When it comes to environmental issues, it’s not always easy for a skeptic to decide where to stand

Over the last few years, there has been a growing community of “environmental skeptics”, who question the validity of global environmental concerns. Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist is a major contribution to this strand of thought. At the 2004 Skeptics’ Conference in Christchurch, Lance Kennedy presented some of the ideas that he espouses in his book Ecomyth. The final speaker of the conference, Owen McShane, presented his version of environmental skepticism, and an abridged version of his presentation appeared in Issue 74 of this journal.

Writers such as Lomborg, Kennedy and McShane provide interesting food for thought, and illustrate that in the environmental field, as in others, there is a need for careful critical thinking. However, there is a significant difference. In general, we skeptics tend to be skeptical about beliefs that run counter to mainstream scientific thought – astrology, paranormal phenomena, UFOs, creation science and alternative medical practices are examples. In contrast, environmental skeptics often bravely challenge the opinions of scientists who are specialists in the fields concerned. In this respect, environmental skeptics are somewhat equivalent to alternative medical practitioners or creation scientists. This does not mean that they are necessarily wrong, but it does mean that they have to demonstrate very good evidence to prove that the experts are wrong. For environmental skeptics, the adage “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary proof” applies to them rather than the objects of their skepticism.

In practice, environmental skeptics are often inconsistent and selective in their attitudes to science and professionals. For example, in his chapter on global warming, Kennedy largely ignores and discounts the work of the 2000+ climate scientists who make up the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yet in his chapter on nature conservation, he states “We should question what enables the amateur environmentalists to set themselves up as ‘experts’ and deny the analysis and planning of professionals.” Having made this statement, it is interesting that he feels that he is qualified to state categorically that “Global warming and its consequences are an unproven theory.” This statement is suspiciously similar to those made by “creation scientists” in criticism of evolution theory. In fact, I see parallels between the history of the evolution debate and the current climate change debate. It may be that in 100 years’ time, those that continue to deny the reality of climate change will be seen as the lunatic fringe minority and objects of ridicule for skeptics of the time.

In other ways also, environmental skeptics display some of the characteristics of those who we as skeptics would normally challenge. For example, I believe that the refusal to accept the reality of global environmental problems is very similar to the refusal of most people to accept that there is no life after death. It seems that humans instinctively reject unpalatable news.

In a similar manner to people such as proponents of quack medicine, environmental skeptics are selective in their use of scientific information. In his talk to the conference, Lance Kennedy stressed the need to employ good science, and that it is essential to “rely on the numbers”. Unfortunately, his book does not provide a good demonstration of this. For example, his chapter on global warming includes the graph in Figure 1. It is virtually meaningless, with no indication of the origin of the data, no data on the vertical axis and in fact no indication at all of what it purports to illustrate.

Environmental skeptics often ignore rather than challenge the mainstream environmental science community. They focus much of their criticism on sometimes admittedly questionable claims by the more visible and extreme environmental lobby groups. Greenpeace, WWF and the World Resources Institute are favourite targets. The skeptics often fail to clarify that, at a less visible level, there is a huge body of rational and responsible scientists world-wide who confirm a high degree of real cause for environmental concern. This is somewhat akin to condemning the whole world of Islam by quoting Muslim philosophies as espoused by Al Qaeda.

In the fields that we are traditionally involved in, we skeptics get frustrated about the willingness of the media to give time and credence to mediums, alternative health practitioners and the like, without seeking an informed balanced viewpoint. In the environmental field, it is the professional practitioners who can be frustrated by the coverage given to the environmental skeptics (and, for that matter, the antics of radical environmental lobbyists).

Environmental Management

I suspect that if the human lifespan was really the 500-800 years claimed for the Old Testament patriarchs, self-interest would assure that we would have quite a different attitude to the future state of the world.

Owen McShane states that “We are rich enough to care about the environment…Truly poor people focus on finding tomorrow’s breakfast.” In fact, the great majority of environmental aid projects in developing countries through UN and other reputable international agencies focus on the impacts of environmental degradation on people. They explicitly address and focus on the need to protect and improve the welfare of those in poverty. None of the many international environmental projects that I encountered in 10 years’ work in around 15 poor countries was based on the ecocentric anti-people philosophy that Owen McShane criticises.

As just one example of the direct impact of environmental mismanagement on human welfare, I mention Muinak, a village in northern Uzbekistan. Up until the 1960s, Muinak was the home for a fleet of fishing trawlers and a fish factory, as part of a fishing industry that took some 40,000 tonnes of fish per year from the Aral Sea. Under the direction of Soviet central planning in Moscow, the waters from the two major rivers feeding the Aral Sea were taken for irrigation of cotton crops. The Aral Sea is now a remnant of its former self, and the fishing industry is gone. When I visited Muinak about four years ago, the trawlers were rusting hulks in the sand. Muinak was over 100 kilometres from the water’s edge, and was fast becoming a ghost town. Most poignantly, the town’s World War II memorial, built on the sea cliffs overlooking the point where local soldiers embarked to cross the Aral Sea to join the war effort, now looks out over desert stretching to the horizon and beyond.

A particular concern that I have is that environmental skeptics (and for that matter some environmental lobbyists) tend to think in time scales that are far too short. A profound influence on my thinking was the marvellous “Time-Line” installation by Bill Taylor that we saw at Victoria University at the 2003 Skeptics Conference (NZ Skeptic 70). In brief, the 4.6 billion year life of Earth was represented by a cord 4.6 km long. On this basis, the 2000 years since the dawn of the Christian era occupied the final two millimetres.

I find it amazing and somewhat sobering to consider that, on this scale, the dawn of the Industrial Revolution occurred only 0.15 millimetres ago. There is no question that in that instant of geological time, humans have wrought major changes to our global environment. For example, it is an accepted fact that recent human activity has caused measurable changes to the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, and in particular the concentration of the so-called “greenhouse gases”. The debate is not about whether these changes have occurred, but whether they are causing climate change. To me, that is almost academic. The fact that, in such a blink of time, we have caused measurable changes to the atmosphere that sustains all life is adequate cause for concern.

The Resource Management Act requires us to consider the needs of future generations. Owen McShane talked about the difficulty of this concept, because the future generations are walking away in front of us, so that we never get there. To me, this indicated that he sees “future generations” in the very short term, meaning our immediate successors, our children and grandchildren. I see things quite differently and in a longer term. Given the headlong pace of change and impact in just the last hundred years, my concern is for the way the 20th and 21st Century generations might be viewed in say 500 years (0.5 mm), 1000 years (1 mm), or even longer.

Environmental skeptics tend to airily dismiss energy concerns by saying that we have enough fossil fuels to last part or all of this century. Again, this is short term thinking. While one may argue about the remaining life of reserves of fossil fuels, the inescapable fact is that they are a finite resource. There is no doubt whatsoever that, on a geological or evolutionary time-scale, the period in which humans have been able to develop and maintain a lifestyle that relied on one-off extraction of fossil fuels will be a mere instant of history.

Loss of Forests

On the subject of forest loss, Lance Kennedy states that world forest cover has increased from 1950 to the present — from 40 million to 43 million square kilometres. In fact, the 2000 Global Forest Resources Assessment by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN puts the current figure at 39 million. More importantly, its best assessment is that there was a net global forest loss in the 1990s of about 2.2%. This is equivalent to an area the size of New Zealand each three years. Again, this apparently small percentage figure is very serious if considered in any form of medium or long-term time frame. For tropical forests, environmental skeptics accept that there is a rate of loss of about 0.5% per year, but dismiss this as being of little cause for concern. Again, this is in fact a very high rate of loss both in absolute area and if considered in the context of even a medium time frame of say 100 years.

Some environmental skeptics dismiss concerns about any future scarcity of fossil fuels and their polluting effect by suggesting that they will be replaced by hydrogen as a source of energy for transport. In reality, hydrogen is not a fundamental energy source, but only a medium to transport energy, somewhat equivalent to electrical cables or batteries. Production of hydrogen itself requires huge energy inputs. Current technologies to produce hydrogen either use fossil fuels as a base (with large energy losses on the way through), or require electrical energy to produce it by electrolysis of water, again with energy losses in the process. For the moment, there seems little prospect of achieving the required dramatic increase in electricity production other than by using fossil fuels or nuclear energy, which of course is no more than a relocation of the same problem.

Both Lomborg and Kennedy ridicule pessimistic writers of previous decades. They paint a rosy picture of the current situation and point out how much better things are than such writers’ forecasts. What seems to escape them is that all such earlier predictions had an underlying message, “If we don’t change our ways, … will happen.” In fact, the improvements that Lomborg and Kennedy are now trumpeting are in nearly every case because governments and society responded to the concerns that grew so rapidly in the 60s and 70s, and did change their ways.

Ironically, having criticised the weaknesses in earlier predictions, Lomborg and Kennedy are willing to make or embrace unsubstantiated predictions that suit their arguments. For example, in discussing oil prices, Lomborg said that “It is also expected that the oil price will once again decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020.” As I write this, the price is hovering in the mid-$50s.

Kennedy’s optimistic predictions are of a more general nature, apparently based more on a touching faith in science and technology rather than on rational analysis. They read rather like the confident predictions of a clairvoyant or an evangelist. For example, in discussing the predicted world population size in the middle of this century, he states “The world will be able to nourish such numbers by the time growth reaches this point. This ability will come from improvements in biotechnology and in other sciences, and in the increase of prosperity and agricultural efficiency in developing nations. The pessimists will again be wrong.”

This article is not a call to ignore and ridicule the work and beliefs of environmental skeptics. In this as in other fields there is a need for critical thinking. Having worked in the environmental field for some 30 years both in New Zealand and elsewhere, I have my own doubts about certain aspects. I have my own concerns about both the philosophy and application of the Resource Management Act. However, skeptics do need to appreciate that environmental skepticism is of a different character to skepticism as we usually understand it, and needs to be approached with caution. It is easy to criticise mediums, psychics, homeopaths and spoon benders, with little fear of exposing ourselves to credible scientific challenge. If we do join in the environmental skepticism debate, let us be sure that we do so with the same quality of informed critical thinking and respect for all the facts that we espouse in our other activities.

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