Bjorn Lomborg is the president of the Copenhagen Consensus, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a visiting professor at the Copenhagen Business School. His new book is False Alarm.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the birth of modern environmentalism, we should pause to give each other a virtual high five for the impressive environmental progress society has accomplished during this span. We should also think about the ways we can make the next 50 years far more effective.
Case in point: many people are surprised to hear that the environment is improving. A lot. This surprise grows from the unfortunate flip side of the Earth Day legacy, which too often can focus on doomsaying and alarmism, which can make us despondent and drive poor policies.
Early environmentalism in the 1970s helped focus societies on priorities such as polluted rivers – the Cuyahoga River in the United States famously caught fire in 1969 – and fouled air, with soot and smog killing millions.
Here, we have made great strides. Most bodies of water in rich countries are much cleaner, since we are prosperous enough to clean up our domestic messes. In the U.S., for instance, a recent comprehensive study showed that “water pollution concentrations have fallen substantially” over the past 50 years. And a stunning 3.8 billion people around the world have gained access to clean drinking water since 1970.
Air pollution, the world’s biggest environmental killer, has seen even greater improvements. Outdoor air pollution has declined dramatically in rich countries, due in no small measure to attention from 1970’s Earth Day and subsequent actions such as the landmark U.S. Clean Air Act later that year.
For the world’s poor, the most deadly air pollution is indoors. Almost three billion of the world’s poorest people still cook and keep warm with dirty fuels such as dung, cardboard and wood, and the World Health Organization estimates the effects are equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes each day.
But since 1970, the death risk across the world from indoor air pollution has been cut by more than half.
Despite the amazing progress, both indoor and outdoor air pollution still kill seven million people each year. At least two billion people still use drinking water sources contaminated by feces. So, for the next 50 years, we still have our work cut out for us. Things are far better, but they are still not okay.
Curiously, this is not a typical environmental conversation. We don’t emphasize enormous improvements and we don’t focus on our vital, unfinished business in water and air. Instead, the standard story is how the environment is getting ever worse – how we’re hurtling toward catastrophe. This tradition also started with Earth Day.
By 1970, many leading environmentalists were predicting the end of the world. Stanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich, a frequent guest on Johnny Carson’s popular late-night TV show, was perhaps the leading doomsayer. For Earth Day, he predicted that environmental deterioration would kill 65 million Americans and that four billion people would die around the world before the year 2000. Life magazine also saw impending doom, predicting air pollution would be so bad that Americans would have to wear gas masks in the 1980s, and that pollution would block half the sunlight.
Not only were these predictions spectacularly wrong, they were also outlandish when they were first made. Yet, in a world where alarm leads to attention, these statements started a trend of framing environmental issues as worst-case scenarios. The tone both scares and depresses people – and likely skews our focus and spending.
Today, climate change takes up the vast majority of the environmental conversation. It is definitely a real problem. However, it is also too often framed in an exaggerated fashion, with predictable results: a new survey shows that almost half of humanity believes global warming will likely make humans extinct.
This is entirely unwarranted. The UN Climate Panel, which holds the gold standard for climate research, finds that the overall impact of global warming by the 2070s will be equivalent to a 0.2 to 2-per-cent loss in average income. That is a problem, but it’s not the end of the world.
Fear also makes us prioritize poorly. Climate change mitigation today costs just the European Union more than US$400-billion each year in renewable subsidies and other costly climate policies. Yet we spend much less on making water and air cleaner for the billions of people who still don’t have these basic necessities.
We can rightly look back on Earth Day with pride for the attention it has brought to the environment. But we need to curb the exaggerations, to make sure we actually leave the environment in the best possible state.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.