Argument and consensus on the environment

This article was published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website on 24 July 2006.

The Copenhagen Consensus project is a valuable contribution to the debate on environmental policy, but it’s one small part of a wide-ranging discussion involving scientists, engineers, economists, policy makers and the general public. Perhaps the strongest idea to come out of the Copenhagen Consensus and the writings of Bjørn Lomborg is that cost-benefit analyses should always be carried out when deciding environmental priorities. The flaw in the exercise is in the use of a panel made up exclusively of economists of similar ideological persuasion, when experts from various fields together with interested private citizens could have been brought together to bounce ideas off one another.

If Copenhagen produced a consensus, it’s a rather empty one. It was in fact a missed opportunity, as, with a different modus operandi, the exercise could have a huge and positive impact on the development of environmental policy. We’re left instead with a damp squib, and – with Lomborg and his supporters slating the green movement, and in turn being labelled by their detractors as climate change deniers and neoconservatives – an even more polarised debate.

Bjørn Lomborg is a controversialist who has managed to antagonise many in the green movement, but this is not such a bad thing when one considers that much of the environmental debate lacks intellectual rigour, rests on unacknowledged and untested assumptions, and includes flawed interpretations of science. Take, for example, of the over-hyping of the dangers of pesticide use, the horror of genetic engineering, and fear-mongering over nuclear safety and waste disposal issues, when there are better arguments against nuclear power.

If the disruption caused by Lomborg leads environmentalists to review their strategy, work more closely with scientists and economists, and stop cherry picking data, then it will do much good for the green movement as a whole. But it would help also if Lomborg desisted from cherry picking scientific data to suit his arguments. His book The Sceptical Environmentalist contains much selective quotation from the work of environmental scientists.

Media attacks on Lomborg have been vicious, and he is often misrepresented as a climate change denier and ally of the powers of darkness and corporate hegemony. Tom Burke had published in the Guardian back in October 2004 a critique of Lomborg that was mostly character assassination, and in May of this year Johann Hari did the same thing in the Independent. From the other side of a fence seemingly impervious to rational discourse, the level of abuse may be less, but Lomborg’s supporters are known also to engage in ad-hominem attacks on their opponents, and such behaviour is self-defeating for all concerned.

Issues of personality and approach aside, criticism of Lomborg’s purely economistic environmentalism is still called for. On the subject of climate science, Lomborg and his colleagues appear unable to understand the issues involved, including – ironically – risk analyses carried out by climate researchers. Either that or they choose conveniently to ignore the science. The devil is, as always, in the detail, and the climate science community need to spell it out clearly and calmly in their public outreach work.

Bjørn Lomborg is right to say that we will have to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change, but this is a truism. The danger is actually greater than Lomborg would have us believe, as there is a significant chance that positive feedback mechanisms in the climate system, made unstable by anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions, will have an impact on human society far greater than has been accounted for by the economists of the Copenhagen Consensus.

The use of hyperbole in the environmental debate is a huge problem. It obscures vitally important details, and renders civilised discussion virtually impossible. On the one side we have corporate interests with an almost religious faith in the emergence of technical fixes to environmental problems, and on the other a green movement that has often gone overboard in its efforts to attract media and funding agency attention.

Scientists and environmental campaigners need to say to the public at large, and in a calm and measured manner: this is what the data and models show us is happening now and could happen in the future, here are the calculated probabilities, and these are the risks we face. They and the media should also respect people’s intelligence and be honest about the uncertainties involved. Trust will then be restored in scientific expert opinion, and support for the precautionary principle will rocket.