Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Lomborg Move

A response to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald September 27 2007

It is hard to take Bjorn Lomborg seriously when he writes about organic food, disease, global poverty, polar bears and global warming. His arguments seem superficially convincing and there are statistics to back them up. However, it takes very little to expose the lack of substance behind his so-called arguments. Having accepted that there can be a causal link between (toxic) chemicals and cancer he goes on to make the claim that:

If you reduce your child's intake of fruits and vegetables by just 0.03 grams a day (that's the equivalent of half a grain of rice) when you opt for more expensive organic produce, the total risk of cancer goes up, not down. Omit buying just one apple every 20 years because you have gone organic, and your child is worse off.

The naivity of this argument is breathtaking. People who spend more of their money on organic food are also likely to spend less of it on high fat, low nutrition, high sugar, highly processed (additives, coloring, preservatives) food. Hence, their children are likely to get more ‘good’ food and less ‘bad’ food. Omit buying just one packet of fried potato chips for your kid every day because you have gone organic, and your child will be better off.

On the issue of carcinogens, pathogens and toxins in food, it is clear that organic food is less risky for the consumer than intensively produced food that has been exposed to the standard array of ‘cides’ in production (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides). The rates of increase in breast cancer and prostate cancer incidence is linked to exposure to pesticides as is the rate of premature births in countries where exposure to pesticides is common. While regulation of pesticides might be good in some countries, we now live in a globalised economy where fruit and vegetables can be flown in from distant places where regulation and standards are poor. Eating organically produced food grown in places where standards are regulated and monitored will be safer for young and older bodies than non-organic food. It will also be better for ecosystem health generally. Given the increasing rates of obesity (in children as well as adults) in developed countries, the idea that we might all need to eat less but better quality food, is not such a radical thought.

Next, Lomborg gets into the plight of the polar bear under climate change:

Consider a tale that has made the covers of some of the world's biggest magazines and newspapers: the plight of the polar bear. We are told that global warming will wipe out this majestic creature. We are not told, however, that over the past 40 years - while temperatures have risen - the global polar bear population has increased from 5000 to 25,000.

Now, like Lomborg, I am no expert of the breeding biology of polar bears, but the latest research from those who are experts is cause for legitimate concern. The polar ice flows that constitute Polar bear habitat are shrinking. So much so that it was reported recently that Arctic sea ice shrank to the smallest area on record this year and that the Northwest Passage has opened for the first time. Habitat is important for all species and a disappearing habitat spells disaster.

In western Hudson Bay, Canada, where recent studies of polar bear numbers have been undertaken by qualified scientists, they found that the population has reduced by 22% from 1194 to 935 between 1987 and 2004. Another population in Alaska that has been studied also show reduced numbers and lower adult weights and increased cub mortality. Populations that have increased in number (only two have been reported) are in areas where numbers are recovering from hunting pressure and where protection is now being provided. That bastion of extremism, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has recently proposed listing polar bears as a threatened species.

Despite evidence available that does not support his claim, Lomborg, continues the ignorance with the argument that:

Campaigners and the media claim that we should cut our carbon dioxide emissions to save the polar bear. Well, then, let's do the math. Let's imagine that every country - including the United States and Australia - were to sign the Kyoto Protocol and cut its carbon dioxide emissions for the rest of this century. Looking at the best-studied polar bear population of 1000 bears, in the West Hudson Bay, how many polar bears would we save in a year? Ten? Twenty? A hundred? Actually, we would save less than one-tenth of a polar bear.

If we were to stop the increase in global warming with cuts in our carbon dioxide emissions such that we would stop global temperature increase at no more than 2 degrees of warming, then actually, we might save polar bears from extinction by loss of habitat. In doing this, we save the habitat of many other species as well. Most scientists are arguing that if you save the habitat of this admittedly iconic species, then you save whole Arctic ecosystems. Lomborg is clearly attacking a straw bear. You do not have to do the math to figure out that preventing further polar bear habitat from melting will have the outcome of whole (not fractions) polar bears being saved.

Lomborg then argues:

If we really do care about saving polar bears, we could do something much simpler and more effective: ban hunting them. Each year, 49 bears are shot in the West Hudson Bay alone. So why don't we stop killing 49 bears a year before we commit trillions of dollars to do hundreds of times less good?

Yes, Bjorn, it would be a good idea to stop hunting and killing a rare and endangered animal. Perhaps we could do that and tackle the problem of greenhouse gas emissions at the same time? Perhaps we could do “hundreds of times more good” by chewing gum and walking at the same time?

Next, in a now classic Lomborg move, the argument is put that we should not worry too much about these known unknowns (global warming, terrorism, pesticides, and the loss of biodiversity) because there are knowns (e.g., the terrible conditions of the world’s poor) and they should concern us more! His text goes:

Much of my work is to make sense of all these global warnings. I try to put them in perspective and figure out which ones really should concern us, and when we should act on them.
Perhaps surprisingly, not everything of concern should be dealt with immediately. If we don't have a good way to fix a problem, it might be better to focus on something else first. After all, when you don't know where your next meal is coming from, it's hard to worry about what global temperatures will be 100 years from now.

Well Bjorn, we do have a good way to to fix the problem of global warming … reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, stupid! After all, if you are not sure if there will be a habitable planet for humans in 100 years from now, it must be hard to swallow your next meal. Especially when right now, the numbers of over-nourished people on the planet roughly equals that of those who are undernourished (1.2 billion). Perhaps it would be good to commit to reduce global hunger in addition to reducing greenhouse gases?

Lomborg tells us the good news is that things are getting better for humans and that we can expect such trends to continue into the future. The facts, according to Lomborg are:

By the close of the century, incomes will have increased sixfold in industrialised countries and 12-fold in developing countries, making the average person in the developing world richer in 2100 than the average American or European is today. The number of poor will drop from a billion to less than 5 million.

Perhaps so, but maybe you have to factor in peak oil and climate change as the fossil fuel based economy and the global environment simultaneously crash in a fiscal and bipolar meltdown. In a non-linear world, making linear projections of past trends into the future is nice science fiction, but it is not the provision of facts. There is no ‘math’ here, just reading the entrails of goats and hoping that people won’t notice the difference between sheer speculation and real science.

Finally, we get to the end of the fantasy. Lomborg tells us that:

None of this means we should stop worrying about the future. But it does mean that we can quit panicking and start thinking calmly to ensure that we focus on the right issues. Global alarm bells might cause pangs of guilt for wealthy Westerners, but they don't give us an adequate understanding of what is going on. We all need to hear both sides of the story.

Bjorn Lomborg is confident that the right issue is the elimination of poverty by continuing the process of wealth creation under consumer capitalism. That rapid increases in economic growth are needed to overcome global poverty is not a new thesis: the Brundtland report in 1987 ran the same line under the label of ‘sustainable development’. It is even called the “trickle down theory of wealth”. Cranking up economic growth just at a moment of much needed greenhouse gas emission reductions is just plain stupid!

Well, we have heard your side of the story Bjorn and it is a confused and pathetic defense of the indefensible.