[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 
humanity’s backyard has never looked better. Who’s 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 Earth’s 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 world—and the United States in particular—lacks the 
leadership to link the two.

Let me show you what I mean. Thirteen–hundred 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. That’s 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 
Wildlife Refuge.

If you don’t believe a report from 1,300 scientists, consider that the CIA 
believes that more than 3 billion people will be living in water–stressed 
regions—from North Africa to China—by 2015. The water tables of major 
grain–producing 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 sub–Saharan Africa will increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years.

That is scary stuff. It’s also unnecessary. Do these alarming trends mean that 
the sky is falling? No. If the sky were falling, we couldn’t do much except 
hide. But these trends do mean that the roof over our house will cave in—unless 
it gets some much–needed repairs. Consider the United States’ energy policy. 
Americans consume 25 percent of the world’s 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 low–technology 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 tree–hugging 
environmentalists. Listen to former President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of 
state, George Schultz: “How many more times must we be hit on the head by a 
two–by–four before we do something about this acute problem.
ultralight–but–safe materials can nearly redouble fuel economy at little or no 
extra cost.”

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 

Let’s 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 Earth’s ecosystems are in decline, without talking much 
about people and forgetting the crucial linkage between poverty and pollution. 
The bottom line is—as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment stresses—that 
humanity’s 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 it’s 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, London’s 
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 hazard—and 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 sub–Saharan Africa by 2015, but you neglect to point out that 
the number of well–fed people will increase 10–fold, 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 stay–stupid or 
be–smart choice. We can do almost anything, but we can’t do it all at once. The 
challenge is to prioritize better. I’ve 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 year—but that doesn’t mean mercury might not be a bigger 
problem. After all, neurological damage to kids is a very big deal.

Having priorities doesn’t always mean Sophie’s choice. If we clean up 
coal–fired power plants, we solve both air pollution and mercury with one 
investment. We don’t have to make an all–or–nothing choice between 
environmental responsibility and economic progress. If we can afford F–16 
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 doesn’t have to be environmentally destructive. 
Developing village–level 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. That’s the scary thing about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 
Bjørn. Honest ecological bookkeeping shows that today’s 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 

Sophie’s Choice Is Real Bjørn Lomborg responds

I’m 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.” Isn’t 135,000 annual deaths from air pollution much worse?

I’m asking because that is what happens when people agree in principle to 
prioritize, then refuse to face Sophie’s 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 F–16s 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. Better–constructed $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 world’s 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 shouldn’t 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, Sophie’s choice is avoidable. Bad human decisions, not inescapable 
reality, make the environment appear to be a “trade–off” 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” coal–fired 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 trade–offs between the environment and 
prosperity. But money spent on windmills can’t also be spent on something else. 
It is not that environmental projects are not worthwhile. It’s 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 won’t matter. So, at best, completely 
eliminating mercury will help 10,000 children. Moreover, your $750 million only 
addresses a one–third 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 
sloppy—it’s just reality.

Don’t 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 world—or the United States—does 
only one thing at a time. Leadership doesn’t mean picking the lowest–hanging 
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 year—about 25 
percent of total global carbon emissions. Scientists’ mid–range estimates are 
that planetary sinks—plants, trees, and other elements that absorb carbon—can 
handle about 5.5 billion tons without an unacceptable increase in atmospheric 
carbon dioxide levels. With 5 percent of the world’s 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 world’s 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 won’t 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. Pangloss’s “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 
high cost.

You say we should make polluters pay. That’s 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 world’s immense 
reluctance to enforce carbon taxes and trade liberalization, we should focus on 
getting the best one—trade—done 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 isn’t more complicated. Advocacy groups understandably 
want to focus on headline–grabbing 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. Let’s 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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