The truth about the environment

The truth about the environment

Are concerns about population, poverty and environmental degredation justified?

Environmentalists tend to believe that, ecologically speaking, things are getting worse and worse. Bjorn Lomborg, once deep green himself, argues that they are wrong in almost every particular.

Lomborg states that environmentalists have developed a "litany" of four big environmental fears:

  • natural resources are running out
  • the population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat
  • species are becoming extinct in vast numbers: forests are disappearing and fish stocks are collapsing
  • the planet's air and water are becoming ever more polluted

But this article states that the evidence does not back up this litany. It states that:

  • energy and other natural resources have become more abundant, not less so
  • more food is now produced per head of the world's population than at any time in history. Fewer people are starving
  • although species are indeed becoming extinct, only about 0.7% of them are expected to disappear in the next 50 years, not 25-50%, as has so often been predicted
  • most forms of environmental pollution either appear to have been exaggerated, or are transient, associated with the early phases of industrialisation and therefore best cured not by restricting economic growth, but by accelerating it

Article states that four factors cause this disjunction between perception and reality:

  • scientific funding goes mainly to areas with many problems. This creates an impression that many more potential problems exist than is the case
  • environmental groups need to be noticed by the mass media
  • confusion is the attitude of the media; people are clearly more curious about bad news than good
  • poor individual perception of the enormity of the problem

The example of the Kyoto Protocol is cited. The Kyoto agreement does prevent global warming, but merely buys the world six years. Yet, the cost of Kyoto, for the United States alone, will be higher than the cost of solving the world's single most pressing health problem: providing universal access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Such measures would avoid 2m deaths every year, and prevent half a billion people from becoming seriously ill. And that is the best case. If the treaty were implemented inefficiently, the cost of Kyoto could approach $1 trillion, or more than five times the cost of worldwide water and sanitation coverage. For comparison, the total global-aid budget today is about $50 billion a year.

The paper concludes that to replace the litany with facts is crucial if people want to make the best possible decisions for the future. Of course, rational environmental management and environmental investment are good ideas, but the costs and benefits of such investments should be compared to those of similar investments in all the other important areas of human endeavour. It may be costly to be overly optimistic, but more costly still to be too pessimistic.

Another version of this paper appeared in the UK Guardian newspaper:,7369,537537,00.html

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