When it comes to the world’s energy problems, Bjorn Lomborg’s unbridled optimism is quite enough to ruin anyone’s day.

No need to fret about the world running out of oil, natural gas, or other fossil fuels: Each year, we’re discovering more than we’re consuming. Plus, there’s always that exciting and abundant source of energy, nuclear fusion! And for heaven’s sake, don’t worry about wasting energy — if we ever do run low on traditional fuels, market forces will compel us to use them more efficiently, and alternative energy sources such as solar and wind will finally come into their own.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is an energetic rebuttal to the Malthusian perspective offered in the 1970s by politicians, prognosticators, and the popular press. They told us we would run out of oil and natural gas within years or decades, and they were quite wrong. Lomborg puts them in their place, documenting that per year, humankind discovers more oil and gas than it uses. Not only shouldn’t we worry about running out of oil and gas any time soon, Lomborg argues, but by the time fossil resources are getting seriously depleted, new energy sources will save the day — much as they did in the past when wood or whales fell into short supply.

We must give Lomborg his due, because he is correct; but we should also give him our sympathy, because he’s expending a great deal of energy to counter an argument that hardly anyone is making anymore — not the Sierra Club, not the Alliance to Save Energy … not even the Club of Rome. We all recognize that there are enormous reserves of crude oil, coal, natural gas, shale oil, and uranium, and that the world will continue to find them for decades or centuries to come.

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And that’s what’s got us worried.

It’s not the finite nature of fossil fuels that’s harming the global climate; it’s their abundance. It’s not the scarcity of oil that endangers pristine and public lands; it’s the profusion. It’s not the end of uranium and plutonium that terrorizes us, but rather their propensity to proliferate. And we’re certainly not gasping in fear of a shortage of coal; we’re gasping, literally, at its prevalence.

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In a manner more selective than skeptical, Lomborg extensively documents energy discoveries and technological progress, while he studiously neglects the enormous environmental cost of unchecked energy consumption. A committed anthrocentrist, he remains upbeat in the face of all concerns — or at least the concerns to which he turns his attention.

Just the Facts

For me the following facts intrude on my optimism about the future of our environment:

  1. More than 80 percent of U.S. air pollution — starting with particulates, smog, mercury, and acid rain — is generated by the production and use of energy.
  2. Nearly 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions — the primary greenhouse gas — is generated by energy production and use.
  3. The industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development now import more than half of the oil they consume. One-quarter of that comes from the Middle East, a region that holds almost two-thirds of the world’s proven oil reserves and, as we see on the news every evening, an even larger share of the world’s instability and political violence.
  4. Fossil energy resources are often found in offshore, wild, and other ecologically fragile and diverse areas (such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge), and large-scale hydroelectricity dooms unique watersheds and local communities alike.
  5. The other environmentally harmful consequences of our addiction to seemingly cheap energy are manifold and all too familiar: nuclear waste and accidental radioactive releases from nuclear power plants; oil spills; pollution into groundwater and wetlands; power transmission lines that scar landscapes; and so on ad nauseam.

A Man Without a Plan

Fortunately, Lomborg’s rampant optimism is not limited to any particular fuel type: He’s as wildly excited about solar and wind sources and energy efficiency as he is about fossil fuels. He genuinely appears to admire the progress we have made as a society both in using existing resources more efficiently and in reducing the costs of clean and truly limitless renewable resources.

But while Lomborg is very upbeat about the future of renewables and energy efficiency, he does not decry their limited use in our current energy system, and offers no plan for accelerating their adoption — except for waiting for oil and gas to start running short (which, you’ll recall, he doesn’t think will happen for many decades, or longer). In a 17-page chapter on energy, Lomborg devotes a mere three paragraphs to the cleanest and cheapest energy resource: energy efficiency. He makes mention of cars that can get “120-240 mpg” — but he fails to note that fuel economy levels for new vehicles in the U.S. is at a 20-year low: 20.4 miles per gallon and sinking, as Americans dash around buying milk and renting videos in their SUVs. He cites statistics about the wonderful potential of energy efficiency that would make Amory Lovins blush, but does not concern himself with the economic, political, social, and technical investments we need to make before we can take advantage of this enormous opportunity to mitigate energy’s steep environmental costs. Like a variant of the old joke, when it comes to energy efficiency and renewables Lomborg would indeed like to get to heaven — he just doesn’t want to do what it takes to get there.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, have been working long and hard to create just that energy “heaven.” To achieve it, we need a more sustainable energy economy with highly efficient cars, houses, offices, and factories powered primarily by solar, wind, geothermal, and other clean, renewable sources of energy — and only secondarily by oil, coal, uranium, and other heavily polluting options. Today it’s the other way around — because, after all, there’s so much of the polluting stuff available.

Like Lomborg, we should all be great fans of one remarkable renewable resource: human ingenuity. From Watt’s steam engine to the Volkswagen Beetle, humans have learned how to cleverly channel non-human energy sources into our service. But what The Skeptical Environmentalist neglects to point out is that we haven’t committed ourselves to do that without causing vast environmental and social damage. We can change that, but not by optimism alone.