The Global Warming Hustle
I have a particular fondness for ba'al teshuva stories. In that vein, I've recently been reading Why I Turned Right, a collection of essays by prominent younger intellectuals describing their move from the Left to the Right of the political spectrum.
In many cases, it was the monolithic nature of America academia, especially at the elite universities, and the lack of tolerance for dissent or debate that first opened up their eyes. David Brooks relates that he never had a single conservative professor at the University of Chicago, even though it is home to the "Chicago school" of economics. Sally Satel was 36 and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale for five years before she met her first Republican.
For Stanley Kurtz, the decisive moment came when many faculty members at Berkeley attempted to prevent the then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick from speaking on campus. At both Berkeley and subsequently as a professor at Harvard, he realized his "naïve faith in the open debate clearly was unsuited to what the American academy had become." Peter Berkowitz, another Harvard professor, found that Harvard was not liberal in the classic sense "if you mean by that a spirit tolerant of dissent, keen on competition between rival opinions and ideas, and committed to maintaining the moral and material conditions of a free society."
The awakening of all these figures resonates with me. As a consequence, alarms go off in my head every time I hear that the words "debate closed," and that anyone who does not subscribe to a particular view is a moron or morally flawed.
One of the most profound examples of this phenomenon is the current debate, or the lack thereof, over global warming. We are being constantly bombarded with the message that virtually all reputable scientists have reached a consensus that we face a major catastrophe, threatening life as we know it, unless drastic steps are taken immediately to reduce the release of man-generated fluorocarbons into the atmosphere.
So urgent is the crisis that everything must be done to silence those who dissent from the alleged consensus. When Danish statistician, Bjorn Lomborg, a former Greenpeace activist, published The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World in 2001, in which he argued that the extent and dangers of global warming were being substantially exaggerated, the scientific establishment went into to overdrive to discredit him. Nature, Science, Scientific American published scathing editorials denouncing the book. Only Nature permitted a letter to the editor (not from Lomborg himself) responding to the denunciations.
Science and Scientific American initially refused to publish any responses, even from Lomborg, and Scientific American threatened legal action if he continued to post its review and his response on his website. Eventually he was allowed to respond, but only after the magazine had prepared its own lengthy rebuttal to which Lomborg was not permitted to answer further.
Science is supposed to be based on the dispassionate testing of all hypotheses. Yet these leading scientific journals sought to foreclose any more debate on the subject, even though Lomborg's book was published by Cambridge University Press, a leading academic publisher, and had been peer-reviewed by three leading earth scientists prior to publication. One leading scientist demanded the firing of the editor responsible for the book's publications, and others recommended a boycott of Cambridge University Press.
Meanwhile an editor at another prestigious publisher was threatened by a prominent scientist that if he considered publishing an anthology for undergraduates that contained an essay by economist Julian Simon (whose debunking of environmental hysteria Lomborg had originally set out to refute), he would never again "review anything for you . . , recommend an author to you, or buy any of your books." The scientist then circulated his threatening letter widely.
David Schoenbrod, a law professor and former attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, reviewing the Lomborg controversy in Commentary (September 2002), concluded that Lomborg had refuted seven out of the nine allegations of factual error made in Scientific America's scathing review, and that the other two were trivial and had no impact on his conclusions. Indeed, the 11-page Scientific American review had more demonstrable factual errors than Lomborg's 500 page book.
Mike Hulme, a British professor of environmental studies, wrote in the Guardian that the stakes are too high, the uncertainties too large, and the need for decisions too urgent to allow the normal scientific process based on determining the truth to run its course before acting. In short, precisely because the uncertainties are so great, the normal process of science must be short-circuited in favor of something Hulme termed "post-normal" science.
SOME OF THE SKEPTICS AMONG US are old enough to remember that just as Newsweek today proclaims the debate over global warming to be over, and the skeptics to be "deniers," or agents of the "denial machine," so too did it announce in 1975 that scientists were "almost unanimous" about an impending global Big Chill that would bring about catastrophic famines. Evidence for that view, Newsweek claimed, was accumulating so massively that meteorologists could barely keep up with it. Less than a decade earlier, Stanford professor Paul Erlich darkly warned in The Population Bomb of hundreds of millions starving to death in the '70s unless the world's population was dramatically reduced. (Western Europe has long since achieved far below zero population growth, with disastrous consequences.)
Finally, those with a historical sense will recall the dire predictions of 18th C. Scottish political economist Thomas Malthus that population would increase geometrically while the food supply only increased arithmetically leading in short order to mass starvation. (That thoroughly refuted prognosis, incidentally, was a key element in Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.) .
Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is undoubtedly correct that there was not the scientific unanimity the magazine claimed in 1975. But neither is there anything like the claimed unanimity that it claims today. Jeff Jacoby points out that when environmental scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch asked 530 peers in 27 countries where they fell on a scale of 1 (strongly agree) to 7 (strongly disagree) with respect to the proposition "climate change is mostly the result of anthropogenic causes" the average score was 3.62, pretty close to the middle.
As many (9%) strongly disagreed as agreed with the proposition that abrupt climate changes would devastate parts of the globe. And almost four times as many agreed as disagreed that moderate global warming might bring substantial benefits. Last year sixty scientists wrote to Canadian Prime Minister Steven Harper that "observational evidence does not support today's computer climate models" upon which proponents of global warming rely.
Given the complexity of global warming and the vast array of factors implicated in global temperatures it would be astounding if anything resembling a consensus had in fact emerged over the nature and degree of the threat. The earth's temperature is always in a state of flux. A millennium ago, for instance, Greenland was, in fact, entirely green. Thereafter the planet entered into a Little Ice Age, which dramatically lessoned arable land in Greenland and nearly wiped out its Viking inhabitants. For the past 300 years, the earth has beenn emerging from that Little Ice Age.
Many factors contribute to global warming other than the percentages of human produced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, as witnessed by the fact that the earth has been warming from long before the advent of carbon fuel-powered vehicles. Mars, Jupiter and Pluto are all experiencing warming today without benefit of human activity. Solar and volcanic activity are but two powerful forces that are known to affect global temperatures, and at least one outstanding young Israeli scientist has proposed that 70% of global warming over the past century is attributable to fluctuations in the former.
The wildly fluctuating predictions and their frequent revision attest to a situation in which the science too is in a state of flux. In 1988, at the outset of the furor over global warming, a rise in global temperatures of 12 degrees over the next century was predicted. That number has been repeatedly revised downward to three degrees today. One of the frequently mentioned disastrous consequences of global warming is rising ocean levels. But according to MIT meteorologist Richard Lindzen, ocean levels have been rising since the last Ice Age, and rose much faster than today thousands of years ago. He attributes almost all the rise in ocean levels to shifts in the earth's tectonic plates.
Recently, and with little fanfare, all NASA's data on temperatures in the continental United States were revised after the discovery of a calculation error. Suddenly, it turned out that 1934, not 1998, was the hottest year on record, and that four of the ten hottest years took place prior in the 1930s.
While it is generally agreed that the earth's temperature has risen around one degree Celsius over the last century, there is no agreement on what the earth's ideal temperature really is -- nor could there be given that its temperature is constantly in flux. Recent warming in India, for instance, has resulted in vastly greater agricultural output.
WHAT REMAINS TO BE EXPLAINED is what lies behind the efforts to sow panic and stifle debate and inquiry over global warming. My own sense is that we are witnessing the convergence of several strands of thought. One is an anti-human bias in the environmental movement. When some environmentalists talk of the "natural" rate of species depletion, for instance, they mean one in a world without human beings. Indeed that often seems to be their ideal world – or at least one in which only they and a few other equally high-minded individuals could savor the earth in all its pristine glory.
As Czech president Vaclav Klaus recently told an American Congressional committee, "By concentrating on the human contribution to climate change, environmentalists ask for immediate political action based on limiting economic growth, consumption, or human behavior they consider hazardous. . . . They do not believe in the future expansion of the society . . . and they ignore the proven fact that the higher the quality of wealth of society, the higher the quality of the environment."
One of Lomborg's major arguments was that enforcement of the Kyoto Protocols (from which President Bush removed the United States) would minimally cost 150 billion dollars a year, while having next to no impact on global warming. For the same amount of money, he noted, it would be possible to eliminate the unsanitary drinking water that kills two million people worldwide annually.
A second strand of thought underlying the hysterical pronouncements is the desire of many in the scientific community to be viewed as the ultimate moral authorities. Thus Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, began a recent debate over global warming by declaring, "the issue of global warming and whether it's a crisis or not, in, in fact, a scientific decision, it's a scientific issue. It's not a political one." Fortunately, he failed to persuade his audience. At the beginning of the debate, only 30% of the audience believed "global warming is NOT a crisis," whereas over 46% did so afterwards. And those convinced that it is a crisis dropped from 57.32% to 42.22%.
Finally, there is the bias on the political Left, and particularly among elites for government by experts and bureaucrats over rough-and-tumble democracy. Such thinking has always run strong through the environmental movement. Rachel Carson argued in her 1962 best-seller Silent Spring, which is credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement, that environmental protection should be taken away from elected representatives and scientists should be empowered to formulate a response to the dangers they have foreseen.
The greater the hysteria that can be generated the greater the demand for experts to come in and rescue us with a set of emergency ordinances dramatically altering our way of life. As David Schoenbrod shrewdly observes, "The distinction between a problem and a catastrophe is critical to the psychology of the environmental movement. A problem presents us with choices about it priority in relation to other problems; a looming catastrophe impels us to do whatever the 'experts' tell us we must do to avert it."
Czech president Klaus correctly described the global warming debate not as a clash of views about the environment "but a clash of views about human nature." "The biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity at the beginning of the 21 st century," he declared, "is the ideology that preaches earth and nature and under the slogans of their protection . . . wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning of the entire world."