“The Skeptical Environmentalist”: A Ten Year Appreciation (Bjørn Lomborg vindication of the late Julian Simon continues to resonate today)
Ten years ago this month, a landmark book was published that put neo-Malthusianism on the defensive. The unvarnished facts were there to weaken doom-and-gloom prognostications, but it took a rare individual named Julian Simon (1932–1998) ) to uncover the anomalies and present them in integrated and compelling form–and to win the most famous wager in the history of economics!
Then came a young Dane named Bjørn Lomborg set out to refute Simon but instead rediscovered the bogey of fixed-pie, depletionist thinking. This audacious 36-year-old also found that whether the result was of market progress or regulation, virtually all environmental indicators were trending positively, not negatively. Lomborg could agree with the title of Simon’s last major public address, “More People, Greater Wealth, Expanded Resources, Cleaner Environment.”
A Heated Debate
And then, with the debate joined, came a slew of establishment neo-Malthusians, led by John Holdren, now Obama’s science advisor, who got emotional and nit-picked.
This story is told in the introduction to an essay I wrote, The Heated Energy Debate: Assessing John Holdren’s Attack on Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist,” published by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2002.
I spent months on the 160-footnote essay and even worked with Dr. Holdren’s personal secretary at Harvard University’s Kennedy School to receive the entire corpus of Holdren’s writing. But when I sent Dr. Holdren a draft of my paper for critical review and rebuttal, this is what the not-so-good Doctor wrote back to me:
… What exactly entitles you to the evidently self-applied label of ‘energy expert’? My students can indeed benefit from the best arguments on all sides, but they will not find the best of anything in either your polemics or Lomborg’s.
You are of course entitled to (verbally) attack me in any legal way you like, but please don’t then pretend in personal notes to me that we are colleagues, each doing our best to get at the truth…. [Y]ou appear to be … lacking both discernible qualifications in the real world and the ability to tell a good argument from a bad one. I want nothing further to do with you.
No Dr. Holdren, I was just asking you for an update on your opinions about a meticulously assembled set of your quotations and positions. What do you still believe and or not believe about your prior predictions (many obviously falsified).
So much for the ideal of open debate and a challenge culture! [I further discuss Holdren's response in John Holdren and “The Argument from Authority” (Part VII in a Series on Obama’s New Science Advisor).]
CEI Summary: Bradley’s Holdren-Lomborg Essay
In September 2001, Cambridge University Press published Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the True State of the World. The book’s comprehensiveness (515 pages; 2,930 footnotes), the author’s green credentials (a former Greenpeace member, Lomborg began the book’s research to debunk Julian Simon’s forecasts of continuing environmental improvement), and Lomborg’s powerful refutation of the doomsday “litany of our ever-deteriorating environment,” sparked considerable interest.
Favorable reviews followed in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Economist. When the book became an international best seller, ideological environmentalists launched an angry counter-attack. Among the key figures to impugn Lomborg’s scholarship is the subject of this paper: Harvard Professor John P. Holdren.
Holdren, a Clinton-era leader of climate policy and energy technology task forces, is now the leading academic member of the National Commission on Energy Policy, a $10 million, two-year project tasked with formulating a “centrist” energy policy. Holdren is also one of four authors to attack Lomborg in the January 2002 issue of Scientific American, in a feature pretentiously titled, “Science Defends Itself Against The Skeptical Environmentalist.”
A more accurate title would be “Environmental Establishment Fears to Debate Bjørn Lomborg.” Scientific American refused Lomborg the right of reply in the same issue, offered no space to scientists not affiliated with environmental activist causes, and even threatened to sue Lomborg if he tried to reproduce the Scientific American articles, with his detailed responses, on his own Website. Scientific American’s one-sided presentation of evidence, while claiming to defend science from just such abuse, easily qualifies as Orwellian. The fact that the magazine, five months later, gave Lomborg one page to respond to 11 pages of criticism hardly constitutes balance.
In January 2003, a group calling itself the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued an official denunciation of Lomborg, alleging that his book “is contrary to standards of good scientific practice” because it offers a “systematically biased representation” of environmental data. Yet, rather than conduct an independent investigation, the Committees simply rehashed the four attacks published in Scientific American.
And just as Scientific American initially tried to suppress Lomborg’s detailed rebuttal, so the Committees declined to evaluate it. A more honest name for this panel would be the Committees for Scientific Dishonesty.
The present paper, written by energy historian and policy expert, Robert L. Bradley, Jr., President of the Institute for Energy Research and senior research fellow at the University of Houston, confines itself to the task of examining Holdren’s Scientific American article and other publications on energy issues. It demonstrates that Holdren’s critique of Lomborg fails dismally. Insofar as the Danish panel relies on Holdren’s allegations, it is retailing falsehoods and exaggeration in the name of science.
Bradley finds the following flaws in Holdren’s Scientific American article:
• Holdren falsely accuses Lomborg of debunking a straw man (the notion of an impending physical or geological exhaustion of petroleum supplies). In fact, Lomborg challenges the more widely held view—shared by Holdren—that oil will become increasingly scarce as an economically recoverable resource over the medium to longer term. Would Holdren like to make a wager that real (inflation-adjusted) price of oil in 2013 will be higher than it is today?
• Holdren fails to appreciate the technological innovations that are commercializing crude oil substitutes like Alberta oil sands and Venezuelan orimulsion, sustaining the petroleum era beyond even optimistic forecasts of recoverable crude reserves.
• Holdren refuses to consider the reasons for climate optimism: enhanced CO2 fertilization and a moderate, predominantly nighttime warming under realistic climate scenarios. Instead, he naively endorses full-scale government energy planning in the quixotic quest to “stabilize climate.”
• Holdren’s charge that Lomborg’s energy analysis “careens far across the line that divides respectable (even if controversial science) from thoroughgoing and unrepentant incompetence” applies not to Lomborg but to Holdren himself.
In addition, Bradley documents shortcomings and outright errors in Holdren’s 30-year career as a physicist-turned-energy-polemicist:
• Holdren in the 1970s forecast major ecological and economic crises absent a “revolution in human behavior” and a massive political campaign to “de-develop” the United States.
• Holdren has not outgrown his 1970s opinion that, “Our limited knowledge of the details of air pollution permits little hope for early relief.” He continues today to call air pollution “acute,” belittling the tremendous gains in air quality trends in cities from Los Angeles to Houston to New York due to remarkable advances in oil, gas, and coal technologies and mostly incremental regulation.
• Holdren once predicted that as many as one billion people could perish by 2020 from man-made climate change. He now hedges: “That the impacts of global climate disruption may not become the dominant sources of environmental harm to humans for yet a few more decades cannot be a great consolation.” Yet he remains firmly in the climate alarmist camp.
Holdren’s 30-plus-year publication record exhibits a penchant for exaggeration, error, and now wholesale intolerance of reasoned dissent. Holdren’s criticisms of Lomborg should be dismissed as inadequate and troubling, and the National Commission on Energy Policy should reconsider Holdren’s leadership role in devising a “centrist” approach to U.S. energy policy.