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The Skeptical Environmentalist

Even as activists bemoan what they see as the failings of the Johannesburg summit, Danish author Bjorn Lomborg tells DW-WORLD that the earth is not as bad off as it is made out to be.

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Planet earth is doing just fine - Danish author Bjorn Lomborg

Environmentalists often compare Bjorn Lomborg to Holocaust deniers. A harsh judgement perhaps, but Lomberg has long crossed swords with environmentalists by countering their arguments that the earth is doomed if urgent steps aren’t taken to combat global problems.

Imagined environmental problems?

In his book "The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World," (photo) Lomborg, a Danish statistics professor and head of the Danish Institute for Environmental Assessment, claims that the "disastrous" state of the earth is in many aspects a myth created by alarmist environmentalists which is then fuelled by the media.

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World

The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World by Bjorn Lomborg

When the book was published in 1998, it triggered a tidal wave of anger, and former Greenpeace member Lomberg became the target of irate green protestors. One of them smashed a cake in his face.

Speaking to DW-WORLD, Lomberg said that he aims to stop this exaggerated "litany" of environmental woes and distinguish between "phantom" problems and real ones. Global climate change is one of the phantoms, he said.

Meticulous research to back explosive results

His words may sound radically different from the general lament among environmentalists that the health of the planet is deteriorating. But Lomberg says his conclusions are backed by four years of research, 182 graphs, 3,000 footnotes and a careful double checking of commonly used statistics.

He has come to the conclusion that the hole in the ozone layer is more or less fixed, that air quality in the developing world has greatly improved and that we will not lose 25-50 percent of all species in our lifetime as is widely believed. He says the more accurate figure is 0.7 percent.

Further, human life expectancy has soared, caloric intake has risen world-wide and the world's natural resources suffice to feed mankind. Lomborg says the state of the earth - if not yet good enough - has vastly improved.

Scientists wary of Lomberg's research

But Lomberg’s arsenal of statistics and figures doesn't convince everybody.

His critics in the scientific world doubt his methods and say that the statistics he uses obscure important details. He is accused of quoting dubious scientists whose theories have never been accepted by their peers.

The WWF and World Research Institute, an environmental think tank, have posted a website on which they examine Lomborg's findings and point out where he is wrong or his arguments misleading.

They cite Lomborg’s assertion that marine productivity has almost doubled in the past thirty years. He bases that claim on a graph that shows an increase in annual fish catches.

"What humans are taking from the sea and what the oceans are producing are two fundamentally different matters," says the WWF on the site.

Nudging widely-accepted facts

But Lomberg, 37, remains unfazed by the brickbats. The self-proclaimed left-wing activist is sticking to his convictions.

He has challenged several claims made by environmentalists and scientists and examined examples where he believes facts were misinterpreted or even made up.

He describes how in 1997 the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) published a press release saying its research indicated that that two-thirds of the world's forests had been lost forever.

Lomborg tried to double check the WWF findings but found that no actual report on forest destruction existed. The figures behind the claim had been taken from someone else's research and reinterpreted.

"Claims like these create a wrong sense of looming danger and prevent us from democratic discussion and informed decision-making", he says.

Lomborg: Threat of global warming grossly exaggerated

The prime example of an exaggerated threat, says Lomborg, is global warming, which he says leads to bad decisions and wastes money.

He believes that even if the Kyoto protocol were fully implemented, it would only postpone a rise in global temperatures by 6 years.

Lomberg argues that instead of squandering money in the pursuit of future benefits which are uncertain at best, the world should focus now on helping those who would be most affected by higher temperatures, developing countries. At the same time, he says, the world should concentrate on improving health, which according to him remains the greatest challenge facing the human race.

Lesson in there somewhere?

His critics have not been able to produce the hard facts in order to prove him wrong, he says. He believes that the majority of his findings withstand criticism.

Though he insists that he is using "respected" data, from the UN for example, the moral of the story of the 'Sceptical Environmentalist' is that all data, no matter what its source, should be critically examined, whether it‘s supplied by scientists, environmentalists or Bjorn Lomborg.

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  • Date 04.09.2002
  • Author Stefanie Suren
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2bzE
  • Date 04.09.2002
  • Author Stefanie Suren
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/2bzE