911: “I want to report an academic disaster.

Elizabeth May reviews The Skeptical Environmentalist – Measuring the Real State of the World

(Canadian Business Law Journal, Spring 2002)

Rarely, perhaps never before, has a work denigrating concerns for the environment generated such an extraordinary degree of interest. If you haven’t heard, statistician, Bjorn Lomborg, has written a book that has elicited furious responses from the scientific community, eminent journals, research institutes and environmental groups. The anger should be directed toward his publisher, the Cambridge University Press. As one prominent climate scientist wrote plaintively, “I can only ask the Cambridge University Press, WHY? [1]

The problems with The Skeptical Environmentalist are many. The essence of them is this: Lomborg is neither skeptical nor an environmentalist. This previously obscure statistician, whose earlier publications had dealt with game theory, has followed the tried and true path to fame and fortune. If you want to write a media-grabbing assault on conventional environmental wisdom, there are six essential steps.

Step one: present yourself as an environmentalist.

It is best if you actually have a history within the environmental movement. Patrick Moore, one of the several hundred people who now claim to have been co-founders of Greenpeace, has turned his soured relationship with that organization into a lucrative pro-logging consulting and communications business.

Others have merely claimed to be environmental sympathizers. Ron Arnold, a right-wing columnist in the US who alleged that Bhopal was not Union Carbide’s fault and was likely due to Communist saboteurs, merely had to asset previous Sierra Club membership to set up his credentials for eco-turncoat status. The news media want a “man bites dog” story. Anti-environmental ideologues attacking the green agenda will lack the appeal of an environmental zealot who sees the light.

Predictably, Lomborg begins by asserting that he is “an old left-wing Greenpeace member” (p. xix). He gives us no evidence to support his self-characterization, and elsewhere in the book casts doubt on it. [2] Never mind later equivocations -- his publicity materials, his book’s title, and indeed, his entire premise rely heavily on his putative green credentials. His biography in the publisher’s promotional materials stress that “Lomborg was a dues-paying member of Greenpeace during his undergraduate years," and later a “member in spirit.”

This aspect of his appeal is acknowledged by one of Lomborg’s major media boosters, The Economist, in its rave review of The Skeptical Environmentalist. In describing why Lomborg’s message is being taken seriously when Julian Simon, the late economist who made the same case, was dismissed, the reviewer writes,

Simon was a quirky conservative, and therefore ignored by the mainstream media. Mr. Lomborg is a soft-left Greenpeace defector, a photogenic blond Dane, a charming self-promoter who understands the importance of, as he puts it, “being seen to be nice”. That makes him a story. [3]

Step two: express surprise in “discovering” the case for environmental concern is weak.

Lomborg tells the reader that he assumed economist Julian Simon was wrong in arguing that there were essentially no limits to growth. Lomborg claims he felt compelled to check Simon’s allegation that “much of our traditional knowledge about the environment is quite simply based on preconceptions and poor statistics” (p. xix). According to Lomborg, Simon’s claim that all his sources were from official statistics which anyone could check, piqued his interest. In asking a group of his students to study Simon, Lomborg writes, “Honestly, we expected to show that most of Simon’s talk was simple, American right-wing propaganda . . . but -- contrary to our expectations -- it turned out . . . ” (p. xix). You can finish the sentence. Step two successfully completed.

Step three: denigrate the opposition as unscientific and ascribe to them ulterior motives.

Lomborg expresses his surprise that the environmental movement’s response to his first published articles debunking environmental claims "was the gut reaction of complete denial” (p. xix). It is crucial that he not admit any of the responses were detailed and factual rebuttals. Environmental groups are accused of the following rather bizarre motivation:

environmental organizations base their activities on a desire to promote decisions which are good for their members . . . . The organizations may present themselves as patrons of the penguins and the pine trees . . . but they are dependent on people who sympathize with their points of view and contribute money, prestige and influence . . . . (p. 38)

He goes on to explain, "environmental organizations also have a clear interest in telling us the environment is in a bad state, and that we need to act now” (p. 38). In his verbose footnotes, he argues that environmental groups would hardly be happy to learn the planet was in a healthier condition than most believe, “because after all, then what would be the raison d’être of the organization?” (note 274)

The argument that groups working for the public good have an investment in the continuation of the social evils is counterintuitive, but it has its adherents. Federal Environment Minister David Anderson has claimed that environmental groups only criticized his endangered species legislation in order to be able to “sell calendars”. [4] However, historical evidence would suggest that organized do-gooders are only too happy to disband when the cause is won. Abolitionists in the United States did not perpetuate the slave trade in their own interests. Suffragettes did not struggle to avoid the right to vote in order to perpetuate their existence. And environmental organizations would happily join such groups in activist heaven if the environmental threats were to disappear.

Lomborg cannot rest with merely attributing motives to environmental groups for preferring a doomsday message. He also has to attack the scientific community. The important thing for him is to establish the lack of scientific rigour of just about everyone but him. No wonder the prestigious scientific journals, Science, Scientific American and Nature have all felt the need to set the record straight. Not only has Lomborg attacked science, he has attacked scientists as self-interested money-driven charlatans. He must do so for this stage of the formula to work.

To discredit the greens, he has to discredit the huge volume of scientific data on which environmental concerns are based. The public tends to be trusting of scientists. As the vast majority of scientists are at variance with Lomborg, he must find some basis on which to attack their bona fides. This he does by asserting that the scientific conclusion of experts is influenced by their desire to reap research funds. In one of his most outrageous charges, he alleges that the entire multilateral negotiation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and its related Kyoto Protocol, was driven “not, as you may have thought, [by] the prospect of possible global warming” but by windmill manufacturers, climate researchers and other “institutionalized interests” (note 273).

This extraordinary conclusion is drawn from the opinion of a single little-known researcher who has frequently attacked the United Nations scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). [5] Never mind that the impetus for concerted global action to reduce greenhouse gases came from the World Commission on Environment and Development, and the growing science as vetted through the first and second World Climate Conferences. [6] At the 1992 Earth Summit, the largest gathering of heads of government in the history of the world penned the Climate Change Convention. It strains credulity to imagine that George H. Bush and Brian Mulroney were snookered by those wily windmill manufacturers and funding-hungry scientists.

Climate scientists come in for rough treatment. Lomborg observes that “[i]t is . . . reasonably certain that it will become more difficult to get research grants for one’s own area of specialty if the threat posed by CO2 to mankind is not maintained to some degree” (note 2109). Therefore, Lomborg need not be troubled by denying that the scientific community has come to a consensus on climate change science, as was the fashion of fossil fuel industry flaks just a few years ago. He can freely and fairly ignore the international consensus as tainted by self-interest.

Step four: create the appearance of objectivity and scholarship through staggering amounts of detail and excessive footnoting.

The actual text of The Skeptical Environmentalist is 352 pages of a 514-page tome. The last 162 pages are taken up with notes, bibliography and index. With 2930 notes, the book averages eight per page. It is hard to imagine the notes are not deliberately padded to enhance the impact of the book, at least as it hits the coffee table. However, volume and usefulness are very different things. Some rather astonishing claims are unsupported by their references, [8] others are referenced to the author’s unsubstantiated musings, [9] and still others point to unavailable sources. [10] It takes a degree of persistence to separate the wheat from the chaff in his references. The first effort takes one to the notes where peer reviewed journal articles, books, conversations, websites and newspaper articles are all noted with the author’s name and a date. To determine the source of the note the reader must then wade into the 69-page bibliography. Sometimes, there is simply no matching source for the footnote. [11] Sometimes, the “work” is a television interview, Playboy, or even the Cato Institute.

In a disturbing number of instances, important arguments and serious charges laid against prominent environmental scientists rest on sources that turn out to be personal communication, correspondence with the author, or an unpublished paper. [12] Given the persistence with which Lomborg insists, ad nauseam, that he has relied only on what is official and readily available, he should have weeded out such spurious sources.

Many of the sources are legitimate, but many also are taken out of context, misunderstood, or added to the list of references in what must have been a deliberate attempt to pile on sources. Nearly twenty of the listed articles or books are listed although the citations are taken from one of the frequently cited five articles and books by Julian Simon. In fact, references to Simon and his derivative sources outnumber those to peer-reviewed journals, such as Science or Nature. Redundant citations smack of deliberation. For a non-expert like Lomborg to appear credible, he must create the impression of diligence. However, the impression wears thin on examination. Meanwhile, he mercilessly attacks Lester Brown at Worldwatch for statements Lomborg claims are “entirely without references” (p. 13), despite the fact his own notes admit the references are found throughout the book from which he quotes the introduction.

The other notable aspect of Lomborg’s citation method is a preference for those bits of information that support his thesis. For the most part he argues that the proper measure of the “state of the world” is found through access to global statistics. Elsewhere, Lomborg suggests the regional or local sources will present a fairer picture. Is it just a coincidence that he switches to the statistics which align to his argument?

Step five: set up straw men.

This is the heart and soul of The Skeptical Environmentalist. The largest of Lomborg’s inventions, ready to be struck down by the obvious, is what he calls “the Litany.” Drawing from Time and Newsweek articles, Lomborg sets up “the Litany”, which can be summarized as “everything is getting worse, all the time, everywhere.”

For the rest of the book he knocks it over -- which is admittedly easy to do. While much of the 1970 Limits to Growth report of the Club of Rome was undoubtedly on the money, experience has shown that projections of the collapse of non-renewable resources, e.g. minerals and fossil fuels, was off the mark. Based on known reserves in 1970, the estimated global supply was underestimated. Newer technologies -- access to tar sands, for example -- and new discoveries are constantly expanding our stock of fossil fuels. What is now understood is that the biosphere’s ability to cope with the waste from certain industrial activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is being exhausted faster than the resource itself. In other words, we are not running out of oil, and we are certainly not running out of energy, with an abundant supply of under-exploited wind and solar energy to harness. We are running out of atmospheric space for the greenhouse gases produced in burning fossil fuels. Nevertheless, Lomborg, inheriting both the mantle and all the previous arguments of his ideological godfather, Julian Simon, discredits arguments that simply no one is making anymore.

Contrary to Lomborg’s Litany thesis, environmental groups often employ success stories to encourage a dispirited public to understand that change is possible. The crisis of eutrophication in the Great Lakes has been dealt with through regulating phosphates in detergents. The scourge of acid rain has been substantially, though not entirely, addressed through legally mandated reductions in SO2 emissions. The threat of ozone depletion has been largely averted through the Montreal Protocol and global restriction on the manufacture and trade in ozone depleting substances. Similarly, I know of no environmental scientist or organization that would dispute that economic growth has created unprecedented levels of wealth, that more people in industrialized countries enjoy a much longer expected life span than a century ago, that infectious disease claims fewer lives (again in industrialized countries) or that air pollution in London has decreased since the killing smog of 1952 killed over 4,000 in a week.

The problems are that average increases in wealth mask a growing gap between a small number of very rich and a growing underclass, in every country, of poor. [13] While average life expectancy increases in wealthy countries, 50,000 children under the age of five die from water-borne diseases every day. Even in wealthy nations, our health is needlessly compromised by illness brought on by environmental contamination. And, most critically, evidence that an environmental problem (air pollution in London, acid rain in Canada, DDT contamination in industrialized countries) has declined due to government action and public protests, is not support for the argument that newer, un-addressed problems do not require similar action.

At one point, Lomborg claims that having taken action against acid rain killing forests (which Lomborg denies was ever a real problem), “environmentalists now point out that depositing the removed sulfur slurry constitutes a major health hazard.” As noted, [14] Lomborg’s purported source for this allegation says nothing of the kind. After decades of experience on the acid rain issue, I have never heard of this concern. To the contrary, in Canada, Inco switched its production methods, recapturing sulfur in commercial form. Inco was able to make money on its sulphur dioxide reduction strategy, after having claimed it would impose prohibitive costs. I searched the web for any posting on sulfur slurry as a health hazard. It does not exist.

To ridicule recycling, Lomborg touts the example of a recyclable toothbrush. Straw men are easy to knock down.

Step six: bait and switch.

This strategy is otherwise known as comparing apples and oranges. Here is a small sample:

  • To rebut charges that natural forest ecosystems are declining globally, Lomborg points out “[f]orest output has not decreased but actually increased some 40 percent since 1970” (p. 17, emphasis added). He confuses the ecological considerations of loss of primary ecosystems with a less relevant measure of forest cover, as though plantations of eucalyptus have the same habitat attributes as the original rain forest. He is positively jolly in exulting that the US “has only lost approximately 30 percent of its original forest area” (p. 112, emphasis added).

  • To counter concern that the world’s major fisheries are collapsing, Lomborg writes, “marine food production has almost doubled since 1970” [15] – a statistic derived by lumping together global aquaculture production and the traditional, and depleted, wild fishery. Later, he actually refers to this amalgamated figure of fish farms and oceans as the “global catch” (p. 30).

  • To deny the increased incidence of breast cancer, which for a Canadian woman has increased from a one in 30 lifetime risk of experiencing the disease 20 years ago to a one in nine risk today, Lomborg switches from incidence to death rates (p. 220). Thanks to better treatment methods, transfusions and antibiotics, for most cancers survival rates are increasing, even as incidence rates climb. More people are dying, even though the death rate is declining. Lomborg attempts to obfuscate increasing cancer incidence statistics with familiar arguments: people are living longer, there are more people, people smoke, etc. As cancer specialist Samuel Epstein has written, “[i]t is clear that there has been a real and absolute increase in cancer incidence and mortality during this century which cannot be explained away by increased lifespan or by smoking.” [16]

  • To refute concerns about soil erosion, Lomborg notes food production is increasing, due to “higher yield varieties, better farming practices and greater use of irrigation, pesticides and fertilization” (p. 105). These higher energy and chemical inputs are irrelevant to the problem of nutrient and topsoil loss. However, Lomborg rejoices, “[c]ompared to this productivity increase, the effect of soil erosion is so small that it often cannot justify an extra effort to combat it” (p. 105).

  • On water, Lomborg confuses water availability with use of water. Thus, he can conclude that "more than 96 percent of all nations have at present sufficient water resources” (p. 154). This cheery diagnosis masks the reality that over one billion people currently lack access to clean drinking water. [17]

This is a simply a bad book. It is bad on so many levels it would take another book of equal length to correct all its errors. From a literary standpoint, it needs to be said that Lomborg is a confusing and messy writer. It may have been better in the original Danish, but, given the reviews there, I wouldn’t bet on it. Lomborg is glib, careless and often just plain wrong. He seems incapable of understanding the notion of interconnected ecosystems, dealing with the “real state of the world”, as if he were tallying up Enron’s first and second quarter profits. He denies the strain on ecological services by noting that the dollar value of the exploitation of the natural world keeps going up.

Canadians will remember this false economics from the collapse of the North Atlantic cod stocks. As in-shore fishers and environmentalists warned that the stocks were collapsing, they were dismissed as long as the draggers of National Sea Products and Fisheries Products International were still profitable. In the immortal words of then-Fisheries Minister John Crosbie, you would have to be “demented” to reduce the quota. Lomborg could have been Crosbie’s speech writer.

For an academic, Lomborg is surprisingly uninterested in the inherent uncertainty of much of the science. He gives complex issues a simplistic treatment in black and white. He minimizes the impacts of a host of problems -- from ozone depletion and skin cancer to climate change, from increased intensity of severe weather events to food production in China.

The frustrated reader is left with two questions: Are Lomborg’s errors explicable through innocent mistake? And where were the Cambridge University Press editors? In answer to the first, the consistency of the pattern of denying of ecological damage and selecting sources in support of dubious conclusion after dubious conclusion, makes it difficult to but impossible to conclude that Lomborg is intellectually honest. The more troubling question concerns the standards of the Cambridge University Press? The Lomborgesque answer is a cheery, “Don’t worry about the declining academic rigour at the university press; their profits have never been better.”

Elizabeth May is Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada


[1] J. Mahlman, Union of Concerned Scientists website <>.

[2] Later Lomborg claims that he has been attacked as a “right-wing radical” (p. 32) and contrasts that with another writer who called him “a sandal-wearing leftie” (note 249). Having already described himself as a “left-wing Greenpeace member,” he writes “I would prefer not to state my political position because I believe my strength lies in arguing on the basis of fact and not in how to use these facts to pursue policy” (note 249, emphasis in the original).

[3] “Doomsday Postponed”, The Economist, vol. 360, no. 8238 (8 September 2001), 69, at p. 70.

[4] The [Toronto] Globe and Mail, 27 December 1999, p. A4.

[5] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created in 1990 and is co-sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. The researcher, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, is Lomborg’s only source for his sweeping claim, which he admits “is extremely difficult to substantiate adequately” (p. 37). See also, Mahlman, supra, footnote 1, for a detailed skewering of the mistakes on climate science in Lomborg’s book.

[6] The United Nations-sponsored World Commission on Environment and Development (the Brundtland Commission) which produced the landmark report Our Common Future (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1987); the World Climate Conference in 1990 in Geneva was arguably the place where multilateral political commitment to a negotiated treaty to reduce greenhouse gases achieved critical mass.

[7] If you doubt that footnoting can be excessive in a scientific treatise, just imagine an author who continues to argue what was just said in many subsequent footnotes as I am doing here. My personal favourite is the following: Having cited the Brundtland Commission's definition of sustainable development (that which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), Lomborg writes, “[a]ctually, this is an obvious point” (p. 91). That sentence is footnoted (note 605) leading to the referenced addition: “Naturally, this is a moral judgment, but one that the vast majority (the present writer included) finds obviously true.”

[8] At p. 11 Lomborg claims that, while once environmental groups had forced action to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions to fight acid rain (unnecessarily, says Lomborg), “environmentalists now point out that depositing the removed sulphur slurry constitutes a major health hazard.” The claim is footnoted to note 62, which leads to an article on wind power. The accompanying text in the note reads: “Al Gore also points out that scrubbers cause the release of 6 percent more CO2, though the modern estimate is less than 1 percent.” Nothing in the notes supports the sulphur slurry claim.

[9] For example, at p. 350, in an argument attacking the benefits of the precautionary principle, the following sentence contains two notations: “And if we want to back off from making priorizations all together [sic], because it seems ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘cold’,2924 this still does not prevent the distribution of resources from taking place; only now it is no longer considered and well-argued, but random and irrational.”2925 Note 2924 tells us the words in quotations are from the Danish Environmental High Advisor Peder Aggar (a position now held by Lomborg himself) and note 2925 reads, “Or, perhaps, more correctly, the agenda will be set and the distribution of resources allocated according to the interests with the loudest and most well-organized lobbyists.” To which my observation of government and power would suggest something quite different. The most organized and powerful lobbyists work for industry and, by professional creed, they are silent, relying on stealth and insider-influence. But Lomborg’s case rests on the unproven and unsupported assumption that environmental groups have too large an influence over public policy.

Another example: Lomborg writes, “In our modern society, much of the research done is publicly funded, which means there will be certain expectations as to the relevance of the research to society” (p. 36). The reader is referred to note 266: “Not all research, of course. However, basic research generally does not generate public awareness, and if it should do so there will be reason to suppose that it will systematically do so in a positive way, negating the following mechanism of negative lopsidedness.” Perhaps this made sense in the original Danish.

[10] Lomborg’s much vaunted reliance on accessible sources through the internet, yields a number of dead-ends, as even in his bibliography numerous articles from World Bank and FAO web sites, for example, conclude with the notation "no longer available". Notes 662-68 inclusive all came from unavailable website articles. Other unavailable citations are those from personal correspondence and unpublished articles.

[11] As in the Boehmer-Christensen reference, the sole support for his argument above that the climate negotiations were instigated by “institutionalized interests”. Search as you may, the source (other than her name), is not listed. There are numerous other examples of orphaned footnotes.

[12] At p. 95 Lomborg writes of Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute and author of the State of the World reports: “Lester Brown has accused FAO and the World Bank of consistently being too optimistic about grain production in the 1990s. He claims that their totals have been out by almost 14 percent. But these accusations have been shown to rest primarily on simple calculation errors and incorrect data.” (emphasis added). The supporting source for this serious charge is cited (note 631) initially as: “Alexandratos 1997.” The bibliographic citation for this title is a dense paragraph, which in the middle notes it is an “unpublished manuscript.” If it was unpublished five years ago, it is unlikely to ever see the light of day now, except as the support for Lomborg’s charge against Lester Brown.

[13] There is not space in this brief review to deal with Lomborg’s distortions of the problems faced by developing countries. He consistently blames environmental problems and human suffering on the fact of their poverty, argues the solution is more economic growth, and simply ignores the external debt load, the impact of structural adjustment, and the damage caused by export-led development strategies.

[14] Supra, footnote 9.

[15] Lomborg, p. 17, relying on data on p. 107.

[16] Samuel S. Epstein., The Politics of Cancer -- Revisited (Hankins, N.Y., East Ridge Press, 1998), at p. 17. Epstein also debunks Lomborg’s arguments, without, of course, any reference to Lomborg, whose book was not yet written. Lomborg has repeated the chemical industry arguments that population increases led to faulty statistics. Cancer incidence rates are based on cancers per 100,000 people. Therefore, absolute numbers of people are irrelevant as the proportion remains constant regardless of total population size. Epstein also notes that age adjusted cancer rates reflect “ a greater cancer risk in each specific age group” (p. 19), also citing S. Devesa and M. Schneiderman, “Increase in the Number of Cancer Deaths in the United States” (1977), 106 Am. J. Epidemiology 1.

[17] See P. Gleick, “Where’s Waldo? A Review of The Skeptical Environmentalist", at the Union of Concerned Scientists website, supra, footnote 1, for a detailed analysis of Lomborg’s erroneous conclusions on the water issue. Gleick is with the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, Oakland, California. His work was misunderstood by Lomborg, who converted Gleick’s estimate of the total number of additional people requiring water service by 2000 into an allegation of total numbers without access to water. This mistake is either sloppy or dishonest. Gleick’s paper was clear on the point.

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