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Rich bias

THE SKEPTICAL ENVIRONMENTALIST Bjørn Lomborg · Cambridge University Press · Cambridge · 2001 · Pages: pp 515 · Price: US$ 25.71

By Anju Sharma
Published: Friday 15 February 2002

-- IS THE world's environment really in crisisor is thecrisis simply in the imagination of environmental groupsresearchers andthe media? In The Skeptical EnvironmentalistBjrn Lomborg sets out to prove that "the real state of the world" is in fact gettingbetternot worse. Anassociate professor of statistics in the department of political science of Denmark's University of rhusLomborg liberally quotes figures to counter claims that the world's biodiversity is decliningair pollution or global warming are serious problemsor that the world is facing an acute energy and water crisis.

Lomborg's book has generated attention not only because of its controversial claimbut also because ofhis background as a former Greenpeace activist. The media has gleefully portrayed him as a believer turned skeptic. Accordingto Lomborgenvironmental organisations and researchers have an interest in presenting the environment in an awful state. "The worse these organisations can portray the environmentthe easier it is for them to convince the world that more money needs to be spent on bettering the environmenthe writes.

Predictably, the book has drawn loud protests from environmental groups and scientists in the West. Environment organisations have put out warnings to the media to treat Lomborg's statistics with caution, while scientists such as biodiversity specialist Edward O Wilson and climate expert Stephen Schneider have written rejoinders accusing him of flawed arguments, misrepresentation and selective use of data. He has been accused of shedding his 'Greenpeace bias' for an equally unscientific 'sceptics bias'.

It is true that many environmental groups tend to be alarmists, and focus more on overplaying figures that paint a doomsday picture, while underplaying the causes. Often, this limited understanding of the causes is the reason why Northern groups, in particular, end up advocating simplistic and unidimensional solutions. While Lomborg may appear too eager to shed his 'Greenpeace bais', his Northern bias remains more or less intact.

On the face of it, he comes across as a champion of the cause of poor, arguing that the world would do better to spend money on addressing poverty and hunger, instead of chasing bogeys like an imagined water crisis or global warming. However, in his analysis, he goes on to show very little appreciation of the causes of poverty and hunger in the developing world, which are closely linked to environmental degradation.

Take, for instance, the water crisis. According to Lomborg, there is no shortage of fresh water in the world, given that annually, the total amount of precipitation on land is about 113,000 trillion litres. After accounting for water that falls in inaccessible areas and for run-off, there is an equivalent of about 5,700 litres of water for every person on Earth every day. Even taking into account regional variations in precipitation, Lomborg claims that any country except Kuwait can deliver the basic human requirement of 50-100 litres a day. The problems are related not to physical water scarcity, but to lack of proper water management, and lack of investment in infrastructure. So far so good - this is definitely the case in India, for instance, where both drinking and cooking water needs can easily be met by harvesting rainwater.

What of countries that have a limited supply, but still use a lot of water for agriculture? As Lomborg points out himself, this is particularly true of the poorest countries in the world, which use 90 per cent of their water for irrigation compared to just 37 per cent in the rich countries. To these countries, he offers a rather ruthless solution: redistribute water from agriculture to industry and households, and import grain from water-abundant countries such as the US!

In many of these poor countries, agriculture employs as much as 70 per cent of their populations, and is the main livelihood of the poor. How do these people earn a living if policies are put in place that take water away from them to give to industries and households? They are already victims of an international trading system that allows countries such as the US to maintain high agricultural subsidies, and thus skew the global market for agricultural goods in favour of their farmers. In many cases in the developing world, poor families cultivate just enough just to meet their own food requirements, and do not generate monetary income. How, then, do they buy the imported grain?

Both agricultural and wild biodiversity in developing countries plays a key role in alleviating poverty by providing the poor livelihoods - a fact that has not been acknowledged either while suggesting solutions to poverty, or while assessing the importance of biodiversity to the world. Why sign the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Lomborg asks, when claims of species extinction are exaggerated? He is mistaken if he thinks the CBD is only a convention to save species. For developing countries, it is far more important as a crucial global agreement to make Northern biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies pay communities for the use of their natural resources.

Lomborg displays the same lack of appreciation of the situation in developing countries in his chapter on climate change. In his opinion, industrialised countries will be wasting their money by even attempting to meet the small percentage cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions required of them under the Kyoto Protocol. This is because by 2050, the annual cost of making these GHG cuts will be the same as the cost of global warming in 2100. Since the Kyoto Protocol will do no more than delay the rise in temperature by about six years, almost the entire cost of global warming in 2100 will have to be paid. Instead of paying twice for the same problem, suggests Lomborg, industrialised countries would do better to just wait, and only pay once for the damages caused by global warming by 2100.

In this analysis, Lomborg entirely omits the application of the polluter pays principle to the climate change problem. While industrialised countries are primarily responsible for causing the problem through their high GHG emissions both in the past and the present, it is the developing countries that will suffer most of the consequences of climate change in the future. Therefore, while the industrialised countries may save money by not reducing their GHG emissions under the Kyoto Protocol in the short term, the developing countries will have to endure the human misery and additional costs caused by climate change. They will have to suffer greater impacts of sea level rise, heat stress, reduced agricultural productivity, and health impacts. Why should they end up paying for a problem that has been largely created by industrialised countries? Lomborg is obviously restricting himself to the same narrow cost-benefit analysis as industrialised countries such as the US have resorted to, which does not factor in liability.

Nor does Lomborg foresee any sort of international mechanism through which industrialised countries will share any of the costs of dealing with the impacts of climate change. Instead, he claims that most of these impacts will not be as bad as predicted. And, even if they are, they will take place in the future when developing countries will be richer (a questionable premise), and will thus be in a better position to deal with them!

For instance, he disagrees with the finding of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that higher temperatures will cause death and illness among those with limited access to air conditioning. According to him, in a richer world far more people will be able to afford access to air-conditioning. He agrees that industrialised countries will see an increase in agricultural productivity due to global warming, while developing countries will see a decrease. Not to worry, though, he carries on cheerfully - this will happen in the middle of the 21st century, by when developing countries will be richer and better developed.

Finally, Lomborg is too hasty in his dismissal of the environmental groups. The health and clean-up costs would be too high for countries like India to wait for increased affluence before addressing problems like air pollution, as he suggests. Without environmental groups and scientific research to egg them on, governments in the developing world will continue to trade off the environment for economic growth.

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