Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Arguable - with Jeff Jacoby

Monday, March 11, 2019

Monday, March 11, 2019

Apocalypse not

On its opinion page the other day, The Wall Street Journal reprinted without comment an ample excerpt from an Associated Press dispatch dated June 29, 1989. The story was headlined “U.N. Predicts Disaster if Global Warming Not Checked,” and while most 30-year-old news accounts are unmistakably archaic, this one wouldn’t seem out of place if it ran in the paper tomorrow with nothing changed but a date or two:

UNITED NATIONS — A senior U.N. environmental official says entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.

Coastal flooding and crop failures would create an exodus of “eco-refugees,” threatening political chaos, said Noel Brown, director of the New York office of the U.N. Environment Program, or UNEP.

He said governments have a 10-year window of opportunity to solve the greenhouse effect before it goes beyond human control.

As the warming melts polar icecaps, ocean levels will rise by up to three feet, enough to cover the Maldives and other flat island nations, Brown told the Associated Press in an interview on Wednesday.

Coastal regions will be inundated; one-sixth of Bangladesh could be flooded, displacing a fourth of its 90 million people. A fifth of Egypt’s arable land in the Nile Delta would be flooded, cutting off its food supply, according to a joint UNEP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study. . . .

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It sounds like any of a thousand-and-one predictions of climate change, mass death, global starvation, and other varieties of impending doom that have been forecast by environmental alarmists for the past half-century or more.

From Paul Ehrlich declaring that the 1970s would bring famines in which “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now,” to Al Gore warning in 2008 that the entire Arctic polar ice cap “may well be completely gone in five years,” to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asserting in January that “the world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,” fearmongers keep telling us that the end of human existence as we know it is only a few years away. These apocalyptic forecasts are invariably terrifying, earnest, and adamant. They are always said to be grounded in scientific clarity. They are unfailingly held out as a mandate for immediate and sweeping change at which no reasonable person would balk.

And none of them has ever come to pass.

As a college student in the 1970s, I had to read lengthy excerpts from the 1972 jeremiad, The Limits to Growth , which warned that life on earth and industrial development were on an inevitable collision course, and that it was only a matter of time until the planet ran out of mineral resources, food, and breathable air. To be fair, the authors did hedge their scary scenarios with acknowledgements of “mankind’s ingenuity and social flexibility,” and they suggested that the most alarming outcomes were still a century away. Plainly, though, they would have regarded it as inconceivable that 50 years later, despite an increase in global population and industrialization, human beings worldwide would be enjoying greater wealth, better nutrition, improved health, and longer lives. Yet that is just what has happened.

Even in the 1970s there was much alarmist talk of climate change — but the change most often forecast was global cooling. “There are specialists who say that a new ice age is on the way,” reported The New York Times on May 21, 1975. That Times article, as George F. Will showed in a citation-studded 2009 column , was no outlier:

Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” involving “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively). The “continued rapid cooling of the Earth” (Global Ecology, 1971) meant that “a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery” (International Wildlife, July 1975). “The world's climatologists are agreed” that we must “prepare for the next ice age” (Science Digest, February 1973). Because of “ominous signs” that “the Earth's climate seems to be cooling down,” meteorologists were “almost unanimous” that “the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century,” perhaps triggering catastrophic famines (Newsweek cover story, “The Cooling World ,” April 28, 1975). Armadillos were fleeing south from Nebraska, heat-seeking snails were retreating from Central European forests, the North Atlantic was “cooling down about as fast as an ocean can cool,” glaciers had “begun to advance” and “growing seasons in England and Scandinavia are getting shorter” (Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 27, 1974).

Today, of course, the panic-mongering over climate change swings in the other direction. Where once we were told that the “rapid advance of some glaciers” would make much of Alaska, Iceland, and Canada uninhabitable, the worry now is that two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers will melt, with devastating effects on life in India, China, and Pakistan. “Snowfalls are now just a thing of the past,”reported The Independent in 2000. The story quoted a climate scientist’s lament that within a few years, “children just aren’t going to know what snow is.”

  In his bestselling 1968 book "The Population Bomb," Paul Ehrlich asserted that within a few years, “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now." It never happened.

What has been true of climate doomsaying has been true of every other kind as well. Ecologists were convinced that the growth in numbers of people would trigger a “population bomb” of mass starvation and a worldwide “die-off.” Would-be Cassandras warned fervently that resource depletion, especially “peak oil,” would force a drastic rollback of modern industry and transportation.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that all these dreadful prophecies are made with utter sincerity. Let’s disregard the fact that they always seem to be accompanied by calls for vastly expanded government power and reduced individual freedom. Let’s assume it is only by coincidence that most of this “apocalypse now” rhetoric comes from the political left, with its affinity for top-down, command-and-control solutions.

Even so, shouldn’t there come a point at which the alarmists acknowledge their nearly unbroken record of faulty predictions? Shouldn’t an Ehrlich or a Gore feel obliged to concede that the deadline by which they said mankind would fall off the cliff has come and gone, and make a good-faith effort to explain why human society continues, stronger, richer, healthier, and safer than ever? Shouldn’t the mainstream media and the educational establishment reconsider the wisdom of repeating every ominous and cataclysmic environmental prognosis as if its truth cannot possibly be doubted?

If a financial adviser or TV meteorologist or sports analyst proved as consistently wrong as climate alarmists have proved, everyone would take their latest prediction with more than a grain or two of salt. Doesn’t it make sense to do the same when confronted with yet another terrifying environmental forecast? Yes, it is always possible that all those false alarms are being followed, this time, by a real one. But maybe, just maybe, a touch of skepticism would be prudent .