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August 01, 2005

Pope Vs. Lomborg

Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Environment

This month's issue of Foreign Policy has a very interesting set of exchanges between Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, and Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. It is an interesting exchange because Foreign Policy has them going back and forth a number of times.

The differences between Pope and Lomborg are not over facts or science, even though they both invoke facts to support their positions. At its core their dispute is over values - which values should be prioritized in our society and through what means. Their debate is a political one and may be just as much about rallying the faithful as it is to swaying the undecides.

Here is an excerpt:

Pope: ... 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 ...

Lomborg: ... 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? ...

Pope: ... No, Bjørn, Sophie's choice is avoidable. Bad human decisions, not inescapable reality, make the environment appear to be a "trade-off" with prosperity...

Lomborg: ... 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...

Posted on August 1, 2005 07:50 AM


A couple more relevant quotes:

Lomborg: "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."

Lomborg's own project of Nobel laureate economists, the "Copenhagen Consensus": “The panel recognised that global warming must be addressed, but agreed that approaches based on too abrupt a shift toward lower emissions of carbon are needlessly expensive. The experts expressed an interest in an alternative, proposed in one of the opponent papers, that envisaged a carbon tax much lower in the first years of implementation than the figures called for in the challenge paper, rising gradually in later years. Such a proposal however was not examined in detail in the presentations put to the panel, and so was not ranked. The panel urged increased funding for research into more affordable carbon-abatement technologies.”

That's nothing like what Lomborg has just said.


Lomborg: "You suggest preserving reefs and mangroves, saving lives in case there is another tsunami."

What Pope actually said: "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 ..."

Specifically, the way I read Pope's comment is as a claim that where one developing country, that he nominates, chose to conserve its natural assets for good economic reasons (tourism), it also reaped one particular environmental benefit. He draws the contrast with another country that he claims suffers further negative effects as a consequence of mistreating its natural environment. It's at least a fair point. Lomborg's characterisation of it reads to me as an attempt to distract if not deceive, rather than address Pope's simple enough argument.

Generally then, nothing Lomborg says appears (to me) frank, straight or scientifically motivated.

Posted by: John Frankis at August 2, 2005 06:19 AM


John Frankis links to the "Copenhagen Consensus" webpage. Thanks, John.

From further investigations of that webpage, I found a complete "Copenhagen Consensus" paper on "Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change."

What a disaster! This is a paper that projects out carbon dioxide emissions, costs, and resultant temperature changes to the year 2300!!!!(!)

It borders on science fiction even to project out to 2100...let alone 2300! Humans aren't even likely to be the dominant species on this planet...even by 2100! (Likely, machines, or machine-human hybrids will be.) So to speculate out to 2300 is so ridiculous it's not even worth discussing.


Meanwhile, more than 1 million people die EVERY SINGLE YEAR from drinking contaminated water, and from indoor and outdoor particulate air pollution.

Posted by: Mark Bahner at August 2, 2005 11:03 AM

Roger, I wrote a bit about this debate here:

Posted by: Dave Roberts at August 2, 2005 03:30 PM

Lomborg: "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."

That's ultimately true, of course, but much can be done that simultaneously protects the environment _and_ saves money. Windmills in particular are roughly comparable in cost to other sources of electricity, so their net cost is little if anything. It's harder to quantify the effective costs of pollution, but the EPA has often projected health cost savings that greatly exceed the costs of implementing control measures. It's really preposterous that solar water heaters are so rare in Hawaii (and they are more common here than anywhere else in the country).

While we will ultimately have to face tradeoffs like Lomborg mentions, it seems like we ought to energetically pursue the cheap options.

Posted by: Steve Howell at August 3, 2005 10:43 PM

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