Debate: The State of Nature

Is the world getting greener? Or are we selling it short for a fistful of greenbacks? Apparently, even committed environmentalists can disagree. When Carl Pope looks out his door, he sees the polar ice caps melting, ecosystems on life support, and clean water disappearing. But Bjørn Lomborg believes humanity's backyard has never looked better. Who's got it right? For young and old, rich and poor, the answer might just mean the world.

Our Roof Is Caving in
By Carl Pope

Our Roof Is Caving in
By Carl Pope

The global environmental dilemma teems with both risks and opportunities. The world is at considerable peril, yet solutions to the problems we face are at our fingertips. We have been loading the Earth’s atmosphere with mercury from burning coal, chemical plants, and mining for centuries. As a result, the fish caught in our oceans are now a health risk for young women. Yet we have, and can afford, the necessary technology to stop pumping mercury into the environment. The trick is finding the will and prudence to pursue such solutions. Currently, the world — and the United States in particular — lacks the leadership to link the two.

Let me show you what I mean. Thirteen–hundred scientists from 95 countries just issued a report called the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which notes that 15 of the 24 ecosystems vital for life on Earth are in a degraded or overdrawn state. That’s like a doctor telling you that 60 percent of your organs are failing. Yet we cannot summon the courage to tackle simple solutions. Keeping tires on American automobiles properly inflated, for instance, would save as much oil as will be found by drilling (and destroying) the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If you don’t believe a report from 1,300 scientists, consider that the CIA believes that more than 3 billion people will be living in water–stressed regions — from North Africa to China — by 2015. The water tables of major grain–producing areas in northern China are dropping at a rate of 5 feet per year, and per capita water availability in India is expected to drop by 50 to 75 percent over the next decade. The number of chronically malnourished people in sub–Saharan Africa will increase by 20 percent over the next 15 years.

That is scary stuff. It’s also unnecessary. Do these alarming trends mean that the sky is falling? No. If the sky were falling, we couldn’t do much except hide. But these trends do mean that the roof over our house will cave in — unless it gets some much–needed repairs. Consider the United States’ energy policy. Americans consume 25 percent of the world’s oil. Why? Because consumers lack choices. Even though engineering has made car engines 25 percent more efficient, increased bulk has made fuel economy worse. In some U.S. cities, the waiting list for a hybrid car is longer than the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Instead of pursuing new solutions such as hybrid cars, the United States invades Iraq, bullies Venezuela, and rattles its sabers at Iran. Similarly, China is eagerly building dams that will destroy villages and impoverish thousands while low–technology solutions to increase energy efficiency lie fallow.

This global leadership vacuum is dangerous. Anger at the chasm between better energy solutions and our scarcity of leadership is not confined to tree–hugging environmentalists. Listen to former President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz: "How many more times must we be hit on the head by a two–by–four before we do something about this acute problem. … New ultralight–but–safe materials can nearly redouble fuel economy at little or no extra cost."

The world has a choice. We can let go of the archaic technologies and reckless practices of the past, recognize that solutions are better than anxieties, and watch science pleasantly surprise us. Or we can remain in denial, insist that modest change now is more painful than eventual catastrophe, and reap the whirlwind.

Let’s Try Priorities, not Propaganda
By Bjørn Lomborg

Yes, we have problems. But we have solved many more. Yes, we can solve those that remain, but not all at once. We need priorities.

You say 60 percent of Earth’s ecosystems are in decline, without talking much about people and forgetting the crucial linkage between poverty and pollution. The bottom line is — as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment stresses — that humanity’s lot has improved dramatically in both the rich world and in the developing world. In the poorest countries, life expectancy has more than doubled over the past 100 years. The global malnutrition rate dropped from 50 percent in 1950 to 17 percent today, while the number of people living below the poverty line dropped from 50 percent to less than 25 percent. Access to clean drinking water has risen from 30 percent in 1970 to 80 percent today. We have never had it this good, and it’s likely to get better.

The rich world has simultaneously improved the environment. In the United States, the most important environmental indicator, particulate air pollution, has more than halved since 1955, rivers and coastal waters are dramatically cleaner, and forest land is increasing. These trends are generally shared by all developed countries. Why? Because the rich can afford to care for the environment.

In the developing world, environmental indicators are getting worse, as you note. In Bombay and Bangkok, air pollution is only getting thicker. But countries in the developing world are simply prioritizing in the same way the West did 100 years ago. They care first about feeding their kids, not cleaning up the air. And if you look at the West, that strategy works. Today, London’s air is the cleanest it has been since medieval times. Some of the richest developing countries are already following suit. In Mexico and Chile, air pollution is going down.

We need to keep environmental problems in context and prioritize the ones to solve first. Despite a dramatic drop in U.S. air pollution, it still constitutes the United States’ most serious environmental hazard — and kills roughly 135,000 people each year. But you talk about mercury, which is far less detrimental and far less beneficial if cleaned up. That is what I mean by prioritization. The same is true for the developing world. Yes, water is important. But you focus on scarcity, which is a management issue. Why not talk about access to clean drinking water? Despite dramatic improvements, 1 billion people today live without it, resulting in more than 2 million (otherwise preventable) deaths each year. You mention that 37 million more people will be malnourished in sub–Saharan Africa by 2015, but you neglect to point out that the number of well–fed people will increase 10–fold, by more than 374 million.

Context and priorities are important. Perhaps the most pressing environmental problem in the world is indoor air pollution, which kills 2.8 million people each year, just behind HIV/AIDS. The pollution is caused by poor people cooking and heating their homes with dung and cardboard. The solution is not environmental (to certify dung) but rather economic, helping these people build enough wealth to afford kerosene.

You say the world has a choice. True. But it is rarely your stay–stupid or be–smart choice. We can do almost anything, but we can’t do it all at once. The challenge is to prioritize better. I’ve indicated some top priorities. What do you think we should do first and, even harder, what should wait?

Stop Cooking the Books
Carl Pope responds

True, we need priorities. And safe drinking water ought to be at the very top of the list. I agree. We also share distress that air pollution is killing so many Americans each year — but that doesn’t mean mercury might not be a bigger problem. After all, neurological damage to kids is a very big deal.

Having priorities doesn’t always mean Sophie’s choice. If we clean up coal–fired power plants, we solve both air pollution and mercury with one investment. We don’t have to make an all–or–nothing choice between environmental responsibility and economic progress. If we can afford F–16 fighter jets for Pakistan, we can afford clean water and better schools in Karachi. Britain spent a century industrializing in ways that devastated the environment and workers’ lives. Yet Taiwan and Singapore forged a more progressive and less destructive path. Economic growth is powered by innovation, and new technology doesn’t have to be environmentally destructive. Developing village–level power technologies using fuel cells, solar power, and agricultural wastes makes more economic and environmental sense in India than massive investments in copper wires and coal turbines.

The problem is that bad accounting produces bubbles and busts. Human welfare can increase in two ways, by harvesting ecosystem services and human innovation or by mining ecosystems in ways that deprive the future. We have already done the latter with oceanic fisheries, three quarters of which are no longer sustainable. That’s the scary thing about the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Bjørn. Honest ecological bookkeeping shows that today’s economic progress may be the result of a bunch of "off the books"transactions that will leave our children with a bankrupt planet. My first priority is to stop cooking the books.

Sophie’s Choice Is Real
Bjørn Lomborg responds

I’m glad you agree that we need priorities. But I worry that your commitment is rhetorical. If drinking water is priority No. 1, water scarcity is not. You accept that the 135,000 annual American deaths from air pollution are terrible, but you then suggest that mercury might be even more dangerous. That flies in the face of estimates by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the environmental watchdog Resources for the Future. One study from the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution estimates that eliminating mercury emissions from U.S. power plants would "reduce the numbers of U.S. children experiencing subtle neurological deficiencies by on the order of 10,000 per year."Isn’t 135,000 annual deaths from air pollution much worse?

I’m asking because that is what happens when people agree in principle to prioritize, then refuse to face Sophie’s choice. Prioritizing really means some things must come last. Of course, we can make some investments in the environment without sacrificing economic progress, but we cannot make them all. Because the United States can afford F–16s does not mean it can also afford all environmental initiatives. We have to carefully spend our resources where they will do the most good. The solar installations you champion easily cost $450 apiece. Better–constructed $10 stoves can significantly reduce indoor air pollution. Do we want to help one family a little or 45 families a lot?

You return to the 1,300 scientists and their report on the world’s ecosystems. What their results show is that when people are starving, lacking clean drinking water, getting poisoned from indoor air pollution, and dying from easily curable communicable diseases, they let the environment get ravaged, too. Your solution is to deal with the environment first. But shouldn’t we, morally and practically, help them gain wealth first, so they can take care of the environment too?

Fighter Jets and Other False Choices
Carl Pope responds

No, Bjørn, Sophie’s choice is avoidable. Bad human decisions, not inescapable reality, make the environment appear to be a "trade–off" with prosperity.

Your mercury analysis is sloppy. You use 2001 figures, dating back to when the Bush administration was suppressing data. These suppressed data show that 630,000 U.S. infants annually, not 10,000, are born with dangerous levels of mercury. Eventually, we need to clean up mercury globally. We can afford to modernize U.S. power plants. The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, founded by Bush regulatory czar John Graham, estimates that cleaning up the mercury emitted from U.S. power plants would save nearly $5 billion in healthcare expenditures annually and cost just $750 million a year. Investments that produce 600 percent returns are not hard choices.

Good environmental stewardship saves money in poor countries. To enhance tourism, the Maldives purposefully preserved its barrier reefs. When the tsunami hit that tiny South Asian country in December 2004, the reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave, so what hit the islands was a gentle swell, not a deadly wall of water. China today is experiencing riots because of its poor environmental stewardship. Its "backyard"coal–fired power plants, a monument to Maoism, make neither economic nor environmental sense. Why not help China to retire them and replace them with wind turbines?

Tilting at Windmills
Bjørn Lomborg responds

Now you suggest funding windmills in China? I suggest first distributing efficient cookers to combat indoor air pollution, which would save more lives and money. You suggest preserving reefs and mangroves, saving lives in case there is another tsunami. I suggest we first save thousands of times more by tackling curable, infectious diseases.

You insist that there are no real trade–offs between the environment and prosperity. But money spent on windmills can’t also be spent on something else. It is not that environmental projects are not worthwhile. It’s just that they are not the only things we need to do. Often, there are other, better projects that must come first.

You persist in prioritizing mercury over particulates, which is plain wrong. The data you talk about were not "suppressed"by the Bush administration, but essentially known since 1999. And they said the 630,000 infants are at "increased risk."But not all of those will be affected. U.S. utilities account for less than 25 percent of mercury emissions and most of the fish we eat come from waters where reductions in mercury won’t matter. So, at best, completely eliminating mercury will help 10,000 children. Moreover, your $750 million only addresses a one–third reduction in mercury. And your Harvard study is more careful than you are: The benefits could range anywhere from about $5 billion to just $100 million, quite possibly a loss. I understand why scary numbers are easy to publicize, but pointing out the correct numbers and priorities is not sloppy — it’s just reality.

Don’t Treat the Earth Like Enron
Carl Pope responds

If you look back to the beginning of this exchange, I did not say that mercury was a higher priority than particulates. I did not focus on U.S. power plant emissions alone. You did. I cited the oceanic mercury problem as a symbol of our failure of leadership and the resulting problems that failure creates.

You keep posing artificial choices such as the one between cookers and wind turbines. Both are more desirable and more economical than backyard coal furnaces. It is simply not the case that the world — or the United States — does only one thing at a time. Leadership doesn’t mean picking the lowest–hanging fruit, one at a time. It means acting on our wiser, not our greedier, instincts.

Where do we get the money? Let those who take from the global commons foot the bill. If the companies that emit mercury were to pay damages, they would be forced to clean up, and the world would be healthier and more prosperous. Current U.S. carbon emissions now top 1.5 billion tons per year — about 25 percent of total global carbon emissions. Scientists’ mid–range estimates are that planetary sinks — plants, trees, and other elements that absorb carbon — can handle about 5.5 billion tons without an unacceptable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. With 5 percent of the world’s population, a fair U.S. share of global carbon emissions is 275 million tons a year. At a modest value of $50 per ton, U.S. carbon emitters owe the world’s poor nations at least $66 billion for this year alone.

So, Bjørn, if U.S. carbon emitters and those in Saudi Arabia, Europe, and Japan pay for what they pollute, we could fund clean drinking water, clean village stoves, wind turbines, and solar cells in India. Of course, if we started making carbon wasters in the United States pay, Economics 101 suggests they will emit much less. Instead of a massive transfer of wealth, charging fairly for carbon emissions would reduce pollution in the United States, generate cash for development in China, Africa, and other developing regions, and reduce climactic instability. This system won’t increase poverty. It may hurt the oil companies. So what? Henry Ford was bad for buggy makers.

You ask for my priorities. We should stop cooking the books, make those who take from the global commons pay, and invest that revenue as wisely as we can. The result of these steps will not be Dr. Pangloss’s "best of all possible worlds."But I am shocked that anyone believes we will get better results by continuing to treat the Earth as if it were Enron.

Less Charming, but Honest
Bjørn Lomborg responds

We agree that wise investments will make the world better. But what proposals does that actually include? The question was answered last year by the Copenhagen Consensus project. Thirty specialists from a broad range of fields joined forces with eight top economists, including three Nobel laureates, to make a global priority list. Their top goals were to prevent HIV/AIDS, end agricultural subsidies, and fight malnutrition and malaria. That is where we can do the most good per dollar. The Copenhagen Consensus concluded that substantial responses to climate change (your favorite) would do little good at high cost.

You say we should make polluters pay. That’s an excellent idea. But you get a bit too excited. Most analyses show that the carbon damage cost is less than $10 per ton, suggesting a much lower tax and revenue stream. Moreover, just as money is a scarce resource, so too is political will. Given the world’s immense reluctance to enforce carbon taxes and trade liberalization, we should focus on getting the best one — trade — done first. Your Economics 101 suggests that carbon taxes would have a big impact on emissions and climate change, but real economic models show the exact opposite. Carbon taxes would have little impact on emissions or climate change.

No matter how much money we raise, we should still spend it wisely. If investing in cookers is more cost effective than windmills, we should do the cookers first. It really isn’t more complicated. Advocacy groups understandably want to focus on headline–grabbing issues, such as mercury, mangroves, and global warming. But when we emphasize some problems, we get less focus on others. It has been hard to get you to say what the world should not do first. Such a strategy is, naturally, less charming. But if we really want to do good in the long run, it is more honest to put those terms on paper.

You end by repeating your claim that we are cooking the environmental books. No. We know there are environmental problems. But we face other challenges, too. Let’s tackle the ones where we can do the most good first. The rich world is dealing with many of its environmental problems because it can afford to. If the poor world became wealthier, they would follow suit. Tackling pressing issues such as disease, hunger, and polluted water will do obvious good and give the poor the chance to improve the state of their world.

Carl Pope is executive director of the Sierra Club. Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School.
Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of Smart Solutions to Climate Change.

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