Last month I started on the topic of what state our world is in stimulated by a reading of Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist. I hit on a number of areas of environmental concern. This month I’ll continue by focusing on some more areas/issues.
In 1865, Stanley Jevons predicted England’s coal reserves would shortly be exhausted. We’ve heard the same argument made for oil. After all, coal, oil, natural gas, even uranium are all limited, non-renewable resources. However, the paradox is that as supply becomes scarce, the price increases; leading to more exploration, better extraction techniques such that price increases actually increase total reserves. There’s no better example than the current world oil supply. It’s estimated global shale oil resources exceed conventional oil 242 times; enough oil to sustain current consumption for the next 5000 years. Will mankind be using oil in 5000 years or will we have cheaper, new forms of energy?
Like me, you’ve probably heard or read that fresh water will likely become the most critical natural resource issue; so critical that we may well have wars over access to it. However, based on current catchment, we use less than 17% of the readily accessible, annually renewed water. As we learned in grade school, more than 2/3 of the earth’s surface is water. Of course, the majority, over 97%, is in oceans and too saline for direct use. Given we can desalinate sea water, the issue is not really water availability but cost.
Air pollution, acid rain
Lomborg makes an interesting statement regarding air pollution, “air pollution is not a new problem getting worse, but an old problem getting ever better.” London air quality today is better than it has been since the 16th century. Air quality has improved, particularly in terms of particulate pollution, which has the highest cost to humanity, because coal was replaced by oil which was subsequently replaced by natural gas for central heating; because of a switch to lower sulphur coal, higher smokestacks and power plant siting; and because cars pollute much less than they used to.
In the 1980s SO2 emissions were regulated because of a concern about acid rain and its effects on forests and lakes. We were told acid rain was creating an “ecological Hiroshima.” However, 10 years of study in North America and Norway found the predicted negative effects of acid rain could not be demonstrated. It was not killing forests.
In The Sickling Ark, 1979, Norman Myers informed us we are losing 40,000 species per year. Al Gore likes to repeat this figure. Paul Ehrlich predicted in 1981 that over half the earth’s species would be wiped out by 2000, with the remainder disappearing between 2010 and 2025. Of course from the perspective of 2015 this appears ridiculous, but how do you think this affected policy regarding conservation of species? Today’s best estimate is that we will lose 0.7% of our species over the next 50 years – not good but not nearly as scary as the previously cited prognostications.
Lomborg accepts anthropogenic global warming but provides a detailed discussion of pros and cons of the climate models criticizing some hidden assumptions and the failure of the IPCC to give policy guidance by selecting a model scenario that balances societal costs. In fact, his approach is pragmatic. He proposes that spending more on CO2 reductions than the cost of adjusting to or ameliorating the effects of higher global temperatures is a misallocation of scarce resources. It was estimated that the Kyoto Protocol would cost at least $150 billion a year. UNICEF estimates that $70-80 billion a year would give all Third World inhabitants access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation. Lomborg fully expects the shift to renewable energy sources as their costs drop will impact anthropogenic greenhouse gases as much and more by the latter part of the 21st century than we could achieve by restricting current fossil fuel use through policy.
Seventy-five percent of Americans are extremely or very concerned about pesticides. Pesticides are well studied, monitored and regulated. The acceptable daily intake is usually between 100 to 10,000 times lower than the no observed adverse effect level. Ever since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring we have been led to believe pesticides cause cancer. Cancer causes about 23% of all deaths in the Western world. When we examine cancer deaths we find 30% caused by tobacco, 35% caused by diet, 10% caused by infections, 7% related to sex and childbirth; sun and radon account for 3%, alcohol 3% and pollution 2%. Pollution includes atmospheric, water and food pollution. In a comprehensive study two leading cancer researchers, Sir Richard Doll and Richard Peto conclude that when it comes to cancer “the occurrence of pesticides as dietary pollutants seems unimportant.”
There is a disconnect between the facts and the perceptions. Over 70% of Americans believe cancer risks are predominantly attributable to things in the environment. Yet the facts are that at least 75% of cancer risk comes from personal choices such as diet, smoking and drinking.
I realize if you have a herbicide program, this is not what you wanted to hear. For some strange reason we humans seem to be attracted to scary stories and of course, the media is all too happy to publish them. Unfortunately, we tend to tenaciously cling to our fears. That’s not going to help you overcome resistance to your herbicide program but you’ll feel better about yourself when you realize you are battling a lifetime of pervasive, fallacious messaging and conditioning. It should also highlight how critical your customer communications effort is. Your success depends on gaining public trust so that your message, whether about herbicide impacts on humans and the environment or proper pruning practices, will not only be entertained but given such credence as to overcome the weight of impressions deposited over decades.
The Skeptical Environmentalist is not an easy read but I encourage you to read it. You will feel good knowing, contrary to popular opinion, that we have not soiled the nest but rather have tremendously improved the living conditions for people of this world. Get a copy for your local library and recommend it to every teacher you encounter. Wouldn’t it be better for our children to be optimistic about the world than to be raised with the message that their future is severely limited due to the myopic, selfish conduct of previous generations?