced, in the recognition that reality is often elusive and a little humility helpful in its pursuit.
Take Norman Myers. You robustly criticise his 1979 estimate of a loss of biodiversity of some 40,000 species a year, and are quick to take him to task for not providing “other references or argumentation.” But you omit to point out that Myers himself made it clear that this was a first cut assessment, exploratory in character, and you seem to have forgotten the 80-odd papers he has written in the 20 years since 1979. Even more surprising, you seem to have forgotten the 1994 publication of a detailed account of the long running debate between Myers and your mentor Julian Simon on this very issue.
And it is not just Myers who is overlooked. You make much of the work of Ariel Lugo on Puerto Rico, but say nothing about Storrs Olson’s repeated rebuttal of those findings. You rest great weight on the views of Ian Heywood and Neil Stuart on scientific uncertainty, but say nothing about the work of Peter Raven, Michael Soule and David Woodruff, among dozens of others on the same theme. You are confident in your belief that there is a natural extinction rate of about two species a decade, but fail to mention the work of David Jablonski, Douglas Erwin, David Raup and a host of others who take a different view.
A final point. Models are not reality, as you point out in your chapter on climate change. So it is inconsistent to criticise Lester Brown’s judgements on the basis that they are unsupported by a model. Further-more, not all models are equally good approximations of reality-climate models are like Rolls-Royces compared to those we have for the economy. Different modellers build different models of the same reality and even when different people use the same model they often come to different conclusions because they start from different assumptions. A World Resources Institute study, for example, found that different modellers, using different assumptions, estimated the impact of tackling climate change on the US economy as ranging from +3 per cent of GDP to -7 per cent. As a statistician I would expect you to be more conscious of the limitations of the mathematical modelling of trends.
7th September 2001
I put forward a fairly straight argument about the environment in my book, documenting most of the important facts and figures, using more than 1,800 references and almost 3,000 footnotes. Naturally, we cannot cover all of these issues here, but presumably you picked out some of my most obviously mistaken arguments for your first letter. You found three general objections. First, you claimed that my litany was a caricature of my own creation, second that tragedies like DDT, CFC and oil spills shaped the environmental perception of the general public and third, how I was wrong to attack Lester Brown for his consistently incorrect track record.
The first point you appear to accept is untenable, and the latter two you seem to have given up defending. When criticised, you do what most of my opponents have done-you change the subject. Such tactics are hard to handle, since you can just throw up lots of new issues. Let me answer two.
You mention how I appear to have forgotten a 1994 publication detailing the long running debate between Myers and Simon. I know the book, but didn’t include it because it added nothing new to the debate. (Indeed, perhaps you could tell me what weighty point this book presents that would undermine my argument.) You also claim that I only mention a natural extinction rate of about two species per decade and fail to take into account other estimates. I do indeed give several references to this estimate (including the UN), but you have to show that the other evidence would change my conclusion.
The environmental debate should be based on facts. Despite my best efforts, I may have got some of them wrong, in which case I would be happy to have them corrected. But offering weak objections, dodging criticism and constantly throwing up new issues is not very constructive.
Dear Bjorn 9th September 2001
The following headlines appear in the latest issue of the Worldwatch Institute’s publication Vital Signs: “Soybean Harvest Sets Record”; “Fossil Fuel Use Falls Again”; “Milk Production Maintains Momentum”; “Global Temperature Steady;” “Solar Power Market Surges”; “Carbon Emissions Continue to Decline.” This hardly supports your view that greens never report good news.
You are right about one thing, I am not quarrelling with your facts-how could I? What I am quarrelling with is your selection of subsets of the facts, with the interpretation you put on that selection and with your judgement as to the significance of those interpretations. Nowhere is this more important than on climate change, and particularly the economics of climate change, the issue to which you devote most attention in your book.
You blithely assert: “Economic analyses clearly show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon-dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adaptation to the increased temperatures.” As I have pointed out before, some do and some do not. But our understanding of the impact of climate change is limited not only by the uncertainties about the climate change itself-which you point out at some length-but also by the even larger uncertainties about the ecological, social and political responses to those changes.
Uncertainties in this context mean that the errors could go either way-things could be better or they could be worse. If we are not sure what is going to happen and we are as unsure about how we will react to what does happen, you have to be very brave, or an economist, to try and calculate costs and benefits. No one is in a position to make a reliable estimate of the costs either of the temperature rises or of any adaptations that might be made to those rises. Calculating the true costs of things in the past is very difficult, as was pointed out by William Nordhaus. Predicting costs in the future is even more difficult.
Furthermore, the whole art of economic modelling is, as yet, so immature as to make such estimates relatively useless as a guide to public policy. Your economic argument relies heavily on the outputs of an economic model developed by the same William Nordhaus who pointed out how difficult it was to estimate costs that had occurred in the past. His work has been criticised in the technical literature for exaggerating the costs and ignoring the benefits of acting on climate change-something you omit to mention.
What I find the most egregious element about your climate change argument, however, is the proposition that the world faces a choice between spending money on mitigating climate change and providing access to clean drinking water and sanitation in the developing world. We must and can do both. Such artificial choices may be possible in an academic ivory tower where ideas can be arranged to suit the prejudices of the occupant, but they are not available in the real world and it is dishonest to suggest that they are.
By the way, Bj?I would be most grateful if you would let me know where I might find any of your arguments in a peer reviewed journal.
10th September 2001
You make three main points on global warming. First, you claim that some models show cutting carbon emissions would be a bad deal, some a good deal. This is incorrect. The conclusion of the latest meeting of all the cost-benefit modellers was: “Current assessments determine that the optimal policy calls for a relatively modest level of control of CO2.” Even major cuts will only marginally change warming. The Kyoto protocol, proposing 30 per cent carbon cuts in 2010, will only postpone warming in 2100 by six years. The six years’ delay is based on the physical (not economic) global warming models and are accepted by everyone. Thus, the real policy question is marginal: “How much are we willing to spend on postponing (not avoiding) global warming for six years?” The models show that Kyoto will cost $150-350 billion annually. But even if we pay this amount throughout the 21st century, we will still have to pay the costs associated with global warming, a mere six years later.
Second, this undermines much of your uncertainty principle argument. Even if global warming would cause the Gulf Stream to stop (which currently no models forecast) the question is still marginal: would we pay $150-plus billion annually throughout the 21st century just to postpone its shutdown for six years?
Third, you say that you find it egregious that I dare ask if we could not use our resources better. I merely point out that handling global warming is about helping the third world (which will bear the brunt of its disadvantages). The cost of Kyoto for just one year could permanently solve the single biggest problem on Earth: we could provide clean drinking water and sanitation to every person on the planet, saving 2m lives every year. What makes cutting carbon emissions so holy that we must not question a better use of our resources? You glibly suggest that we should do both, but linking a good use of resources (drinking water) to a bad use (Kyoto) does not make the bad use magically good.
Your concluding attack distracts from your arguments, but begs a short answer. Cambridge University Press (my British publisher) does peer review its books. But, honestly, this is a terrible argument from authority-even if it was not peer reviewed, would it matter? If I am wrong, you have had a chance to point out where and have singularly failed to do so. Clutching at peer review makes it sound as if you want to exclude my arguments from public debate on a technical objection.
Bjorn Lomborg and Tom Burke