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Focus on development, not sustainability

It's not often the New York Times prints an article that slams professional environmentalists on such issues as global warming. When it does you would hope that members of Congress would sit up and take notice.

A recent Times' op-ed piece, titled “The Environmentalists Are Wrong,” spelled out a litany of sins purportedly committed by the industrial world against the environment: Natural resources are running out, populations are growing, species are becoming extinct, forests are disappearing, air and water are becoming more polluted.

The problem, says Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish environmentalist, is that none of these timeworn allegations portending ecological doom are supported by the evidence.

To the contrary, energy and other natural resources are becoming more abundant, not less so. Farmers are producing more food per capita than ever before. Species are dying out, but at the rate of 0.7 percent and not the 20 percent to 50 percent that professional environmentalists have been predicting.

Lomborg was writing about the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Much of the summit was devoted to political statements about the need for more sustainability and less development.

Nowhere is the focus on sustainability more excessive, he says, than in the discussion on global warming. There is little doubt that “pumping out carbon dioxide from fossil fuels” has increased the global temperature. But Lomborg, the author of a book titled The Skeptical Environmentalist, thinks too much of the debate is focused on reducing emissions without regard to cost.

Many countries have pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 30 to 40 percent by 2012 under the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty. Departing from the tack taken by his predecessor, President Bush has adopted a go-slow approach on U.S. adoption of the treaty's provisions and has been roundly criticized for it.

“Despite our intuition that we need to do something drastic, economic analyses show that it will be far more expensive to cut carbon dioxide emissions radically than to pay the costs of adapting to the increased temperatures,” he said. “Moreover, all current models show that the Kyoto provisions will have surprisingly little impact on the climate.”

Economic models project the cost of the Kyoto Protocol at $150 billion to $350 billion, much of it to be born by developing countries that can ill afford it. Lomborg says the money could be better spent. For the cost of just one year of the Kyoto Treaty, the world could solve one of its biggest environmental problems: the lack of clean water. “This alone would save 2 million lives each year and prevent 500 million cases of severe disease,” he says.

The director of the Environmental Assessment Institute in Denmark says the world community should focus on economic development and not on sustainability as the developed nations too often do.

“Development is not simply valuable in itself, but in the long run it will lead the third world to become more concerned about the environment,” he said. “Only when people are rich enough to feed themselves do they begin to think about the effect of their actions on the world around them and on future generations.”

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