The State of the Planet

The spiked-debate at London's Royal Institution on 12 September 2001 threw 'Skeptical Environmentalist' Bjorn Lomborg over to the audience. Here's how he coped.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

The State of the Planet, Wednesday 12 September’s spiked-debate in collaboration with London’s Royal Institution and Cambridge University Press, was supposed to be a debate of two halves – with ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Bjørn Lomborg pitted against Edward Goldsmith, founder of The Ecologist magazine. But the day beforehand, The Ecologist team decided, for reasons best known to themselves, to pull out of the debate because they were suddenly unhappy with arrangements made six weeks previously.

Their loss. The 300-plus audience proved itself more than capable of putting Lomborg through his paces – just as soon as he had finished taking us through his graphs.

Striding backwards and forwards in t-shirt and flared jeans, with Powerpoint and laser-pen at his fingertips, Lomborg explained his mission for the evening: to give his audience ‘a slightly harder time believing that the world is coming to an end’. While the environmental orthodoxy holds that mankind is destroying the planet and doomsday is nigh, Lomborg uses statistic upon statistic to show that, in fact, things are ‘getting better and better’ (or, as he puts it in his perfect American English, ‘bedda and bedda’).

‘We don’t have to act as if we are cornered, as if we have a gun to our heads’, he explained. ‘If we are not actually faced with a gun to our heads, then we can also start thinking about where we should spend our money most wisely. There are lots of problems out there, but let’s spend our money where we can do the most good.’

Lomborg shows how population growth, increased natural resource usage and global warming do not actually present threats to mankind’s survival. Of course, as he kept repeating, problems do exist; but we should deal with them because we decide to, ‘because it makes good sense’ – not because, blinded by environmental fears, we feel we have to.

Summoning a series of graphs (one in Danish – ‘but it’s still true’), Lomborg threw himself into the task of proving his case. Even taking population growth into account, people in both the developed and developing worlds are better fed today than they ever have been. Far from running out, each year the world has more oil left: ‘Our ability to find new resources and use them more efficiently out-competes the fact that we are using more and more.’

And contrary to the ‘idea that air pollution is an old phenomenon that is getting worse and worse – it’s a new phenomenon that is getting better and better. It has never been as clean in London since medieval times’. ‘This doesn’t mean that things are okay, that we don’t have to worry’ – but we should act through choice, not panic.

According to Lomborg, if we look rationally at the choices we are making in relation to the environment, it is clear that we are making big mistakes. Take the Kyoto agreement on climate change: the effect of implementing the agreements on global warming will be to offset global warming for six years by 2100. At $150billion to $350billion per year, its costs will be huge.

‘What else could we have otherwise spent the money on?’, demands Lomborg. ’We could spend the cost of Kyoto for one year to solve the single biggest problem in the world – we could give clean drinking water and sanitation to every single human being on Earth. That would save two million lives from getting lost every year, and save half a billion people from getting seriously ill each year. Is that a better thing to do, than to buy them six years in 2100?’

After half an hour of such energetic presentation, the debate was thrown open to the audience, who chomped eagerly at the bit. Many threw specific scientific questions Lomborg’s way, including climatologist Dr Mike Hulme, who raised a thought-provoking query about the models for global warming that Lomborg employed.

Others raised issues relating to the context of current environmental debates. If Lomborg disagreed with the Kyoto treaty, asked Sheila Anderson from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), did that mean he would have objected to signing the Montreal Treaty for the reduction of CFCs?

In fielding these and other questions, Lomborg proved himself a skilled public debater. While the discussion about man’s impact upon the planet happens at many levels – from the hard science to the more emotive save-the-wild-animals arguments – Lomborg took all levels in his stride. And whether, at the end of it all, he had convinced his critics or not, all were refreshed by his willingness to take such criticisms on board – the product of his guiding faith in public debate.

‘We should argue about this data’, Lomborg declaimed at one point. ‘Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t have an agenda other than that I want this to be the best possible informed debate.’ Lomborg attacks people who argue that it is somehow irresponsible to wield the kind of statistics and evidence he does. As he put it, the job of scientists is to find their facts and theories – and it is the job of the public to debate them. What kind of view of democracy, and of the general public, is represented by the idea that certain evidence and ideas should not be aired and debated?

And none of the audience was left in any doubt that Lomborg has the confidence that his statistics are right. He partly loves statistics because it is his job to – he apologised for the Powerpoint graphs, saying, ‘You’ve got to bear with me, I’m a statistics professor – I think that this kind of thing is sexy’. But he also loves statistics because he believes they can help us to make the right choices in society. ‘Numbers will lead us to better decisions and better prioritisation than just behaving on myths.’ He stressed throughout that he was not using the statistics to prove that the world was perfect. Yet the numbers can show what has got better, and by how much.

Many audience members pointed out that, by taking on environmentalism, Lomborg gets into something bigger than statistics. One member of the audience expressed his disgust with what he had heard. ‘I understand that you’re upset’, said Lomborg, but ‘the argument that you should look at the figures can’t really make you angry’. No, figures don’t make people angry – but there is certainly a lot of angry debate about the environment.

And as Professor Lewis Wolpert asked, after complimenting Lomborg on the persuasiveness of his evidence, why do so many people believe the environmentalists? Even if the statistics show things getting better and better, it seems that our society wants to believe that things are getting worse and worse nonetheless.

As to why this doom-and-gloom sentiment persists, Lomborg does not have the answers. But then, as he put it, he gets enough hassle just from being the numbers guy.

Buy Bjørn Lomborg‘s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

‘This is a case of table pounding’, by Helene Guldberg

A statistician with a mission, by Tony Gilland

Extinct arguments, by Kirk Leech

The Skeptical Environmentalist, by John Gillott

spiked debates: Kyoto

Read more:

Read the following pieces by Bjørn Lomborg:

The environmental litany and data (.pdf 61.9 KB)

Running out of resources (.pdf 56.7 KB)

Global warming – are we doing the right thing? (.pdf 51 KB)

Visit Bjørn Lomborg‘s official website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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