We are but six days into the new year, and we are already involved in another climate imbroglio — another one of those prickly brawls in which conservatives become overexcited by an anecdote and mock progressives’ most cherished beliefs, and progressives get all huffy in response and start talking about Science and “flat earthers” and “echo chambers” and the like, and shouting, too, that their opponents are mistaking today for tomorrow.
As it happens, on the specifics at least, this time the progressives are right: Clearly, that a few hapless analysts have gotten themselves stuck in the Antarctic ice no more negates the climate-change evidence than the terrible massacres we saw last year reversed the falling crime statistics. As the Guardian put it:
Some commentators have remarked on what they describe as the “irony” of researchers studying the impact of a warming planet themselves being impeded by heavy ice. With some even suggesting that the situation is itself evidence that global warming is exaggerated. In fact, the local weather patterns that brought about the rapid build up of ice that trapped the Academik Shokalskiy tell us very little about global warming. This is weather, not climate.
This is to say that the green movement’s longtime reliance on hyperbole has deeply weakened its case, and it is about time it recognized that establishing a parade of hostages to fortune has not been tactically profitable. Al Gore, who apparently continues to see himself as a put-upon Cassandra, likes to talk about inconvenient truths. Instead, he might do better to focus on inconvenient predictions — an abundance of which have marked the last 40 years of climate hysteria, and which continue to damage the case in the public’s eye. Gore and his ilk can paint skeptical Americans as rubes if they wish, but pattern recognition is a valuable human trait, and the pattern in Gore’s industry is one of failure and of obfuscation. What, pray, are the leery supposed to think?
No, the crack team on the Akademik Shokalskiy didn’t specifically say that they wouldn’t find any summer ice at the South Pole. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, most of the ship’s passengers are not climate scientists but researchers from other fields. Still, high-profile climate commentators did predict that the ice was going to disappear, and in a media age, that matters an awful lot more. In 2006, Gore himself argued that the breakup of the Antarctic ice shelves was imminent. He was wrong. And spectacularly so. By 2013, sea ice in the region had grown to a record level for the second consecutive year — a development that prompted the Washington Post’s Jason Samenow to observe drily that scientists were “seeking to understand why this ice is expanding rather than shrinking in a warming world.” (Interestingly, grainy film footage of Commonwealth Bay, shot during the Antarctic survey that the Akademik’s team was hoping to update, shows that the area was free of sea ice 100 years ago.)
Being equal-opportunity sort of people, climate scientists forecast the death of the other pole, too: Wieslaw Maslowski anticipated in 2006 that that the Arctic’s summer ice would “completely disappear” by 2013. (The “entire North Polar ice cap will be gone in five years,” Gore said in 2007.) In spite of this warning, Arctic ice cover has expanded 50 percent since last year. It is quite the achievement to be so wrong on two continents, and no great surprise that the cynics looked from the predictions to the boat stuck in the ice, and from the boat stuck in the ice to the predictions, and said, “Huh.”
Indeed, one suspects that honest climate-change activists must roll their eyes in frustration each and every time that the doom-mongers open their mouths, for thus far their augury has been rather embarrassing. Kenneth Watt’s 1970 divination — “if present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000 . . . twice what it would take to put us into an ice age” — has not stood well the test of time. Nor has James Hansen’s 1988 asseveration that New York City’s West Side Highway would be underwater by the year 2000 and that restaurants across America would soon have signs in their window that read “water by request only.”
And it’s not just the crazies. The 1990 IPCC Report promised an increase in sea level of around 120 millimeters by 2014. This was off by a rather remarkable factor of 5. (If the sea is going to rise another 96 millimeters, it had better get on with it.) The IPCC missed the mark in all of its subsequent four reports, too, and in the lattermost of those dispatches, it effectively admitted that the apocalypse was not quite as imminent as had previously been thought.
Bitter a pill as this must be to swallow, the climate-change brigade’s outward-facing image is becoming less Carl Sagan, the much-loved pop-science explainer, and more Harold Camping, the senile religious huckster who perpetually predicted the end of the world. In 2011, after Camping’s prediction of civilization’s end had proven wrong, he effortlessly moved the goalposts, contending cleverly that the world might not have literally ended — as he had claimed it would — but that a never-defined “spiritual” judgment had occurred, and that, having reviewed his data once more, he could now announce that the physical Rapture would come along a few months later than planned.
Clearly, the fundamental theory behind global warming is sound: Basic physical chemistry dictates that if you change the makeup of the atmosphere, other things will change, too. The trouble is that, whatever they say, nobody really knows what or on what scale. And they certainly don’t know enough to warn that the end times are nigh. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped a diverse cast of prognosticators from trying — safe in the knowledge that being a climate scientist, to paraphrase a 1970s romantic movie that Al Gore claimed he inspired, means never having to say you’re sorry.
Progressives understandably hate it when they are mocked in simple language for complex predictions. Often they have a point. But the remedy is squarely within their hands. With a bit more “we’re not sure” and a bit less “and when he had opened the second seal,” they might well find that fewer people are looking out of the window and saying, soberly, “Well, this wasn’t supposed to happen today.”
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.