Bjørn Lomborg, Tintin in the World of Ecology

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Mr Lomborg replies with a hefty book crammed with figures, notes and references from published literature. It appears to be a mammoth piece of work based on research carried out by his students and a few other sources which greatly influenced him, like Ronald Bailey’s book, The True State of the Planet (1995).

The basis of Mr Lomborg’s reply is simple – despite what the “litany” may say, almost all the indicators show that the general state of the globe is improving and the problems being raised are both blown out of proportion and improperly portrayed. This holds true for even the most accepted and worrisome problems for humanity in regards to the Earth’s future, such as decreasing biodiversity and climate change. He responds with clear-cut recommendations, like the complete abandonment of the Kyoto Protocol which still garners strong support in Europe despite the US’s refusal to participate. According to Mr Lomborg, it would be better to forget about Kyoto altogether and stop imposing these very costly and utterly ineffective restrictions on ourselves. Instead, he says, we should focus our energy on concretely and immediately improving the living standards of the poorest peoples in third world countries by ensuring access to clean water, energy and health care. Mr Lomborg tells us the infinite duration of the Kyoto agreements will cost approximately 2% of industrialized countries’ GNP by 2050, and that this investment will only postpone to 2106 years what would happen without Kyoto anyway in 2100. Yet what great economic situation would developed countries be in in 2100 without Kyoto and only see in 2101 with Kyoto? We might as well say that grandstanding is useless with the billions of dollars spent a century earlier.


To convince the reader there are more important things than focusing on the development of a world-wide control system of the Earth’s environment (since he considers the situation to be improving all by itself anyway), Mr Lomborg makes frequent use of several rhetorical devices.

Two of these devices merit closer attention. The first is considering that a given problem does not exist because the future generations that will be affected by it will take the necessary steps to resolve or adapt to the situation. Mr Lomborg applies this logic to natural disasters (like floods, and hurricanes) and the spread of disease vectors, previously confined to certain regions by climate and CO2 emissions because future generations wealthier than us will have all the means to protect themselves. In sum, these issues are not even considered to be problems. Mr Lomborg wonders why we would worry about these issues today when it is quite possible that solar energy will take over around 2050. With this logic, he only discusses the need to step up research programmes and avoids going into the economic, technical and institutional conditions – which he presents as already in place – that would make the situation effective. In truth, the scenario which Mr Lomborg presents is only one of many and certainly not the most probable. And if it were to come about, it would be the result of the key decisions and directions taken by our societies and the global community today and over the next twenty years – not in 2050. By assuming that the conditions and means which would allow people to come up with long-term solutions to these problems are in place, Mr Lomborg’s reasoning does not allow us to implement these same conditions and means. What true environmentalist would support that?

The second idea involves the classic and legitimate concept of the cost of opportunity. The idea is to discontinue a course of action because another use – considered to be more desirable – could be had with the same resources, without asking if this alternative is truly a practical option or rather a way to dismiss the first, more seriously considered one.

Therefore, rather than suffer the so-called high cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions which, according to Mr Lomborg, will mainly benefit the populations of developing countries in a hundred years, it would be better to invest the same sums to provide safe drinking water, energy and health care to these same people. Therefore, he says, Kyoto must absolutely be abandoned. He goes on to say that Kyoto would only make sense as a first step towards establishing an international group composed of developing countries (everyone agrees on this point), who will quickly become the world’s leading producers of emissions. However, he states that this will not happen because of two reasons. First, the countries which are supposed to gain the most from reduced emission outputs will never participate in such an agreement. Second, a global agreement would imply financial transfers in a North-South direction, with the North paying handsomely for emissions licenses from countries in the South. These transfers would be costly to the point of making this solution politically unfeasible. Yet the idea of investing the same amount in basic equipment for these poverty-stricken populations is no more politically feasible. This suggestion was only raised to avoid an international measure on the prevention of climate risk.


Furthermore, when it suits him, Mr Lomborg chooses to ignore key debates in the IPCC reports. For example, concerning the structure of decision-making that the international community is currently dealing with for climate change. Considering the many uncertainties (some scientific, others not) involved in predicting climate change, IPCC experts state in their 1995 report that claims to evaluate and optimize the choice of a greenhouse gas emissions trajectory once and for all for a century or more are deceptive. They encourage those in charge to adopt a sequential approach for the decisions which must be made; long-term initiatives must been designed to resist unforeseen events in the future and must be periodically adjusted according to the new information and possibilities that result from the initial measures and recent knowledge. This is why today’s leaders of the international community must come to an agreement on a precautionary strategy for the next 25 years but not choose the optimal strategy for the next 150 years.


The scientific value of knowledge comes from collective discussion and criticism, from the organized juxtaposition of different sources and different models. As a result, different types of texts must be interpreted in different ways. The credit given to the work of a single author, whatever his/her talent or reputation, should be infinitely smaller than for methodically organised collected pieces of work, as is the case on the international level for the work of the IPCC on climate change. However, Mr Lomborg’s book does demonstrate the urgent need to organise other IPPC-type panels to deal with the various problems the international community faces.

Bjørn Lomborg ou Tintin au pays de l’écologie ?

Olivier GODARD

Book n°2003-015, Ecole Polytechnique

January, 2003.

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