Saturday, September 1, 2012

Skeptical of skeptical environmentalist and the improving state of the world

I decided to make a go these two books: The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg and the Improving State of the World by Indur Goklany.

My skepticism lies not so much with their presentation nor the statistics. My skepticism is whether I should be skeptical about all the optimism. Lomborg attacks Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute and specifically about how data is presented in its annual State of the World reports. Lomborg claims that the reports presents statistics in a biased manner since it does not take the ‘long view’ into account.

I am sympathetic to this point of view - we can say that things have gotten worse by picking two points in time that make our case for us - the peak and the trough and then hide everything that has gone on in between. Alternatively we can pick some other two points in time that supports the view we are trying to make. Some comments on the web have pointed out that is possible to claim that the earth has simultaneously warmed and cooled by picking out any two points between 2000 and 2010.

I think that both books misses the larger point. (Goklany’s is a more interesting book but pretty much has the same thrust as Lomborg.) The point is not to thump our chests about how great things have been since neanderthal man walked the earth - but how much the recent past says about the future. To paraphrase someone it’s not how much better off you were than your forefathers but how much better off you were four years ago and how much better off you will be four years from now.

So all the points that are made in the books about the warming climate and pollution etc misses the larger view by appealing to the long run view. In the long run we’ll all be dead, the sun is going to go nova and we’ll be swallowed up by a black hole. I don’t care about the long run. I caer about what’s going to happen 5 or 10 years from now.

P.S. I thought the Goklany book was interesting in that it attempted to calculate I = PAT. None of the calculations were very convincing but I thought it was a valiant attempt. It also had a fairly balanced (I thought) coverage of GM crops, although this is because I’m already biased toward GM.

Update (9/4/2012):
Here are some headlines that essentially ask the relevant question - what does the recent past say about the forseeable future:

  1. Summer’s record heat, drought point to longer-term climate issues
  2. Wonkbook: Climate change may be to blame for extreme weather events now
  3. Hansen,'s Perception of climate change studyAlso covered in the Economist and Think Progress.
  4. Cover story of September's National Geographic Magazine.

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