Bjorn Lomborg
Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg caused waves by dismissing much of the accepted views of the environmental community including belief world fish stocks are declining due to over fishing by industrial trawlers. [Greenpeace photo].

Skeptical Environmentalist Isn't

Scientific community censures Danish statistician for faulty research and conclusions on environment

By Gary Gallon

Dr. Bjorn Lomborg. A flash in the pan. A one-man scientific wrecking crew. A self-proclaimed environmentalist, who is not. He was the darling of governments and industries in Canada, the United States and around that world, who wish to do little or nothing about climate change or environmental protection. But now he has apparently been discredited by his own scientific community in Denmark.

A statistician who thought he knew environment, Lomborg wrote a simple but scientifically questionable book entitled, "The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World", Cambridge University Press, 2001. It became an immediate international hit amongst the anti-environment crowd. Lomborg went on to write articles and give lectures around the world about environment and resource mismanagement not being the serious problem other scientists said they were. He was embraced by conservative governments like his own.

The new Conservative Government of Denmark made him, in March 2002, Director of Denmark's Institute for Environmental Valuation. This is in spite of the fact that he had very little formal environmental background. Lomborg is an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at Denmark's University of Aarhus.

The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), ruled January 7, 2003, that Bjorn Lomborg's scientific positions on the environment were, in many cases, incorrect.1 DCSD is not an environment committee. It has no environmental bias. The Committee is made up of scientists from all sectors, including economics and statistics. It deals with complaints of pure scientific dishonesty. The Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty brings together some of the most senior members of Denmark's scientific establishment. They spent much of 2002 considering the evidence against Bjørn Lomborg, after several formal complaints were lodged by other scientists.

The Committee found Lomborg's work less than honest. The DCSD concluded that Lomborg had, "clearly acted at variance with good scientific practice". The Committee's ruling continued: "There has been such perversion of the scientific message in the form of systematically biased representation that the objective criteria for upholding scientific dishonesty have been met."

Even more damning is the backhanded way the Committee tried to soften its ruling on Lomborg. The Committee suggested that Lomborg may not have known the issues well enough and therefore spoke and wrote from a position of ignorance. Although the Committee did not feel able to conclude that Lomborg had misled his readers deliberately, this was only because the scientists considering the case, felt that Lomborg might simply have misunderstood the issues he was working on.

Some are now saying that Bjorn Lomborg is "damaged goods", stating that he may well be asked to step down from the Director of Denmarks Institute of Environmental Evaluation.2

Hans Henrik Brydensholt, a Danish High Court judge who is chairman of the DCSD, wrote in the panel's ruling, "On the basis of the material adduced by the complainants, and particularly the assessment in "Scientific American," DCSD deems it to have been adequately substantiated that the defendant, who has himself insisted on presenting his publication in scientific form and not allowing the book to assume the appearance of a provocative debate-generating paper, based on customary scientific standards and in light of his systematic one-sidedness in the choice of data and line of argument, has clearly acted at variance with good scientific practice." 3

The Danish Ecological Council felt a more thorough response to Lomborg's book was needed. They therefore gathered a group of twelve Danish scientists - from science as well as economics and social science - publishing a critique (in Danish) in 1999. As of end June 2002, there is an English version of their work available.

Lomborg Ignored Key Issues and Set Up Straw Men and Knocked Them Down

It was ingenious. Bjorn Lomborg argued with environmental positions not put forward by most environmentalists. He established a short list of a "litany" of environmental issues and did battle with them, while ignoring other key environmental issues. He tossed out climate change as an issue because it was too big a problem and too expensive to fix, citing vague economic costs and benefits. He used gross economic numbers to mask serious species loss problems, for example, in proclaiming that world fisheries were not declining because the gross world annual catch was up.

Professor Lomborg focussed his most excoriating criticisms on the publications of the Worldwatch Institute, and in particular on the views of its former President, Lester Brown. He identified Mr Brown, and Professor Paul Erhlich, a Stanford University ecologist, as the high priesthood of environmental doom. The following are some of the key issues where Bjorn Lomborg was just wrong:

World's Forests Not Under Threat: WRONG

In his book, "The Skeptical Environmentalist", Bjørn Lomborg wrote that, "basically, the world's forests are not under threat."

A charitable reader could attribute this flawed conclusion to errors of omission and ignorance; perhaps the author simply doesn't know the sources well enough to interpret them properly.

Less charitably, Emily Matthews suggests that, "one might reasonably conclude that Lomborg intentionally selects his data and citations to distort or even reverse the truth." Lomborg confusingly contrasts net loss of forest cover (that is, his figure of loss of natural forest offset by regrowth and new plantations) with loss of original forest (WWF's figure).

Another claim by Lomborg – that global forest cover has remained remarkably stable over the past 50 years -- is based on two acts of statistical conjuring. First, he expresses changes in forest cover as a percentage of the total land area of the world, a technique that reduces changes of millions of hectares to fractions of one percent. Second, he cobbles together a variety of different data sources compiled using different definitions of forest and different methodologies. These different data sets cannot be strung together to form a consistent time series.

Again Lomborg is acting as a pure statistician and fails to recognize the complexities of the ecosystem. There is a massive decline in old growth forests both in the tropic and temperate zones. These forests support some of the greatest biodiversity in plants and animals. They also contain some of the most valuable trees for human use and consumption, like teak and mahogany from the tropics and cedar and white and red pine from the temperate forests.

If you fly over the massive clearcuts in Canada you will see large commercial stands of cedar, white and red pine virtually gone, or severely diminished. You will find them replaced by swaying stands of low quality non-commercial new-growth trees like alder and birch. Many saw mills have had to close. Many species of animals have had to leave the destroyed habitat. But that is hard to interpret from aerial photos showing new forest cover of junk trees.

Lomborg could investigate the plight of the villagers in Africa and Asia that have had to resort to burning animal dung, because they have cut down all of the cuttable trees around them for miles. He should have talked to the Chipko Movement in India and the villagers in China, that have suffered severe landslides due to the loss of forests and forest-protected watersheds around their villages. He should have talked to Dr. Wangari Maathai and the National Council of Women of Kenya who for the last 20 years have been planting millions of trees in an effort to reverse the terrible loss of forests due to over-cutting.

Emily Matthews states that, "Lomborg's interpretation of global forest cover and Indonesian forest fires are just two examples of the incomplete and superficial analyses that underpin too much of his book." Emily Matthews is a senior associate at the World Resources Institute. She is the lead author of the Pilot Analysis of Global Ecosystems: Forest Ecosystems (WRI, 2000) and Understanding the Forest Resources Assessment 2000 (WRI, 2001). 4

Massive Indonesian Forest Fires Are Common and Not A Problem: WRONG

Lomborg, while acknowledging that the Indonesia forest fires of 1997-1998, were serious, claimed that they were not out of the ordinary. Wrong. If he had read "The Gallon Environment Letter" and the Jakarta Post in 1997 and 1998, he would have learned that the fires were extraordinary and caused major economic, forest, and ecological losses. He would have learned that airports and the commerce and tourism they support in Indonesia and Malaysia were shut down for weeks by the massive smoke clouds. He would have learned that the fires were amongst the largest human-made fires to ever blight Indonesia and southeast Asia, for that matter.

But again, as a statistician with no formal ecological background, Lomborg, couldn't have known. And as a statistician with an apparent bias, Lomborg selectively chose to accept the low forest burn numbers offered by the Government of Indonesia: 520,000 hectares. The low number given by the government was questionable and not backed by solid research. Indonesia, already embarrassed by the fires, accepted the estimates of forests burned from the local Indonesian land owners and palm plantation managers who did not want to reveal the full extent to which the fires had burned.

Without further research and using the questionable Indonesian numbers, Lomborg attacked the World Wildlife Fund satellite estimates of 2 million hectares burned. He noted that the WWF estimate included both forest and non-forestland, but did not point out that the official Indonesian estimate he quoted was for forest land only. He then claimed, citing a 1999 United Nations Environment Programme report, that subsequent "satellite-aided counting" indicated that upwards of 1.3 million hectares of forest and timberlands may have burned. The German-supported Integrated Forest Fires Management Project, which, using satellite data and ground checks, produced convincing evidence that the Indonesian fires had actually burned some 5.2 million hectares in 1998 alone -- 10 times the Indonesian government's estimate.

Regarding estimates of how much forest actually burned, Lomborg cites a UNEP report, which in turn refers to an analysis, "A Study of the 1997 Fires in Southeast Asia Using SPOT Quicklook Mosaics," that was based on 766 satellite images. These images covered the islands of Kalimantan and Sumatra only, for just August to December 1997. The study did not examine burn areas for 1998, nor did it take into account fires on other islands. The UNEP report states that this estimate represents "only a lower limit estimate of the area burned," although Lomborg's readers are not so informed.

An analysis by the Singapore Centre of Remote Imaging, Sensing, and Processing using the same satellite images yielded a total burn area estimate for 1997 and 1998 of nearly 8 million hectares. In 1999, a technical team funded by the Asian Development Bank and working through the Indonesian National Development Planning Agency aggregated and analyzed all available data sources and estimated that the area burned during 1997-1998 totalled more than 9.7 million hectares, of which some 4.6 million hectares were forest. 5

Environmentalists Claim There is an "Energy Crisis": WRONG

One of the environmental litanies set up as a straw man by Lomborg is that he states that environmentalists feel that there is an "Energy Crisis".


Major environmental groups do not believe that there is a crisis of a shortage of energy. He spends pages in his book showing that there is no energy crisis. The environmental groups couldn't agree more.

Rather the environmental groups are concerned about improper energy use and consumption inequities. They are concerned about the severe environmental impacts of coal-power, nuclear energy, and the burning of fuelwood (creating desertification) in developing countries. They are concerned about the serious impacts of oil spills around the world resulting from shady corporations and bad engineering practices. They are concerned about the United States declining conventional oil reserves and its increasing dependence (53%) on imported oil.

To support his Litany assertion that the environmental movement believes there is an energy crisis, Bjorn Lomborg cites a CNN report and an article in the "E- Magazine" - no one else, not Friends of the Earth, not Greenpeace, and not WWF. He does not cite an environmental organisation or even a leading environmental personality as believing in an energy resource crisis.6

Environmentalists Claim Natureal Resources Are Runnig Out: WRONG

Lomborg laid out another Litany, setting up a straw man by alleging that the environmentalists say that the world is running out of natural resources.


Major environmental organizations do not believe the world is running out of natural resources. They believe there is resource wastage, regional shortages, and serious resource access imbalances. It is true that 30 years ago, in 1972, the Club of Rome, in its seminal book, "Limits to Growth", and Dr. Paul Erhlich in his 1968 book, "The Population Bomb" expressed concern about the coming age of resource scarcity.

But by 1978, it was clear to the environmental groups that we were not going to run out of natural resources as such. Instead, they focussed on the mismanagement of natural resources and the selective reduction of available resources, such as the collapse of the cod fisheries off the Grand Banks of eastern Canada from over-fishing; the loss of topsoil and resulting desertification of foodlands: and, the declining ability of conventional oil in countries like the United States to meet their growing fuel requirements, forcing the U.S. to rely on terrorist-infested oil, 53 per cent from OPEC and other imported sources.

Waste Management Is Not A Problem: WRONG

Bjorn Lomborg paid scant attention to municipal, industrial, nuclear, and hazardous wastes. He wrote only four pages in his 300-page plus book about wastes. Tom Burke states that, "Lomborg fails to mention of toxic or hazardous wastes, nothing is said about industrial wastes or the problems of large volume wastes from the mining industry. Radioactive wastes do not get a mention, nor do agricultural wastes." Burke added that, "the rest of the world seems to have no waste management problems at all, for all the attention they get."

The environmental critique of waste management policies has been primarily about the wastage of resources that go into producing such large volumes of municipal wastes, and the nature of many of our industrial wastes and their impact on the environment and, in the case of radioactive wastes, human health for millennia to come." 7

Economic Growth and Prosperity in Developing Countries Will Alleviate Air Pollution There: WRONG

Bjorn Lomborg asserts that air pollution is not as big a problem as the environmentalists make it out to be, because OECD countries have already reduced their air pollution and it is no longer a serious problem. He adds that developing countries don't have to directly address the issues as the environmentalists hype them to do, because economic growth and prosperity there will automatically result in air pollution clean up.


First, air pollution remains a serious problem in high population density pockets of OECD countries. Secondly, because the rich newly industrialized countries like Mexico, India, China, Indonesia and Egypt, are ignoring the solutions and letting corruption eat into any economic gains that might be diverted to air pollution control.

Tom Burke states that, "air pollution in the rest of the world, where two thirds of humanity live, need not be considered, in Professor Lomborg's view, because this will cease automatically as they get richer. This confuses cause and correlation, not a mistake you would expect from a statistician. Although national wealth and the state of a nation's environment are observably associated to some extent, the relationships are complex and not at all well understood."

To set Lomborg's simple assumption in context, it is worth considering the following comment about the Asia-Pacific region by the somewhat conservative Asia Development Bank which stated that, "Environmental degradation in the region is pervasive, accelerating, and unabated. At risk are people's health and livelihoods, the survival of species and ecosystem services that are the basis for long-term economic development. Economic development and poverty reduction are increasingly constrained by environmental concerns, including degradation of forestry and fisheries, scarcity of freshwater, and poor human health as a result of air and water pollution."

Tom Burke CBE is a member of the Executive Committee of Green Alliance. Currently an environmental adviser to Rio Tinto and BP and a member of the Council of English Nature, he was previously special adviser to successive Secretaries of State for the Environment. He is a former director of Green Alliance, and of Friends of the Earth. 7

Jamie Page with the U.K. Cancer Prevention Society wrote that, "Bjorn Lomborg argues that the state of the environment is getting better. What about the cost of cancer? Cancer was a rare disease in pre-industrial societies and age-corrected incidence figures have been rising steadily for many decades. Currently one person in three will get cancer and this figure will rise. The idea that cancer is due to poor lifestyle, bad genes or viruses is being increasingly discredited. The massive increase in cancer in industrialised nations is partially due to the release of 100,000 synthetic chemicals into the environment, their concentration in the food chain, and their bioaccumulation in humans. Each of us carries between 300 and 500 man-made chemicals in our body. It is impossible to quantify the costs of this, but one can assume they run into billions of pounds."

Acid Gas Emission Impacts are Minimal: WRONG

Bjorn Lomborg indicated that impacts from acid gas emissions, had little impact on the environment.


Thomas Lovejoy states that Lomborg's "research is so shallow that almost no citation from the peer-reviewed literature appears. Lomborg asserts that big-city pollution has nothing to do with acid rain, when it is fact that nitrogen compounds (NOx) from traffic are a major source. His reference to a study showing that acid rain had no effect on the seedlings of three tree species neglects to mention that the study did not include conifer species such as red spruce, which are very sensitive."

Lovejoy added that, "there is no acknowledgment of the delayed effects from acid rain leaching soil nutrients, particularly key cations. He confounds tree damage from air pollution 30 to 60 years ago with subsequent acid rain damage and makes an Alice-in- Wonderland statement that the only reason we worry about foliage loss is "because we have started monitoring this loss." It is simply untrue that "there is no case of forest decline in which acidic deposition is known to be a predominant cause." Two clear-cut examples are red spruce in the Adirondacks and sugar maple in Pennsylvania." Thomas Lovejoy is chief biodiversity adviser to the president of the World Bank and senior adviser to the president of the United Nations Foundation. 8

The World's Fisheries Remain Healthy and Growing: WRONG

Lomborg tells the environmentalists to stop their belly-aching about the world's fisheries decline. It just isn't happening, he says.


Lomborg claims that "marine productivity has almost doubled since 1970." In the strictest sense as a statistician, Lomborg is numerically correct. But from a regional and a fish varietal perspective, he is wrong. Between unsustainable growth in fishing technology and large-net fishing, and commercial fish farms, we humans have been able to scour the oceans for more and more fish.

However, because of his lack of ecological and fish resource knowledge, he failed to report on the series of collapses of fisheries for high end fish like flounder, cod, and crab. The Beluga Sturgeon (caviar) is all but fished out. One of the richest and most productive fish regions in the world, the Grand Banks off of eastern Canada has been fished out, except for junk fish that nobody wanted before. Twelve thousand jobs were lost and eastern Canada suffered a severe economic setback when the cod fishery had to be closed in the 1990's. Many of the rich crab fisheries around Alaska have been closed in a desperate effort to revive the crab stocks.

The European Union is considering limiting or closing the cod fisheries around its coasts to avoid the same fate that hit Canada. The wild and diversified salmon fisheries on North America's West Coast, from Alaska to BC to Washington State, is suffering tremendous over-fishing pressures.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), "what Lomborg actually means appears later in the book as a figure depicting an increase in total fish catch, plus production from fish farms. Capture of wild fish from the sea has increased by 20 percent, not 100 percent since 1970. And what humans are taking from the oceans and what the oceans are producing are of course fundamentally different matters."

WRI goes on to state that, "Lomborg's equating of the two exemplifies how his book is fundamentally misleading. By focussing on total production, Lomborg's graph conceals that stocks of cod, haddock, hake, flounder, swordfish, sardines, halibut, Atlantic Ocean perch, and many others have crashed." 11

Population Growth No Longer a Problem: WRONG

Lomborg's view that "the number of people is not the problem" is simply wrong. His selective use of statistics gives the reader the impression that the population problem is largely behind us. The global population growth rate has indeed declined slowly, but absolute growth in human beings on earth is enormous and remains close to the very high levels observed in recent decades, because the population base keeps expanding.

World population today stands at six billion, three billion more than in 1960. According to U.N. projections, another three billion will likely be added by 2050, and population size will eventually reach about 10 billion. This is according to demographer, Dr. John Bongaarts, Vice President of the U.S. Population Council's Policy Research Division, and a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He is a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences, as well. Bongaarts adds that, "Lomborg dismisses concerns about this issue based on a simplistic and misleading calculation of density as the ratio of people to all land.

Clearly, a more useful and accurate indicator of density would be based on the land that remains after excluding areas unsuited for human habitation or agriculture, such as deserts and inaccessible mountains. For example, according to his simple calculation, the population density of Egypt equals a manageable 68 persons per square kilometer, but if the unirrigated Egyptian deserts are excluded, density is an extraordinary 2,000 people per square livable kilometer," not the 68 posited by Lomborg that he thinks have all the inhospitable deserts to live in. Lomborg correctly notes that poverty is the main cause of hunger and malnutrition, but he neglects the contribution of population growth to poverty.

Climate Change Not a Problem Worth Fully Solving: WRONG

Lomborg asserts that climate change is an issue to large and too expensive to fix. He says "let's spend our money elsewhere.


Charles Secrett, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth England, wrote in U.K.'s The Guardian newspaper that, "Lomborg chooses a bad economic model, which overestimates the cost of action and underestimates the costs of inaction, makes unjustified assumptions about the IPCC's forecasts on GHG impacts, and then misrepresents evidence which does not fit his case. How ironic that he should be contemptuous of the intellectual rigour of environmentalists. His slippery way with facts and arguments has already been well exposed by his academic colleagues in Denmark, but contrarians tend to lack a sense of shame."

Lomborg asserts that the higher estimates of the IPCC are "plainly unlikely", which will come as news to most climatologists. In fact, the IPCC, which represents the consensus view of climate scientists from around the world, recently concluded that climate change will probably happen at a faster rate than was previously believed. 9

Lomborg asserts that if implemented the Kyoto Protocol GHG emission cuts will have almost no quick positive effect on the man-made global warming gases now circling the earth (mainly put there by the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, and the other OECD nations). Environmental groups knew that already, which is why they have criticised Kyoto as being too little, too late.

So far, Lomborg and the environmentalists are on side. But his analysis is to do little and spend the money elsewhere. Whereas, the environmentalists are saying, "if there is a growing problem and it is going to harm the economies of nations - fix it." Since the Kyoto Protocol is all the governments would agree to, it is seen by environmental organizations as a start, and is accepted by them as such. They feel that even greater GHG emission cuts will be agreed to in Kyoto II, especially as the negative impacts continue to pile up.

"Since greater cuts, involving more countries, are likely to be agreed to take effect during the second compliance period after 2012, Lomborg's exercise of calculating Kyoto's effect on the climate by 2100 is at best irrelevant and at worst intentionally misleading," said Mark Lynas.10

Lomborg asserts that cost-benefit calculations show that although the benefits of avoiding climate change could be substantial ($5 trillion is the single figure Lomborg cites), this is not worth the cost to the economy of trying to constrain fossil-fuel emissions (a $3-trillion to $33-trillion range he pulls from the economics literature). However, Lomborg fails to use simple science, asymmetrically, to provide a range potential economic damages caused by climate change.

Even more puzzling is his failure to discuss ecological impacts in general, focusing instead on the human health impacts and the agriculture sector, sectors he thinks won't be much harmed by climate change of the minuscule amount he predicts.

Environmentalists Do't Fix Problems, They Hype Issues: WRONG

Bjorn Lomborg criticizes environmental groups for hyping issues and blowing them out of proportion - kind of like "chicken little's the sky is falling". He asserts that environmental problems have been fixed through growth and economic activity.


The environmental movement, begun in 1968, and the citizens that support the movement, forced their governments and industries to clean up and to put in place systems to improve the environment. The very hype Lomborg criticizes is the hype that pressured decision-makers into action.

Thomas Lovejoy put it this way: "Far worse, Lomborg seems quite ignorant of how environmental science proceeds: researchers identify a potential problem, scientific examination tests the various hypotheses, understanding of the problem often becomes more complex, researchers suggest remedial policies--and then the situation improves. By choosing to highlight the initial step and skip to the outcome, he implies incorrectly that all environmentalists do is exaggerate. The point is that things improve because of the efforts of environmentalists to flag a particular problem, investigate it and suggest policies to remedy it. Sadly, the author seems not to reciprocate the respect biologists have for statisticians."

(1) http://www.forsk.dk/uvvu/nyt/udtaldebat/bl_decision.htm
(2) http://ens-news.com/ens/jan2003/2003-01-09-04.asp
(3) http://www.gristmagazine.com/books/lomborg121201.asp
(4) http://www.gristmagazine.com/books/matthews121201.asp
(5) http://www.gristmagazine.com/grist/books/matthews121201.asp
(6) http://www.wri.org/press/mk_lomborg_09_things.html
(7) htp://www.green-alliance.org.uk/Documents/Reports/ten%20pinches%20of%20salt.pdf
(8) http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?articleID=000F3D47-C6D2-1CEB-93F6809EC5880000
(9) http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4241934,00.html
(10) http://www.anti-lomborg.com
(11) Fisheries under pressure

Times Article Viewed: 8338
Published: 11-Jan-2003


blog comments powered by Disqus