The earth's environment is steadily improving. Global warming is nothing much to worry about. The real danger is the Kyoto Treaty, which will cost far too much and do almost no good. These are the ideas of a Danish professor and former Greenpeace activist who has written a book titled, "The Skeptical Environmentalist." The book, which has recently been published in English, is causing outrage in the environmental community.
His fans call Bjorn Lomborg an outstanding representative of a "new breed of scientists - mathematically-skilled and computer-adept." One favorable review predicts his new book will overturn our most basic assumptions about the world's environment.
But to his detractors he is not a scientist at all, but a fraud: a statistics professor who they claim makes selective use of statistics to support a right-wing, anti-environment agenda.
Sitting in his Copenhagen apartment dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, the blond, 36 year old backpacker hardly seems like the same Bjorn Lomborg who is challenging the very foundations of the green movement. He explains that he started out as an environmental activist. "I'm an old Greenpeace, left-wing kind of guy and thought basically, yes, things are getting worse and worse," he said. "Then I read an interview with Julian Simon, [the late] American economist, that tells us things are actually getting better and better, contrary to common knowledge. I thought, No, it can't be true. But he said 'Go check it yourself,' ... so I'll have to get his book, to see that it was probably wrong. And it was sufficiently good, his book, and it looked sufficiently substantiated that it would probably be fun to debunk. So I got some of my best students together and we did a study course in the fall of '97.... We wanted to show, you know, this is entirely wrong, this is right-wing American propaganda. As it turned out over the next couple months, we were getting debunked for the most part."
Professor Lomborg says the project convinced him that environmental groups, the so-called greens, are exaggerating their claims of global environmental gloom and doom.
But he says those exaggerations and sometimes, he adds, even outright falsehoods, often become part of conventional wisdom, accepted by a majority of people because he says green groups seem to enjoy more credibility than governments or business lobbies. "Everybody knows businesses, when they say 'don't worry about the environment,' it may be true, but they might also have a good reasons for saying it, profit reasons, ulterior motives," said Bjorn Lomborg. "So we're skeptical. But we're not in the same way skeptical of green groups, but they are also lobby groups. They also have an agenda."
One of Professor Lomborg's favorite targets is the Kyoto Treaty on global warming.
A host of recent studies predict catastrophic consequences for the environment from a rise in global temperatures. The United Nations Panel on Climate Change, backed by 3,000 scientists, has thrown its full weight behind the argument that global warming is happening faster than expected, and that ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is urgent.
Professor Lomborg concedes that global warming is real, but calls the Kyoto Treaty a monumental waste of money. "Basically, Kyoto will do very little to change global warming," he said. "On the other hand, Kyoto will be incredibly expensive. It will cost anywhere from $150-350 billion a year, that's a lot of money when compared to the total global aid of about $50 billion a year. So the idea is, just for one year of Kyoto, we could give clean drinking water and sanitation to every single human being on earth. This would avoid 2 million deaths a year, and help half a billion people from not getting seriously ill each year."
That argument has sparked a furious outcry from environmentalists. Klaus Heinberg, a professor of environmental sciences at Denmark's Roskilde University, accuses Professor Lomborg of twisting facts and manipulating statistics. "His main argument is that we can use the money we earned through industrialism to repair all the bad things going on," he said. "That kind of argument is dangerous. He made these weird comparisons that normal people make in fun, like 'if all children in Europe stopped eating ice cream, then we would have enough money for eliminating diseases in Africa.' He uses that kind of argument seriously, and he does that in the Climate and Kyoto connection."
Professor Lomborg denies being a supporter of U.S. President George Bush, and says he is not happy that his conclusions will undoubtedly be used for political ends.
President Bush announced in March that Washington was abandoning the Kyoto agreement, saying it would place unfair burdens on the U.S. economy.
Professor Lomborg says it is a scientist's duty to put out the information, regardless of the political consequences. "If we start thinking, we can't say this because I'm gonna help somebody, for instance Bush, somebody I might not like, so I should keep it back, then I become a small politician instead of being a scientist," said Professor Lomborg. "So in that respect, I say it's an occupational hazard of being a scientist that you sometimes end up supporting what you in your own personal, political views, you would think of as the wrong people."
Professor Lomborg says he expected a hostile response from green groups to his claim that, in fact, the environment is getting better and better. He says for that reason, he has been very careful to use only statistics from what he says are respected sources.
And what does he say might be a better answer to global warming than the Kyoto Treaty? Investing in research into renewable energy sources. That, he says, is the long-term solution. As solar energy becomes economical, the level of the carbon dioxide emissions that cause warming should decline sharply.