Book recommendation: The Skeptical Environmentalist

Discussion in 'Archived Threads 2001-2004' started by Lee Scoggins, Mar 8, 2002.

  1. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Friends,
    I have been reading a fascinating and upbeat book on the environment title The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg.
    It is a very optimistic view of the current state of the Earth and how things are mostly improving.
    If any of you are looking for a good read or want to learn more about the environment, check it out.
    [​IMG]
    Lee
     
  2. Todd Hochard

    Todd Hochard Cinematographer

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    Interesting. I'll have to look for that. I'm not sure that I can be convinced that things are better- we've just moved on to subtler, but equally problematic, issues.
     
  3. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Hmm, many scientists have problems with the conclusions made in that book. Scientific American and Nature both have articles debunking it. Try looking for the January or February issues of Scientific American to read the reviews.
     
  4. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Ok, saying they "debunked" it is a bit harsh.

    Anyhow, for a good balanced read, have a look at Edward O. Wilson's new book, "The Future of Life".
     
  5. RobertR

    RobertR Lead Actor

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    What I object to is someone writing about an issue and making it sound as if all scientists support his position. For example, some people write as if all scientists agree on the nature, cause, degree, and significance of global warming (in fact, they do NOT). They try to give the appearance of such a consensus in order to further a particular agenda.
    In such cases, the best approach is to listen to both sides and evaluate their positions on their merits. If The Skeptical Environmentalist uses faulty reasoning and/or unsound science, then it can be faulted as such. However, it is NOT a sound argument to say that the mere existence of an article in Scientific American (or some other "authoritative" publication) disputing it is sufficient per se to discredit it. The Scientific American author is as subject to scrutiny as anyone else. Here's a link to an interesting article about the book:
    http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/00000002D214.htm
    And a sample chapter:
    http://uk.cambridge.org/economics/lomborg/sample.htm
     
  6. Mike Broadman

    Mike Broadman Producer

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    Yes, I know of this book and have read some of it. At the risk of delving into politics and getting this thread closed, the vast majority of scientists and ecologists do understand the threat of global warming. Without getting into details, the book jumps conclusions wider than the Grand Canyon and misrepresents true scientific research. One also must question any political or financial motivations of the author.

    The thing is, you can always find the one or two dissenting voices for anything.
     
  7. RobertR

    RobertR Lead Actor

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  8. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    I knew this thread would provoke mention of the Scientific American article. Amazing what control book reviews have on promising and well researched books. Here is a copy of the Economist view on the SA critique...

    Buy the book and read it. It is actually very well written, scientific in its approach, and well documented using good data sources.

    I believe the reason that it was slammed was that it exposed the hype of the green movement and the lack of substance behind the thought that the Earth is dying. It is in fact thriving, save for a few areas.

    ----------------------------------------------------------

    Why has Bjorn Lomborg created such a stir among environmentalists?

    “I'M AFRAID there isn't much scientific controversy about Mr Lomborg. He occupies a very junior position in Denmark (an ‘associate professor' does not exactly mean the same thing that it does in the United States), he has one possibly very flawed paper in an international journal on game theory, no publications on environmental issues, and yet manages to dismiss the science of dozens of the world's best scientists, including Nobel laureates, Japan and Crawford prize-winners and the like. As any sensible person would expect, his facts are usually fallacies and his analysis is largely non-existent.”

    Those contemptuous words from Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation biology at Columbia University, are fairly representative of the response from many environmental scientists and activists to Bjorn Lomborg's recent book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist”. In the weeks since the book's release, virtually every large environmental group has weighed in with a denunciation. Numerous heavyweights of science have penned damning articles and reviews in leading journals. Dr Pimm, for one, railed against Dr Lomborg in Nature, while Scientific American recently devoted 11 pages to attacks from scientists known for their environmental activism.

    Dr Lomborg's critics protest too much. They are rattled not because, as they endlessly insist, Dr Lomborg lacks credentials as an environmental scientist and is of no account, but because his book is such a powerful and persuasive assault on the central tenets of the modern environmental movement.

    Just the facts

    Curious about the true state of the planet, the author—who makes no claims to expertise in environmental science, only to statistical expertise—has scrutinised reams of official data on everything from air pollution to energy availability to climate change. As an instinctive green and a former member of Greenpeace, he was surprised to find that the world's environment is not, in fact, getting ever worse. Rather, he shows, most environmental indicators are stable or improving.

    One by one, he goes through the “litany”, as he calls it, of four big environmental fears:

    • Natural resources are running out.

    • The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat.

    • Species are becoming rapidly extinct, forests are vanishing and fish stocks are collapsing.

    • Air and water are becoming ever more polluted.

    In each case, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom is wildly exaggerated. Known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals have risen. Agricultural production per head has risen; the numbers facing starvation have declined. The threat of biodiversity loss is real but exaggerated, as is the problem of tropical deforestation. And pollution diminishes as countries grow richer and tackle it energetically.

    In other words, the planet is not in peril. There are problems, and they deserve attention, but nothing remotely so dire as most of the green movement keeps saying.

    Nor is that all he shows. The book exposes—through hundreds of detailed, meticulously footnoted examples—a pattern of exaggeration and statistical manipulation, used by green groups to advance their pet causes, and obligingly echoed through the media. Bizarrely, one of Dr Lomborg's critics in Scientific American criticises as an affectation the book's insistence on documenting every statistic and every quotation with a reference to a published source. But the complaint is not so bizarre when one works through the references, because they so frequently expose careless reporting and environmentalists' abuse of scientific research.

    The replies to Dr Lomborg in Scientific American and elsewhere score remarkably few points of substance*. His large factual claims about the current state of the world do not appear to be under challenge—which is unsurprising since they draw on official data. What is under challenge, chiefly, is his outrageous presumption in starting a much-needed debate.

    Some argue that scientists who favour stronger policies to improve the environment must use the same tactics as any other political lobby—from steel companies fighting for tariffs on imports to farmers demanding more subsidies. The aim, after all, is to win public favour and government support. Whether such a view is consistent with the obligation science owes to the truth is debatable, at best. If scientists want their views to be accorded the respect due to science, then they must speak as scientists, not as lobbyists.

    Dr Lomborg's work has its flaws. He has made some errors in his statistical analysis, as he acknowledges on his website. And there are broader issues, especially to do with the aggregation of data and the handling of uncertainty, where his book is open to challenge. For instance, his approach of examining data at a global level, while statistically sound, tends to mask local environmental trends. Global marine productivity has indeed risen, as he says—but this disguises collapses in particular species in particular places. Dr Lomborg argues that such losses, seen in a long-term perspective, do not matter much. Many would disagree, not least the fishermen in the areas affected.

    Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute (WRI) makes a related point. He accepts Dr Lomborg's optimistic assessment of the environment, but says it holds only for the developed world. The aggregate figures offered in the book mask worsening pollution in the mega-cities of the poor world. Dr Lomborg agrees that there are local and regional environmental pressures, and that these matter a lot, but it is fair to point out that the book has little to say about them, except to argue that rising incomes will help.

    The book gives little credit to environmental policy as a cause of environmental improvement. That is a defensible position, in fact, but the book does not trouble to make the case. And another important question is somewhat skated over: the possibility that some environmental processes involve irreversible “triggers”, which, once pulled, lead to sudden and disastrous deterioration. Climate scientists believe, and Dr Lomborg does not deny, that too much warming could lead to irreversible bad outcomes such as the collapse of the mid-Atlantic “conveyor belt” (an ocean current that warms Europe). The science here is thin: nobody knows what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would trigger such a calamity. But the risk argues for caution.

    Dr Lomborg's assessment of the science in this area leads him to venture that warming is more likely to be at the low end of the range expected by leading experts than at the high end. He argues that the most-cited climate models misjudge factors such as the effects of clouds, aerosols and the solar cycle. That is plausible, and there is science to support it, but the conclusion is far from certain. Again, it is reasonable to argue that such uncertainty makes it better to err on the side of caution.

    Sensible people will disagree about the course that policy should take. Dr Lomborg—a courteous fellow—seems willing to talk calmly to his opponents. For the most part, while claiming in some cases to be men of science, his opponents do not return the compliment.

    Homo ecologicus

    Despite its limitations, “The Skeptical Environmentalist” delivers a salutary warning to conventional thinking. Dr Lomborg reminds militant greens, and the media that hang on their every exaggerated word about environmental calamity, that environmental policy should be judged against the same criteria as other kinds of policy. Is there a problem? How bad is it? What will it cost to fix? Is that the best way to spend those resources?

    This is exactly what Tom Burke, a leading British environmentalist, denied in a debate he had with Dr Lomborg in Prospect, a British magazine. “What I find most egregious [in] 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.”

    On the contrary, Mr Burke. Only in an ivory tower could choices such as these be called “artificial”. Democratic politics is about nothing but choices of that sort. Green politics needs to learn that resources are not unlimited.
     
  9. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    I would not blanket all criticisms of the author's work as "Oh, they are just covering up for their own distortion of the facts", and I would not claim, "They are attacking him personally just because he is an outsider". I found the Scientific American viewpoints, from a few scientists in different disciplines related to ecology and the environment, to be enlightening and very informative. And I felt they were quite balanced and the concerns raised legitimate. Ditto for the review in Nature.
    Now, one thing I will comment on is the uncertainty in the whole field. The environment is a controversial subject because, quite simply, nobody knows. And no one has been able to reliably predict climate change in the long term. It is quite impossible at this point in time. And, if you look at the exponential processes that are found in nature, you will quickly realize why.
    For example, Edward O. Wilson points out, and I quote:
     
  10. Lee Scoggins

    Lee Scoggins Producer

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    Max,
    I like your reply and it represents the kind of discussion I was hoping for.
    A few comments...
    1. Bjorn Lomborg is trying to show where exaggerations have been made, but he recognizes there are serious issues on the environment. He really is an environmentalist (and I consider myself to be one in a renegade sort of way) and I think he wants the Earth to be in good shape for its children.
    2. Edward O. Wilson is a great writer and one of my favorites, I particularly look forward to reading this book you mentioned. This passage in fact corresponds perfectly with Lomborg's chapter on population growth and the declining birth rates. In fact, I believe they state the same statistics.
    3. Biomass is addressed in Lomborg's book.
    4. There is indeed a great deal of uncertainty. Lomborg addresses this on climate issues in his global warming chapter. he talks of the various predictions of each simulated computer model that is typically cited. He looks at the strength and weaknesses of each, but feels many numbers the green movement cites are the most pessimistic examples of the models and probably overstate the problem. Nevertheless, he feels global warming is a siginificant issue. Overall, I found his approach very fair to both sides (if there are two) and very balanced. It is too complex to give specific examples here but reading the book which is very well footnoted (in detail, which leads to further reading for us green geeks) is the ultimate evidence.
    5. Overall tone of the book. Lomborg clearly seeks to improve the use of statistics in the green movement. It is clear that many numbers have been manipulated by many participant including Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and interestingly Scientific American (a coincidence no?). One clearly gets a picture that the green movement is using worst case statistics, in addition to blatantly wrong or false ones, to draw attention to their movement. An understandable thing of human nature but one that undercuts the credibility of many of its institutions.
    Max, I will pick up Edward Wilson's book. [​IMG]
    Lee
     
  11. Max Leung

    Max Leung Producer

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    Oh I forgot to mention, that quote was lifted from E.O. Wilson's Consilience. Ooops. [​IMG]
    One day, I'll finish reading everything in my current book queue (been reading fiction lately...burnt out on the non-fiction!) and get to The SE. Or maybe I'll pass and read the other E.O Wilson books sitting on my shelf. [​IMG]
     

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