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Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Got to admit it's getting better
What sort of world will we leave to our children? Probably a cleaner, healthier one than we inherited, says academic Bjorn Lomborg, author of the controversial new book The Skeptical Environmentalist.

In the first of a three-part series focusing on claims made in the book, Dr Lomborg explains why we should chill-out about global warming.

Europeans willing to back President Bush's rejection of the Kyoto climate control agreement are pretty thin on the ground.

But the old Texan oilman may be surprised to find that it is a Danish academic (and former Greenpeace member) who is publicly offering hard facts and figures to scupper the embattled carbon dioxide reduction plan.

Bjorn Lomborg
Bjorn Lomborg: "I have to call the facts as I see them"
In his new (encyclopaedic) book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg has examined reputable statistics on climate change and the so-called "greenhouse effect" only to conclude that the Kyoto treaty would cost $4 trillion to adopt, but only postpone a 2C temperature rise by a mere six years.

"I've thought about it and it causes me worry that Bush could pick up the book and say: 'See! I was right.' If he is right, he's right for the wrong reasons," the 36-year-old Dane told BBC News Online.

It's an "occupational hazard for scientists" to find themselves effectively allied with those they may ideologically oppose, he says.

Accepted 'wisdom'?

"I have to call the facts as I see them, and that will mean there will be people who I don't politically agree with who I'll have to say are right. The much greater danger is if scientists start saying: 'I don't want to help Bush, so I won't say anything about an issue to avoid helping him.' Then you're not helping society to make the best possible decisions."

Is it reasonable to save one human life in the environment, rather than 200 lives in the health sector?

Bjorn Lomborg
Dr Lomborg says those painting a grim picture of the environment have largely gone unchallenged, skewing the public's understanding of green issues in a way not supported by the available data.

Indeed, who would have guessed that London's air is cleaner than at any time since the Middle Ages, that the Earth's acreage of forests is actually growing and that marine pollution is falling?

"Just because we read a lot of bad things in the newspapers - that doesn't mean the world is going to hell," says Dr Lomborg.

Headlines gloomily predicting environmental collapse are causing society to spend vast sums of money on problems whose seriousness is greatly overblown, given Dr Lomborg's reading of the statistics.

President Bush
"Maybe I should read more books after all"
"It looks benign because we're doing good, but the downside is that there are less resources to spend elsewhere," he says. To save a life via medical means costs around $19,000, to stop someone dying due to an environmental hazard involves an investment of some $4.2m.

"Is it reasonable that we save one human life in the environment, rather than 200 lives in the health sector?" Dr Lomborg asks.

The "phantom" problem which most angers the associate professor is the notion that it would save lives to remove pesticides from food production.

"Pesticides cause cancer, but very little cancer. The estimate I have is about 20 deaths in the US a year. Twenty deaths is potentially something we should tackle, however, the cost of doing something about it is measured in billions of dollars - $50-150bn a year."

London cyclist
Breathe easy: Air quality has improved in London
Pesticides have improved yields of fruit and vegetables and helped reduce the price of these items in our shops. Removing the chemicals from the growing process would prompt a price hike which might see consumption fall by 20% in the rich United States alone, according to the World Cancer Research Fund.

"Eating fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to avoid getting cancer. If Americans ate 20% less of them that would cost an additional 26,000 deaths a year. Twenty deaths a year is bad, but $50-150bn and 26,000 deaths to save those 20 lives - that's simply a bad deal."

Dr Lomborg says no credible voice has come forward to challenge the ecologists' stance on pesticides and many similarly complex issues.

Levelling the field

"It's sensible not to trust industry, but we should be equally wary of the green movement. Complexity makes it harder to make the right decisions, but if there are lots of expert opinions on a level playing field we tend to get pretty close. The problem is that on environmental issues we have not had a level playing field."

Children enjoying fruit
Better than no fruit at all
For ordinary people walking litter-strewn, car exhaust-filled city streets, Dr Lomborg's statistical revelations may come as a pleasant surprise, but the academic's attempt to let the figures speak for themselves has provoked the ire of environmentalists.

"I expected a hostile response," says Dr Lomborg, who makes a point of only using figures collected by bodies such as the United Nations - "organisations we typically all trust".

"This is not just something I believe, there's data for this. I was surprised how much people would say: 'We don't want to discuss data. You're just wrong!' There's a religiousness to it which I don't care too much for. I think it's unscientific."

Bjorn Lomborg will be fielding questions this Sunday, 26 August, on Talking Point on Air, the phone-in programme of the BBC World Service and BBC News Online.
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Tomorrow: The environmentalists hit back.

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