[Paleopsych] Foreign Policy: Carl Pope, Bjørn Lomborg: The State of Nature
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Carl Pope, Bjørn Lomborg: The State of Nature
Foreign Policy, 5.7-8
Is the world getting greener? Or are we selling it short for a fistful of
greenbacks? Apparently, even committed environmentalists can disagree. When
Carl Pope looks out his door, he sees the polar ice caps melting, ecosystems on
life support, and clean water disappearing. But Bjørn Lomborg believes
humanitys backyard has never looked better. Whos got it right? For young and
old, rich and poor, the answer might just mean the world.
Our Roof Is Caving in By Carl Pope
The global environmental dilemma teems with both risks and opportunities. The
world is at considerable peril, yet solutions to the problems we face are at
our fingertips. We have been loading the Earths atmosphere with mercury from
burning coal, chemical plants, and mining for centuries. As a result, the fish
caught in our oceans are now a health risk for young women. Yet we have, and
can afford, the necessary technology to stop pumping mercury into the
environment. The trick is finding the will and prudence to pursue such
solutions. Currently, the worldand the United States in particularlacks the
leadership to link the two.
Let me show you what I mean. Thirteenhundred scientists from 95 countries just
issued a report called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which notes that 15
of the 24 ecosystems vital for life on Earth are in a degraded or overdrawn
state. Thats like a doctor telling you that 60 percent of your organs are
failing. Yet we cannot summon the courage to tackle simple solutions. Keeping
tires on American automobiles properly inflated, for instance, would save as
much oil as will be found by drilling (and destroying) the Arctic National
If you dont believe a report from 1,300 scientists, consider that the CIA
believes that more than 3 billion people will be living in waterstressed
regionsfrom North Africa to Chinaby 2015. The water tables of major
grainproducing areas in northern China are dropping at a rate of 5 feet per
year, and per capita water availability in India is expected to drop by 50 to
75 percent over the next decade. The number of chronically malnourished people
in subSaharan Africa will increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years.
That is scary stuff. Its also unnecessary. Do these alarming trends mean that
the sky is falling? No. If the sky were falling, we couldnt do much except
hide. But these trends do mean that the roof over our house will cave inunless
it gets some muchneeded repairs. Consider the United States energy policy.
Americans consume 25 percent of the worlds oil. Why? Because consumers lack
choices. Even though engineering has made car engines 25 percent more
efficient, increased bulk has made fuel economy worse. In some U.S. cities, the
waiting list for a hybrid car is longer than the waiting list for a kidney
transplant. Instead of pursuing new solutions such as hybrid cars, the United
States invades Iraq, bullies Venezuela, and rattles its sabers at Iran.
Similarly, China is eagerly building dams that will destroy villages and
impoverish thousands while lowtechnology solutions to increase energy
efficiency lie fallow.
This global leadership vacuum is dangerous. Anger at the chasm between better
energy solutions and our scarcity of leadership is not confined to treehugging
environmentalists. Listen to former President Ronald Reagans secretary of
state, George Schultz: How many more times must we be hit on the head by a
twobyfour before we do something about this acute problem.
ultralightbutsafe materials can nearly redouble fuel economy at little or no
The world has a choice. We can let go of the archaic technologies and reckless
practices of the past, recognize that solutions are better than anxieties, and
watch science pleasantly surprise us. Or we can remain in denial, insist that
modest change now is more painful than eventual catastrophe, and reap the
Lets Try Priorities, not Propaganda By Bjørn Lomborg
Yes, we have problems. But we have solved many more. Yes, we can solve those
that remain, but not all at once. We need priorities.
You say 60 percent of Earths ecosystems are in decline, without talking much
about people and forgetting the crucial linkage between poverty and pollution.
The bottom line isas the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment stressesthat
humanitys lot has improved dramatically in both the rich world and in the
developing world. In the poorest countries, life expectancy has more than
doubled over the past 100 years. The global malnutrition rate dropped from 50
percent in 1950 to 17 percent today, while the number of people living below
the poverty line dropped from 50 percent to less than 25 percent. Access to
clean drinking water has risen from 30 percent in 1970 to 80 percent today. We
have never had it this good, and its likely to get better.
The rich world has simultaneously improved the environment. In the United
States, the most important environmental indicator, particulate air pollution,
has more than halved since 1955, rivers and coastal waters are dramatically
cleaner, and forest land is increasing. These trends are generally shared by
all developed countries. Why? Because the rich can afford to care for the
In the developing world, environmental indicators are getting worse, as you
note. In Bombay and Bangkok, air pollution is only getting thicker. But
countries in the developing world are simply prioritizing in the same way the
West did 100 years ago. They care first about feeding their kids, not cleaning
up the air. And if you look at the West, that strategy works. Today, Londons
air is the cleanest it has been since medieval times. Some of the richest
developing countries are already following suit. In Mexico and Chile, air
pollution is going down.
We need to keep environmental problems in context and prioritize the ones to
solve first. Despite a dramatic drop in U.S. air pollution, it still
constitutes the United States most serious environmental hazardand kills
roughly 135,000 people each year. But you talk about mercury, which is far less
detrimental and far less beneficial if cleaned up. That is what I mean by
prioritization. The same is true for the developing world. Yes, water is
important. But you focus on scarcity, which is a management issue. Why not talk
about access to clean drinking water? Despite dramatic improvements, 1 billion
people today live without it, resulting in more than 2 million (otherwise
preventable) deaths each year. You mention that 37 million more people will be
malnourished in subSaharan Africa by 2015, but you neglect to point out that
the number of wellfed people will increase 10fold, by more than 374 million.
Context and priorities are important. Perhaps the most pressing environmental
problem in the world is indoor air pollution, which kills 2.8 million people
each year, just behind HIV/AIDS. The pollution is caused by poor people cooking
and heating their homes with dung and cardboard. The solution is not
environmental (to certify dung) but rather economic, helping these people build
enough wealth to afford kerosene.
You say the world has a choice. True. But it is rarely your staystupid or
besmart choice. We can do almost anything, but we cant do it all at once. The
challenge is to prioritize better. Ive indicated some top priorities. What do
you think we should do first and, even harder, what should wait?
Stop Cooking the Books Carl Pope responds
True, we need priorities. And safe drinking water ought to be at the very top
of the list. I agree. We also share distress that air pollution is killing so
many Americans each yearbut that doesnt mean mercury might not be a bigger
problem. After all, neurological damage to kids is a very big deal.
Having priorities doesnt always mean Sophies choice. If we clean up
coalfired power plants, we solve both air pollution and mercury with one
investment. We dont have to make an allornothing choice between
environmental responsibility and economic progress. If we can afford F16
fighter jets for Pakistan, we can afford clean water and better schools in
Karachi. Britain spent a century industrializing in ways that devastated the
environment and workers lives. Yet Taiwan and Singapore forged a more
progressive and less destructive path. Economic growth is powered by
innovation, and new technology doesnt have to be environmentally destructive.
Developing villagelevel power technologies using fuel cells, solar power, and
agricultural wastes makes more economic and environmental sense in India than
massive investments in copper wires and coal turbines.
The problem is that bad accounting produces bubbles and busts. Human welfare
can increase in two ways, by harvesting ecosystem services and human innovation
or by mining ecosystems in ways that deprive the future. We have already done
the latter with oceanic fisheries, three quarters of which are no longer
sustainable. Thats the scary thing about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment,
Bjørn. Honest ecological bookkeeping shows that todays economic progress may
be the result of a bunch of off the books transactions that will leave our
children with a bankrupt planet. My first priority is to stop cooking the
Sophies Choice Is Real Bjørn Lomborg responds
Im glad you agree that we need priorities. But I worry that your commitment is
rhetorical. If drinking water is priority No. 1, water scarcity is not. You
accept that the 135,000 annual American deaths from air pollution are terrible,
but you then suggest that mercury might be even more dangerous. That flies in
the face of estimates by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the
environmental watchdog Resources for the Future. One study from the American
Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution estimates that eliminating
mercury emissions from U.S. power plants would reduce the numbers of U.S.
children experiencing subtle neurological deficiencies by on the order of
10,000 per year. Isnt 135,000 annual deaths from air pollution much worse?
Im asking because that is what happens when people agree in principle to
prioritize, then refuse to face Sophies choice. Prioritizing really means some
things must come last. Of course, we can make some investments in the
environment without sacrificing economic progress, but we cannot make them all.
Because the United States can afford F16s does not mean it can also afford all
environmental initiatives. We have to carefully spend our resources where they
will do the most good. The solar installations you champion easily cost $450
apiece. Betterconstructed $10 stoves can significantly reduce indoor air
pollution. Do we want to help one family a little or 45 families a lot?
You return to the 1,300 scientists and their report on the worlds ecosystems.
What their results show is that when people are starving, lacking clean
drinking water, getting poisoned from indoor air pollution, and dying from
easily curable communicable diseases, they let the environment get ravaged,
too. Your solution is to deal with the environment first. But shouldnt we,
morally and practically, help them gain wealth first, so they can take care of
the environment too?
Fighter Jets and Other False Choices Carl Pope responds
No, Bjørn, Sophies choice is avoidable. Bad human decisions, not inescapable
reality, make the environment appear to be a tradeoff with prosperity.
Your mercury analysis is sloppy. You use 2001 figures, dating back to when the
Bush administration was suppressing data. These suppressed data show that
630,000 U.S. infants annually, not 10,000, are born with dangerous levels of
mercury. Eventually, we need to clean up mercury globally. We can afford to
modernize U.S. power plants. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, founded by
Bush regulatory czar John Graham, estimates that cleaning up the mercury
emitted from U.S. power plants would save nearly $5 billion in healthcare
expenditures annually and cost just $750 million a year. Investments that
produce 600 percent returns are not hard choices.
Good environmental stewardship saves money in poor countries. To enhance
tourism, the Maldives purposefully preserved its barrier reefs. When the
tsunami hit that tiny South Asian country in December 2004, the reefs absorbed
the brunt of the wave, so what hit the islands was a gentle swell, not a deadly
wall of water. China today is experiencing riots because of its poor
environmental stewardship. Its backyard coalfired power plants, a monument
to Maoism, make neither economic nor environmental sense. Why not help China to
retire them and replace them with wind turbines?
Tilting at Windmills Bjørn Lomborg responds
Now you suggest funding windmills in China? I suggest first distributing
efficient cookers to combat indoor air pollution, which would save more lives
and money. You suggest preserving reefs and mangroves, saving lives in case
there is another tsunami. I suggest we first save thousands of times more by
tackling curable, infectious diseases.
You insist that there are no real tradeoffs between the environment and
prosperity. But money spent on windmills cant also be spent on something else.
It is not that environmental projects are not worthwhile. Its just that they
are not the only things we need to do. Often, there are other, better projects
that must come first.
You persist in prioritizing mercury over particulates, which is plain wrong.
The data you talk about were not suppressed by the Bush administration, but
essentially known since 1999. And they said the 630,000 infants are at
increased risk. But not all of those will be affected. U.S. utilities account
for less than 25 percent of mercury emissions and most of the fish we eat come
from waters where reductions in mercury wont matter. So, at best, completely
eliminating mercury will help 10,000 children. Moreover, your $750 million only
addresses a onethird reduction in mercury. And your Harvard study is more
careful than you are: The benefits could range anywhere from about $5 billion
to just $100 million, quite possibly a loss. I understand why scary numbers are
easy to publicize, but pointing out the correct numbers and priorities is not
sloppyits just reality.
Dont Treat the Earth Like Enron Carl Pope responds
If you look back to the beginning of this exchange, I did not say that mercury
was a higher priority than particulates. I did not focus on U.S. power plant
emissions alone. You did. I cited the oceanic mercury problem as a symbol of
our failure of leadership and the resulting problems that failure creates.
You keep posing artificial choices such as the one between cookers and wind
turbines. Both are more desirable and more economical than backyard coal
furnaces. It is simply not the case that the worldor the United Statesdoes
only one thing at a time. Leadership doesnt mean picking the lowesthanging
fruit, one at a time. It means acting on our wiser, not our greedier,
Where do we get the money? Let those who take from the global commons foot the
bill. If the companies that emit mercury were to pay damages, they would be
forced to clean up, and the world would be healthier and more prosperous.
Current U.S. carbon emissions now top 1.5 billion tons per yearabout 25
percent of total global carbon emissions. Scientists midrange estimates are
that planetary sinksplants, trees, and other elements that absorb carboncan
handle about 5.5 billion tons without an unacceptable increase in atmospheric
carbon dioxide levels. With 5 percent of the worlds population, a fair U.S.
share of global carbon emissions is 275 million tons a year. At a modest value
of $50 per ton, U.S. carbon emitters owe the worlds poor nations at least $66
billion for this year alone.
So, Bjørn, if U.S. carbon emitters and those in Saudi Arabia, Europe, and Japan
pay for what they pollute, we could fund clean drinking water, clean village
stoves, wind turbines, and solar cells in India. Of course, if we started
making carbon wasters in the United States pay, Economics 101 suggests they
will emit much less. Instead of a massive transfer of wealth, charging fairly
for carbon emissions would reduce pollution in the United States, generate cash
for development in China, Africa, and other developing regions, and reduce
climactic instability. This system wont increase poverty. It may hurt the oil
companies. So what? Henry Ford was bad for buggy makers.
You ask for my priorities. We should stop cooking the books, make those who
take from the global commons pay, and invest that revenue as wisely as we can.
The result of these steps will not be Dr. Panglosss best of all possible
worlds. But I am shocked that anyone believes we will get better results by
continuing to treat the Earth as if it were Enron.
Less Charming, but Honest Bjørn Lomborg responds
We agree that wise investments will make the world better. But what proposals
does that actually include? The question was answered last year by the
Copenhagen Consensus project. Thirty specialists from a broad range of fields
joined forces with eight top economists, including three Nobel laureates, to
make a global priority list. Their top goals were to prevent HIV/AIDS, end
agricultural subsidies, and fight malnutrition and malaria. That is where we
can do the most good per dollar. The Copenhagen Consensus concluded that
substantial responses to climate change (your favorite) would do little good at
You say we should make polluters pay. Thats an excellent idea. But you get a
bit too excited. Most analyses show that the carbon damage cost is less than
$10 per ton, suggesting a much lower tax and revenue stream. Moreover, just as
money is a scarce resource, so too is political will. Given the worlds immense
reluctance to enforce carbon taxes and trade liberalization, we should focus on
getting the best onetradedone first. Your Economics 101 suggests that carbon
taxes would have a big impact on emissions and climate change, but real
economic models show the exact opposite. Carbon taxes would have little impact
on emissions or climate change.
No matter how much money we raise, we should still spend it wisely. If
investing in cookers is more cost effective than windmills, we should do the
cookers first. It really isnt more complicated. Advocacy groups understandably
want to focus on headlinegrabbing issues, such as mercury, mangroves, and
global warming. But when we emphasize some problems, we get less focus on
others. It has been hard to get you to say what the world should not do first.
Such a strategy is, naturally, less charming. But if we really want to do good
in the long run, it is more honest to put those terms on paper.
You end by repeating your claim that we are cooking the environmental books.
No. We know there are environmental problems. But we face other challenges,
too. Lets tackle the ones where we can do the most good first. The rich world
is dealing with many of its environmental problems because it can afford to. If
the poor world became wealthier, they would follow suit. Tackling pressing
issues such as disease, hunger, and polluted water will do obvious good and
give the poor the chance to improve the state of their world.
Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club.
Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2001), is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business
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