books Review of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming

by Bjorn Lomborg

(Knopf, $21.00 hardcover, $13.95 paperback, 272 pages, September 2007,
also available in Kindle format)

A Science Shelf Guest Review by Seymour Garte

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Once Again, Lomborg Gets it Half Right. A Commentary/Review of Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming

Originally published on s.garte's blog at Science Blog

While a respected scholar in his field, Bjorn Lomborg is not a scientist, something that was clear from his first book. In that work, as well as in this one, Lomborg makes a critical error, one that is common to many non scientists writing about scientific issues. He tends to present all of his arguments in defense of a particular conclusion, ignoring the reality (which all scientists are familiar with) that we usually do not have enough information to be able to really know what conclusions we should draw. In the case of global warming, this is especially true.

It has also been true many times in the past, as when we were told that cigarette smoking couldn't possibly be a major cause of cancer, that lead exposure was certainly not harmful, that detergents could not be the cause of dead rivers, that environmental regulations like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act would bankrupt the country and so forth. To be fair, the same errors have been made by non-scientists on the other side of the environmental debate: the hole in the ozone layer was not caused by general pollution from automobiles, dioxin exposure is not a major cause of cancer, and over population did not cause massive famines as had been predicted.

In the face of all of these uncertainties, scientists continue to try to find the real answers, and usually do so. Meanwhile it is a mistake to try to build a case on limited data. In Cool It, for example, Lomborg uses the figure of 4.7 degrees of warming over the next century as a fixed value, without considering the very real possibility that the true extent of warming over this period could be as high as 9 or 10 degrees. (Of course it could also be lower than 4.7, we just don't know.) There are many other unknowns related to global warming, and, as many others have remarked, Lomborg tends to choose one scenario and discuss it, while ignoring other possible scenarios. This works fine if one wants to make a political point, but it is not good science.

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg chose to follow the model of acid rain, and after deciding that this was an overblown problem, greatly exaggerated by environmentalists at great cost, he went on to assume that almost all environmental issues of the past three decades were similarly distorted out of proportion by activists, scientists and the media, a charge that is demonstrably not true.

The consensus among most scientists in the field is that there are potential dangers inherent in carbon dioxide induced climate changes. We don't know how bad it will be. There is a chance it wont be bad at all, and that even Lomborg might turn out to have been unduly pessimistic. But there is also a chance that humanity might be in deep trouble. Since we don't know, it seems clear to me that we should follow the proven path of dealing with environmental problems - try to fix the problem as best we can, in this case by limiting emissions, improving efficiency and reducing use of fossil fuels.

This approach worked with the Montreal protocol banning the use of CFCs and saving the ozone layer, it is working with smoking bans that have been steadily reducing cancer incidence, and it has worked with the clean up of our rivers, lakes and air. For more examples see Doing nothing (as Lomborg suggests) is always the wrong choice.

As in his first book, there are many strong points in Lomborg's new book. The Skeptical Environmentalist was the first book to correctly point out that much (probably most) of the human condition related to the environment and quality of life has been improving steadily over the past several decades. But the author failed to grasp the reason for this improvement as coming directly from the heroic efforts of the very activists, scientists and politicians that he castigated as whipping up needless hysteria.

In Cool It, Lomborg makes a valuable and well reasoned argument for increased investment in alternative energy sources. Many of his comments with respect to the idea that irrational and politically based over-reactions to the threat of global warming should be tempered with a cooler, more scientific outlook on the problem, are valuable. He should have followed his own advice on this one.

Dr. Seymour Garte is Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences of the Graduate School of Public Health, University of Pittsburgh, and a member of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute in Pittsburgh PA. He is the author of Where We Stand: A Surprising Look at the Real State of Our Planet