An environmental expert attempted to debunk the main tenets of the sustainable development movement last week before an audience of highprofile scientists, academics and campaigners.
Bj°rn Lomborg, speaking at the Royal Institution lecture in London on 12 September, said:
'Even though it may seem counter-intuitive to some people, global environmental conditions are not getting worse.We are already leaving the world in a better state for our children. To say otherwise ignores the evidence.'
Lomborg hit the headlines last month with the publication of his book, The Skeptical [sic] Environmentalist, which assesses the real state of the planet, based 'not on myths but on the best available facts'. Such is the apparent hostility to his proposition and his methods that he received a pie in the face from environmental campaigners at an Oxford Union event the week before. The RI debate, sponsored by spiked and Cambridge University Press, went without incident. But the chair, Mick Hume of The Times, had to mediate in what at times seemed to be a bearpit of criticism of Lomborg's position.
Lomborg admitted that he used to be 'an old left-wing Greenpeace member', who accepted the environmental critique that the world needed to be saved from ecological devastation. It was only when he tried, methodically, to prove this point that he came across 'fact after fact, data after data', that 'disproved his crude assumptions'.
Although he was not able to examine every case study cited in his book (one third of the 500 pages is made up of references), he chose to explore a few subjects in some depth. On climate change, he pointed out that implementing the Kyoto protocol would postpone the worst effects of global warming by six years over the next 100 years, and cost between £150 billion and £350 billion per year - more than the entire aid budget for the developing countries.
'One year's worth of this money could provide clean drinking water to all of the Third World and save lives now. Or we could choose to put off global warming by a few years, ' he said.He worried that we could be making 'a terrible mis-investment for the future', based on environmental myth over rational appreciation of the facts.
On air quality, he said: 'Particulates in London are now below the level they were at in medieval times.'On water shortage: 'The problem is not that far too many use far too much of it, but that far too many have far too little.' And on the propensity of western countries to tell less developed countries to behave in an environmentally sustainable way, he said: 'Developing worlds might prefer to cough a little more if it means that they get a bit richer.'
He suffixed the last point by saying that it is only as countries get more wealthy that they are able to indulge in the luxury of improving their quality of life - not the other way around.
Lomborg is essentially a statistician who wants us to 'look at the real, rather than the phantom risks'. He realises that things could always be improved, but only if we rely on a true assessment of the problem, instead of overstating the risks.