The naive optimist

August 24, 2001

Bjorn Lomborg has grabbed headlines by questioning the value of the Kyoto Protocol. But while Lomborg might be a sceptical environmentalist, he is no Bu****e propagandist, argues Fred Pearce.

I'm not sure what I expected of Bjorn Lomborg, the new hero of the anti-greens. A crusty, pedantic reactionary of the English school, maybe, or a sharp-suited rightwing Bu****e. But Anglo-Saxon cultural stereotypes do not work for Danes. In Denmark, environmentalism is so much the mainstream that youthful rebellion requires some scepticism about the hand-me-down green dogma. So no tweed jackets or sharp suits for Lomborg. More jeans, a cowboy shirt and the rucksack he dumps in the corner as - in keeping with the politically uncorrect nature of our enterprise - we meet over coffee at Starbucks to discuss his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist .

"I find it uncomfortable that this book could help George W. Bush," he begins. "It is the last thing that I want." How come? With Matt Ridley and Lewis Wolpert giving the back-cover citations, I would expect to see it sitting on plenty of bookshelves next to root-and-branch anti-green texts such as Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource .

But Lomborg is as rude about Simon and his band of American free-marketeers as he is about the greens. "With Simon, the politics comes first. Sometimes he is right, but sometimes he is wrong. It is the same with Bush. Some of the things he says about the Kyoto Protocol - how much it would cost and how little it would achieve - are right. But he is saying it because of his oil buddies. I start with the science. If, as a scientist, you put politics first, you are doomed."

Who would argue with that? "All I am saying is that there are lots of problems in the world that need solving - such as poverty and development and wealth distribution - as well as environmental issues. We have to address the most important things first, to get our priorities right. I think environmentalists usually get their priorities wrong."

One of Lomborg's prime concerns is our sometimes obsessive desire to rid the world of even the smallest residues of toxic chemicals. "There is just a blanket fear of chemicals. But the world is made up of chemicals. And we forget that while pesticides may carry risks, they also save lives by providing more and cheaper healthy food. Think of all the fruit and vegetables that pesticides have helped put into the shops and all the cancers that people have avoided by eating them."

Environmentalists ignore that, he says. They never draw up a balance. "Without that you can reach a false conclusion. In Europe, there is a great tendency to spend huge amounts of money on such false problems."

The same is often true of air pollution, he says. "In Denmark, the feeling is that anything that you can measure has to be dealt with. Will we save more lives by investing in hospitals in developing countries or in pollution prevention?"

I waited for some blanket assertion about how air pollution didn't matter. But Lomborg surprised me again. "When you look at it, there are some forms of pollution that we have to address. Investment in cutting particulate pollution would pay off."

The evidence, he says, is growing that particulates, especially the smaller carcinogenic particles that come from diesel engines and lodge deep in the lungs, are extremely damaging to health. They are causing epidemics of lung and heart disease across many urban areas. Investing in removing that pollution would help clean out hospital wards.

Lomborg's argument is not just a forensic point-by-point analysis of green claims. He goes further. He says the green world view is permeating all our lives and getting in the way of clear, scientific thinking. "As long as we have the moral picture that everything is going to hell, we cannot make the prioritisation that is necessary," he says. We are hooked on doomsday scenarios.

But Lomborg has gone the other way. If greens are the new Marxists, then he is a new Whig. A former member of Greenpeace, he is now an environmental optimist that is at least as perverting as green pessimism. "Since the industrial revolution we seem to have hit on a way of improving the world and there seems no end in sight," he says.

And he believes that greens are failing to address the real needs of the poor. Environmentalism, he believes, is part of the caution of the rich, who have more to lose, and has little to offer the poor, who are prepared to take more risks with their environment and who, above everything, need to get rich. "Why would a Bangladeshi be worrying about sea level rising when there are so many more day-to-day concerns?"

It is a fair question. And in this analysis, his complaint seems to be as much as anything about the new colonialism of ideas - about green imperialism. It occurred to me afterwards that he was offering a new version of Graham Greene's famous novel of Indo-China, The Quiet American . Just replace the spook from the CIA, whose naive idealism caused such havoc, with a campaigner from Greenpeace.

I think there is something in that. But he seems to go astray when he addresses climate change. He accepts that this is a big global environmental issue. But his analysis of why the Kyoto Protocol is not worth pursuing seems to me reckless and illogical.

Choosing the most pessimistic economic projections, he says that to bring the protocol into force will cost 2 per cent of the gross national product of industrialised nations. Yet, "all it will do is postpone climate change for five or six years". Therefore, it is not worth it, he says. "We say we are doing it to stop Bangladeshis being flooded out. But maybe there are better ways to spend money on helping Bangladeshis - such as giving them clean drinking water." The cost of fulfilling the Kyoto Protocol would be enough to give the whole world clean drinking water, he says. It would bring big benefits now, not theoretical benefits far into the future.

But the comparison is facile. Meeting the Kyoto Protocol would be a down payment on survival. Think of the cost of not doing it. It would bring climatic disruption far into the future. He says that there is unlikely to be a long-term climate problem - not because he does not believe climate science, but because he believes the problem will solve itself, or that we will solve it inadvertently by adopting renewable-energy technologies.

"My argument would be incorrect if we were going to use fossil fuels for ever," he says. "It hinges on the fact that renewables will take over. They will become cheaper. They are close to that now. By the middle of the century we will be generating huge amounts of power from the sun."

But who would have been investing in renewable energy technologies over the past decade - bringing down the price of wind and solar power - without the expectation of legal limits on fossil fuels of the kind included in the Kyoto Protocol? Lomborg was not sure - he just thinks someone would have.

The greens may not always be right. But the green view is the stimulus for much of what even Lomborg acknowledges needs to be done. You have, surely, to will the means as well as the ends? He half agrees.

"I'm happy that we have organisations such as Greenpeace to speak against power and money. We needed them as a corrective back in the 1960s and 1970s." The problem is not them, he says. "They are special-interest groups with an argument to make. The problem is more with the rest of us, with those who do not realise that the green groups are a special-interest group, with their own agendas, just like industry. We treat them uncritically, rather than sceptically."

Grabbing his rucksack, he concludes: "Science should be about going against the grain. I feel awkward about what I am saying politically, but great about it intellectually."

It is tempting to call Lomborg not so much sceptical as confused. But his book contains insights and useful correctives amid the naivety and pedantry. I enjoyed it in places. But I think he should feel awkward about it intellectually as well as politically.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is published by Cambridge University Press, £17.95. Fred Pearce was a principal contributor to the AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment (California University Press), £45.00.

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