Commentary

Is Europe Returning to the Dark Ages?

What’s going in Europe? Are we witnessing another historic retreat into scientific barbarism?

How else to explain three disturbing irrationalities in recent times: distortion of genetic science resulting in massive African starvation; perseveration on a global warming treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which Europe knows will have no effect on climate; and the public show trial of Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, for writing a book that reveals what they already knew about Kyoto.

A glance at a world map shows Europe to be a pretty small place compared to the rest of the world that is chomping genetically engineered corn and soybeans or their by-products (like that plate of ribs) with reckless abandon. On Kyoto, Europe lost a critical referendum last year when radical green Robert Watson was voted out as head of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. On Lomborg, well, Denmark is even smaller than Europe.

Each of these stories merits elaboration, as each represents a triumph of irrationality in the face of some pretty obvious science-all with disastrous consequences.

In response to pressure from the European Community, and in the face of a terrible famine, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa refused to allow the distribution of 27,000 tons of genetically modified corn. Mwanawasa chose to starve his people because Europe was afraid that some of the corn would be planted, and the genes would “escape,” contaminating subsequent corn that could then not be exported to the Continent. Never mind that “outbreeding” is extremely rare and that it doesn’t matter anyway. Europe eschews genetically engineered corn to protect its own, more inefficient varieties, propping up the local price.

U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick minced no words, calling Zambia’s action “immoral” and “Luddite.” Not being diplomatic, I’ll add another: “murder.” The main genetic modification is the insertion of genetic material from Bacillus thuringensis, which is lethal to the European Corn Borer, requiring much less use of much more expensive (and, to some, distasteful) pesticides. Organic gardeners in the United States sprinkle this bacterium everywhere as a natural pest control.

While genetic scare stories abound, hyped by European greens, the experiment has already been run. American agriculture and consumers prosper because of genetic engineering, with no demonstrable negative effect (except lower corn and soybean prices because of abundant production).

The Kyoto and Lomborg stories are related. In his book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” Lomborg demonstrated that planetary warming is likely to be at the low end of projections, and that Kyoto wouldn’t do anything measurable to stop it. Every serious scientist knows the basis of his argument: Kyoto really doesn’t reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide much, observed increases in this gas are falling far beneath the dire predictions made only 10 years ago, and warming has been modest. Because the tendency of most sophisticated climate models is to produce a constant (not increasing) rate of warming, we therefore have a good idea of how much it will warm, a mere three-quarters of a degree Celsius in the next 50 years. Variants of this calculation have been repeated in at least three separate instances in the refereed scientific literature.

In response, the Danish “Committees on Scientific Dishonesty” accused Lomborg of “scientific dishonesty.” Did they cite one fact that he had gotten wrong? No. His crime? He failed to endorse the pro-Kyoto insanity. He refused to act irrationally.

One Kyoto would reduce U.S. GDP by about 2 percent per year, depending upon assumptions. The 20-or-so Kyotos that European greens say are necessary? Do the math. U.S. capital is precisely what is required for investment in the miserable, starving, death-ridden world of Africa. As an example, the less we invest in things like clean power plants and water treatment facilities, the more they die from the complications of indoor smoke inhalation from cooking fires and water-borne diseases. Together, these kill millions-while Kyoto does nothing and takes away that capital.

The Danish “Committees” cited not one scientific finding against Lomborg. Instead, they referred to four anti-Lomborg essays published in Scientific American by known environmental ideologues, which themselves have been heavily criticized. Lomborg was allowed no defense.

He’s got an issue now. He’s been blackballed. No more government research money for him. The Danish “Committees” citing Scientific American as evidence have irrevocably damaged his reputation.

Should Lomborg sue Scientific American as the ultimate cause of this damage? The result would be a highly publicized trial that would reveal for all the descent of Europe into yet another scientific Dark Age, as well as the bullyboy tactics that are now rising in America to quash rational scientific dissent. He may have a case.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of “The Satanic Gases.”