Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Skeptical Environmentalist

Here is a link to a Wikipedia article about "The Skeptical Environmentalist", a book written by Bjorn Lomborg.

Taken at face value, the article demonstrates the unsettled nature of the climate debate and the politicization of science.

Here are a few excerpts.

  • Some critics focus on his lack of training or professional experience in the environmental sciences or economics. Supporters[who?]argue his research is an appropriate application of his expertise in cost-benefit analysis, a standard analytical tool in policy assessment. His advocates further note that many of the scientists and environmentalists who criticized the book are not themselves environmental policy experts or experienced in cost-benefit research.
  • "The Litany" comprises very diverse areas where, Lomborg claims, overly pessimistic claims are made and bad policies are implemented as a result. He cites accepted mainstream sources, like the United States government, United Nations agencies and others, preferring global long-term data over regional and short-term statistics.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is arranged around four major themes:
  1. Human prosperity from an economic and demographic point of view
  2. Human prosperity from an ecological point of view
  3. Pollution as a threat to human prosperity
  4. Future threats to human prosperity

  • Lomborg's main argument is that the vast majority of environmental problems—such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, and species loss, as well as population growth, hunger, and AIDS—are area-specific and highly correlated with poverty. Therefore, challenges to human prosperity are essentially logistical matters, and can be solved largely through economic and social development. Concerning problems that are more pressing at the global level, such as the depletion of fossil fuels and global warming, Lomborg argues that these issues are often overstated and that recommended policies are often inappropriate if assessed against alternatives.
  • Lomborg's most contentious assertion, however, involves global warming. From the outset, Lomborg "accepts the reality of man-made global warming" though he refers to a number of uncertainties in the computer simulations of climate change and some aspects of data collection. His main contention involves not the science of global warming but the politics and the policy response to scientific findings. Lomborg points out that, given the amount of greenhouse gas reduction required to combat global warming, the current Kyoto protocol is grossly insufficient. He argues that the economic costs of legislative restrictions that aim to slow or reverse global warming are far higher than the alternative of international coordination. Moreover, he asserts that the cost of combating global warming would be disproportionately shouldered by developing countries. Lomborg proposes that since the Kyoto agreement limits economic activities, developing countries that suffer from pollution and poverty most, will be perpetually handicapped economically.
  • Lomborg proposes that the importance of global warming in terms of policy priority is low compared to other policy issues such as fighting poverty, disease and aiding poor countries, which has direct and more immediate impact both in terms of welfare and the environment. He therefore suggests that a global cost-benefit analysis be undertaken before deciding on future measures. The Copenhagen Consensus that Lomborg later organized concluded that combating global warming does have a benefit but its priority compared to other issues is "poor" (ranked 13th) and three projects addressing climate change (optimal carbon tax, the Kyoto protocol and value-at-risk carbon tax), are the least cost-efficient of its proposals.
  • Lomborg concludes his book by once again reviewing the Litany, and noting that the real state of the world is much better than the Litany claims. According to Lomborg, this discrepancy poses a problem, as it focuses public attention on relatively unimportant issues, while ignoring those that are paramount. In the worst case, The Skeptical Environmentalist argues, the global community is pressured to adopt inappropriate policies which have adverse effects on humanity, wasting resources that could be put to better use in aiding poor countries or fighting diseases such as AIDS. Lomborg thus urges us to look at what he calls the true problems of the world, since solving those will also solve the Litany.
Dr. Chris Harrison (Publishing Director of social science publishing for Cambridge University Press), anticipating the level of controversy a book like The Skeptical Environmentalist would likely provoke, took extra care with the book's peer-review process. Instead of choosing candidates from the usual list of social science referees, Cambridge University Press chose from a list provided by their environmental science publishing program. Four were chosen: a climate scientist, an expert in biodiversity and sustainable development, a specialist on the economics of climate change (whose credentials include reviewing publications for the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)) and a "pure" economist. All four members of Cambridge's initial review panel agreed that the book should be published.

While criticism of the book was to be expected, the publisher was apparently surprised by the pressure brought against it to not publish The Skeptical Environmentalist. The complaints of some critics included demands that Cambridge convene a special panel to review the book in order to identify errors (despite existing pre-publication peer review), that Cambridge transfer their publishing rights to a "non-scholarly publishing house" and that they review their own policies to prevent publication of any book described as "essentially a political tract" in the future.

In the article, entitled "Peer review, politics and pluralism", Dr. Harrison noted that "many of the critical reviews of The Skeptical Environmentalist went beyond the usual unpicking of a thesis and concentrated instead on the role of the publisher in publishing the book at all. The post tray and e-mail inbox of editors and senior managers at the press bore witness to a concerted campaign to persuade Cambridge to renounce the book." He went on to describe complaints from environmentalists who feared the book would be "abused by corporate interests". Cambridge University Press felt it necessary to issue a formal, written statement, in order to "explain the editorial decisions that led not just to publishing the book but also to Cambridge's resistance to concerted pressure to withdraw it from the market." With these complaints and the publication of a Scientific American issue regarding the book (described below), Cambridge stated, in response to those who claimed the book lacked peer-review credentials, "it would be quite wrong to abandon an author who had satisfied the requirements of our peer-review system."

Cambridge took the additional step of inviting submissions of publishing proposals for books which offered an opposing argument to Lomborg's but noted that they had, to the best of Chris Harrison's knowledge, seen no attempt by any of the critics to submit such a proposal. This is seen by some to suggest that criticism of the book was political rather than academic. Subsequent to Cambridge's unequivocal assertion that The Skeptical Environmentalist had been subject to peer-review, Harrison noted that

we were surprised and disappointed to see the critics' letter being quoted in an issue of Time magazine (2 September 2002)... in which the authors repeated their charge that the book had not been peer-reviewed despite the assurances to the contrary that they had by then received by the press... It has become part of the anti-Lomborg folklore that this book bypassed the usual Cambridge peer-review process... This is a charge that is repeated in many of the public and private attacks in the press, and it is unfounded.

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